Friday, June 26, 2009

Everything you talk about, you say, "we will do this later."

-B, student from my Literacy class.

In the first week of the ESL*/ EFL/ TESOL Literacy class I am teaching for the summer I realize I enjoy a luxury that many educators can't say they have - that is, my students actually want to learn. Such is the beauty of adult education, which must not delude one into thinking that a career in secondary education is similarly ideal, of which I was reminded by one of my co-workers who is also a public school special-ed teacher.

For 2 and a half hours, twice a week, I sit in a room with 7 sets of eyes on me. Five West Africans, one Mexican, and most curiously, an American student who recently graduated high school. Three women and four men among them. All of them speak English, some with stronger accents than others. The first feelings of actually teaching, nevermind your anticipations before you walk into a classroom, are those produced by those eyes on you. It's not like any conversation that you can excuse yourself from if you get tired or come to a loss of material. They expect me to produce for them some knowledge, to transfer some understanding of the mangled forest of the written English language, just as much the task of a 4th or 5th grade teacher. For a couple, it's kindergarten and 1st grade material. If your audience is unreceptive, the feeling is daunting. If they are receptive, it's empowering. (By comparison, if your audience is one of professors and grad students, as say, at a conference, it's downright nerve-racking) Across the board, whatever kind of day you're having, it's objectifying, because what you are expected to do is perform, and the meaning and meaningfulness of you to your students is endowed by your performance.

Other than having tutored and teach-assisted literacy students for 5 months now, and a knack for grammar and language dating back to my Catholic school English lessons, my documentable credentials for such a task are minimal. They may or may not know that I lack the official qualifications to teach reading and writing in a publicly-funded institution. I don't even have an established syllabus or curriculum (which makes it really more fun for me, having time for such things). In other words, for all they know, I could be as good as any other shlep off the street. But they look at me no less expectantly, as best I could tell in the two classes thusfar.

The perceptions of what I am capable of, between myself and my students, is most interesting for me when it comes to I., my American student. The only difference between us (in these regards) is four years and a bachelor's degree, but for now someone has convinced him that I can do a better job than Philadelphia's public school system. To work up to this challenge, that is, to be such an enabler, in his life as well as my other students would be, well... an honor. This is the word that comes to my mind, and repeatedly. At first I think of it as a little clumsy, but if asked, what do you call it when people entrust you with something invaluable? It's current inappropriateness has mostly to do with the fact that I can't yet say that I have fully earned it. In the meantime, we can settle for warm and fuzzy.

As of now, I have no tools to measure success, except perhaps my class attendance, because to me not showing up would be the ambiguous protest. Plus, it seems they have already cultivated something of a coherently positive class atmosphere, which is a good sign. At least they're comfortable. Now that I am on the other side of the classroom, I realize how little teachers can know about what is really going on in the minds of their students. You're so busy presenting, trying to make sure that you're being clear, that you can't see yourself or the reactions of your students, so you can only hope that you're not leaving anyone behind. As much as my students' investments in my class are acts of faith, so it is for me. Fortunately, unlike many classrooms, the goal of students and teacher are more genuinely the same, a fact which is the source of my motivation.

* "ESL" is, as has been noted before, an inaccurate, not to mention presumptuous, title as many so-called "English as a Second Language" students, including some of mine, speak more than 2 languages.


Anonymous said...

This is a great post! With my few experiences teaching our youth group at my local Mosque, I got somewhat of a chance to experience what it's like on the "other side of the classroom." I'm sure it's very different from yours though.

It's great that your students have a passion for learning. I have no doubt that it makes it easier on the teacher. I think so much pressure can build when you feel like one or two of your students isn't paying attention or understanding what you're talking about.

Keep up the great work :)