Friday, April 24, 2009

Teacher's diary: difficult situations

Summer School has been better this year. Teaching on a higher floor makes a whole lot of difference - this is Thailand in April after all - and the class sizes are smaller. Smaller classes are easier to teach as the teacher can dedicate more time for each student. However, it's a sign that business is not going so well. I often say that class sizes are a teacher's paradox; bigger classes mean your job is secure, smaller classes means you can do your job much better.

Summer School students tend be a mix of old, new and vaguely familiar faces. This year there are plenty of very familiar faces who will be going into grade eleven next year. The poor blighters have studied with me for nearly three years. I've tried to be sympathetic to the students (how would you feel if your parents sent you to school during the holidays?) and I've employed the KISS principle. I've been arming the students with remarkably basic classroom language ("Excuse me, how do you spell this in English?") that newer students may not be familiar with. It's screamingly easy and it's been successful and well received. One class has presented a real challenge though.............

Class 10 C caught me by surprise. Twenty five new faces looked up at me as I walked in. At least, they should have looked up, but half of them were talking to each other, talking on the phone or running around the room. When students are doing this with a brand new teacher, it's always a sure sign of a "challenging" class. Still, I figured it was best to keep things light. I went into a comedy routine that caught their attention and then began a basic activity (students had to design their own "passport") that distracted them enough for me to suss them out a little more.

It was painful though. At least four students - including twin brothers - could not speak a word of English, and I mean not one word. At their age, it was going to be extremely hard to catch up, and they showed no interest in even trying. Soon they would be learning about world religions, and today they didn't even want to learn "How are you today?".

Two other students presented an even greater challenge. One dressed in a pink shirt depicting Hitler in sunglasses presented himself as Simon. Simon spent his time chasing a girl around the classroom. Both showed no interest whatsoever in the class and over the next two weeks turned up late every time, usually just as I had got the class settled. Eventually they stopped coming altogether.

It seemed my problem had been solved, but then two more students stepped up to the plate: Fern and Joy. Joy took a liking to Fern in week 2 and decided to move next to her. I wouldn't have minded except the conversations distracted them from working. Every time I warned them with a smile, Joy would promise to listen. She'd then wait for me to return to the whiteboard and begin her conversation again.

Today Joy really pushed her luck. First by moving around the room three times, then trying the: "we both need to go to toilet right now" trick that usually is lost before sixth grade, followed by the equally pathetic: "we both need to go and drink water right now" gag. Fern helpfully tells me "my friend need to drink water" seven times over in case I couldn't understand English.

When this fails, Joy starts purposely trying to get herself thrown out of class by drumming on her table, shouting across the room in Thai and generally being obnoxious and disruptive. And in case I hadn't made myself clear, it is disruptiveness that is the problem. If a student wants to be ignorant, that's his or her choice and I will respect it. But when a student arrives late and starts telling her friends why, or starts shouting in Thai across the room or talking so loud his friends hear him rather than the teacher, it's just not on and any decent teacher has to resolve the issue in some way.

Such behaviour presents a challenge because the teacher has to strike a balance between taking action to deal with the problem, yet not doing so in a way that does not cause the teacher's action to distract from the lesson itself.

So when Joy is purposely drumming away on her desk, trying to be disruptive so she can be thrown out, with twenty or so teenage students awaiting your reaction, what do you do? In my early days I would probably have become very nervous and lost my way in the lesson or overreacted by yelling at Joy. But now I have a little experience under my belt. I've had this stunt done to me a whole bunch of times before, and in much smarter style, too. I simply continued on with the class until a stage where the students needed to copy what I wrote on the board.

Had Joy still been going then, I would have quietly taken her outside - discipline should be done out of sight of a student's friends for a variety of reasons - and either spoken to her myself or - as I do with students who cannot speak English - taken her to the year head. As it happened, I didn't need to, I had managed to pull the students through to a part of the lesson they found interesting. With their attention caught, Joy had given up on getting the attention for herself, and decided to copy the work.

As the clock ticked down Joy finished her work and began to ask me a slew of questions about myself - my age, my home town, my family and so on. This is not that strange; students who play up are sometimes - but not always - just expressing a need for attention. It's unusual for this age group (15-18) to behave like this though; but this whole class seems very immature. Perhaps it's because most of them come from a government school, perhaps it's because their English is so weak, perhaps it all ties into one. I don't know.

I score another minor victory with one of the twin brothers, too. Today I actually managed to get him to speak a few words of English. When he does so, I shock him by smiling and praising him. My gamble is rewarded as he turns to his brother with a triumphant grin. He's given himself a sense of achievment, and his brother looks annoyed enough by this to try and copy him next class. Everyone's a winner.

In any case, I must confess I am relieved that most of them will not be learning with me next semester. Whilst it would be a challenge, it might just be one challenge too many right now.


Character Education said...

nice story... i think when you worked hard on any thing and as you get some positive result you became happy like hippo!!!1 :D

Hannah Chao said...

This is a really motivating story. I'm an English teacher as well and that satisfaction of achieving something in the class is absolutely priceless, isn't it? ;)