WARNING: NO PICTURES
If you see spelling or grammatical errors please leave me be.
I “finished” a.k.a. crawled mostly dead out of a hole that was the first month of ESL teaching in Arequipa, Peru on May 29, 2014. The June session started today.
I wish I could tell you it was fun and exciting and inspiring and cupcakes and baby seals and Stand and Deliver but I can’t because it wasn’t. It was challenging and traumatizing and I had no free time and I was apoplectic nearly everyday but most importantly, it was eye-opening. A reality check.
Before the long part starts:
- I planned for and taught three 2-hour regular classes everyday and a 1.5-hour private tutoring class three days a week. The levels varied from elementary, pre-intermediate, and intermediate.
- There are two types of students at the institute: those who want to learn English and those who don’t. The second group was born from the butthole of some demon with Crohn’s disease. They are forced to take the class because of their parents. I don’t blame them for not wanting to be there but holy damn. I got to experience an almost inhuman emotion when I spent hours racking my brain to find ways to make the class interesting and engaging but saw the students piddling away on their phones or not paying attention.
BEFORE YOU START THE TREK INTO THE VALLEY OF NEGATIVITY AKA FACTS, HERE ARE THE GOOD POINTS:
- Teaching is a dynamic job. No matter how much you like or dislike your students, everyday and every session is different. I can use many adjectives to describe teaching but “boring” would not be one of them.
- Teaching forces you to be a planner. I don’t mind planning in the first place so this was not much of a chore (the amount of planning was insane but I like planning things in general). Planning takes into account the following:
- Pacing of the class: Ensure all materials are covered adequately within the assigned timeframe. The usual pace is 3-4 days a unit but that is “eh” because not all units are the same – students may breeze through some (aka find it boring) but find others difficult. You have to think about the types and quantity of supporting materials (discussion topics, photos, videos, presentations, etc.) to supplement the book and pacing.
- Outline of what to cover for each class: This is obvious but I have met teachers here who don’t plan lessons and end up bullshitting. The lesson plans serve as checklist and physical reminder of things to cover. Mine were very detailed for fear of forgetting something.
- Hypothetical/emergency situations: This is Peru where students always show up late, only show up sporadically, or stop showing up altogether. Pity if only two of your students show up when you planned a fun game or a debate topic targeted for your supposed class size of six. You always need to have some sort of backup plan.
- You are in complete control of the classroom. This is literally a dream come true if you are a control freak like me. You can pretty much present the materials however you want as long as you follow the basic school and program rules. Some teachers don’t allow cell phones in their class at all, some believe it’s acceptable to speak more Spanish in classes, others think it’s okay for teachers to sit while others don’t. As long as it’s within the Boundaries of Common Sense (yeah, I know), go ahead and talk about controversial topics, alcohol, cryptozoology, whatever.
- Bond you form with your students. If you are reading this blog you most likely know how I am, it takes me a fair amount of time to get to know a person and have that person reciprocate the same reaction. So it means that much to me when a student I had in previous session notices me at school and says hello or a student says “thank you” at the end of the class. It’s also awesome when they finally start feeling comfortable enough to joke around or be weird in English. …Or how some students from my demon class last session just came up to me, gave me the Peruvian cheek-to-cheek greeting, and talked to me briefly. What is life.
***NOW STARTS THE TREK DON’T TELL ME YOU WEREN’T WARNED***
Here is the root cause of why the first month was spiritually crushing: my expectation was too high.
I like to think I’m a realistic and objective person. I went into this job knowing it will be tough. I didn’t expect gratitude, appreciation, or similar feelings so when indeed I didn’t receive them, I wasn’t surprised. I wasn’t even that offended when students blatantly didn’t care. It was expected as a teacher.
What killed me was how they repeated the same mistakes and/or they didn’t take the time to address their mistakes. We would go over a certain point 600 times but they still made the same mistakes.
The worst was when I had them write a practice essay to prepare for the exam, took them home, corrected the mistakes by pen, typed and printed a clean version for each of them, stapled the clean paragraph to their original papers, then passed them back. I went out of my way to do this because I hoped it would help them identify their mistakes and not make the same ones on the exam.
They made the same mistakes on the exam and it was obvious that they didn’t bother re-reading their corrected paragraphs, which means my effort was all in vain.
