Sunday, January 8, 2012

Precious and Little, and Precious Little

“Dear Mama, I am glad to tell you that I got second in the Lesson Competition. I won my Teacher’s certification. I couldn’t be a success without your help. You did me a great favor. Thank you!” Lancy

You are much more than an English teacher to me. Not only in the last year but for the rest of my life. Happy New Year!” Tony

There are things I cannot talk about with my mother or my friends, but I can talk to you.” Vixen

Looking back over the past 4 months of blog entries in an attempt to organize my archives, I realize I’ve told you precious little about my job and how it is going this year. Now that the semester is over and before I take off on my travels, I feel like I should correct that oversight, don’t you?

I still contend that I’m no great shakes as a teacher but I do aver that I am a very effective mentor.

As a teacher, one addresses a classroom full of students, some who want to be there and some that don’t. Some, like Alan in my freshman class this year, stated on the very first day of class that he hates English.

What does one do with the Alans in class? I thanked him for his honesty and told him I hope I could make this class interesting for him in spite of his dislike. I never got the chance. I’ve not seen him since that first session. To my knowledge he did not drop the course. Sadly, I had to fail him.

With other students who have no interest in English but attend my class anyway, just for the grade… well, I have to make the distinction between willing and unwilling students, and focus on the eager minds that absorb knowledge like a sponge while maintaining some sort of order over those who would disrupt the class because they are busy chatting or playing games. I’ve learned that much. But am I making a difference? As far as teaching anyone anything, who can tell?

Had Alan kept attending I would have had some kind of marker of what kind of teacher I am. Effective? Fluff? Somewhere in between? Could I have kindled some sort of passion for language or learning in him? I’ll never know.

My students like me. I have no doubt about that. I can’t cross campus without being arrested by one group of students or other. Some want the hugs I liberally dish out and others just want to practice their English outside the formal session setting. Mostly I get a feeling of acceptance and inclusion from these kids. Not just because of them detaining me when I am spotted on campus but also because of the text messages I get, like the ones above.

Lancy was in my Sophomore class last year. She has since graduated and is now looking at the big, bad world with trepidation. Her major was Business English, which earned her an Associate’s Degree. Usually a Bachelor’s is required to pursue her dream - a career in teaching but her exceptional language skill gave her the edge and ultimately put her over the top, to win the position she so coveted.

Before competing she confided in me that she lacks a lot of the skills needed to win this contest. She and I had a series of meetings, during which I gave her a blank lesson plan template, taught her how to fill it out and how to prepare a lesson. I showed her the notebooks I use – sort of like a teacher’s log to record my classroom activities and the students’ response.

You should know that, because foreign teachers are considered panache I am not required to turn in lesson plans or even maintain a log. If you’ve been following this blog since its inception you know that I don’t even have a book to teach from or a curriculum I’m required to follow. I keep a diary so I can look back and see what I’ve done and how effective it was.

I shared all of this and more with Lancy. Brilliant mind that she is captured the essence of what she heard and put it to good use, securing her future in a field she loves by placing 2nd in competition. She thanked me for her success, even though it is all her doing.

I believe everyone knows who Tony is (See Speech Competitions – Tony). It seems he and I have a mutual admiration society going on. I was impressed with him from the first conversation we had, when we discussed the political and educational differences of our respective countries at English Corner last year. Anyone who has the guts to broach such topics in open forum, and can speak knowledgeably with regard to those concerns merits attention, especially when said individual is a lad of 18, using his second language to discourse.

It was while preparing for the speech competitions that he and I really got to know one another. I already knew he is possessed of a phenomenal intellect. He learned during that time that I am not just an English teacher – his words, not mine.

Although I do like to borrow that phrase sometimes, like when I impressed my students with the food I prepared for our Christmas parties this year. “Not just an English teacher” I mocked, “but also a chef!” Thirty little piggies agreed wholeheartedly. Back to Tony now.

I think of him as my Chinese son. I am interested in his overall development, not just as an academic but as a future leader. This kid has so much on the ball but, like any sharp projectile must be properly honed, focused and aimed. For that reason not only do we spend a lot of time talking about greater life matters such as philosophy and history but also about practical things like harnessing one’s energy and choosing one’s battles.

In a lot of ways Tony reminds me of that Cat Stevens song “Father and Son”. If you’ve never heard it or aren’t familiar with the lyrics, I urge you to google it and take a listen. Beautiful song and much the way I feel about this man-child.

Vixen is a name I’ve accorded Stephanie, a young woman who has yet to realize how powerful she is.

If she tops out at 5’ tall I’d be surprised. I believe my Gabriel, at 10 years old is taller than she. When I first met her, last year in my freshman class she came across as a sassy, girly child who loved to flit and play. She has since developed into a well grounded young woman, holding down a job and excelling in all of her courses.

One of my few male students, Martin (known in my circle as Monkey) is but one of the few who are completely entranced with her. For her appearance alone she has the entire male population on campus drooling after her. Her face is a perfect oval, with her miraculously clear skin smoothed over high cheekbones. Wide-set, oval eyes give her the impression of a fawn at daybreak and, when she breaks into a smile she has the ability to brighten even the gloomiest day. What troubles could such a young woman have?

Plenty, as it turns out. Last year, both during winter break and over the summer she confided to me that her family situation drives her to the brink of despair. With our winter break approaching I told her last night, after dining together that I was worried about her returning home. Last year while at home she sent me a panicked text message, asking if I thought it would be a good idea for her to run away. This year I felt she and I should talk about things before she boarded that train destined for home.

That is when she told me there were things she couldn’t talk about with anyone but me… and then burst into tears. All during the meal I knew there was something dark hovering around her. I want to reach her before it is too late.

There are plenty more students like Tony, Lancy and Vixen. Grace, who has a boyfriend and can’t bring herself to tell even her best friend. Vanessa, too distant from her mother, can talk to me. Summer, who vented her heartbreak to me before she even thought of broaching the subject with her roommates. Claire, who gets advice from the four corners of her world and can’t seem to pull it all into one cohesive circle. Carol, who so badly wants to be a psychologist but is being pushed into teaching. Jonathan, Tristan, Kevin, Hector, Lucy, Jeremy, Christina, Gayle…

All of these kids who have sat in my class and now look to me as a mentor rather than a teacher. Have I taught them anything about English? Maybe not, but I am certainly privileged in helping them make sense of things as they stand on the threshold of the rest of their life.

But Sam… Sam would be able to tell if I’m a good teacher or not. According to him, I am the best foreign teacher he’s ever had the pleasure of working with. He told his students that last week, when I guest lectured in his classes.

Maybe I am a good teacher. Those journals I keep make me a good teacher. The kids being receptive in class shows I’m a good teacher. And I certainly seem to have a way of reaching the kids. The ongoing relationships with them show I’m both a good teacher and a good mentor.

But, just in case I get too big for my britches I have to remember the billboard posted on campus that praises my virtues to the heavens… but lists my birthdate as 1942, making me 20 years older than I actually am.

That tells me I had to live 70 years to acquire the wisdom needed to teach these kids!

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