Thursday, 1 January 2009

I Say A Little Prayer

Something awful has been happening at our school: we've had aspiring EFL teachers come to observe our classes.

Up until recently, I've been spared this horror, and thank God: the kids I teach are so boisterous, so obstreperous and rebellious and disrespectful and every other bad adjective I can think of, I don't want any observers anywhere within a mile of me to witness my shame and bamboozlement.

The observers I've seen scare me silly: they are all so breathtakingly young and keen looking. And they've got that gleam in their eye. In fact, they look so much like I did back in my student teaching days that I just know they'll judge me as harshly as I judge myself. And frankly, I'd deserve it.

Because I remember being an observer with perfect clarity, and I blush. Armed with my youthful naiveness and the sheer conviction that I knew what was what, I observed seasoned veterans with a critical eye. Were they eager enough or -- God forbid -- possibly jaded after years of teaching? Did they segue from activity to activity with a seamless fluidity or fumble about with their notebooks and hastily-scribbled lesson plans? Did they seem fully committed to spreading the gospel of communication or more interested in getting through the next hour and having that break-time donut? Decades later, I shiver to recall my smug, self-assured pomposity.

A few weeks back, one of my younger Turkish colleagues got observed, but that was okay because I knew that she could take it. She's tough and confident and has an air of quiet, calm authority about her that I utterly lack. Then one of my British colleagues got observed with absolutely no notice, and just hearing her story horrified me: not only had she gotten stuck with a duff CD player, but she'd picked up the wrong CD by mistake. "How often does that happen?" she lamented, but I said nothing: I'm scatterbrained and this is something I manage to do on a regular basis.

On Wednesday it happened. I was running late, stressed out from too much coffee and not enough lunch, loaded down with books, notebooks and CD player, on my way upstairs to teach my Turkish delights. Just before I got to the door, a young Turkish man in the hallway stepped up and introduced himself in credible English as someone who wanted to sit in on my class "to see how a native speaker teaches." I felt the blood drain from my face. I wanted to shriek and tear my hair, but instead I nodded. "Come on in," I said graciously, a thousand excuses springing to mind -- I'm tired, I'm not feeling well, I overslept, They're a little excited because it's almost New Years. I resorted to just one: I'm afraid they're a rather rowdy bunch.

As it was, he didn't hear this: it was too noisy.

I took roll and began teaching, praying that just once my wild, giddy group would mind me and pay attention. Sadly, this was not to be. Neylan, one of my younger students, sidled up to me immediately. "Who is man?" she hissed, shooting her eyes towards the stranger. I told her to sit back down.

Baris, a bright boy who has trouble sitting still, paying attention, and keeping his legs out of the aisle, interrupted me twice during my lead-in, wanting to know if I'd had a good Christmas. I told him I had and hurried past him to break up a huddle of three boys engaged in a noisy Turkish tete-a-tete. Finally, after slamming my book down on the table and waving the class roll sheet in a threatening manner, there was a brief lull. "Turn to page 128 and show me you've done your homework!" I bellowed. Two minutes, one interrupted private conversation, two intercepted paper airplanes and three confiscated mobile phones later, we were all on 128. At least here I was winning: an unprecedented half of the class had actually completed their exercises! I hoped to God my observer was making note of this; I was pretty proud.

The class seemed to last forever, but two hours later, my suffering was almost at an end. And I had a treat to finish up with -- a song. My class loves songs, and this one happened to be one I knew and loved: Aretha Franklin's version of I Say a Little Prayer. Most of the time, just the mention of a song is enough to make everyone hush up, but with New Years looming, the class was in a fever-pitch of excitement. Even my fist on the desk and menacing movements towards the roll sheet could not entirely shut them up. I put the CD into the player, plugged it in, and banged on the desk with both fists, and finally I had their attention.

