Wednesday, 18 February 2009

That'll Teach Me

"Excuse me, are you our new teacher?"

This question catches me off guard as I stand in the empty classroom. "What class?"

"Pre-intermediate 3 at 8:30."

"Then yes, I'm your teacher." I survey the two boys in the doorway. "I must admit, I didn't think I'd have any students today."

"Will we have a class?"

"Do you have textbooks?" The bookstore can't be open yet.

"The bookstore isn't open yet," one of the boys confirms. They promise to get their textbooks before our next class meeting.

Now if these boys were last term's kids, this would be the point when they would clear out like greased lightning. After all, they know that there's no class and they've got an excuse -- they have to go to the bookstore and wait for it to open. But the boys don't go anywhere.

"She's our new teacher," I hear one of them explain -- in English -- to another boy who has just arrived. The new boy looks at me with interest and no sooner have they all entered the classroom than a few more arrive.

"Where are you from?" one of the boys asks shyly.

"California --" I smile -- "I mean, America."

The boys trade happy, incredulous smiles as though they've just learned I'm Secretary of State. They want to know where my hometown is and how long I've been teaching here. I tell them, and they ask still more questions.

I can't get over this: we are actually having a conversation, in English. One of the boys has an amazing fund of knowledge and remembers that the earthquake which caused part of the Oakland Bay Bridge to collapse was in 1989, not 1988. He manages to correct me firmly but respectfully. The other boy is equally impressive, and obviously keen on learning as much as possible. They might as well be Secretary of State and Treasurer of Turkey; that's how unusual these two are, compared to the majority of the kids I taught last term.

"You already speak English," I say, trying not to look too gob-smacked.

"We try to," one of the boys says, "but our English isn't very good yet." He flushes and ducks his head. "We need to learn more."

Flipping heck, I've hit a gold mine here: I'm teaching kids who actually want to learn! Humble, polite kids too! When I tell my colleagues about my lucky strike, one of them tells me I've inherited a lot of his old students. "Best class I ever had," he confirms. "Nothing to do with me, either. Luck of the draw."

This is too good to be true. What will it be like, teaching kids who really want to learn? It's been so long that I can hardly begin to imagine this. Every morning I'll wake up, thinking of the fun I'm going to have in my classes. The communicative exercises we'll do, the songs we'll learn, the vocabulary we'll whiz right through. And -- if I'm honest -- the test scores these kids will get too! They'll be the stars of the department, kids like this! In no time, I'll go from being Mary, the teacher of dunces, to Mary, teacher of the kids with the highest marks! I feel one tiny glimmer of worry: with kids this good, what will I write about? Writing about a class of paragons isn't as much fun as writing about a class full of dunces... But I'm prepared to accept this.

My next three classes are not quite as impressive as that first group, but they are all far more studious and attentive than last term's students. In each class, I have a real minority of back-row smart alecks and a whopping majority of shining-faced front row swots who hang on my every word and carefully write down what I say. It's so unsettling at first that I almost find myself tongue-tied, just watching those spellbound faces and rapidly moving pencils.

In one class, half a dozen kids have not yet bought their books, so I give them time to do this. Now, in the last classes I taught, a trip to the bookstore would take a kid at least an hour. These students take fifteen minutes and come back to class. In another class, they tell me that the bookstore has run out of books. Because of this, I tell the kids they don't have to stay for the last hour if they don't want to -- and they choose to do so anyway. They actually ask me if I mind. No, I do not mind.

I teach them things and they learn. They even seem to like it!

I spend the next few days walking around like I'm a dream. Kids who want to learn, for a change. Kids who actually pay attention in class. This is just wonderful! It's too good to be true!

And so it is. "Have you heard?" a colleague murmurs this morning just as I pour myself a cup of coffee. "Our schedules are going to be scrapped."

I think she's joking until I see her face. It turns out the powers-that-be have decided to redo the schedules. We'll lose all our classes and get different ones.

Ah well, it looks like I'll have plenty to write about now. No cloud without a silver lining.


Robin said...

Oh, Mary, that's so sad. I felt true happiness reading about your terrific new students. I hope it's not back to the dunces. Ye gad!

