Wednesday, 3 December 2008

To Teach Or Not To Teach

Heads are rolling here. We are told that this is in light of the worsening world economic crisis, but no one really knows if this is really the case.

Last week, we heard a rumor that a lot of people were going to be laid off. Not long after, one of the senior staff came in, flustered and upset. "There's a crying woman in my office. Would someone please come and help her? She's in a really bad way."

One of us did, subsequently coming back with the disturbing news that this woman was our department's first job casualty -- last in, first out. She'd been given scarcely a week's notice. My heart went out to this woman, a competent and dedicated young teacher, but I found myself very nervous too: as it happens, I was one of the last in myself. Will I lose my job?

I am of two minds about my job right now. On one hand, I love teaching again. I love seeing the light of reason dawning in students' eyes. I love seeing my students' confidence grow as their English improves, and I love teaching English when people genuinely want to learn. But here is the awful thing: I have discovered that I hate teaching people who don't want to learn even more. And boy oh boy oh boy, do I have a lot of them.

"We've got a useful lesson today!" I tell my reading skills class, trying to infuse my voice with energy and enthusiasm. Actually, I'm exaggerating: we've got a dull-as-dust lesson in point of fact, but it is potentially useful. The students have to scan a website about academic subjects to glean pertinent bits of information from it. Sounds boring, right? Well, it's on the curriculum, so I have to teach it. And however boring it might be for the students to learn, trying to teach kids who spend one-third of their time sneaking peeks at their watches, one-third ostentatiously yawning and casting longing looks at the door, and the remaining third yakking to each other in Turkish, is a heck of a lot more boring.

"Ahmet and Tufan, could I have your attention please?" I cry for the fourth time, trying to keep the exhausted desperation out of my voice. Ahmet and Tufan are virtually fused together, their heads touching, deep in conversation -- I'm guessing about football. I thump my book on their desk; annoyed, they barely glance up at me, but the shy, diligent girl from Kazakhstan jumps half a foot. She studies hard, never misses a class, and listens to every word I say. And whenever I yell at the others, she blushes and practically cringes, as though she is the guilty party. I reassure her that she isn't the one I'm upset with and in doing so, lose Ahmet and Tufan entirely. They are back to their engrossing -- and very noisy -- discussion about football and the poor Kazakh girl still looks faintly shocked.

I take a deep, steadying breath and move back to Ahmet and Tufan. It's time for me to roll out my big guns. "If you continue to ignore me," I say in a low, menacing voice, "I will be forced to mark you absent."

This finally reaches them; they know I'll do it. Marking them absent is the one bargaining chip I have, and thank God for it.

"But we are here!" they sputter in righteous indignation.

"Your bodies are here, but your minds are elsewhere."

They sigh and make a great show of rolling their eyes and slumping in their chairs, but they stop talking.

"Now who can tell me if you can study sociology at University A?"

The class stares down at their books, foreheads furrowed. One boy yawns widely, flinging his head back in an exaggerated fashion, and his neighbor jabs an elbow in his ribs. They both giggle. Someone lets out a tremendous burp and half the class titters in appreciation. Several boys in the back row start talking again; I move meaningfully towards the roll book, business in my eye, and everyone immediately shuts up. Pure magic.

"Tee-cha, what means sociology?" the thick girl in the back row asks loudly.

Please bear in mind that I have explained what sociology means half a dozen times this morning. Please also bear in mind that I have drilled What does xx word mean? another half dozen times; it is even on the board.

By Herculean effort, I manage to resist the urge to roll my eyes and sigh. "It's the study of society." I know what the next question is going to be.

"Tee-cha, what means--?"

"People. Culture." God give me strength.

"Tee-cha, what means--?"

But her classmates interrupt her. "Tee-cha, break time!" two boys call triumphantly, in chorus.

The entire class lets out a collective groan. We've been through this easily thirty, forty times. "Tee-cha, break time" is the one phrase that even the most reluctant English speaker will bring herself to utter. My first month here, I got so tired of hearing Tee-cha, break time! that I taught my students the following sentence: Excuse me, Mary, I believe it is time for our break already. If anyone forgets and resorts to the illiterate-sounding Tee-cha, break time, I make the whole class repeat the full version. If anyone forgets the word already, the whole class has to say the entire thing again. I'm sorry to say that I take sadistic pleasure in enforcing this.

"Excuse me, teacher!" roar Ahmet and Tufan in what I am sure they believe is a perfect parody of me. "I believe it is time for our break already!"

Will I lose my job? I suppose it is within the realm of possibility. So thank God for Ahmet, Tufan, and the thick girl in the back row.


Carole said...

You make even the worst scenario sound delightful.

Eryl Shields said...

I'll keep my fingers crossed that you keep your job, and that the tortuous three either buck up or get kicked out of school. What a nightmare for you.

Robin said...

Oh dear, I can't help laughing. Tee cha! They need to invent an anti-dopey pill for adolescents!

Katie Alender said...

I hope at some point they realize that they don't deserve the effort you are putting forth for them. Stuff like this is so annoying to me! Kids these days...

edj said...

You bring back painful memories. Good luck with teaching and keeping your job, or not as the case may be :) (Maybe private lessons where you get to keep all the money would be a less painful option...that's what I'm doing these days)

Angela said...

Teecha, teecha! I swear that gets me howling every time I see it!

I hope everything works out for the best--whatever that may be. You're in a difficult situation to be sure.

