Sunday, March 9, 2014

A Crazy, Joyful Year of Teaching

Last Friday, my first year as a elementary ESL teacher at the Prince Royal's College in Thailand came to an end. As I've been decompressing from one of the most hectic and exhausting times in my life, I've also been reflecting on these ten months.

When I first moved back to Chiang Mai to start this job in April, I was coming in with very little teaching experience. I earned a TESOL certificate about four months before I arrived. I had done one practicum and apart from a few days in high-school looking after a troop of tots during a summer camp, I had never worked with little kids before.

I wasn't sure what to expect, even after arriving on campus and meeting my co-teachers. I didn't feel nervous about this. I was glad to be back in Chiang Mai after seven years. I was also happy (in a time of high unemployment for twenty-somethings) to have a new job and a fresh start after some good but tumultuous years in Egypt.

I did wonder in the days leading up to my first term though, if I was perhaps too naïve and unprepared when it came to teaching five classes filled with forty first grade students.

At the end of my first day of teaching, I realized just how accurate those doubts were. The beginning of school was horrific. I watched students chase each other around desks, leap off tables and ride each other around like horses. I witnessed time and time again classes tuning out every command I threw at them. Often, I felt helpless and utterly flabbergasted. All the advice and techniques my Thai co-teachers offered in the lead up to the lessons fell flat on the floor to be trampled by my first graders' tiny feet.

That night, I returned home to my small apartment by the school and vegged. I lay in my bed for several hours staring up despondently at the ceiling. I would spend many nights over the next month or two feeling shell shocked, numbed and in some cases depressed as I tried often unsuccessfully to manage the extravagant energy of my students.

Teaching six and seven year-olds, in a language they don't understand very well, is exhausting and often very hard on the soul. Phrases I had heard off and on from teachers and parents my whole life ('These kids drive me crazy.' 'I could kill someone, I'm so stressed.') sank in and became tangible for the first time.

The pressures that come from a society that values saving face further convoluted enforcing classroom discipline. Contacting parents of troubled or difficult school children over behavioral issues can be complicated by the 'need' to avoid shaming the parents or child.

In the midst of all this, I questioned if I would make it. I wondered if the school would come to regard me as a bad teacher and send me away. Occasionally, I wished they would. As some other Native English Teachers began to leave early in the term, I wondered if perhaps I should just cut my losses and leave.

In the end though, I decided to keep going and even though I can't say I became a great or incredible teacher, I learned more about who my students were. I at last began to understand what they responded and didn't respond too. I also discovered the limitations of Thai education, and how kids with severe learning disabilities often share the same classroom with kids who are bright brilliant and eager to study. I realized how important it was to move quickly and flawlessly between elements of a lesson. I learned which resources were good for my age level and which would lose my student's very limited attention spans.

Comprehending all these vital lessons hasn't always automatically translated into my classroom. Teachers, like students, need time to grow and apply the lessons they've learned. Even into the second term I sometimes struggled to make my lessons effective.

Along with classroom pressures, there's was work miscommunications, a long list of extracurricular activities, after-school classes, field trips and camps etc.

All of these pressures made my year tough and grueling.

There were many aspects of teaching primary students at a school I disliked.

Yet amongst all the moments of bureaucratic bs and student behavioral issues there were many, many times that brought me joy and made all the exhaustion and exasperation worthwhile.

In all honesty, it's the good that stands out to me the most as I think back.

I remember the thrill that came from finally coming up with a lesson that students enjoyed and the sense of accomplishment when a student could answer a question or remember a word off the top of their head.

There was the time when we cut pumpkins with 1/7 and the lesson where I got to see students draw their favorite animals. I can never forget the first time some boys in 1/8 decided to start calling me teacher handsome. I cherish the visits a girl with severe ADD in 1/10 would make to my office so I could quiz her on English vocabulary. I recall fondly when, at the end of some of very long days, a student would tag along with me as we left the 1st grade building on campus. I grin when I think of the countless times a student came up and gave me an uninhibited hug or raised their hand up for a high five or fist pump.

The bad moments were plentiful, crying times, angry times, times of being fed up and pooped out for both teacher and student alike.

Yet even in some of these awkward difficult trials there were moments of brightness and bonding. The sadness I would feel when a child in a class would cry could sometimes go away with a few silly faces or kind gestures. A student even returned the favor once, when she saw me sulking in the hallway after a bad lesson and told me with a gesture we had learned in class that I should be 'happy'.

As ready as I was for the year and all the pressure to be over with, I know I will miss my students.

Last Friday, I made the rounds through all my classes as they broke out juice and cookies and celebrated the end of the year. I was toasted with grape juice in one class by my students, who had put their desks together to form two long tables reminiscent of a viking feast. In another, I was swarmed by two dozen grinning faces all urging me to try one of the snacks they had gotten from their homeroom teacher. And in another, I got to hear one of my brightest students tell me in a soft whisper 'Teacher Sean, I love you.'

I don't think I will ever win a teacher of the year award. I seriously doubt many of my kids this year will remember me as some fountain of wisdom in their lives. I know many will not have drastically improved their English. Yet to have been able to share these children's lives for a short time and know that I gained their fondness, love and affection fills me with pride and makes me appreciate how even with all the frustrations we humans face in the world, there is also great, and genuine joy.

1 comment:

  1. Sean, this was absolutely great. You should earn a "teacher of the year award," solely, for your passion to teach these kids and your drive to keep on going when things got overwhelmingly frustrating. I thoroughly enjoyed this post!