I was nearly in tears from exasperation (no exaggeration) while grading the exams because a fair number of students made errors they should not have made. We had gone over them together in class a million times. Notice the “we”: it was not just me providing feedback and information, I solicited answers and reasons why something was wrong. It was a collaborative effort in which the students were fully (well, I guess not, looking at it retrospectively) involved.
It was painful because I didn’t understand why – was it because I didn’t explain things properly or they just didn’t care enough? What was going on in their brain when they looked straight at me and gave me the correct answer in class one day but went on to provide a wrong answer the next day, or even the next minute?
I spoke to some of my friends and family about this and received good analysis and advice. At the end of the day I had subconsciously expected too much from my students. I had set myself up for disappointment. On some level I expected my students to acknowledge my effort and really take their time to analyze their grammatical or vocabulary-related errors. I believed I could transfer my energy and enthusiasm to them. I was too critical and annoyed about about how much the students didn’t know when they should have theoretically have known them.
Here are some things my friends and family pointed out:
- My bilingual background and innate interest in languages, some things that not all students have. I don’t know how but I didn’t even realize those obvious facts, it was incredible. I have to be more conscious of these facts and remember that not everybody shares them.
- I will somehow find ways to cope with difficult or unmotivated students. It might take time but seasoned teachers have gained various techniques to deal with different kinds of students. I’m still a n00b so I am still in the learning process.
- It’s okay for me to be reasonably selfish. These few months are experimental months for me and I should remember to learn new skills that would benefit me in the future – the “what’s in it for me?” It goes against the altruistic nature of teaching but I understand the concept of this advice.
- These students are typical Peruvian students. Mostly rich, privileged students but Peruvian students nontheless. Sometimes things are just the way they are and I have to accept that cultural fact. This is more applicable to classes with teenagers as young adults generally have more respect towards their teachers.
I shudder to think what I put my high school teachers and college professors through.
Okay! Almost out of the valley, BUT NOT YET. If I have written this far I might as well write everything else.
- The schedule – this was my typical schedule for May (it was a numbered list but messed up during formatting so you get this instead, enjoy):
- Arrive at the school between 6:45-7:30AM depending on the workload (aka unfinished/unstarted lesson plans for classes that day)
- Plan lessons, print things that need to be printed, catch up on social media/emails
- Teach from 9-11AM
- Eat lunch, plan lessons, and prepare for afternoon classes from 11AM-2PM. Depending on the workload I would stay at school and work or go home and work
- Head back to school around 2PM to claim a functioning computer with Chrome/Firefox and printing capability. Continue preparing for afternoon classes
- Teach from 3-5PM, 5-7PM, and 7:30-9PM (M, T, Th – as you can imagine days without this class was a holy day because I finished at 7PM)
- Go home, eat something, try to at least finish lesson planning for the 9AM class, and if I’m not dead work on lesson plans for my afternoon classes (failure rate: 99.9%)
I would usually only finish/mostly finish the lesson plan for my 9AM class and end up planning for my afternoon classes during the 11AM-2PM break.
- I had one special needs student in my class. Although he had a fair grasp of English, it was clear that he did not have as strong of grammatical foundation as other students. He also took longer to do the exercises. All of these would have been fine if I had a class only with special needs students but it was almost impossible to both give him ample time to finish the exercises/correct mistakes and keep up with the pace of other students – it seemed unfair. I didn’t feel comfortable letting him pass the course but… [see next bullet]
- Our school is a private language institute where students or their parents pay money for classes. Because they are paying customers, we provide many avenues to allow students to pass which is a blessing and a curse. We have a generous absence policy, free tutoring, and makeup exams. I wanted to fail a good number of students but knew I couldn’t. It’s very difficult to explain. I’m very critical by nature so if I had my way I wouldn’t hesitate to fail a student unless I was sure they were ready to advance to the next level but alas, it is not my school.
And that was my first month of teaching.
All that being said, the school has a solid reputation, clear expectations and rules for teachers, reliable management, and good rapport between teachers. The facility is clean and comfortable with free wifi, tea, coffee, and large bathrooms. Since I’ve been here I’ve heard horror stories about other language institutes so I’m glad I ended up with mine. The experience described above was purely a personal one.
This took me a long time to write because I wanted to be as objective as possible about a subjective matter. If you read everything, thanks. If you didn’t, I don’t blame you. I’ll just kill you in your sleep.
Hopefully a more uplifting post next time!