Friday, 7 May 2010

Getting It

"One more time: page one of the listening test, question one!" I shout over the roar of the class.

Coskun doesn't hear me. He's in the midst of a noisy tete-a-tete with Hamit and whatever they're talking about must be compelling: I've tried to hush them up twice now, unsuccessfully. "Coskun! Hamit!" I call again to no avail.

Well, I know a way to get their attention. I flick the CD player's volume switch up as far as it will go and press PLAY, then frown. Nothing's happening. It's taken me five minutes to deliver a pep talk on the mock exam my students have just performed abysmally on and another five minutes to take attendance. The last thing in the world I need is a non-functioning CD player, but that's what I've got.

Just as I'm about to ask a student to exchange the faulty CD player, in comes Sevge, ten minutes late. "Tee-cha, I am here!" she gasps redundantly. I sigh: I've run out of test sheets and Burak won't know where to find these; I'll have to go downstairs and get the CD player and test sheets myself. Leaving the room, I almost collide with Aziz. "Teacher, I am present?" he calls after me, obviously expecting me to rush right back so I can put a check next to his name in the roll book. On my way downstairs, I pass another student making her way upstairs. "Teacher, I am here?" she calls, but I decline to answer.

Two minutes later, I am back with another CD player and half a dozen extra test sheets. The classroom volume has gone up another notch; the natives are restless. I distribute test sheets, pop the CD into the new player, and press PLAY. It doesn't work.

I'm starting to sweat now. Hamit and Coskun are half out of their seats, practically jumping up and down. "Teacher what is problem?" Coskun roars happily. Coskun is the kind who will blame me for anything -- a wasp in the classroom, a wonky chair, a spilled bottle of Coke in the corner, it doesn't matter. I check the plug socket, the settings -- yes, it's on CD -- the light switches. The overhead lights flicker on, flooding the sun-filled classroom, so it isn't a power failure.

"Teacher, I get another player?" suggests Burak, a quiet, respectful boy. I nod wearily.

I've got a handful of kids like Burak in this class. Two pleasant, intelligent central Asian girls, a near-native English speaker from Iran, a few boys who aren't bright, but more than make up for it with their quiet maturity and the ability to sit still for 45 whole minutes. They will never know how grateful I am for their presence. In the midst of a hellish lesson where nothing is going right, I see the light of understanding in their faces and realize to my amazement that I'm actually making sense to someone. Posing some general question to the class, I hear, through the cacophony and chaos, their in-the-right-ballpark answers, and I am touched and reassured. True, 85% of the class are lost in space, but I can't be that hopeless a teacher if somebody's getting it.

Burak comes back with another CD player. I plug it in and look for the CD. It isn't there. "Burak, did you take the CD out of the last player?" I ask him. His mouth drops open and he slaps his forehead and vanishes. Coskun and Hamit think this is hilarious. "Burak forget CD!" Coskun cries, pounding on his desk.

By the time Burak is back with the CD, the classroom noise is close to deafening and I don't even bother to pound on the table. I slide the CD into the player, press PLAY, and offer up a quiet but fervent prayer. But the CD gods are not with me: nothing happens.

Now Hamit and Coskun might as well be spectators at a circus. They guffaw and holler as they bounce up and down in their seats, clearly enjoying every minute of my misery. Suddenly I have an inspiration. I pull out the plug and insert it into the next socket. The CD player, tuned to RADIO blasts out a top-volume high-pitched screech of Arabesque, making us all jump out of our skins. Coskun roars and feigns anger. "Teacher!" he screams accusingly, covering his ears and pointing. "Noisy!" bellows Hamit, throwing up his hands in mock rage. Hypocrites.

Five minutes later, we're right in the middle of the listening exam revision and I accidentally jog the plug, resulting in the CD going right back to the beginning. The class roars in frustration: the listening test is all on one tract and we'll have to listen to the whole thing over again, each question repeated in maddening, carefully enunciated tones. It takes forever.

We take a much needed break during which I put my head on my desk and pray for the strength to go on.

"Teacher, can't hear!" Aycan wails ten minutes after the break. I'm thoroughly done in. I've weathered their rage over a mistake on the answer key and a couple of long, silly disputes about whether it's fair for them to know that scary and frightening mean the same thing and that careless is the opposite of careful. I'm exhausted and frazzled, but I want to encourage Aycan. Three months ago, she was one of the noisy, boisterous bunch and suddenly she's joined the quiet and attentive camp; I can see that she's starting to get it. God knows what happened, but now that it has, I want to keep it going. I push the CD player a little closer to her -- and manage to disconnect the plug from the socket yet again.

After this, try as I might, I can't get the class back under control. I bang on the table, I clap my hands, I raise my voice. The third time I start to explain what I'm going to do -- let the CD play at low volume in the background while we tackle the reading section until we get back to where we were in the listening exam -- Coskun interrupts me with a noisy, superfluous question -- "Teacher, what are you DOING?" -- and suddenly something inside me snaps and I lose it. Big-time.

