Wednesday, 21 October 2009

The Devil You Know

"Are you sure you aren't supposed to be doing academic skills?" My voice sounds awfully feeble and wimpy.

A sea of faces stares back at me -- or at least the ones that are actually turned my way. A full quarter of this strange class isn't paying the slightest bit of attention to me. Half of the kids who aren't yakking away shake their heads.

I hold up the book. "But you do have this book?"

"No book!" they practically chorus.

This is a real blow. "You don't have the book?"

More frowns and wiggled heads.

I'm beginning to panic now, so I hold the book high and walk down the aisle. "Does anyone have this book?" I roar at the top of my lungs. Foreheads furrow and lines appear between eyebrows.

"Nobody has this book?" I'm just buying time now. I'm covering for a colleague who has the same horrible flu I have barely just recovered from myself. And I've wasted the last thirty minutes hurriedly planning a lesson that isn't going to happen.

No one, it turns out, has the academic skills book. Not even the keenest, most conscientious, straight arrow among them will admit to having the academic skills book. It's hot outside and the air-conditioner isn't doing its job; I feel sweat beading up on my forehead.

"But you do have your course books, right?"

They all nod. Thank God!

"Okay, hang on and I'll go get mine."

Fortunately the teachers' room is just a mad dash across the corridor. I rummage through my locker with growing panic: my course book is gone! I have a vague memory of someone asking to borrow it earlier. Whimpering, I go skidding into the coordinators' office for a course book, then hurry back to the classroom to take roll.

Good thing I'm back: they're really starting to get restless now. I have to shout to get their attention.

But there is fresh hell: the roll sheet I've been given is not the current one and half a dozen students seem to have been added to the class list. By the time I've cobbled together an attendance record of sorts and dealt with thirty-five strange Turkish names, I'm exhausted. I've had six students spell their names for me and not one of these kids knew the difference between 'e' and 'i' -- in Turkish 'e' is pronounced as eh, while 'i' is pronounced as ee -- so we spent too much time on that. Sure, they'll thank me some day, especially if they ever have to make a phone call in the middle of Grand Central Station and are required to spell their names, but now they're just hot and pissed off.

As I start in on my teaching point, my eagle eye lights on a boy in the back row who seems to be talking. I narrow my eyes: he's holding a newspaper. For the benefit of the class, I point at the offender and mime horrified shock, then make my way towards him slowly, rolling my eyes at the rest of the class. The boy is so busy talking, he doesn't spot me until I whip the paper out of his hands. Everyone else in class is enjoying this too much to spoil the fun.

I don't even have to look at the paper to know that it's in Turkish, but I go through the motions anyway, just for the heck of it. "You're reading a Turkish newspaper," I point out. The boy nods sheepishly. "Although this is an English class." He nods again, trying to smile. I sigh and shake my head. The newspaper goes into the trash; he's lucky I don't rip it in half first. Newspaper boy and his friend are assigned new seats in front where I can keep an eye on them. They blush and drag their feet, but at least they do what I ask.

Now there are only twenty minutes of class time left.

The lesson -- following contextual clues in reading -- isn't an easy one and requires much more preparation time than we have. The class is a typical mixture of keen-as-mustard and don't-give-a-damn. I'd say the ratio was about 1/10. By the time the class is over I have yelled myself hoarse, confiscated five mobile phones and a magazine, and reseated three more kids. I feel like a marginally overpaid babysitter. Are the kids in my class this awful? They can't be -- can they? At the very least, none of my regulars has read a Turkish newspaper in class. Yet.

As I walk out the door, one of my own students, a great, swaggering, sloppy boy who gives me no end of trouble, sees me in the corridor. His face lights up. "Hello Mary Teacher!"

I've told him two dozen times not to call me Mary Teacher. But what the heck, he still looks great.


Martha Flynn said...

I want to be a fly on the wall of your classroom - assuming flies can pee themselves laughing/crying - you always have the best stories!

Charlie said...

On the I'm-determined-to-teach-this-class-even-if-it-kills-me meter, you score 12 out of a possible ten.

I would have dismissed class, gone home, climbed into bed, and pulled the covers over my head for a few days.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with Charlie! and I have to tell you this: It's been three weeks already and I keep correcting them when they call out "thee-cha!", wondering who's gonna give up - me or them?!

Chocolatesa said...

I would just simply not answer unless they call you the right thing! But then again I'm not teaching so what do I know :P

In french the i's are pronounced the same way as turkish, and to boot g's are pronounced "jay" and j's are "gee", which gets my in trouble with my postal codes at work sometimes :P

Bish Denham said...

Is this a case of familiarity breeding content? :O

Helen said...

Oh Mary, I was stressed out just reading that story!!! You planned, you went, (not sure if you conquered, but man you saw it through!!!) and you lived to write about it. Thanks for making my teaching role look like a walk in the park. You've made my day.....

Robin said...

I laughed out loud at the image of you taking the role call for twenty minutes. I can easily see that happening. So funny.

