Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Not One Of Those Days

I don't know why it is, but there are days I am the most dynamic, exciting teacher in the world. All my explanations make sense, my voice manages to carry to each and every student in the class, my jokes make everyone laugh, and I get nice compliments on my shoes. When I introduce new activities, my students really hop to it, eagerly opening their books and taking in my every instruction with breathless interest. The light of reason burns in their eyes and in the course of one class period, two or three kids will suddenly get that excited Oh, now I understand! look on their faces that I live for.

Today was not one of those days.

Really, I don't know what went wrong. I did everything I was supposed to do. I went into the classroom with a big smile on my face. I joked with the three somber looking kids who slouched in the back row, regarding me with baleful expressions. They didn't want to be there at eight thirty in the morning, learning about the difference between the present perfect and the simple past. They didn't want to pair up with their neighbors and discuss past trips to Istanbul or how many times they'd visited the Blue Mosque. And boy oh boy oh boy, they sure didn't want to write letters.

It all started the minute the letter writing thing came up.

No sooner do I tell them to take out a piece of paper than mass eye rolling occurs. The ceiling is stared at and minutely examined; despairing looks are exchanged; sighs of exasperation are hissed out.

I decide to bring out my big guns right away. "Last term there was an informal letter on the final exam," I tell them, raising my voice to shouting pitch to drown out their groans and protracted sighs, "so it's very important for you to learn how to write one."

Last term the students were asked to produce an informal letter as part of their final examination. A salutation line, apology for not writing sooner and a brief explanation for this negligence, then a chatty little paragraph followed by an entreaty to write again soon, and best wishes. Piece of cake, right? We've been over this before, and there are several detailed samples to choose from in their textbooks. But for my students, it might as well be War and Peace.

"It's not that big a deal," I persist, raising my voice to throat-straining volume. "I'll explain everything again, and you've got good examples in your book to follow--"

"Formal letter, tee-cha?" asks Bulut, mouth hanging open. "Long letter?"

"Informal. Remember, just like the one in your writing bo--"

"Tee-cha," interrupts Ilker, his forehead puckered and furrowed, "what is deal?"

Book in hand, I pause. "I'm sorry?"

"Deal. You say."

"I'm sure I didn't!"

Aysa purses her lips. "You say! Big-adeel."

I could kick myself. Although I monitor my language carefully, I hate the sound of my dumbed-down English -- hate the pedantic teacher-talk quality of my voice -- and when I get nervous, I am all too likely to let loose with something colloquial. Which is really stupid because inevitably a student quotes me out of context, mangling my words just a tad, and I'm damned if I can remember what I said.

"When did I say it?"

"Now!" Aysa and Ilker chorus. "You say big-adeel!" Aysa chastises.

Oh God, now I get it. "Not that big a deal," I splutter. "I said that writing a letter isn't that big a deal."

Every single face stares back at me in confusion.

"What is mean?" asks Bulut.

Why don't I just keep my big mouth shut and save myself some headaches? On the board I write, NOT THAT BIG A DEAL = NOT VERY IMPORTANT

"Letter not very important?" murmurs Yonca. "You say letter important."

"Very important," echoes Bulut, his eyes hard and suspicious.

The others are staring at me too and I can see it in their eyes: Stupid teacher, always changing her mind, telling us contradictory things! The entire back row is now speaking in Turkish and half the kids are surreptitiously checking their watches. Only twenty minutes until break time!

Some days I really am a fantastic teacher, take my word for it. My explanations are concise, my analogies are clear and apt, my anecdotes are succinct and engaging.

But today was not one of those days.


Angela said...

Oh Mary. It's laugh or cry some days, isn't it?

Travis Erwin said...

I admire anyone who teaches. I never could last a day.

Eryl Shields said...

Come to think of it, what does 'it's not that big a deal' actually mean? I use it all the time, and now you've got me wondering what I mean when I do.

I feel for you, I really do, it must difficult enough to explain standard English to them, let alone the subtleties of the colloquial.

Jacqui said...

Ugh. Bad for you; funny for us.

I once had a similar problem with "point of view." Turned out the student thought I was saying "point of you."

Robin said...

Oh, dear. Sometimes I just want to strangle your students. I can't imagine how you feel!

They wouldn't even be able to understand me for a second. I only speak in colloquialisms.

Martha Flynn said...

:):) I could hear this whole conversation in my head! Frustrating for you, I know - but still funny for me!

Merry Monteleone said...

Come to think of it, what does 'it's not that big a deal' actually mean? I use it all the time, and now you've got me wondering what I mean when I do.

It was a reference to playing a hand of cards. A 'big deal' would be a hand you had a large amount of money riding on. Not a big deal meant it didn't matter much if you lost.

Okay, I'm making it up as I go - but it sounds plausible.


You astound me. I'd have hidden in a corner before trying to teach a whole class English as a second language... well, I don't understand any other language well enough to communicate on that level, so I'd be no good at it anyway...

Next time something like that comes up, just tell them, "Oh, that's a lesson for next year when you're a little more advanced..." They'll forget what words you used by then :-)

Mary Witzl said...

Angela -- The good thing about the crying days is that I can usually laugh at them later, and then they become laughing days. But I wouldn't mind having more of the pure laughing days anyway.

Travis -- I'm amazed I've lasted longer than a month here, actually. One of these bad teaching days, my students may rise up in revolt.

Eryl -- I think Merry's explanation (a few comments down) makes sense. The stupid thing was that I eschewed 'You don't need to make such a fuss over it' as an explanation for 'It's not very important', knowing that the former would be trickier for my students to process. It's like I need to stick to a very tight script and once I wander off course, I'm doomed: these are students that still can't understand 'probably'.

