Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Something To Write About

Monday morning. I walk into the classroom and pull out my blank attendance sheet. Up jump three students who are already there, three minutes early. They carefully place their journals on my desk, one by one, and give me shy smiles.

"Thank you!" I say, smiling back.

The door whips open and four more students come in. Each one of them pulls out a notebook and adds it to the pile on my desk. I blink: three minutes until class begins and I've already got seven journals on my desk. Whoa.

The door opens again and two more students come in. They greet me and add their notebooks to the pile. Nine.

I pull out my roll sheet and the door opens again. More students, with more completed journals. I have to work hard to keep my mouth shut, to keep the foolish smile off my face. Just as the class begins, I have a pile of sixteen journals on my desk. Sixteen! Before the class begins!

This is a huge first for me at this university. So much so that I give up trying to keep the foolish smile off my face and try not to laugh out loud instead. "Thank you," I whisper to the seventeenth student, a shy girl from Kazakhstan, who comes in late and actually apologizes as she places her notebook on the by now towering stack.

I've been teaching this exemplary class now for the past four weeks. Every week, I've had almost seventeen completed journals turned in on Monday. These kids are just unbelievable. They are motivated. They are eager. They are -- I swear it's true -- thirsty for knowledge.

They are fun, too, and international. In one class, I have students from Cyprus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Jordan, Ukraine, Dubai, Japan, and, as always, Turkey. In every single class I've taught before, trying to get the students to do pair or group work in English was like pulling hen's teeth. In this class, getting them to stop is the trick.

This Monday, the class goes swimmingly -- better than any class I've ever taught here. Students happily work together to sort out grammar problems. They compare their answers when I ask them to do it, correct each other in a courteous, cooperative way, and come to see me after class when they don't understand. There is only one niggling problem that lurks in the back of my mind as I move around the class answering questions and monitoring pair work: what in the world am I going to write about now? How am I going to be able to add to my collection of terrible teacher stories? Who wants to read about a class full of paragons who do their homework, come to class on time, and take every opportunity to increase their fund of knowledge?

There is, it turns out, one boy who comes in late and never brings his book, but his presence only reminds me of what I've been through here. When Cem swans through the door without pen, notebook or textbook, I smile indulgently to see the stunned, incredulous looks on his classmates' faces. They don't know it, but I had a whole class full of Cems before. I can handle a stray Cem just fine.

The class finishes. I tell everyone the homework assignment and there are no groans, sighs, or eye rollings. One girl helps me carry my seventeen notebooks up to the teachers' room. It'll take me hours to sort through this lot, but I'm not complaining.

My next class is God-awful. Four students come in late and haggle with me to mark them present. Only two boys have done their homework. Two girls huddle together over their mobile phones and I have to interrupt the class to confiscate them. Another girl comes in fifteen minutes late without her book, and strikes up a noisy conversation in Turkish with the two girls whose mobile phones I've confiscated. I catch another girl without her book copying another student's homework. Two girls are so far ahead of the rest of the class that they sit there, bored out of their minds, inspecting their fingernails. And I could go on, but you get the picture: it's not quite hell, but it's definitely purgatory.

But I don't mind: this purgatory will be followed by the heaven of that perfect class. And at least I'll have something to write about.


Sarah Dooley said...

Mary, please don't limit your posts to terrible teacher tales! I need your success stories if I'm going to survive until June! I have to think there's hope!

AnneB said...

I was thinking that very thing: good grief, if she gets spoiled by nice classes, what will she write about?!

And then I remembered all the wonderful posts before you ran into this train wreck of a school, and I thought, she'll cope!

Angela said...

The sweet is so much better with a small contrast of sour, right?

I'm happy for you though, that you've found a class full of kids eager to be there.

Postman said...

I agree with Sarah. Success stories are just as instructive as terror tales, and a nice pick-me-up to boot. This one was no different. Reminds one of what being a teacher's all about, you know?

Colorful international crowd! I'm jealous. How many teaching positions do they have open in Turkey?

e said...

Wow...I look forward to more stories from your classes. How's the writing coming along?

Robert the Skeptic said...

Hmmmm, the "good" class sounds suspiciously TOO good to be true - you might need to turn from writer to investigative journalist. Something's going on here!!

Charles Gramlich said...

Wow, I am most envious.

Pat said...

As long as you have the heart- warming blissful moments you will take the rest in your stride.
It will be interesting to see how Cem reacts to your unexpected(to him)indulgence.

Bish Denham said...

We need success stories! The news, the world, is so full of not nice things, that your telling us about young people out there who are alert and interested brings great joy...and hope.

Anonymous said...

You can just recycle the terrible stories for your blog--I'm sure you've got plenty of ones you haven't told us yet. And ENJOY your motivated class! I've got one like that at the moment, and I don't know what to do with them! :) It's great!

Mary Witzl said...

Sarah -- Believe me, there IS hope! Even my God-awful class was good today, admittedly because half the kids went to the Gallipoli memorial assembly (they're all fired up with patriotism whenever it involves a chance to miss class), but still. I'll be crossing my fingers for you!

AnneB -- Aww, thank you! The irritating thing is that there ARE negative things I could write about, but they're all actionable, so mum's the word.

I may be reduced to quite a few cat posts, so I hope everyone will bear with me.

Angela -- I've sure had a big, harsh dose of sour, so I'm thrilled to have my sweet class now, and yes, I probably wouldn't appreciate them so much if I hadn't had the impossible classes first.

