Monday, 26 January 2009

Like That When I Got Here

Onur stands in the hallway, his face lit up by euphoria. He looks as though he could easily spread his arms and fly. Onur has just seen his test results and while they were not great, they were good enough. He has passed. Smooth sailing from now on; no more tiresome sessions with his grammar book, no more slogging through present perfect vs simple past, or first and second conditionals. "Thank you so much for everything, tee-cha," he breathes, practically pumping my hand in a rush of happiness. I am touched by his gratitude, but how can I take the credit? He's a smart kid to begin with, and he got out as much as he put in -- I just wish he'd done more.

Ceyda hangs back, her eyes swollen and red-rimmed, her face the picture of misery. She is usually noisy, boisterous, full of silliness, but today she is dead serious, laid low. The last time I saw Ceyda, she was eating baklava and posing for a photograph with a group of girls as giddy and mindless as she is, utterly deaf to my reminders to study. And I'm guessing she didn't study: Ceyda's score was well below the pass mark. "My father will angry," she almost weeps now. "He will too much angry!" All I can do is give her a sympathetic smile and think Don't blame me. She's not a stupid kid by any means, but she is lazy. She got as much as she put in too -- which was precious little.

Teaching can be so discouraging! I can encourage, provide materials, instruct, advise, remind, chastise, nag, and create a relaxed classroom atmosphere. I can analyze what my students need to learn, distill it until it is fit for their comprehension, and do my best to impart what knowledge needs to be imparted. But what I cannot do for my students is study. And sadder still, I cannot get inside their heads and hearts and fire them up with the passion to learn. I cannot inspire those who do not want to be inspired; I cannot motivate those who want to be elsewhere, doing other things.

All of my students have a clear vision of the carrot -- the diploma, parental approbation, a whirlwind of parties, the sheer joy of no more school, even the hazy promise of employment in these difficult times -- but a lot of them are clueless about what it takes from them to achieve that carrot.

And sometimes you get kids that are clueless, period.

"Tee-cha," wailed two girls with mournful expressions during the first week of classes, "we have problem. Repeat students."

"Pardon me?" I asked, flabbergasted. Neither girl had the accent down pat.

"Last year, this class, fail. This year repeat."

"Why do you have to repeat?" I asked.

"Tee-cha trouble!" they chorused, arms linked.

"Teacher trouble?"

They nodded, faces serious.

I smelled a rat: their spiel sounded rehearsed. And their eagerness to blame their teacher for their poor performance struck a warning bell: teachers know there are bad apples among us, but we're inclined to give our colleagues the benefit of the doubt. And all of us with any modicum of experience know that the sure sign of a crappy student is one who blames the teacher for her failure to learn. I'm not saying bad teachers don't exist -- I've had plenty myself. But blaming the teacher straight off the bat is a bad idea.

"Well, I'm sorry to hear that," I said evasively. "But all you have to do in my class is pay attention, study, and turn in the assignments. Do that and you will almost certainly pass. Okay?"

"Yes tee-cha, we try!"

Like hell they did. Over the next three months, these two girls huddled together and resisted all attempts to separate them. They refused to speak English, disrupted my classes with their endless chatter, showed up late, concocted an improbable number of illnesses and excuses, and -- on memorable occasions -- slept through whole lessons. More than once I had to send both of them out of the classroom in disgrace; more than once I had to take them outside for a talking-to.

None of it did a lick of good.

Both girls turned in sub-standard homework, at best, failed their midterms and every pop quiz, and out-and-out plagiarized their final compositions, even after numerous warnings about my zero-tolerance policy. I caught one of them climbing out of the classroom window once, and I could not count the times I've arrived back in class after a 15-minute break only to be approached by one or both with an urgent request for the toilet.

I could happily throttle these two girls. They've had every opportunity. I've given them pep talks, nagged them, warned them, coached them, encouraged them whenever I honestly could -- all for nothing. And yet I'm pretty sure that they will write their failure off as teacher trouble.

Still, I wish it were as simple as Study hard and you will pass, fool around and you will fail. In truth, it is more complex, involving things like attitude, aptitude, nerves, and plain old luck.

"Tee-cha!" booms Cenk, my hyperactive, disrespectful class clown and a massive pain in the neck, "how are you?" There is something so hail-fellow-well-met in his tone that I don't have to look at his results to tell he's passed. Not only did he pass, but he did so with a respectable margin. If I'd known he was capable of that much, I'd have worked him a lot harder.

