Dressed in skin tight jeans and body hugging sweaters, sixteen year old gals sit on their desks chatting up their friends. Mobile phones rest on desks as if they were binders and pens necessary for class. Several are busy typing away important messages about what they’re doing, the cute boy they sit next too or what they’ll do when the school day ends.
“Hello hello,” I say as I walk in and set my things down on the “teachers’ desk. Smells of body odors and sweat trapped in a contained room overtake my senses. Yet I hesitate opening the windows for fresh air because the almost below zero Celsius temperature outside will elicit complaints immediately. I hope my nose will adapt quickly before I pass out from the stench.
My presence in the classroom doesn’t change their demeanor or attitude. They carry on chatting and many whatsapp with their friends in the next class. I raise my hand to get their attention (my signal it’s time to start class) and say, “Let’s take our seats, it’s time to begin.” Slowly, faux knee-high leather boots and sneakers, clack against the tile floor as they slowly sit down. Chatter continues.
There in no rush to start class.
Talking with friends and whatsapping (free text messaging app) takes precedence.
Students quiet down for just as long as I can ask them, How they are doing? What did you do on the weekend?, in hopes they will speak in English and practice talking for the first 10-15 minutes of class. Despite all they have to say to each other, no one wants to speak when I give them a chance (in English, of course), except for the same four students. My efforts seem futile. A few have the confidence to speak but within a few minutes, the rest of the class takes it as a cue to talk amongst themselves while their classmate is speaking.
I stop the class and ask them to be respectful– that this is their opportunity to speak if they have such pressing things to talk about but they look at me like deer in the headlights. I seem to mention this at least once every class and yet I know there isn’t much I can do or say to make them change.
I begin explaining the activity but most look at me with disinterest, boredom and a few blank faces as if they’ve never heard my voice before. Some chat with the person sitting next to them despite just asking them to be respectful.
Frustration starts brewing within me- Where’s the respect? What gives? But I know it’s not just me they’re disrespectful too. Since my job is an assistant teacher, a Basque English teacher always sits in, while I give a class. The teachers’ facial expressions always clue me in my frustration is shared, it’s not only me, the students show indifference and disrespect too.
But this time around, the chatter isn’t because they want to be disrespectful but because they don’t understand but are too shy to say anything. They ask their neighbor to translate. Ok. I tell them when they don’t understand to let me know, “I’ll be happy to repeat myself or explain in another way.” I talk slower. I ask them if they understand me. A few nod. “Ok, raise your hand, if you understand what I’m saying.” Half the class lift their hands as high as their hairline, as if too shy to be found out.
How many don’t understand me and pretend they do? This class is a mixed bag mostly of beginners,some who’ve never taken an English class before, and a few intermediate students. In each class, their is only a handful who really want to learn English.
What is a teacher to do?
When I asked one of the teacher’s I teach 5 classes with, after my third week at the school, if students with a very low level could change the answer was “No.” His explanation was basically, if they’re in Group 1, they have to take all classes Group 1 takes. Essentially, there isn’t a way for them to change classes because their is only one level of English offered per age group of students.
It certainly doesn’t make any senese when it’s a given student’s will naturally have different levels and abilities, and add the fact that the majority of the students at my high school are immigrants. Spanish is not their first language for most of them and many are required to take English and Euskara.
“Take our your workbooks, please,” I request. Five students stand up from their desk and go to the back of the room to get their books from their lockers and a few make sure to chat up their friend as if this was an afternoon club, not class. I ask why they didn’t get their books before class during the 5 minute break between classes. They just shrug my shoulders. My requests for them to be prepared each class with books on the desks go unanswered. Without fail, at least a handful go to their lockers in the middle of class each week. Clearly my students are slow learners- have they not realized we used the workbook every week?
Eyes look down at their desk and though I can’t see anything, I politely ask them to put their phones away. A few minutes later while walking around the class, I see phones hidden away within the desk, eyes peering at their phone for new messages.
Since it’s a English class focused on conversation, most of the activities are a combination of working through the units in their workbook and creating dialogues using the themes and vocabulary they have learned.
They’re rarely ever excited about speaking English, let alone actually doing work.
Before the holidays, I was thinking up ways to get them to never take out their cell phone in class. Constant reminders and joking with them I needed new phone, never worked. (Why would it? Students need to see you mean business. They need to see actions.) But I didn’t assert myself too much, I was still figuring out my place at the school. Asking them why they need their cell phones in class, left them silent. I’d walk out talking to the teachers about it, showing my surprise at the lax attitude and normalcy of student’s using phones in class.
All the English teachers told me the same- It’s against the school’s rules to have cell phones, they know they’re not allowed to use them at school or in class and when they see them, they take them away. Sometimes they are brought to the head office.But I wonder how true that is. I’ve been at the school for four months and I have yet to witness a teacher take away a phone from a student during class.
I relayed my experience when I was in high school and cell phones were just hitting the scene. Their were consequences for having phones at school if you got caught and parents had to be involved if it was taken away. Then again, it’s been 10 years since I was in high school and I don’t know if schools have become more relaxed as cell phones have infiltrated our society and have changed the way we live.
The first couple months, I was finding my place in the school, getting to know the students and teachers. I’m an assistant with goals to speak in English and share American culture, naturally it should be fun for both the students and I. But it’s proving more challenging when classroom management is half of teaching and managing the classroom isn’t as it should be. Some teachers seem apathetic. Accepting. An attitude of “that’s the way it is” and “what can we do if the students don’t want to work.” It’s obvious the school as a whole isn’t united. How can a few teachers reinforce the rules or have high expectations when others just accept things as they are?
I think about inner city schools in America and realize what a different ball game it must be. But how much of teaching is the attitude of teachers, having high expectations and goals and most importantly, following through, with your students?
Despite working as an assistant last year, this school definitely plays by a different set of rules. Rules I’m not sure I agree with but also don’t know the inner workings of the school either.
I’m learning a valuable lesson this year-
Sometimes with the things you can’t change, you can only change your perspective.
I’m not going to change my students, especially when I only see them for 1 hour a week, I’m not going to change the school. This isn’t way I’m here. I’m here to do my job, do the tasks that are asked of me, reflect, learn and gain from this experience. I can be annoyed, frustrated and mad that I work with students who don’t want to be there or don’t give a S@*^ but it’s not going to help me. Now with the new year, I turn a blind eye to mobile phones I see rather than get upset and angry.
Sometimes life is about learning what you can control and what you can’t and focusing on what you have the power to change.
wow- This was a much longer than expected post. If you read this far, why thank you kindly.
Have you been in a situation where you had to change your perspective or attitude because the situation wasn’t going to change?