Saturday, 9 July 2011


I love teaching this class.

Last week, I got my times mixed up and started packing up thirty minutes early. I stacked my books, snapped my CDs back into their plastic cases, and gathered up all my papers. "I'll see you after lunch," I told the class, popping my glasses and pencil case back into my bag. "We'll be finishing the work we were doing on comparisons."

Cheng, sitting in the back row frowns. "Teacher, no. Not time."

I stare back at him, then look up at the clock. "Oh my gosh, I'm sorry, you're right, Cheng! I made a mistake -- we still have another thirty minutes to go!"

Cheng beams at me.

And here is what is truly amazing: after Cheng says this, the rest of the class don't protest. Nobody elbows him in the ribs or even gives him a dirty look. In fact, they all nod happily. "Not time yet, teacher. Thirty more minute."

When I was teaching in Cyprus, barely three minutes into every class I had students checking the clocks on their cell phones, craning their necks to see the classroom clock, and yawning. Ten minutes into the class, they were ready for a break. If I'd ever gotten the time wrong back then and packed up half an hour early, anyone who pointed it out would have been risking her life. I always planned my lessons carefully and worked hard to make them meaningful and entertaining. But staring at a classroom full of yawning, miserable students, I used to feel like the worst teacher in the world. I'm not teaching any better now than I was then, so what's going on?

Here's what's going on: these students I'm teaching now have great attitudes. Even the ones whose attitudes aren't perfect, are way ahead of the game because they all want to learn. Sometimes I look out at their sea of earnest, hungry-for-knowledge faces and I could weep for gratitude. What a huge difference a good attitude makes.

"Okay," I say, "we've got thirty more minutes, so let's carry on with page 81."

Everybody looks back down at their books.

We're studying the difference between contractions and possessives. It's not a thrill a minute, but several people in this class are keen to learn grammar -- they have actually asked for more of it. The only one who actively doesn't like it is Cheng. But even when faced with the prospect of another thirty minutes of loathed grammar, he reminded me that I was jumping the gun, that we had another thirty minutes of class. He may be regretting that now, but he's doing a great job of hiding it, and good for him.

Like I said, I love teaching this class.


Kim Ayres said...

It makes all the difference in the world teaching people who want to learn. it's why I loved teaching evening classes but would never have considered becoming a high school teacher

Anonymous said...

You so deserve this class after what you went through last time!

Stella said...

Wow! I taught too and sometimes I felt I was pulling teeth. Some classes were a dream while others made me shudder. Believe it or not, a kindergarten class can be just as tough as a rough group of high school students, though in a very different way. Enjoy the ones eager for knowledge.

Dale said...

The only time I've ever really enjoyed teaching was at an alternative school, where the kids didn't have to go to class. If they didn't want to be there, they could just leave (and did). We had a grand time with War and Peace, and with English Romantic Poetry. I certainly plan never to teach people who don't want to be there again. Life's too short.

Charles Gramlich said...

Amazing. cherish them dearly.

Anne M Leone said...

Wow. Not surprising, but amazing what a difference kids wanting to learn makes! Much more fun to teach that way, too!

Anne Spollen said...

That's great news, Mary! You can be more creative in your approaches to some of the duller stuff if you have a class that's cooperative.

Carole said...

Pretty cool. The interesting thing is whether you will be able to write as many stories with this class as you did the last class. I'm betting you will.

Anonymous said...

So true! I've had similar experiences. Right now, I am teaching a woman whose the best student I've ever had--in the sense that she is the most motivated. She constantly works ahead and begs for homework. She's a 65 year old refugee with health problems, so she sometimes misses class, but I am in awe of her.

Pat said...

They obviously love you. And why not?

Bish Denham said...

Even a child who has difficulty learning can be a joy to teach if he/she is eager to learn. I'm happy you have a room full of eager students.

Robert the Skeptic said...

We had an English class in high school that was in a temporary building near the gym. There were two bells which would announce the time on that end of the school; a bell 10 minutes prior to the hour to give time for the kids to come in from Phys Ed. and shower, then the main bell at the top of the hour. We could hear both from our classroom.

One of the guys moved the clock ahead 10 minutes when the teacher wasn't looking. So for weeks we were able to walk out of class at the 1st bell 10 minutes early.

There wasn't a lot one could do with 10 minutes of extra "freedom" but the thrill was that we had put something over on the teacher seemed to have the higher appeal.

He finally caught on and fixed the clock... we were not able to fool him a second time.

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- Anybody who can get through years of high school teaching more or less successfully has my sincere admiration. It takes a special kind of person -- heroic, with an ego of polished steel.