It's as though I'm standing next to myself, another person entirely. I watch in awe as waves of sound bellow out of my mouth. "I HAVE HAD IT! I AM SICK AND TIRED OF YOUR CHILDISH NONSENSE! DON'T YOU GET THAT I'M TRYING TO HELP YOU? NOW, WILL YOU SHUT UP AND LISTEN? OR DO YOU SERIOUSLY WANT TO FAIL THIS CLASS AND STAY HERE ALL SUMMER LONG?" My eyes flash fire, my hands are clenched in fists, smoke is billowing from my nose and ears. I'm Moses brandishing the tablets. I'm God straight out of the Old Testament loosing the fateful lightning from my terrible swift sword.

Heads bow over test papers. Hands pick up pencils. Every single one of the students catches my drift even if they don't understand every nuance of my language. For the remainder of the class, everyone works in comparative silence. Nobody, me included, wants a repeat performance from Scary Mary.

As I dismiss the class, my heart breaks to see all my good students scurry out of the classroom, their eyes down. It's so unfair: they weren't to blame, but they got a good dose of my rage just the same.

I've got to start practicing my yoga breathing again. We've only got three more weeks until the end of term, but I'll need it. Not necessarily for teaching, but for the next time someone whines about lucky teachers and their three-month summer holidays.


2to4aday said...

This entry should be required reading in every single teacher-preparation course in the world. You are brave enough to admit to the emergence of "Scary Mary," the out-of-body experience all teachers morph into at one time or another in their careers. I laughed--and cringed--and understood completely!

Carole said...

Loved this post. You have my sympathies. I only teach Sunday School one day a week to first and second graders and I am already ready for the summer hiatus.

Charlie said...

I truly apologize, Mary, but I could not help laughing at this post—I think it's your writing and presentation that does it to me.

Having followed your teaching experiences in Turkey since Day Uno, I'm surprised that you finally shamed your students with both barrels. You needed it or else, before the three weeks are up, your family would have to visit you in the Home for the Scholastically Deranged.

Angela said...


Don't beat yourself up--we all lose it once in a while. Heck, my dad, who was teaching grade 6 at the time, got so frustrated by the antics of his class as they worked on a play for a school concert he screamed, "That's it--you're all fired!"

e said...

I can relate, being the daughter of a scary teacher...You have my sympathy and I do hope you enjoy your time away from class.

Mary Witzl said...

2to4 -- Thank you for commenting! Back when I was learning how to be a teacher, if someone had told me that there would be days like this, I doubt I'd have believed them.

I'm usually mild-mannered, soft spoken, and amenable, so when I lose it, I'm especially terrifying. But the awful truth is that for a split second, it felt pretty good.

Carole -- I had an aunt who taught first grade for over fifty years, and Sunday school for more than sixty years. If she ever lost her temper, no one ever saw her, and she commanded incredible respect. Whenever I'm having an especially horrible time (which is every week or so), I think about her and feel like crying. I wonder how she'd cope with my guys...

Charlie -- Well, that's what I'm here for! If anybody can laugh at these stories, so much the better. One day when I'm further removed from the whole thing, I'm counting on coming back here and possibly laughing myself. I'll FEEL like laughing when I'm not teaching anymore.

Angela -- I was seriously scary, though! I almost wish I'd gotten it on film.

At least your Dad's students could understand what "You're fired" means! My guys would need to be walked through it, step by step, and they'd never be able to remember it.

Mary Witzl said...

e -- Thank you! I've got just under three weeks to go and I'm pretty much counting the hours.

Did your father cultivate his scary persona, or did it just come naturally?

Marcia said...

I think it's the mild-mannered, soft-spoken people who get the best results from an occasional explosion. Because then people know they REALLY need to shape up. It's people who are always yelling that we learn to ignore.

Kappa no He said...

I bet (I hope) they are on their best behavior from here on out. Once they get a taste of scary (frightening) they should straighten up. Give some extra winks and pats on the backs to those sweet ones.

Meg McKinlay said...

Mary, I love this, as usual. I've had those teaching moments, too (and parenting - my daughter, as a toddler, once asked me tremulously if "Scary Mummy was coming back").

And I know just what you mean, about clinging to those students who are getting it, and who seem to care. As a substitute teacher, I once pulled a boy aside after class and thanked him for being so mature and attentive (sub-text: "as compared to your fellows"]. His eyes actually welled up. Three years later I taught him again. I didn't recognise him but he pulled me aside after class and reminded me, saying I had no idea how much it meant to him just to be seen like that.

Your students are lucky to have you, Scary Mary and all.

Kim Ayres said...

With only 3 weeks to go, are you returning to Scotland afterwards or heading off somewhere else?

Falak said...

It had to happen some day or the other... I guess your students will change for the better now since they've seen what Scary Mary can be like....

Mary Witzl said...

Marcia -- You're right. I raise my voice a lot, but what I did on Friday was in another league entirely, so everyone paid attention. To be perfectly honest, I scared myself, but at the same time, it was invigorating -- and incredibly cathartic!