Esra stands behind him, hanging her head in disappointment and embarrassment. She is a shy, sweet girl who has never missed a class; she studies hard, turns in extra work, and never copies others' assignments. Sadly, she tends to panic during tests too; she has failed her examination and will have to repeat the course.

If I can't take credit for Cenk passing, I'm not sure I can take the blame for Esra failing either.

"Tee-cha!" someone behind me calls joyfully, "I am pass!"

It's Özgül, a rather lazy plodder who has spent half her time in class biting the split ends off her long hair.

"Was it hard?" I ask her as we walk along.

"Very hard. But writing part is not so hard."

"Really?" I'm amazed by this. Özgül is one of the kids who could not wait to get out of class. Who would have her sweater on, her bag over her shoulder, and one leg off her chair before I could announce the homework. And she has complained loud and long about the writing assignments being too hard.

"Writing is okay," she says simply. "We did in class so many times."

This one I believe I will take credit for.


adrienne said...

I like hearing about your students and all their quirks...I'm sure you give yourself far too little credit.

Jacqui said...

I'm sure you give yourself too little credit too. I was lamenting once whether I could take credit/blame for my students and my mother-in-law, a teacher for 35 years, said, "You get little enough credit as a teacher. Take credit for the successes."

Charles Gramlich said...

You capture so well the trials and tribulations, and occassionaly triumphs of the teacher. This would make a great series of articles for a teaching releated magazine.

marshymallow said...

As a student, i know that i owe my teachers an awful lot for my successes, and in most instances have only myself to blame for my failures. It's the horse and water principle, i guess.

Charlie said...

I agree that you should take credit for your successes because there are far fewer of them than failures.

Yes, the failures make you angry because you know why they failed, despite all of your teacherly skills.

The one thing no one can teach is taking responsibility for one's actions. If those girls choose to be giggleheads and sloths, there is nothing you can do to change them. There are no tools in your toolbox for change.

When those girls grow up they can continue to blame others for their failures as they work for minimum wage in unskilled jobs. Or, perhaps one of them will wake up and choose to better herself and, concurrently, her self-esteem.

Only time will tell, but you have tried, and given them, your best.

Linda D. (sbk) said...

I love hearing about your teaching adventures. I'm not so sure I'd be as patient.

Mary Witzl said...

Adrienne -- I'm not a great teacher -- I need better classroom control -- but what I lack in discipline I more than make up for in zeal. Too bad the discipline is more necessary in my current teaching position than the zeal...

Jacqui -- I didn't realize you were a teacher too!

I want to agree with your mother-in-law -- any teacher who has stuck it out for 35 years has my complete respect -- but the more I look at it, the more it seems that all I can do with my students is TRY to inspire. When I do succeed, I'm happy to take the credit, but there's not a lot of credit around to be taken just now...

Charles -- I would love to spend more time writing about teaching. I find writing about it so cathartic; it makes me want to go back and teach better. I just wish there were more triumphs than there were trials and tribulations (and wow, the alliteration there!).

MM -- I want you for a student right now! Too bad you already know English so well... Every single day, I patiently lead twenty-four ill-tempered nags down to the water, only to have them buck and whinny and kick, but only rarely drink. It is beyond frustrating!

Charlie -- I love the word 'gigglehead' and where has it been all my life? And what you write cheers me up.

One of my colleagues told me that it was wise to give up caring with the truly obnoxious learning-resistant students. And I can do this, but it only lasts for a day or two; in no time, I'm right back to caring again.

Today, though, I had to watch a group take their finals. Three of my worst were there, squirming away during the writing exam, and I hate to admit it, but watching them sweat felt pretty good. Maybe this will shake them up if nothing else will.

Linda -- Ooh, you ought to see me in action sometimes! I do okay most of the time, but when my patience is finally exhausted, I'm not a pretty sight.

Marcia said...

I love these stories. I'm sure there are success stories we can take credit for, and sometimes we even hear about them. But so much has to do with what the students themselves will invest -- until you read about poor Esra, and you know it's never reducible to a formula.

Robin said...

It's so fun hearing about your students. I'd like to throttle the two brats who blamed their teacher for their failure. You capture them all so wonderfully!

Kim Ayres said...

Great piece of writing Mary :) I cannot possibly imagine ever teaching anyone who doesn't want to be there. It's why I never considered going into the profession

Mary Witzl said...

Marcia -- I feel so bad about Esra, who put in so much time studying! It doesn't seem fair that someone should invest so much time and thought and still not manage to pass the test. And it goes against my sense of justice!