"THE VOLUME ON THIS CD PLAYER IS BROKEN!" I roared. "SO YOU'LL HAVE TO BE VERY QUIET IN ORDER TO HEAR THE SONG!" The class nodded, I distributed the activity sheets, and I flicked the on button. Aretha began belting out her song and her magic took hold of the room for a good fifteen seconds.

"Tee-cha, what language speak?"

My eyes popped. "English!"

"She is French?" asked Neylan.

No way was I going to let the French take credit for Aretha. "No, American!"

"Tee-cha, we cannot hear!"


But they just couldn't do this.

I turned off the CD player and took a deep breath. "Okay everybody, I'm only going to do this once, so listen carefully." And I sang the rest of I Say a Little Prayer myself.

Aretha may do it better, but I got the laughs. My students even caught one phrase all by themselves with absolutely no prompting -- break time.

As I was erasing the board, my observer came up to me. "They are very noisy," he commented.

I nodded.

"May I make a suggestion?" he murmured.

"Yes." Karma is karma: I knew it was coming.

"The volume on that CD player is broken," he said with no hint of irony. "None of us could hear it."


Christy said...

Ha! There are days and then there are days, eh? And I wonder how many years it will be before young Neylan will be standing in front of a class with broken equipment eating his words.

Kim Ayres said...

Happy New Year, Mary. I look forward to all the stories to come :)

planetnomad said...

ROFL! This was awesome, and your ending line perfect. Ba-da-boom!
Happy 2009! I look forward to many more stories of your unruly students, and not just because they make me so happy that I'm not currently teaching ;)

Carole said...

Laughter is the best medicine. Your stories always make me happy.

Charlie said...

Your class reminds me of the old TV show Welcome Back, Kotter. Perhaps your class should be called Mary's Zoo.

And I really liked your observer: he is a true Master of Understatement.

Charles Gramlich said...

I remembered when I was first Chair of the Psychology department and had to observe the other teachers. I was probably as nervous as they were.

Eryl Shields said...

Did he have a twinkle in his eye? Happy new year to you and your brood.

Mary Witzl said...

Christy -- It doesn't take most teachers long to get jaded. Usually a few years will do nicely. I'm not always jaded actually -- that's part of my problem.

Kim -- With the help of my Turkish delights, I'll try to keep them coming!

Planetnomad -- I couldn't believe it when he said that. Remind me to check the volume of my voice: when I think I'm shouting, am I really whispering?

I tell myself that someday I'll miss these guys. (Not likely, but I might as well give it a try, right?)

Carole -- Nothing anyone might say to me could please me more. And I'm glad my noisy so-and-sos can help make you laugh.

Charlie -- Mary's Zoo it is, though that suggests a certain level of organization and domestication that is not present in my class. Hmm, cages might help, come to think of it.

My observer was actually a nice guy, but I wonder if he was really listening to me.

Charles -- No, I'm betting the other teachers were more nervous, but that might just be my paranoia. And good for you for being a nervous observer; I was a cocky, insufferable observer and deserve every crappy observation that comes my way.

Eryl -- I looked for one, but saw not a trace. He did admit that the CD player problem was not due to any fault of mine.

Happy New Year to you, too!

K8 the Gr8 said...

How do you do it?!?!?!

Heartfelt curtsey in your general direction for having the guts to belt out that song in front of them! Wahey! You have a serious set of ovaries, so you do :)

Phil said...

Hi Mary.

Sounds a little rough. It seems there's more time and money spent on lesson observations than actual teaching in the UK. No matter how well it goes, there's always something.

Enjoyed the read.

Have you tried juggling gerbils while teaching? :)


Nora MacFarlane said...

Wow. I can't imagine doing that day in and day out. I'm glad there are people like you who have the fortitude to follow through. On the bright side, think of all the material you are generating for your memoir!

Happy New Year!

Mary Witzl said...

Kate -- Aw, it was nothing -- I do things like that all the time, and I suspect most teachers do. Now if Aretha had been in the audience, that would have taken some guts.