Phil said...

Sounds tough - reluctant or disinterested learners are just about the worst.

Hope all works out for you job wise.


Charles Gramlich said...

I had to chuckle, but I sympathize too. It's so hard to teach students who couldn't care less.

adrienne said...

How funny. Sounds like some of them have a what's-in-this-for-me attitude towards learning...
Hope your job situation works out the way you'd like.

Mary Witzl said...

Carole -- There really are some moments of delight in there, honest! And thank you for that nice compliment.

Eryl -- One of them is probably going to get kicked out, and I fear it is for the best. But there's more where s/he came from...

Robin -- I figure if these kids ever get consciences some day, I'll cash in big time. In the meantime, I'll dream of that anti-dopey pill.

Katie -- The thing is, I figure I must have gotten someone else's rotten karma by mistake. I was a model student and never teased, ignored, or mocked my teachers. Sniff.

EDJ -- Thank you for commenting. The only thing that really keeps me going is the number of seriously dedicated students I'm lucky enough to teach. A class full of them would be pure heaven; getting paid for it would almost seem redundant. Almost.

Angela -- It gets me howling too, but in a different way, of course. Some of the kids roll the R on the end of 'teacher', producing 'tee-char' instead. At least it's a variation.

Phil -- And you should know! Most of these kids, I am guessing, come from very non-academic backgrounds. They've probably been reluctant learners since they were in primary school. Sigh...they don't get any better when they get older. Wish I could reach them!

Charles -- I find myself paying more and more attention to the ones who DO want to learn and virtually ignoring the disruptive ones who DON'T. But that makes me feel bad: the ones who don't want to learn probably need me more.

Adrienne -- Thanks for commenting. Yes, my students can't get over how tiring it is to have to spend a whole six hours a day studying with only an hour's worth of breaks. They think this is about as hard as it gets. Big surprise in store for them, I'd say...

Kappa no He said...

OMG, I hope your job is safe. You sound like an awesome and a half teacher. I was just talking to some of my teacher friends here and they were talking about loosing classes and jobs after thirteen years. Scary.

Christy said...

I don't know whether to hope that you keep your job or hope that you don't! But I do know that if people were to call me Tee-cha instead of my name, I might very well explode. You have my sympathy.

Charlie said...

In your comment to Charles you said, But that makes me feel bad: the ones who don't want to learn probably need me more.

True, but you cannot change or help those students until they change themselves or ask for help.

Oftentimes we have to trim some of the brances so the rest of the tree can thrive and grow.

Natalie said...

Finger crossed that you keep your job, Mary! (They're crossed not only for you, but for your students, as well...)

The Quoibler said...


Has it ever crossed your mind to teach them hilariously funny but highly inappropriate sentences? I'm thinking of:

"Excuse me -- I just made a cream puff in my pants!"


"My favorite thing to do is pick boogers from my nostrils!"


"I have halitosis... and you?"



Barbara Martin said...

Mary, Angelique has a point that would be tempting to me. Or you could carry around the roll book...

All the best with keeping your job.

Mary Witzl said...

Kappa -- It seems that nobody's job is safe now, so yes, this really is scary. But this potential cloud has a big fat silver lining; if I lose my job, I can trade Ahmet and Tufan for my old job -- part-time housewife and full-time writer. Lose, win, win. It could be worse!

Christy -- But my new name IS tee-cha! I even think of myself as tee-cha now. It's either that or hojam (which some of the more polite kids use anyway). But I'll take your sympathy anyway, and thank you!

Charlie -- That is so true, and deep down, I do know it. But I still feel bad for the ones who have probably been failed by the education system somewhere along the line. But don't worry: I'll get compassion fatigue after a while and cut the little b*ggers lose to sink or swim.

Natalie -- Thank you on behalf of myself, and my lazy students! They need good wishes more than I do -- or at least they will when they go out to work, start a family, or join the military -- and quickly learn that being a student was a very easy deal.

Angelique -- Believe me, this has crossed my vindictive little mind more than once or twice! Nobody in the class really has halitosis, but some of the boys would greatly benefit from a pep talk on personal hygiene and the importance of daily showers and deodorant use. I've considered teaching them how to say something requesting that; it'd be doing them and the people around them a good turn.

Barbara -- I do carry around the roll book! In fact, I roll it into a baton and tap it on the odd desk meaningfully. It's my magic wand.

Charlie said...

I just re-read my comment and I have a question: Do you teach English as a first language?

I spelled branches brances, when in fact I meant branches. I mean, what the hell is a brance, and furthermore, why would I trim some of them?

Sorry, tee-cha.

Kim Ayres said...

I hope you keep thejob, but if you don't I'm sure there has to be private English language teaching opportunities to exploit.

Mary Witzl said...

Charlie -- All speakers of English, native and non-native alike, make competence and performance errors. Competence errors are when you don't know any better; performance errors are when you do, but you just slip up. I was expecting 'branches' there so I didn't even notice your slip up until you pointed it out! And I suspect you could teach ME a thing or two about English...

Kim -- There are! And even if the kids I might teach privately are as rambunctious as the ones I've got now, I could cope with one or two individually. Twenty-five in one go is a helluva tall order.

debra said...

My niece tells wonderful stories about the time she taught in a private school in Vermont. A v-e-r-y
e-x-p-e-n-s-i-v-e private school where there were lots of foreign students. The stories are similar, but instead of tea-cha, she was Meeeeesie tea-cha.