Anne -- I'm due another year of this then -- hooray!

Stella -- I believe that teaching K through high school is infinitely harder than the kind of teaching I'm doing, especially if you're doing it well. Teaching very young kids is exhausting because you have to keep juggling the activities constantly. Hats off to you for doing this.

Dale -- That sounds great: teaching only those people who want to learn. It's getting through to the ones who don't which is most satisfying, but boy, what a price you can end up paying for the privilege.

Charles -- Oh, you can bet I will!

AnneL -- I can go in to work now with a spring in my step and a light in my eye. That is huge.

AnneS -- The great thing is, with them the duller stuff isn't dull anymore. I catch myself thinking parallel structure is fun.

Carole -- I've already got a bunch of stories off them, but I hesitate to write them here. This lot could read and understand them.

Elizabeth -- It's meeting motivated students that makes the whole business worthwhile, isn't it? I'm glad we've both got good students!

Pat -- Well, they could find all sorts of reasons not to love me if they chose. But the sweet thing is, they don't!

Bish -- So true. Not all of my students get everything I teach right away (as I can tell by looking at their essays), but they are all trying. That is what makes teaching them a joy.

Robert -- It's always a thrill to be able to put one over on your teacher. Having caught students climbing out the classroom windows at my last school, I have witnessed that joy firsthand. They'd have been all over the clocks if we'd actually had clocks in the classrooms.

Vijaya said...

Yup, I love classes like these as well. I used to teach one of the "weed out" classes -- organic chemistry. So many students had to take it as a prerequisite for something else and came with a bad attitude. But there were always a few who learned to love it. Take joy!

Anonymous said...

Ah, I envy you now! --Güzin

Falak said...

It's encouraging for students too to be in a class where the teacher as well as the other students are interetsed to learn new ideas as well as share their own.

Robin said...

I'm so happy for you! How well deserved! This class sounds wonderful.

I'm not sure why this story comes to mind, but when I was in college I took a summer class in Romantic Poetry. The teacher was fabulous. A girl who dressed in leather and had long red nails tried to bond with me, and would sit in front of me and say snarky things about the teacher over her shoulder. I desperately tried to get away from her, not wanting the teacher to think I was also a moron. At one point, the girl said (completely seriously), "He's such an ass. I think he uses big words just to make us feel stupid."

Mary Witzl said...

Vijaya -- You taught organic chemistry? I can still remember so many people who bore up patiently through all the misery of general chemistry, physics, and math, only to come a cropper on organic chemistry. If you actually managed to make it fun and meaningful, I am over-the-top impressed!

Güzin -- I'd share them with you if I could! Picture our tiny handful of good guys multiplied many times over and that's what I have. Sheer bliss!

Falak -- I hope that's part of what's going on. I always used to think I could motivate lazy students to learn by my own enthusiasm to teach -- until I met my last batch of students. Maybe I wouldn't have appreciated the class I'm teaching now so much if I hadn't taught the other ones first.

Robin -- Oh, that's priceless! If there is any justice in this world, Miss Leather 'n Fingernails became a teacher herself. Nice to picture, isn't it?

When my professors used big words, I used to nod as though I understood, then go check the meanings in a dictionary after class. One day, a boy raised his hand and asked what 'diametrically' meant. I rolled my hypocritical eyebrows, but I didn't know myself.

cleemckenzie said...

Having spent many years in classes of all sorts, this was a delightful read. Some kids are a joy to share those hours with, others sometimes or not so much.

I still recall the feeling of satisfaction at the end of a class when I felt I'd succeeded in involving the kids in learning. I'd enjoyed the class because they did.

Marcia said...

Attitude makes such a difference in ALL of life. When we're concerned about being in control, we should remember that with a good attitude we'll suddenly find ourselves WAY more in control.

Well, that's my little speech for the day. :)

angryparsnip said...

How fabulous for you and your students.
When the teacher wants to teach and the students want to learn what a win win situation.

So much better than your last school.
It is so nice to hear a great teaching story then what is going on in Tucson.

What "La Raza" is trying to push through the High School here in Tucson, has divided the community. Not a good teaching or learning environment for anyone except all the extremists. So much time loss instead of learning.

cheers, parsnip

MG Higgins said...

You must live for teaching moments like this. What a joy having students who actually want to learn.

Anonymous said...

That's wonderful. I hope it stays that way.

Year to year, class to class, I notice many nuances between sets of students. I recall favorite classes or years, and they stand out because of fantastic student attitudes.

Travis Erwin said...

Three cheers for doing something you love!!!