About two years ago I picked up some magazine with Lin Manuel Miranda on the cover. This was around the time that Hamilton had gotten big—like monstrously big—and Lin gave an interview about his work. He mentioned that it all started with teaching as he had been an educator before pursuing theater. He then went on to say that he quit teaching because he loved it. He knew this was something both safe and fulfilling, and it would have lulled him away from his more precarious dreams.
Sometimes I'm scared that I’ll fall trap to that comfort, that I will—for lack of a better term--settle for this career. I love teaching, and it’s safe, and I have a master’s at twenty-three and amazing mentors and networks within good school districts, and…
…and while I hesitate to say I’m good at it, I know I have some natural proclivity for teaching. Connecting with students, classroom management, content knowledge. These are the things that eat a novice-teacher alive. My big worries lay more on the administrative side of things. The ground work? The in-class? I love it.
But almost every day it feels like there's this gap in my chest, one that I don’t know how to fill.
I drive to work, and I think through my books’ plot-holes and weak-points. I go to a coffee shop, acting the epitome of some stereotypical English major, and read with longing. I look up yet another program for maybe a PhD in Linguistics, maybe in English Literature…maybe an MFA in writing. Then I check the time, see I need to do some lesson planning.
How can I love something that leaves me feeling incomplete? How can I love and leave and go back to a career that I hesitate over?
The answer is, as everything else in my life, a cliché:
I’ve realized that I don't blog about my students all too often.
Which is silly because my students are the reason I enjoy work. With the politics that currently surround education, you often hear the same story: we teach because of our kids.
They're the reason I hesitate to voice any career doubts. They make me laugh and inspire me. Not just with their insight, but also with their back-and-forth notes that spark a short story in me. (Shout out to Maryland PARCC exams and my middle schoolers for giving me the title of my current novel).
And before I get to the group of kids I have now, here's a quick list of the hilarious shit my high schoolers and middle schoolers had done/told me back in Maryland…
Many of my students gave me cards on my last day, and one girl in particular put together her list of favorite poems because I’d asked her for recommendations earlier in the year. Teenagers can seem brittle, but there’s a genuine softness they’re guarding.
Of course high schoolers terrify some people. My theory is to show no fear and treat them like...y'know...actual people.
They’re on the edge of who they will become, and that can show itself in the best and worst ways. They take themselves too seriously one day then not seriously enough the next. Everything is dramatic and silly and kind of great.
My middle-school experience perfectly traumatized me for a variety of reasons, but the kids always managed to make me smile. Whatever qualms I have about middle school never stemmed from my students (or my mentor teacher!! She honestly kept me sane for the last few months of school!).
Now that that's out of the way, let's move on to my current class. If you've followed me for a while, then you know that I teach ESL and writing at an international school.
Over the summer my students ranged in age between sixteen and twenty, and, due to the nature of summer sessions, new students constantly cycled in and out.
I could have never asked for a more frustrating, yet amazing, experience. The temporary nature meant that most students' priorities lay in seeing New York rather than learning English; and I couldn't really blame them. I studied abroad. I know the deal.
In order to accommodate this focus, I tried to make classes conversation based. Since my kids were from all over the world with English as the only common language, this was a pretty easy task. We had an ongoing list of slang they'd overhear on the subway, a weekly English challenge, and a series of running-dictations so we can tap into their competitive nature.
One week I had assigned them a create-a-movie project. Some kids decided to make a movie based on my life. It was called "Where are my students?" and I was a superhero who saved all the students of New York City from my evil ex who had kidnapped them.
So yeah...I saved 1.1 million kids. (whaddap Ms. Inferno is the best)
Another favorite memory has got to be a trio of students who basically turned into a Harry-Ron-Hermione kind of group. Our Ron and Harry loved to tease Hermione who, the more fluent English speaker, shot it right back at them with such sharpness I'd often have to hide my smile as I reprimanded them. At the end of term they took a picture together, and Hermione teared up saying goodbye.
My class for the fall term certainly holds that same sort of energy, but they’re older. Eighteen to twenty-seven. This means nothing, to be honest. I've still got the same sort of characters.
For example, one of my French students (let's call him Marcus) loves to tease one of my Korean students (let's call her Bok Joo because I'm re-watching Weightlifting Fairy). Bok Joo doesn't even bat an eye as she throws it back to him, and, laughing, turns to me.
"Teacher, it's like you have kindergartners."