Postman -- Get ready for some serious feel-good stuff then. I just love pairing two kids from completely different cultures and language backgrounds and seeing them get to know each other, laughing and talking and making connections, all in English. When a class is going well, all I can think is 'Hot damn, they PAY me to do this!'

There'll be a teaching position open pretty soon here, when I leave. Get your CV polished up and learn some Turkish!

e -- I get so busy filing away rejections, planning lessons and blogging, that sometimes the writing takes a back seat. I've rewritten the last chapter of my WIP more times than I care to think about and a further rewrite is definitely on tonight's agenda -- thanks for reminding me!

Robert -- I really can't get over it! At first, I figured it was too good to be true and I expected the good behavior to go bad. But we've already passed the point at which most students feigning good behavior are forced to snap and revert to character. And they haven't done it. They really ARE this good. Maybe it was something in the water?

Charles -- Maybe they really aren't as good as I'm making them out to be. Maybe the last lot were just so horrendous that ANY class would look good by comparison. But I still love them. Hope you get students you feel the same way about!

Pat -- I'm a little worried about Cem. He showed up today unshaven, without book, notebook, pen, or COAT. And it was chilly. But he didn't whine when I marked him absent and he went along with the pair work, so maybe I'll get through to him after all. Fingers crossed!

Bish -- I'm so glad to know that! This term, I think I'll be able to satisfy both people who like classroom train wreck stories AND messages of hope. I need the latter, but the former can be fun -- after the fact.

PN -- You've got a motivated class too? What in the world is going on?

You're right: I've got a whole stash of terrible teaching tales, but I'm a little nervous about printing some of them.

Anne Spollen said...

Today I had to go to the doctor for an annual physical - something I haven't done for three years. I dread them.

But it was wonderful because I was excused from my teaching duties.

Doncha' love having those doozy classes?

But ya, it's those good ones that keep us going.

Charlie said...

It's nice to hear that there is some wheat amongst the chaff. Without that model class you would be mumbling down at the funny farm, "Some days it's not worth chewing through the restraints."

Vijaya said...

I missed you and this was such a treat to read.

Robin said...

That's wonderful! I'm so glad you have a motivated class! It must be so boring and annoying to teach kids who couldn't care less, and spend more time haggling for undeserved points than they do studying. Why is there such a difference between the two classes? Is one required or something?

I was once in a Romantic Poetry class with a fabulous teacher, that was a requirement for music majors. One girl complained bitterly to me that the teacher used "so many big words to make her feel stupid". I assured her that he wouldn't have to try very hard.

Helen said...

Mary - I agree with Robert the Skeptic. I do believe that your "real" students may have hired some out of work actors.....
(heh heh maybe your "real" students aren't that hopeless after all)

Mary Witzl said...

AnneS -- I'd pretty much forgotten what good classes were like until meeting this lot. Now I'm wondering how I made it through all these months. If it weren't so difficult to visit the hospital or schedule a doctor's appointment here, I'd have been sorely tempted to spend days at the clinic. And like you, I'm not crazy about visiting the doctor.

I hope you get some good classes too -- ones who make you wish you didn't have to go to doctors' appointments.

Charlie -- Love that line about the restraints!

I've done my share of hair pulling, frothing at the mouth, and non-stop whining. Now I'm probably going to gush. Thank you for being happy for me -- I'll try not to let it get out of hand.

Vijaya -- I've missed you too and marveled at your stoicism. But what you did is exactly what I should be doing. Now that I don't need to let off steam, I may have to limit my blogging and get my current WIP finished once and for all.

Robin -- That is a great story and it's very pertinent. What I really like about the class I have now is that when they don't understand, I know it's MY fault and not theirs: they are REALLY trying. Before, even if I dumbed everything down to one-syllable words and gave crystal-clear explanations, the students couldn't get it and complained of being bored, and they never seemed to blame themselves.

This term, I've been given the better class to make up for last term. My cup runneth over!

Helen -- If that is the case, they're all stellar actors. I'm just taking it one day at a time, trying not to expect too much. But all these kids turning in their homework and coming to class on time are making my head swim -- in a good way.

A Paperback Writer said...

Oh, Mary, I have SO been in both of those classes!!!
I had one 9th-grade English class a few years back that I affectionately refer to as "the class from hell." It would take me at least 15 minutes to get them all seated and working at the start of each class. I seriously wanted to requisition a whip and a chair for training purposes!
And this year I have a 9th grade class that is wonderful, joking all the time, and loving everything we do.
(Sorry I've been gone for so long. Life's been rather stressful for a few weeks. I'll try to visit more often now.)

Mary Witzl said...

APW -- I've been wondering if you were okay!

Isn't teaching wonderful when you've got students who want to learn, or are at the very least prepared to fake it? I can't get over how much fun it is to plan lessons now, think of interesting things to do in class, or find communicative games. These kids just take it and run with it. Before I felt like I was herding cats. I suppose the biggest high would be turning the can't-be-bothered-to-learn kids into the motivated kind, but who knows? -- it could happen! After this semester, I'm prepared to believe in miracles.

Marcia said...

Isn't it amazing that whole CLASSES have a personality? You wouldn't think so, yet it happens over and over again.

A Paperback Writer said...

Yes, everyone deserves at least one motivated class per year. It helps prevent teacher burnout.

kara said...

that one class is filled with aliens. aliens are always good at first. that's what the movies teach us.

Susan said...

Loved the post. It's been years since I was in the classroom, and I forget how much energy it takes. I'm glad you have a good class to look forward to!

Falak said...

Must be such a welcome and wonderful relief for you, right???? I think this class will provide you with the right balance between the good and the ugly;)

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