Friday, 18 May 2007

School is Over, Some Lessons Learned

The school term is suddenly over - a little sooner than I expected, having again failed to realise that it wouldn't occur to anyone to keep me informed about a little thing like my job being finished. To be fair, I've had a summer tutoring job offered to me and so discovering that I now have two weeks holiday is a very pleasant surprise. There'll be a few exams for me to invigilate and mark next week, but no more classes, the Wednesday just gone being my last.

I'll certainly miss teaching the little blighters. All told, I have to admit that I found teaching the 4th grade a lot easier than teaching the 9th, 10th and 11th. I also have to say that I've not had any indication from the school that they're particularly happy with the work I've done - although they have found me a very nice job to move on to. I can't be certain whether this is a cultural thing or a reflection on my abilities or personality. I'm aware that I'm not a particularly easy person for a manager to have to deal with - I have no time to listen to criticisms of how I work, and I generally have a thousand and one suggestions on how everybody else involved could do things better to make things work for me. These aren't qualities that I generally put on my CV, but I'm aware of them. I do believe that I am genuinely committed to doing a job conscientiously, and I hope that I've done as well as I am able over the past five and a half months.

Some things have worked, and other things haven't. One problem I had right at the beginning of the job was expecting students to address me by my surname. Nice for me to feel like a teacher and a bona-fide member of the adult world. Unfortunately, I was unaware that Mongolians don't have surnames - so typically a teacher would be addressed as "Jim Teacher" rather than, say, "Mr MacTavish, sir!" I guess I partly had it in mind that the whole social structure of a school depended on such fundamental forms of repectful address - ignoring the fact that they were entirely meaningless in Mongolian. Furthermore, I was denied the opportunity to bellow "Jones: stop running in the corridor!" or "What was that you said, Smith?"

I am glad that I abandoned trying to teach from the coursebook after the first term. It made no sense to be boring the students rigid with material they were already covering with a teacher who they could actually understand. Of course, this made me entirely responsible for the quality of the materrial I chose in replacement.

The students preferred working in teams rather than alone. I was never able to persuade the students to address each other in English much on these occasions, but they must have got something out of these lessons, by virtue of their remaining awake at least. Of course, in a larger team there would always be an opportunity for somebody to doze off - likewise, working in pairs it would usually be the case that the brainiest student would carry the burden of the work. If students were expected to work on their own, it was only the smallest proportion that came up with anything at all.

Most of the students did not want to discuss or work on current affairs, pretty much whatever the topic. They might say that they would like to work on something they werte personally interested in - like say a certain movie or singer: invariably that would engage the interest of only those students who particularly liked that subject. If the entire class were allowed to chose a subject to work on (even within a limited scope, such as "My Favourite Movie" or "A Person I Admire") then that would be taken as a signal for students to do absolutely whatever they wished, and no work at all would be done.

Students did very much enjoy doing quizzes, particularly in teams. The favourite format for this was "Jeopardy" - where teams pick a category and then a difficulty level of question to answer. I found that even in quizzes where I'd made the questions far too difficult, causing annoyance and complaint, the students at least remained involved. The students liked the introduction of random factors - engineered by a coin toss or the draw of a card - into the game. Also, they got a lot of fun out of thinking up stupid names for their teams. With the 4th grade I would usually insist taht the boys and girls play in mixed-gender teams. This would provoke howls of protest from all, but as soon as the game started, the teams would be united in their desire to win.

Competitions with the 4th grade students did create a few situations where tears fell. A short while back, my mother posted me some jars of Marmite. For the next two days I had little else to do in class but dare the students to try the stuff. One group of 4th graders formed a very eager queue, with each trying to eat more bread coated in the black substance than the others. In the next class, I decided to use Marmite as a forfeit in a Spelling Bee. Unfortunately, the poor girl who lost was so overcome by the situation that, although she gamely ate her piece of bread, she burst into tears and sobbed for the rest of the class. "Look, it tastes horrible, but it's really, really good for you," was the best I could guiltily manage in an attempt to console her.

I have reported that I was entirely unable to convey a love for literature to any of my students. Whilst the 11th grade managed to get through some pieces and express a degree of appreciation for the subject matter, it was very clear that they would have preferred not to have bothered. Students in all grades, however, produced some excellent pieces of creative writing in class. My favourite responses came from an essay question I set asking the students to write an imaginary news report to fit one of the following headlines from the year 2027 "Scientists abolish sleep - Welcome to the 24/7" and "Knowledge Implants - 40,000 gigabytes of learning direct to your brain. Never study again!" The responses were imaginative and entertaining. Somewhat sinisterly, very few of the students foresaw any negative impact from these two very probable future developments - but why should they? By and large, the students I taught are very happy to embrace the changes that technology brings.

Their embracing of the modern world led to my pretty much entirely abandoning the concept of homework. I decided that if I wanted to read a Wikipedia article on a subject it would be quicker to visit the site myself, rather than ask the students for a 500 word essay. One area of creative writing that produced some really worthwhile stuff was poetry written during class. One student cheerfully completed his two poems at home, and came back the next day with a rhyme from a greetings card (complete with unfunny innuendo) and a poem from somebody else's blog - which was so bad that it could have been written by my 9th grader, except that it included the words nostalgia and forlorn. Forlorn! the very word is like a bell! Tolling a warning to the wary: here be plagiarism. I printed out the Plagiarism entry from Wikipedia and put my name to it, but the irony went unappreciated. Incidentally, the Wikipedia entry makes some very good points about how plagiarism is perceived in different cultures - that developing societies do not share the western aversion to it.

Some class exercises that I picked up from sites like Dave's ESL Cafe, which were 100% guaranteed to capitivate a classroom went down like the proverbial lead balloon. However, I was very glad to have that kind of resource available, and usually if something worked with one class, it would go along well in the others. My hit rate might have been 50/50, which is surely good enough. No matter how many times it happened, however, I was left feeling pretty abject when a class did not work out.

Fortunately, I had started the job with one thought at the back of my mind: at the very worst, all I'll turn out to be is a bad teacher - and teachers are supposed to suck. What kind of education would a child get if all their teachers were wonderful, creative, inspirational human beings? At the very best, it would set them out in life with unrealistic expectations.


ken said...

Ah, the Wiki plagiarism article by Jimi, I love it!!

And that's killing me what you've done with the Marmite. If only I could claim you were the Brit to put me onto Marmite, I would feel a special kinship with the Mongolian people. (You did put me on to scouse, yes, but marmite no. Did scouse ever find it's way to a ger?)

I am passing all your wisdom on to my cousin-in-law who is on his way to teach ESL in Japan. Not exactly Mongolia, but kid-teacher interactions are nearly universal I imagine.