After a day of having big lunky delinquents call me a b-ch, my own kids look pretty nice at the end of the day. For at least 10 minutes or so.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Honestly, I don't know how you stand it. I thought about a career in teaching but opted for computers instead... you can HIT those!

MG Higgins said...

If I were a teacher, this class would be one of my nightmares. I would have been tempted to walk out. Great story, as always!

Postman said...

Ha! Another priceless story. Your writing is eloquent yet direct, and very humorous. I can sympathize with you here, too...

Patrick said...

This is funny.. =D

Mary Witzl said...

Martha -- Be my guest: my Turkish delights would be thrilled to have you as an observer in the classroom. Come here and be a fly on my wall any time you like!

Charlie -- Thank you for the compliment, but twenty times today I wanted to do just that. One of these days I may crack and go home, crawl into bed, and pull the blankets over my head -- but not in the summer time. In the summer, I just want to go jump in a pool.

Anon -- P, is that you? If so, remember: we're in this together, kid: we can place bets on which one of us cracks first. Twenty lira or a cup of Turkish coffee?

Chocolatesa -- If I waited until they came up with the right answer, we'd all be in the classroom until hell froze over.

The great thing about Turkish is that it's completely phonetic. English spelling and pronunciation is all over the place, so I really feel for the kids I teach. They would have no end of trouble if they had to produce their postal codes.

Bish -- Familiarity breeding content? Fantastic. And yes, that is exactly what this is. My students are little horrors, but they're all mine.

Helen -- I'm glad this story made your day because all these comments are making mine. I will walk away feeling strong and invincible instead of totally exhausted and defeated.

Robin -- I know what you mean! Back when we had three teenagers at home, they all looked GREAT to me after a day of teaching. Especially when one of them used a big word, asked a question about a difficult concept, or expressed a desire to learn something that would get her no material reward. The euphoric feeling wore off eventually, but it was still delicious.

Robert -- I slap the desks with my hand a couple of times. It only scares the offenders for a short time, but it helps me feel better. And it takes very little time for my hand to recover.

MG -- Thank you. I feel so stoic, reading all these comments: these classes are the nightmare I live every single day. But there ARE occasional moments of joy and delight -- really and truly!

Postman -- I love writing a blog. I come and whine and everybody praises me for it. Perfect.

Patrick -- I'm so glad it seems to be more fun to read about than it was to experience first-hand.

Miss Footloose said...


Having raised three kids, and now having a son-in-law who is a high school teacher, I know one thing: Teachers are saints. Just the thought of me being a teacher and facing a room full of kids gives me hives.

Thanks for the great story!

Charles Gramlich said...

I should stop complaining about my own classes now. but I probably won't. ;)

Mary Witzl said...

Miss Footloose -- I look back on every single teacher I had in high school and feel such a mixture of awe and respect. I had no idea what torments they suffered on a daily basis. Honestly, though, I was a good, respectful kid: I can't figure out what I did to earn this sort of karma.

Charles -- I know very well that if I had students who were a lot better than this lot, I'd still find something to whine about. But I'm fighting my envy for you and your REAL students nevertheless.

Vijaya said...

The whole time I was reading, I kept feeling soooo lucky that my classroom/lab days are over.

Teaching from home in my pjs is so much more comfy. And if a student is misbehaving, I can stick him in a drawer :)

adrienne said...

I'll bet you thought of naming this post The Devils You Know.

It sounds like acting up for the substitute is a universal thing.

Library girl said...

Having worked in school libraries and witnessing first-hand the kind of pain you guys go through every day, I so sympathise! You managed to make a frustrating event highly amusing :)

Sausage Fingers said...

Mary, keep up the good work, the world needs teachers like you. Keep on keeping on. Cheers

Mary Witzl said...

Vijaya -- Oh, if I had drawers big enough! And one of the things I miss the most about working at home is being able to sashay about in sweatpants and the top I wear for doing yoga all day long.

I love writing: I love being able to correct the wicked in a chapter or two. Reality doesn't match up.

Adrienne -- The awful thing is, I got the feeling that these kids weren't really acting up -- that they usually act like that in class. Though it is possible my comparative wimpiness convinced them they could get away with more.

Library Girl -- Thank you for saying that. Trying to turn these kids into scholars is as much of an exercise in futility as trying to fashion a silk purse out of a sow's ear. But it's nice to think that at least I can turn them into fodder for humor.

Sausage Fingers -- Thank you for that comment. Half the time, no one seems to care less how I teach or what, but the thing that pushes me on is sheer bloody-minded obstinacy. They'll have to crack first -- it's not going to be me.

Kim Ayres said...


Falak said...

It took me 1 week and 6 students from various age groups to be absolutely sure about never ever taking up teaching as a profession. Hats off to you!!!
After 4 months of battling it out with cheeky kids I still dread the days I have to volunteer as a teacher. I literally have to drag myself to the school.....:)

Anne Spollen said...

Lottery tickets, Mary, lottery tickets.

kara said...

this reminds me of french class where we had to speak french the whole class the minute we walked through the door. it kept everything in the present tense, i'll tell you what.

日月神教-任我行 said...
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