Kappa -- I'm going to bake the good students some chocolate chip cookies. I'll ask them to come to see me and hand them out then. I frequently bribe my kids with chocolate chip cookies and there's no reason it shouldn't work with my students. Hope no one's allergic to walnuts or chocolate...

Meg -- Thank you for your kind words (like your student, I treasure them.) Years ago, a teacher of mine once paid me a nice compliment and it made my entire year.

I wish I could say that I've always been a model of sweetness and light, but if I did, my kids would blow my cover. I've known parents who never got angry and I just can't figure out how they do it. I find people like that more amazing than magicians or tightrope walkers.

Kim -- How was your exhibit? I wish we could have gone!

We'll be heading off for somewhere else -- Latvia? Or maybe Ukraine? But we'll definitely see you in Scotland this summer if you're there!

Falak -- My students have been BEGGING for this for the past two months. All this time I've been steadfastly bearing up with their nonsense, but suddenly I could take no more. It felt pretty good! Even if my students don't change, I'm still glad I did it. I swear, my blood pressure went down.

Robin said...

Oh, man - I think you held out admirably. I was ready for Scary Mary by the fourth paragraph. These kids need to get a grip. They're too old for this nonsense.

Nora MacFarlane said...

Ah Mary, I've been counting down the days to summer break for months now (we're at 19), and I've only got two who drive me to the brink. I can't imagine a whole room full. Bring on summer!

Vijaya said...

Good for you for letting Scary Mary out for a moment. I confess I've had these moments as well, but how good the children are, when they know I cannot take one more iota of their nonsense.

Hang in there, Mary.

Anonymous said...

OH I see myself in this. I'm just glad it worked! Hang in there.

Marian said...

"I'm God straight out of the Old Testament loosing the fateful lightning from my terrible swift sword."

LOL, that was hilarious! It's always the quiet ones you need to watch out for.

I didn't really have such problems in the class where I was a TA, but I was a rhymes-with-witch. During the course of the semester, we had to give the students ten pop quizzes, but we could choose which days we'd give them on. The classes were on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

I gave them a pop quiz on Monday. Two days later, on Wednesday, when they weren't expecting it, I gave them another one.

That Friday, when they really weren't expecting it, guess what happened?

I think they burned me in effigy or something.

Mary Witzl said...

Robin -- I'm amazed I kept my nasty persona inside for so long! Those kids should have seen the signs, but then I haven't raised them and they don't know me all that well. My own kids would have known by the steam coming out of my ears and my flaring nostrils that it was time to shape up.

Nora -- I'm counting the days too! Every day I do a rapid mental calculation, then repeat it all day long like a mantra. Let's have a virtual celebration when we hit the last day!

Vijaya -- Thank you! It's not fun to get pushed to your breaking point, is it? My mother was very mild-mannered and she never swore. We knew we'd stretched her to the limits when she spelled out the word 'hell'. When that happened (maybe three or four times in my lifetime), we knew we had to straighten up and fly right. My students have been better behaved since my fit, so maybe it did some good, even if I did terrify them.

Elizabeth -- I keep telling myself that I can make it now that the end is in sight. Knowing that my days here are numbered makes it a lot easier to get up in the morning now.

Marian -- Heh heh heh -- I know just what you mean!

All of the teachers here, even some of the sweetest ones, take a little sadistic pleasure in watching our worst (as in badly behaved, not intellectually challenged) students squirm when they sit down to take a test or quiz they haven't studied for. Yes, it's petty, but it's one of the perks of teaching. It's maddening to watch these kids make light of an opportunity; at some point, even the nicest, kindest person has a little bit of the devil in them. And teaching will bring it out every time.

Chocolatesa said...

Wow lol. I'm glad they finally got the tongue-lashing they deserved!

You should have met my high school math teacher, Ms. Maria. We called her by her first name because nobody could pronounce her last name, Sakellaropoulos. She was kind and fair, but beware if you did anything whatsoever out of line, if you did she was terrifying. She wouldn't yell or bang her ruler on the desk or anything. She'd pierce you with her stare and slowly walk over to your desk while you withered, and bend over till she was two inches from your face and then give you a talking-to that would have you squirming. I remember, I had it happen to me once. She had ZERO tolerance for ANY sort of nonsense. She'd kick you out of class and send you to the principal's office if you hadn't done your homework. She was so strict, it was incredible. She was iron. And she was the one I saw crying at our graduation.

AnneB said...

So glad I didn't go into teaching...

Mary Witzl said...

Chocolatesa -- I would do a lot to have that sort of ability. I can intimidate my kids from time to time, but managing this on a regular basis is beyond me.

What a lovely description of your teacher! You really ought to write that up in proper story and post it on your blog.

AnneB -- Sometimes I really wonder what I was thinking. I'm counting the days until the semester break!

Chocolatesa said...

I'm really not a writer, I wouldn't be able to find anything else to say about her than what I've already said. Sorry :P