Jacqui -- 'Point of you' -- That is a great interpretation! My current crop of students spends so much of their time looking utterly perplexed. It is so hard to distill classroom language into understandable English when there are a lot of students who don't understand the most basic words. On our first lesson, I wasted 20 minutes explaining that "What's it like?" didn't mean "What does it like?" Nobody seemed to mind that there wasn't a referent for 'it'...

Robin -- Me too: I love my colloquialisms! Not being able to use them in tense situations is like being in a roomful of chocolate and only permitted to take discreet little nibbles.

Martha -- I hear it in my head too, but not in a good way! I've got this same bunch to teach in less than 30minutes' time and I feel a little sick with anxiety...

Merry -- Your card explanation makes good sense, but the students would only be able to understand this if I 1) spent one hour slaving away at it (and only the brighter ones would get it, too) or 2) suddenly learned how to speak Turkish.

Understanding a language well means zip all in terms of teaching it. This is where I think non-native teachers have a huge advantage: they remember learning English themselves and they remember the nuts and bolts of grammar acquisition, plus what they understood and what things they struggled with. They're far better at explaining grammar and knowing what their students will find baffling.

Wish I could tell them to wait until they were more advanced. But I'd have to explain 'advanced' first.

Anne Spollen said...

Teaching and parenting are the two hardest things I've ever done in my life -- because I try to do them well and I care about the result. I think you are the same in that regard, Mary.

And didn't they both look easier when you were younger and being taught and parented?

Mary Witzl said...

They sure did, Anne. In fact, they struck me as no-brainers -- completely effortless activities that any idiot could do. All this stuff that's happening now is divine karma, pure and simple. As I sowed, so do I reap.

And you are right: the trick is in trying to be the best possible teacher and parent. Frankly, I think even half-hearted teaching can be a hard slog, and even slapdash parenting is no picnic.

Lily Cate said...

Mary, I love reading your blog!
This story reminded me of an Eddie Izzard bit where he tries to explain British slang to an American audience. Even when you speak the same language, you don't neccessarily communicate, huh?

At least you can look back on days like this and say "Well, it wasn't boring!"

Charles Gramlich said...

It is definitely weird how this dynamic develops. My writing class on Tuesday was a dead zone. Today it was lively and bouncing. I don't know what the difference was.

Charlie said...

. . . learning about the difference between the present perfect and the simple past.

Huh? I have trouble learning English as a first language.

To reiterate other commenters, I just don't know how you do it.

And even though it was a bad day, I liked your shoes.

Mary Witzl said...

Lily -- Thank you: I am glad that my appalling teaching experiences have some use! Writing about them after the fact always cheers me up, so this is a win-win deal for me. (Ooh, I just used the word 'deal' again! Shiver.)

I dearly love Eddie Izzard, so the fact that you are even remotely reminded of him while reading my blog gives me a real rush.

Charles -- So you've noticed this too? Teaching has some very strange chemistry: on the days I've written a good lesson plan, have loads of interesting material and am sure I'll have a fantastic, dynamic class, it all goes over like a lead balloon. But once in a while I stumble into class ill-prepared, after a bad night -- and everybody responds with energy and enthusiasm. Go figure.

Charlie -- You use English a lot better than most native speakers -- not a tense out of place. And as for my shoes, I got away with murder today: I wore my nasty old black pumps with the worn-down heels. But I'll take the compliment all the same, and maybe I'll even wear them again tomorrow!

Kappa no He said...

I agree with Angela...laugh or cry.

The other day I taught my class Dutch Treat. I was proud of myself. Then someone raised his hand and said, Don't people nowadays say separate checks? I felt 100-years old.

Here's to tomorrow being a great teaching day!


Bish Denham said...

English is hard enough as it is for "native" speakers...teaching it as a second language...I know is a challenge. There are so many little quirks of the tongue we use without even thinking about it.

Piloting The Ship Of Fools said...

What a great blog. You really crack me up.

adrienne said...

Next time tell them it's a piece of cake ;)
Maybe that'll hold their attention, anyway.

Mary Witzl said...

Kappa -- That's happened to me too: a student will find a more succinct and up-to-date way of saying something than what I've told them and lightly toss it out all nonchalantly, making you look silly. But what the heck: 'Dutch treat' and 'going Dutch' sound so much more interesting than 'separate checks'. Next time, tell them that you wanted to teach them something more charming and culturally interesting.

Bish -- I keep finding these little quirks of speech, that's my problem. Some of my students have insisted that listening to me rattle on has helped their listening comprehension, but I worry that I only succeed in confusing the others.

Adrienne -- Oh, if only I had students who were capable of understanding idioms and metaphors!

Kim Ayres said...

Maybe you need to do a class on slang...

Mary Witzl said...

They're nowhere near that level yet; these are kids who have to ask me what 'probably' and 'almost' mean. But the other day we had a thunder storm and lightning almost hit our school. We all jumped a foot. And I accidentally managed to teach everyone a very useful, if not very nice, word.

Kanani said...

I guess you could have said, "Today we're going to learn how to write a proper e-mail. Perhaps that would have gotten them. or show them and epistolary? Or show them the movie "Love Letters?"
Who knows?

Mary Witzl said...

Kanani -- Except we've already done the e-mail, and it would have been, "Teacher, what is proper?" And believe me, only the smarter kids would have gotten that much. On a brighter note, I went back to that letter lesson the other day and they all got it!

laura said...

I blame bad days on the full moon (even if it's waxing or waning). That way nothing is my fault!