Robin -- These two girls have led me on a merry dance for the past three months. Watching them behave so mindlessly is hard enough, but knowing that I'm going to end up getting blamed really is the limit. I'm glad that you're incensed for me, though -- that cheers me up.

Kim -- When I first went into teaching, I foolishly assumed that everyone I came into contact with would be fired up with the joy of learning English and listen to the pearls of wisdom I had to impart with bated breath. Imagine my shock to discover what a pipe dream that was...

Lily Cate said...

I think in all my years, I only had one truly "bad" teacher. Plenty of boring ones, or self important ones, or lazy ones. But I had at least 3 great teachers. Not that I did well in their classes!

I think the best thing you can do for some students is to let them fail a little. It has to be hard to watch, though.

Eryl Shields said...

Part of me want to get on a plane and come over to give those two girls a good slap! Mostly because I know now how hard it is to claw back those wasted years, but I guess we all have to learn in our own tragic way. And I feel really sorry for the one who works hard but has no aptitude, that must be really tough!

Mary Witzl said...

Lily -- I feel so critical: I count boring, lazy or self-important teachers as bad, unless they have redeeming features, such as being able to explain -- or inspire -- really well, or having incredible senses of humor. The awful truth is that I am sometimes a bad teacher myself -- boring and lazy come easy to me, though I'm careful not to let my students see any traces of my self importance.

I had a few wonderful teachers and now I remember them with longing and shame: I almost never gave them credit for how much they helped me.

Eryl -- Oh how I wish I could send for you right now -- I can't swat these girls and somebody needs to! It's infuriating: I see so many kids who would do a lot to have half of their opportunities. Also, their parents are willing and able to fork out for tuition, and mine weren't. My inner student rebels at the injustice of this; I had to work my way through university; at least when I screwed around, I was only wasting my own money.

Anonymous said...

I could not, could not, teach brats who did not want to be taught. Maybe that's why I think I would fail as a teacher? Wait, think might be a little too weak a word... And I am certain that ickle students would hate being there as much as me. Darn, I'd make them so scared of repeatinga year with me that they'd have to pass! :D
But anyway, exams are over~ You're free~

debra said...

You not only share the events, Mary, but the flavor. Thank you for another look into your world.

Mary Witzl said...

Beppin -- Unfortunately, I don't do scary very well and some of those ickle students aren't so ickle at all and I'd hardly want to tangle with them. One of my colleagues had one student pull a knife on another in her classroom, and I'm not anxious for any such confrontations. So I just glower and yell and hope for the best.

Debra -- You are welcome to all the looks into my world that you want, and I thank you for coming here to read what I write. Your world sounds a lot more beautiful and relaxing than mine.

debra said...

My world is definitely more snowy, Mary :-)

Lily Cate said...

Yeah, those assesments are from my perspective as a student, you see. That's how I saw them at the time, but they still taught me, well, something.
And the ones I thought were the greatest would probably never put me on their list of best or favorite students.

Mary Witzl said...

Debra -- No, don't take away my fantasy that your world is an oasis of calm! Your blog always makes me feel serene and relaxed, and now it turns out you're just good at finding peace in the midst of chaos. I think I'll need to learn how to master this too...

Lily -- I shiver to think what my teachers thought of me. I day-dreamed and doodled my way through some classes; it actually helped me concentrate at times, but I'm sure my teachers must have felt vaguely insulted. I doubt I'd have made the Best Student list myself.

Barbara Martin said...

Mary, I read your posts because they remind me of all the teaching stories my mother told me of her early experiences in a one room school house with 12 grades.

Mary Witzl said...

What country did your mother teach in, Barbara? Canada? (I know you've mentioned this before and I forgot to ask.) My mother also taught in a one-room school, in several small towns in Kentucky and throughout the South. I'll never forget some of the things she told me, and I can imagine your mother had similar stories! Will you write about yours someday?

Danette Haworth said...

Wonderful post. It certainly gives me insight for the teacher stories my kids tell me. (Though I never really believed the one teacher had pointy teeth with spit dripping off them.)

Mary Witzl said...

There really are a lot of awful teachers out there, it's just that quite often kids can't spot them. Most of them don't give homework -- ever -- because it means much more work for THEM. They don't really care if their students pass or fail or learn anything at all; all they want besides a paycheck is the easiest time possible. But how many kids would call a teacher who never assigned homework bad?

Spit dripping off pointy teeth? That sounds formidable! I'd give it a go, but I'd have to file my teeth down first...