Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Labor Day

It's hard to love my students sometimes. I came to this school with only a few goals: help my students with their English and help them learn to respect people -- themselves and others -- for who they are. I knew that in order to succeed, I'd need a lot of patience and a lot of love. But there are days when my patience wears thin, and there are days when I simply can't see what there could possibly be in these kids to love.

I almost never punish my students, because they're generally extremely well-behaved. Before I arrived at my advanced science high school, one of a few dozen in the country where students are renowned for their diligence and respectfulness, I was cheerily informed that the extent of my discipline problems would be students nodding off in my class due to fatigue from studying late into the night. This has proven to be singularly untrue. Rowdiness exists at CSHS just as it does at every other high school in the country -- or in the world -- and I have to confess that it's taking its toll on my psyche.

In fact, one of my second-year classes is well on its way to driving me nuts. I have them fifth period, right after lunch, and sometimes half the class walks in late from pick-up basketball games, prolonged bathroom breaks, or who knows what other reason. They then proceed to sleep through class (if they spent their lunch time running around outside) or act like a circus (if they consumed one too many sugary snacks), and nobody seems to remember or care that in my English class, you must speak English.

Today, after I finally shooed them out of the room (having held them back a few minutes as a punishment for tardiness), I slumped down in my chair and began to dream up wonderful new ways to punish the class for any possible future cases of bad behavior. I'm being completely honest here; it gave me a perverse sense of satisfaction, knowing that I had a "Plan B" ready to unleash. It's almost as if I actually want these students to make me snap, just so I can see the look on their faces when I stop the video or shut down the game and make them write sentences for an entire hour. Cue the evil laugh... have I lost it?

I don't know, really. I mean, I have to remember that compared to some of the other schools where my Fulbright colleagues teach, every single day at CSHS is still a walk in the park. I've got to count my blessings: at least my students understand the words that come out of my mouth. At least they don't beat each other up in class. At least they respect me enough to be quiet when I give them my teacher glare and know when enough is enough. But when I think about how other teachers have done the hard discipline thing time and again, to the point that it has become routine, I fancy that it wouldn't hurt for me to get a bit tougher on my students, too. I don't want them to think that my class is essentially a free period or an irrelevant elective -- even if it technically is -- because with that mindset, how will they ever be motivated to learn?

On the other hand, I'm fully aware that I am fallible and easily susceptible to being manipulated by my own emotions. For real, though: I actually felt myself getting angrier and angrier as I sat in my chair after class, not because I had just survived such a train wreck, but in truth because I was thinking purely negative thoughts, conjuring up hypotheticals, and it was like a maelstrom of discontent. Realizing this, I tried to shake it off by going to the weight room to work out. I also happened across a volleyball game under way in the gym, with some of my schools' teachers playing against teachers from another school in a union tournament. Rooting for my school alongside my fellow teachers -- 아자아자 화이팅! -- did a lot to cheer me up (although I wish I could have been playing in the game myself!).

Do you know what really helps, though? To counter an adverse incident with one student, the best remedy is a great conversation with another. Today, at lunch, I had the good fortune of sitting down with YJ to chat. He's a first-year student who often speaks up in class, but I'd never realized the depths to which his mind probes until he asked me, right off the bat, "Teacher, what do you do when you repeatedly fail something? When you're 'in a rut'? Do you have any advice?"

I was taken aback. Also, the two other first-years with whom we were sitting instantly tuned out. This was beyond their comprehension level. "Well," I told YJ, "If you are stuck in a rut, you can take a step back, re-evaluate the situation, and then change something." We continued to talk about overcoming obstacles, and the conversation moved to "life codes" -- his is taken from The Man of La Mancha (a musical based off of Don Quixote): "To dream the impossible dream, to fight the unbeatable foe, to reach the unreachable star." We also discussed university life in the US and whether it was actually true that Harvard students streak across campus once a year. I said, "Well, I don't know, because I didn't go to Harvard, but I would not be surprised if they did."

After lunch, YJ thanked me for the chat, and I thought, "Any time, buddy!" I left feeling impressed with him, as well as simply grateful that I had had such a pleasant lunch. I love to talk with my students outside of class, and I am always reminded when I do that my students really are incredibly smart. It's admittedly difficult for me to remember this, since in my class, even the brightest physics wizard might struggle to utter a single coherent sentence in English. I'm reminded of the words of a fellow Fulbrighter, Kelly, who warned me never to "assume that [my] students are not capable of critical thinking" simply on account of the language barrier. They possess so much genius, but a lack of confidence in English has hidden most of it from me. Sigh...

Anyway, I'm trying to stay cautious about my attitude toward the students who frustrate me. I want to remain positive and continue fulfilling my role as the super-encouraging foreign English teacher whose class is fun, engaging, and effective, but I want to make sure that my students don't take this for granted, either. If they do, and it gets on my nerves, then I have to remember to remain professional and light-hearted, too. None of this "화가난다!!!" business. But hey readers: if you have any advice, I'm all ears!

In closing, it's May 1st. Happy Korean Labor Day! I asked my co-teacher why we teachers didn't get the day off for the holiday, unlike the rest of the nation. She replied with a small laugh, "Because we're not laborers." Well, although my work definitely seems laborious sometimes, I guess I have to agree. My job is to nurture, equip, and support my students, no matter what. Teachers don't labor, they love.

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