I love your Englishisms, (or are they Scottishisms?). Gob-smacked has to be the greatest expression ever, followed closely by the noun "swot". I so hope my boys are swots, and not dunces. I have my suspicions.

Charles Gramlich said...

Naturally, if something seems to be working the "Education" folks need to move things around. That sucks, though. Sounds like you had a lot of great kids.

Jacqui said...

Oh no! Figures. Whenever I thought I had my class under control, something changed.

Maybe the next group will be even greater?

Tabitha said...

Oh no!! Well, I hope you still get students who want to learn, rather than more students who are there because they have to be.

Though I gotta agree that if you get classes full of stellar students, I will miss the "tee-cha" stories. But I wouldn't wish that on you for my own sake. :)

Marcia said...

What? You're not going to get to teach these kids? Oh man, maybe there are more where they came from.

adrienne said...

Way to look on the bright side...your loss is our gain, I guess ;)
Surely some of these kids will make it into your new schedule...?

BTW, love the word gob-smacked!

Anonymous said...

I am doing this under *anonymous* -- other bits on here are not working for me

To comment -- I think the greatest timetable blow that ever hit me was once when I had all Friday afternoon timetabled OFF !!! That is , until two Subject Masters and the Girls' Supervisor noticed .

Suddenly I was back to the usual -- all Friday on !

Maybe somebody wanted an advantage that you * did not need* I am a cynic about administrators


Mary Witzl said...

Robin -- I don't think I've ever gone from euphoria to bleakest despair in quite so little time. It was like discovering I'd won the lottery one minute, then learning that I was actually off by one digit.

I'd forgotten that 'gob-smacked' WAS British! But you're right: it is much more expressive than 'surprised', and 'swot' was the only word I could think of there. 'Scholarly' wouldn't be the appropriate register and 'nerd' means something slightly different.
Here's hoping your boys are much closer to swots than dunces -- I'll bet they are.

Charles -- I only sketched in the briefest details about these kids, but a significant number of them were truly amazing, and I don't use that word lightly. The light of reason burned in their eyes. You could just see that they wanted to learn and cared about more than football, drinking, and chatting to their friends in Turkish. I could weep. But you are right: 'if it's not broken, fiddle with it' ought to be our school's policy.

Jacqui -- If I'd only had a chance to teach these kids, that would have been a little better. Then again, maybe I'd only have become more attached...Maybe it was better that all these lovely kids got snatched away before I could become too used to the joy of teaching bright students.


Tabitha -- You are good to say that. At first, I told myself that a group of stellar students could still have interesting stories, but the truth is that good students just don't get me itching to run out and write about them. But they are so much fun to teach! Still, I and I can't help thinking that I might get a few good students anyway when our schedules are all redone. And who knows -- it could happen! Perhaps I'll have a bit of both worlds.

Marcia -- Oh, if only! They were such a nice, pleasant, interesting bunch, and now they have been snatched away. (Sob) I'm trying to find ways to make myself feel better.

Adrienne -- Thank you for saying that, but it is highly unlikely that I'll get any of those students in my new classes. No doubt they've been siphoned off to give to someone else who has been deemed more worthy. Ah well: at least we had a few pleasant meetings.

And maybe I'll go down in history as the woman who brought 'gob-smacked' to America!

Brian -- I know that your cynicism has been brought about by years of hard experience. I'm beginning to develop a cynical attitude myself.

I dream of something like that happening -- a scheduling glitch, however brief, that gives me a real advantage -- but if it ever did, it would immediately be noticed. See? I'm already cynical.

Kim Ayres said...

But good students will learn from anyone, Mary. Only you can inspire the rest :)

Christy said...

I keep trying to comment on the rest of the story but find myself stuck on "pre-intermediate." Pre-intermediate? Is that not beginner?

Bish Denham said...

Don't you just love administrations? (NOT) At least you had a moment there of knowing what it might be like to teach kids who want to be taught. I hope it is enough food/water to carry you possible future droughts.

Good luck!

Charlie said...

Oh, no! Say it isn't so, tee-cha!

It must be that school "administrations," from primary through college, are all former government bureaucrats--they have nothing better to do than screw things up.

And apparently it is a worldwide pandemic.

Hopefully, you'll get a couple of good classes--otherwise, I'll be hearing your scream out here in the desert.