Phil -- I'm of two minds about observations. On one hand, there are some God-awful teachers out there who need shaking up. I remember one man my husband used to work with who felt he should be able to teach over the telephone, from the comfort and warmth of his bed. Guys like that need the threat of an observation to keep them on their toes, (though I suspect that even with this, they'll be crappy teachers). And I've also been able to observe fantastic teachers, which always inspires me and makes me rethink a lot of my teaching methods. But there is still a huge difference between the idealistic image of day-to-day teaching held by trainee teachers and the reality experienced by by us poor old teachers chipping at the coal face. And those of us with poor classroom management skills never look good...

Juggling gerbils I have never tried. I'll have to give that a shot sometime!

Nora -- I tell myself that there are so many awful jobs I could never do: working in a salt mine, say, or cleaning all the toilets in Grand Central Station. By the end of a really hard teaching day, though, I'm about ready to give anything a go. I wonder how many toilets there are in Grand Central Station? Bet it pays better than my job, too.

Sharon said...

Hysterical! I love this post! It made me laugh out loud. I teach 4th graders, so can readily identify.

Kanani said...

Ha! With those kids you'd be better off dragging a piano into the class and acting as though it were a piano bar.

Happy New Year Mary!

A Paperback Writer said...

Whoa! Wait. You've got teenagers and the school scheduled you a bloody TWO HOUR class?!!! Holy crap, woman! No wonder they're noisy! Duh! What kind of idiots make the schedules in this school?
Plus, it sounds like they've given you way too many kids. No ESL teacher should have to deal with more than 25 students in a class. (And this is from a teacher in Utah, where it it not uncommon at all to put 45-50 teens in a foreign-language class and 80 or more in gym or music classes.)
Look, I have (because idiots control the schedules where I work, too) 80 minute class periods. And I still have to break it up into two or three different types of activities -- with breaks in between -- just to keep their attention. And I have more than 20 years experience in the classroom!
And, of course, the visitors arrive on the worst days. Always.
Of course, I don't care anymore. Let them come on whatever day they want. I've taught so long that I can tell whether it's me or the class that's the problem.
I had one 9th grade regular English class 3 years ago that was a trip to Hades. My goal became to teach them to behave -- because I couldn't teach them much English with chaos going on constantly. I felt like I needed whips, a chair, and raw steaks as teaching materials.

Oh, and an ESL question? You do realize that music and humor are the very hardest things to grasp in a foreign language, right? Word inflections get so messed up in songs that it's very, very difficult for kids to sort out even familiar words.
When I teach Spanish, I make the kids learn to sing (or shout, really) Jose Feliciano's "Feliz Navidad," which really contains very few lyrics. I write "Feliz Navidad, prospero año y felicidad" (which is all the Spanish the song contains) on the board and make them say it a million times before I put on the song. Then they still ask me what he says.
And I still can get confused on what words are in songs in Spanish.
Well, good for you on singing "Say A Little Prayer."
However, I think the Aretha Franklin song you need to sing for them is "Respect." ;)
"R-E-S-P-E-C-T!! Sock it to me!" Maybe the kids'll learn what it means. :)

Barbara Martin said...

Great story with perfect ending. It appears there are many around the world who don't listen when someone speaks.

Mary Witzl said...

Sharon -- My husband has taught 4th graders too, and he would definitely sympathize; you have to say something ten times and you still get kids who say "Mister, what are we doing?" But mine are 17 through 24, and you'd really think that after a few classes, they'd figure out that you have to listen to instructions. Even now they still ask me what page we're on when I've used every trick in the book to get their fleeting attention. I almost think 4th graders would be an improvement -- at least they have the excuse of extreme youth.

Kanani -- Frankly, I think I could drag a dead buffalo into this class and only a handful would sit up and be impressed. If I thought a piano would make them listen, I'd give it real consideration.

