Saturday, October 23, 2010

Float like a butterfly, sink like me

I hate teaching classes right after lunch. This happens Wednesdays and Fridays with a fun-loving group of kids that I otherwise like, if not for the fact that I'm in a food coma (rice with a side of spaghetti?) and they're energized from a just-short-enough 20 minutes playing outside, about half of our 40-minute lunch period. This creates obvious match-up problems, with a large, sluggish force against smaller, more mobile units in a confined urban environment.

I used to be a complete control freak in the classroom, until I gradually relented to the fact that it's possible to learn, even if every single student isn't looking directly at me in complete silence. Since then I've become a proponent of using my students' strength against them, turning their energy around against them to tire themselves out and generally work out the excess energy that they get from lunch. I am, however, unrelenting in my view of the teacher-sovereign as necessarily being a dictator with a monopoly on power.

This excellent article from the New York Times taught me a lot about teaching. It confirmed what many people had told me about teacher's college, namely that it's long in time but short on the valuable, complex skills that are so crucial to successful teaching. In job interviews, I've often been asked why I want to teach, or why I want to teach in Korea.

For some people here, the answer is to make enough money to finance weeks-long trips across Southeast Asia to places whose names begin with Kota, and then cornering hapless coworkers and bartenders in South Korea to tell them all about it in excruciating, mind-numbing detail ("first we went to Kota Kinabalu, but it wasn't very good, until we met this crazy giant squid that could talk, and we were all like 'no way', and then Jordan lost his wallet and we were like 'no way! what a couple of crazy waegooks we are!'").

One of the nice things about teaching here is that intelligent people from various different backgrounds end up teaching, some of them very well and some of them badly, but they all bring different perspectives to the process. Leaving aside the idiots that want to make English fun because the only way to learn a foreign language is to attach to it the same intellectual rigour as playing Xbox at home with hands covered in cookie crumbs, often we can see a pure, distilled version of what it is that we're supposed to accomplish in the classroom.

Things like giving actual instructions ("put your hands on the desk, please") instead of vague admonishments ("don't do that!") are a start, but what drew me to teaching was the challenge of phrasing everything just right. If you choose your words slightly the wrong way ("hand that in" instead of "give it to me"), you'll have two dozen kids muttering about your incomprehensibility.

So, when I stagger in after a lunch of carbs with a side of potato and a dessert of spaghetti, I often give instructions in a way that baffles even me. "Open your books to page 67, er, 76, er 36. Now be quiet and don't touch the books I asked you to open. Great--you there, please don't touch the book. Okay, now, everyone close your books please. Close your books. Great, now everyone look here please. How are you today?" As someone on The Simpsons once said, the trouble with first impressions, of course, is that you only get to make one.

1 comment:

Tuttle said...

I teach right after lunch on Thur and Fri, and I dislike it. During the warm months, the kids come in sweaty and stinky from the playground, and many of them disrobe/pull their pants down to cool off--this despite the fact I keep my classroom as cold as the thermostat allows.

When it's cold, they come in early and chatter annoyingly while I'm trying to work/surf the net. After a couple of warnings, I'll ban them for a few weeks, but always relent, because it is really cold in the hallway--the janitors open the doors and all the windows even in a blizzard, for fear, I guess, of the heater version of "fan death".