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- I had a professor who once claimed that good students could learn a foreign language by reading a telephone book. And yes, those students I had snatched away from me were like that -- they didn't really need me. But believe me, last semester I only inspired the kids I taught to think of better excuses to get out of class. I'd rather teach the guys who want to learn!

Christy -- Believe me, that's what they call it. Theoretically, pre-intermediate students are a cut above beginners, but have not quite reached that long, slow plateau that goes on just about forever -- until you hit advanced.

Bish -- It was all too short, but it was a wonderful feeling! I'm sure I brought this on myself by telling everyone how happy I was with my new, motivated students. I just hope I get more than a handful of keen students this term; after last semester, I feel I deserve them!

Charlie -- I just don't get why we had to have new schedules, but I'm sure there must be a good reason. Just like I'm sure there must be a reason why buttered bread has to land butter-side-down when the floor hasn't been swept for a couple of weeks.

Carrie Harris said...


A little administratorial bribery may be in order here. Unfortunately, I don't really know what you'd bribe them WITH, but it's a nice thought.

I'm sending good schedule vibes your way regardless!

Anne Spollen said...

But maybe, just maybe, you will get kids just as good in the next shuffle. You never know...

Why is the administration scrapping the schedules? Is there some dire reason?

Anonymous said...

OH NO!!! I feel your pain. (An Americanism; I'm 1/2 british so I know words like swot and gob-smacked and I agree--they were perfect)
In my former classes, I usually had a mix of those bright and eager (well not THAT bright, but eager and serious) students coupled with the painful ones. You're right--the ones that frustrate you make better copy, but I'm so sorry for you that you don't get to spend a term with motivated pre-intermediate geniuses. :)

Christina Farley said...

Oh that is really sad. I always love getting a good class. It effects everything about you for that year.

Eryl Shields said...

I was so excited there for a minute. It's true though, the best writing always comes out of strife.

Mary Witzl said...

Carrie -- Boy, if I could, I would! But I have absolutely no influence and too little money, both of which I would need in job lots. Too bad chocolate chip cookies wouldn't do the trick: I make very good chocolate chip cookies.

Anne -- The politics around here are pretty cutthroat. God knows why our schedules changed, but there's bound to be a reason.

PN -- I usually try to avoid using British expressions as I have a horror of sounding like the sort of American who trashes her own culture. But I'm glad you agree about those two terms!

Whatever I get in the way of students, I just hope they're motivated. I do believe i could teach the worst dunces in the world if they were only motivated.

Christine -- That is so true. If I could just give up trying, it wouldn't be so bad, but I can't. Something keeps pushing me to hope that my students will achieve, no matter what.

Eryl -- I was excited too!!

I hate to think I could get kids any worse than some of the ones I got last term, but if I do, at least there'll be some compensation.

All Rileyed Up said...

Oh, man, I was so thrilled for you reading this post and imagining what a wonderful expereince it must be to actually have students who want to learn and then I reached the end of the post. Major buzzkill, thanks a lot ;p
Seriously - I'll say a little prayer that you get to keep these students, you know, at a different schedule time.

Danette Haworth said...

I like Kim's comment. But I can see where you're coming from. Sometimes it's nice to GET inspiration even when trying to impart it.

Mary Witzl said...

Riley -- Honestly, I felt despondent over this. And sadly, I didn't get to keep ANY of those great students, but your prayers must have helped anyway, because I got some who are very hard-working and sweet.

Danette -- Just once I wanted the experience of teaching people who are panting to learn! True, they wouldn't be half as much fun to write about, but I figured I could live with this for just a semester or so.

AnneB said...

I suspect it's all about seniority and favoritism. Nobody else want these kids either. Way to go, Admin; nothing like burning out your teachers.

Barbara Martin said...

Perhaps you will still get students who want to learn. I'm certain you'll have episodes in your teaching to relate in your posts.

Mary Witzl said...

AnneB -- My big mistake was telling everyone how great they were. I'm convinced that if I'd just kept my mouth shut about it, I might still be teaching them. But I'm probably just being paranoid...

Barbara -- In fact, almost all of my new students DO want to learn, and that is a huge plus for me. They aren't all geniuses, but the fact that they try makes me want to give them my all. And I'm not a genius of a teacher either...