APW -- I know humor sails over their heads for the most part, but just the mention of a song makes everyone bright-eyed and -- almost -- well behaved. So far in this class, I've done all the songs in our current course book, including the "Ain't Got No" song from HAIR, Queen's "We are the Champions" and a number of others. They've eaten them up, and even when they don't understand, they get quiet -- you can see that they want to understand. So I am always looking out for new songs, especially when they have pertinent language in them related to what I'm teaching. ("Under the Boardwalk" was the one we always used for prepositions, for instance). But R-E-S-P-E-C-T is a great idea and it's on Aretha's Greatest Hits album, which I have somewhere. We could combine humor and a song in one lesson, and thanks for that tip!

As for our class size and the number of hours per class, I'll have to tell you all about that one day. The observation was only for two hours; the class went on for a lot longer. Yeah, no wonder...

Barbara -- These kids are... special. I know for a fact that not all Turkish kids are like this. Otherwise, Turkish teachers would all be stark raving mad.

Carolie said...

And what did he say as he picked himself up off the floor? Oh wait, you're a lady and I bet you didn't do as I would have wanted to do!

I remember those young, judgemental days, when I was convinced that the older ones just weren't as committed and intelligent as I. Ohhhhh, Karma, she is a bitch.

Shall I send you a cattle prod for Christmas, Mary? Maybe it will help with your class?

Speaking of Christmas, I do need your new address, pretty please!

Chris Eldin said...

LOL! You should have a newspaper column, you really should!!
This truly made me laugh out loud!

I have a master's degree in education, and I remember being an observer. You captured that perfectly!!!! Oh man, was I that bad? Yes, I was.

Your class sounds fun!! Happy New Year!


Angela said...

Oh My!! Well, look at it this way--it's over right? No more observers?

I have missed my dose of Tee-cha stories, Mary, while being out of commission. And I agree, you should have a column--each post is just pure gold!!

A Paperback Writer said...

Well, Mary, you've already heard my story about trying to teach Spanish-speakers "Jingle Bells" and getting obscenities!
Carolie, I want a cattle prod for the hallways at school!

Mary Witzl said...

Carolie -- He never hit the floor: I zapped him with my Evil Eye where he stood! (And I really would have, if my image of myself at his age hadn't come to smite ME. Having a conscience is absolutely no fun.)

A cattle prod would be a great idea, but it would not work: the voltage is different from Japan's and electricity costs a mint.

I'll e-mail you later with my e-mail address!

Chris -- From your mouth to God's ear about the newspaper column! If I could publicly shame these kids, it'd be win-win: the fun of writing this for me, plus the fun of seeing them writhe. But no, only those who don't deserve this would (or could) read it; it would sail over the silly heads of those who do deserve it.

Angela -- Some people have been observed twice. (Shudder...)

It's so reassuring to know that my torment gives others even the slightest amusement. Believe me, when I go into that classroom today, this will fortify me!

APW -- I loved your Jingle Bells story, but you only knew that what the kids were producing was obscene because of your knowledge of Spanish. The only useful classroom words I know so far in Turkish are "You're lazy," "Throw that out!" (courtesy of a fellow Turkish teacher who also gets tired of picking up after her own Turkish delights), and "How rude!" God knows what has been said around me -- or what I may have unwittingly said myself. Ignorance really is bliss.

Marcia said...

Great story, really well told!

Reminds me why I'm glad I teach by correspondence.

AnneB said...

Mary, the cattle prod will too work. They're all dual voltage these days, just like razors and hair dryers, and all you'll need is an adapter.

Mary Witzl said...

Marcia -- Thank you for your kind words. Wish I taught by correspondence too, especially today when I am going to be on my feet for six hours straight...

AnneB -- Gee, and I've even got an adapter somewhere, though I think we may need it for the toaster. (Believe me, if I thought it wouldn't leave any lasting effect, I'd happily use a cattle prod on my lazy lot. I've just marked their second pop quiz and the results make me want to cry.