Being a teacher — part 1
One year ago, teaching would have been the last thing I would imagine doing while travelling the world. But I am very happy I took the leap of faith and applied for this volunteer program in Chile. Last 4 months have been an amazing journey with Escuela Las Canteras, a public school in Copiapo (Atacama). It was also a great way to know this beautiful country, the people and a little bit more about myself.
I was teaching in a basico escuela (primary school) from 5th to 8th grade. Working along with the English teacher of the school (Carolina), I was helping the students with spoken English. Carolina is from southern Chile and actually half-German. She is super helpful and was a great support during my entire time in the school. As per her time-table, we would split the class in two halves and work independently. I already wrote about my school a little bit here and how I was very warmly received. The celebrity status continued for all my time in the school, especially with the kids. Many of them would look forward to my class, not because they like English but just being in my class was a different (and usually fun) experience. Everything from the seating pattern, freedom of movement, lack of notebooks or a concern for grades to the fact that the main activity in the class was a game kept the students excited. While getting them excited was not the tough part, my biggest challenge was classroom management — maintaining order and discipline.
I strongly realized over time it is super important that kids can express themselves in ways they want and not how the teacher or curriculum demands. I would always plan the class lessons (which is obviously important) but being a good teacher is a lot about flexibility. I realized that the ultimate goal of the class should not be to achieve specific things I had planned in their head, but more about general engagement of students and leaving them with a desire to learn more. A good teacher needs to just keep steering the show in a more-or-less positive direction and that needs some good on-the-feet thinking. In the beginning, my instinct was always to keep the kids seated properly, shush them when they were chatting with each other and make sure that I am executing the class as planned. I loosened up a lot over time but I am sure I could have done better.
I got fairly nervous not before but after my first class because it felt like a disaster. From there, few things worked well for me to improve the engagement in classes. One of the simplest was just to call students by names (in the first few weeks, when I am still a new entity in school). It’s not that easy to remember names when you teach 250-ish kids but every time I could do it, it would make the students feel special. Also, just the process of taking prisoner-like photos of everyone in the first class was fun!
Another very simple thing which became popular in my classes were hats. I made these chef-like hats from colored papers. One was for a “class captain” who would be responsible to maintain order in the class and if he/she could do a good job, they got a chocolate. Another one said “I’m mad” which I would wear (along with a dejected face expression) when I was not happy with the behavior in class. It was a very simple but useful prop to interact with the kids and they actually cared about these things. I did feel later though that I should not have used chocolates as an incentive because it simply encourages their desire to eat more chocolate and this is not the right type of association to create long-term in their minds.
One of my bad habits was to correct the students too much. Instinctively, it felt that my role is to make sure their pronunciations are correct but this is discouraging to them sometimes, especially because they are speaking in front of their friends and very conscious about feeling stupid. I became a bit cautious about this especially with the more passive kids but also felt that there is not even a need to correct them so much. With more exposure to English, they would anyways correct themselves over time.
As I spent more time teaching, I could feel more empathetic with students who feel bored in the class. Times when all they are thinking about is what’s outside the window, what their friends have got in their lunchboxes, when would their parents let them buy the latest X-box and certainly not what’s on the whiteboard. All of us have been through this but it’s to forget it when you become a teacher and start having pretty high expectations from all students. Even if it’s a game or an interesting activity, some kids don’t want to be a part of it sometimes and this should be okay. Compulsory fun is not really fun! In many classes, I preferred to let some students skip the game if they didn’t feel like being a part. How am I to know exactly what’s going on in their heads? Many of the kids in public schools come from a challenging family life. To be an efficient teacher long-term (irrespective of what you teach), it is very important to understand every student and what’s going on with them personally. I saw more of this happening in my school than I had ever seen in schools in India. It’s common here for class teachers (and even the Principal, in many cases) to spend time with parents after school to discuss the situation with children. It increases the work hours for the teachers but is a positive thing for the students. It is also why I think the student — teacher ratio should not be very high ideally. If only it all worked out economically and teachers had a good salary that schools could hire better and more empathetic teachers.
Another important thing is a teacher’s body language, especially in my class where the aim was to not use Spanish at all. It took a few classes for me to even become comfortable to use exaggerated body actions to explain what I am talking about. It was also helpful to use some funny gestures from time to time like making animal sounds, doing some girly gestures when I am explaining what is a “Fashion model”. Being intentionally silly would make the students laugh at me but the important point was it always grabbed their attention, especially the disinterested students.
Because I was pretty much jumping around during the entire class, it used to get very exhausting. I still remember Mondays with 9 classes where I would be dead tired by lunch time. Even if it’s not an activity-based class, teaching in general is a very demanding job and I wish teacher’s timetables are designed to give them decent rest between the classes. I could easily see a significant difference in the way students felt about the class when I was not really enjoying them. And one needs to be energetic and positive about the class to enjoy teaching.
There is so much to write, so I will continue it in another post.