“Who you chatting with this early in the morning?” I flash a big smile as I ask Diego, one of my English students in a class of 28 on Wednesday mornings at 8am. He looks up from his phone grinning. You talking to a girl or qué? I joke as his classmates glance at me and then at their classmate and burst into laughter. After months of trying to figure out my role as an assistant at my high school and feeling a lot of frustration over the lack of respect, interest and serious dependence on needing their cell phones every minute of class instruction, I decided to do something.
I considered pop quizes and losing points for activities but soon realized negative actions only resorted in more negativity. With too many variables against me; low English levels, lack of following school rules, indifference, boredom, no interest in school, and lack of respect made a bad combination for trying to get the kids to change. Nor was I the only frustrated adult. Teachers complained of students apathy and the difficulty of teaching when kids don’t give a S#$%. It became clear I was a woman trying to fight something that required a lot more effort, patience and the support of the entire school to make BIG changes. Nothing was going to happen anytime soon. There was only one thing I could do:
Change my attitude!
I found comfort in hearing other teachers struggling with the same issues as I. It wasn’t just an issue of differences in Education or Teaching but a bigger beast. How do you change students interests? Now this is a tricky question and without trying to walk into a big discussion, the answer was simple for me- Change my style. My purpose as an assistant wasn’t to increase test scores or make students fall in love with English but provide opportunities for them to practice, create a comfortable and fun environment and bring fun activities. Some was within my control, some not so much! Many days I wished I could chuck English books out the window and do more creative activities. Some days I got lucky; I’d arrive to only a class of 5 (because there was an exam in a few hours (clearly good enough reason to ditch out on your other classes, right?), and improv conversation topics with hopes conversation would flow while their regular English teacher sat in on the class.
As for mobile phones, I learned to ignore them. Occassionally I’d make a comment for a student to put it away but I’d be surprised that sometimes students used them to their advantage. I’m using wordreference.com, checking the time or doing an internet search. Fine. Good. They’re using their resources. And you know what, if that 8am chat with his girlfriend is more important than the babble from their texts I have to give because they have 3 more chapters to push through in the next 2 months because the material will be on the exams and half the class is already failing…
so be it!
A few hours later passing through the hallway, I spot Diego hugging a gal whose in a different class of mine. “Ah ha, I knew it,” I say as he grins and shrugs his shoulders. The next day when I pass him in the hallway and acknowledge him, he passes by me making a heart symbol with his hands. This dynamic with my students is far better than trying to make enemies out of them by trying and failing to get them to follow rules they’ve never been forced to follow. I often fight the system but sometimes, you got to know when to fight and when to change your perspective. My contract ends at the end of the month but my classes have almost all come to an end as my students take their final exams. This school year hasn’t been very fulfilling (and less so compared to last year) but I’ve learned some valuable lessons and have even more respect for inner-city teachers in the States.
I wish I could say I’ve seen a lot of improvement in their English levels but I’d be lying. I only hope that somehow my presence in their class has been worthwhile- whether it be my joking style, starting class off with games or even “Crazier” stretching for 5 minutes to change things up, get their blood flowing and keep them on ready for the next thing, putting their desks in a circle to create a dynamic of equality amongst “teacher” and “students” or maintaining a space of comfort where they could make mistakes without worry or encouraged my most eager student to study abroad/teach Spanish in Japan, which is one of his dreams, I will feel this year has been worth it.
The beauty of making a difference in someone’s life; however, is often not knowing that we’ve made one!
Have you ever been in a job or situation where all you could do is change your perspective to make it better?
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