There are days that I love my job. I mean, like, wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world, I’m staying forever and growing old, love my job. There are also, like everyone else in the world, days where I want to simply curl up in a ball under my desk and not move for the rest of the day. Of course there are plenty of factors that go into making a day great or terrible: whether I could get my hair to do what I wanted that morning, the weather, being sick, being HUNGRY, etc. But no matter what my mood when I wake up in the morning, it can be instantly changed depending on just one thing: my students.
Now, being at an English Center means that I’ve taught, from the beginning of this year, hundreds of students from all over my Province, plenty of them just from my city. We never know what they’re going to be like when they arrive. Some weeks can be super challenging if the students are like dead weight, meaning that for whatever reason they’re not vocal in class or have a hard time participating. Other weeks are challenging for completely different reasons. Students being out of control or behaviorally challenging can make a week feel like a year. Then there are the weeks that are absolutely stellar, perfect to the point of true terror because I’m waiting on something to go wrong. These are weeks where the students are actively participating in class, aren’t necessarily any kind of fluent but ask questions and genuinely want to learn while also managing to behave. They are any teacher’s dream, and while I don’t expect every week to be that way, they certainly put things in perspective.Of course my Gifted Class, the one class I do have complete control over and see regularly, are my babies. Their behavior I can see fluctuate, race and calm as if we were in a normal class setting.
All of our students that we see are completely different in learning style, in personality, in learning goals even if they don’t know they have them. After every week I realize I’ve learned something new, whether I meant to or not. Sometimes I prefer the challenging weeks because those students often teach me almost as much as I taught them. Hundreds of students later I am absolutely no expert, but I have picked up on the following:
1. Never get comfortable
For me it’s very easy to get into a routine when teaching, and even EPIK highly suggests using a certain formula in the classroom. Though it works a lot of the time, using the same formular over and over makes it worse when you have to veer off the beaten path. My students absolutely don’t know or care that I am on any kind of schedule when teaching. They don’t care that I’ve only allotted 5 minutes for warm-up because if they like the activity we’re going they’re going to do their best to drag it out and now we’re 15 minutes in and I’m running 10 minutes behind. I may never win the Nobel Prize of Teaching, but if nothing else the flexibility I have developed with 5th graders should become legend. At the beginning of the year I would scramble and freak out a little if I was even 5 minutes behind, let alone 10. Now, I’ve got 9 backup activities and alternate lesson plan in my back pocket so that even if we got interrupted halfway through by SWAT my students would be able to teach them what we we’ve been learning. Ain’t nobody messing with my class.
2. Absolutely no one learns the exact same way
Just as you’ll have to adjust for yourself, you need to adjust for students needs too. I had one boy who could not understand a word I was saying (a common theme with younger students especially) and it was very difficult for him as all of our classes are in English. I discovered about 10 minutes into class that he was scribbling on a piece of paper. In response, I started trying to draw different countries to have students guess what they were and what continents they were on. I am absolutely no Picasso and by the end of class even my co-teacher was dying laughing at my drawing of Europe…but the point was that I had every student’s attention, and everyone understood what was happening. Including my little scribbler in the corner who had all but given up on the day.
3. Lack of response means a million different things
It’s so easy to want to get on a kid who’s not participating in class. Whether they’re just not looking at you or are actively trying to do something else, I find my eye immediately going to this one particular student throughout class, and if it’s more than one I find myself getting discouraged by their lack of response. It’s very easy for me to begin immediately internalizing that I’m not doing a good job when that’s not the case. So I’ve recently had to learn to rein in any and all of my emotions and simply readjust. Sometimes I go from one very rambunctious class where I need to be firmer in my control and, consequently, my lecture. Then I go to the next one that is silent as the grave for various reasons. The students in what I have nicknamed The Graveyard Shift could just be tired, having a bad day, or don’t understand what the heck is going on. Either way, before anything else I used to often find myself wondering what I did wrong. Now, instead of dwelling, I press on. A lot of times I sense that they’re simply afraid so I start off super calm, speak incredibly slowly, and then gradually warm them up. Then I push more energy into the room, praise even the smallest feedback, dance around to prove a point, get overwhelmingly excited at responses so they’re encouraged to get teacher to continue acting silly. Of course, these things are hit and miss and acting like half an idiot to get your students out of their shell might not be your thing. Still, I can’t tell you how much of a difference warming them up to the idea that they can can make. If nothing else, just remember that it’s not necessarily about you. Try your best, but don’t be bummed when your lesson on Thanksgiving isn’t as hard hitting as you’d hoped it would be. They’re trying even if it doesn’t look like it.
4. You’re not perfect, and you don’t have to be.
On bad days it’s easy for me to think, ‘Did I even teach them anything? What are they taking away from this?‘. I know several teachers who tell me they’ve thought the same thing, that sometimes even when they were trying their absolute best it didn’t feel like they’d done anything at all. After a particularly grueling class the week before, I sat my Gifted Students down and asked them to write in their journal what they felt was the most important thing they had learned in class that year. The answers were shocking. They wrote about lessons that had happened months before, about words they’d learned, countries they hadn’t known existed before, told me all about how their confidence with English had improved because I never told them they were wrong just tried to correct their mistakes. I’m not even ashamed to say I got a little teary eyed. Just because they don’t say it out loud doesn’t mean they don’t hear you and think what you have to say is important.
My students have also taught me less hard hitting things, like how to play Rock-Scissors-Paper in groups larger than 2, Korean slang, the best way to eat ddeokbokki, small things that I still try not to take for granted. After the first few months I no longer try to pretend that I am just their teacher as I’m learning everyday just as much as they are. Still, I pray they never have an Anakin Skywalker moment and try to use the Force I’ve taught them against me…