During the first week I had them write their names on small slips of paper. I'd collect them at the end of class then redistribute them the next morning so I could learn their names faster. One of my Turkish students, Emin, noticed. He came to me and said, "I will make this easy for you."
The next day he showed up in a metallic-gold snapback that had his name written in Old English font. He wore it every day for a week. When he came into class without it, I jokingly called him Bob.
There’s also an Argentinian girl I'll call Maria who started the term practically mute, refusing to partake in any speaking activity. Lately she's shown more and more of her personality--and sass. On Halloween she demanded to know why the heck we had classes the next day. To every answer she had a counter, and, eventually, I just threw my hands into the air.
“Listen, Maria, I don’t know! What happened to that quiet kid from September?”
Maria looked me dead in the eye, expressionless. “She’s gone, teacher.” Then she broke into fits of giggles.
After class, she explained that she feels more comfortable now and feels like she can be herself.
I also have a mini-theatrical-cast-and-crew in the making. One of my students from China studies music in university and sings, there are a number of dancers (ballet, belly dance, and hip-hop), artists from Brazil and Argentina, and my Japanese student works in the fashion industry.
All of them could be the actors, though. They’ve got the flair. For example…
In order to teach embedded questions (ex. can you tell me + what time it is?) I had them order common questions from least to most rude. Things like “How old are you?” “How much money do you make?” “Have you ever been in love?”
Since the embedded nature comes across as more polite, we made a game. I told them that they could ask me any of those invasive questions so long as they made them grammatically embedded. If they asked correctly, I’d answer. If they asked incorrectly, they would have to answer. (Disclaimer: These questions were rude, but not inappropriate as it is still a school setting no matter how old they are.)
My Brazilian student didn’t even wait to raise her hand. She burst out yelling, “TEACHER! ARE YOU PREGNANT?”
Which wasn’t even a question in the list. And she didn’t even bother asking it in embedded form. And she was leaning forward in her seat dead serious. (I also don’t look pregnant at all so everyone was bewildered.)
We all cracked up laughing.
“I’m not, but now you have to answer since you didn’t follow the rules.”
She patted her stomach and said sarcastically, “Oh yes. VERY pregnant.” Trouble is—this is an ESL class. Sarcasm doesn’t always stick. She apparently had multiple classmates come up to her afterwards to congratulate her. The next day she had a presentation and started with “Hello, my name is Isabella, and my project is on my favorite book—oh and by the way I AM NOT PREGNANT!”
So Isabella? Definitely Actress Number 1.
Actor Number 2 has got to be my Vietnamese student. He’s always super participatory in class and is willing to make mistakes and laugh at himself, and when he’s in a mischievous mood forget it.
He was nervous about going into the city, though, claiming his English wasn’t good enough to interact with native speakers yet. A few weeks ago I found out that, after a full month in New York, he’d yet to trek out to Manhattan. Of course I tell him that’s ridiculous then give him homework to buy me a chocolate from the city. He came back with one from Dylan’s Candybar, and I paid him back.
The same thing then happened on Halloween. I wanted to encourage the students to go explore around town for Halloween since the school is located in a famously haunted neighborhood—not to mention Halloween in the city can get a lot of laughs. My Vietnamese student AGAIN hesitated, and I told Bok Joo to make sure they both hung out. The next morning I asked them about their day to which he excitedly went, “Oh! Look!” then showed me his phone.
I have no idea how any of this transpired, but he’d gotten a photo with about twelve random NYU girls in giraffe onesies. When I asked Bok Joo what happened she shrugged her shoulders and said, “You know how he is.”
And there’s my Chilean student whose weekly homework is to describe a K-Pop music video to me since he loves K-Pop. And my other French student who, when asked to choose her favorite person, emphatically says “I LOVE EVERYONE THOUGH!” And my Korean student in my writing class who told me that she visited Flushing, that she felt at home there and would love to take me out to dinner as a thank you at the end of term. And one of my younger students who confided in me her homesickness even if I only had her for two days before she was placed in a different level. And my Saudi student that told me I made writing an enjoyable class—and he hates writing in his native language let alone English! And my Argentinian student who told me sadly that he’d go home and have all the stars in the sky except mine (because I gave out cut-out stars as team-points).
Of course there are days where I walk in and there’s no energy. There are days I walk in and doubt myself as an educator. I’m met with blank stares, or I’m worried the lesson is too lecture-based rather than student-centered. Days where I’m waiting for them to finish individual work, and I’m aching to write, and my eyes are glazed over.
But then they help me clean after class, show me a grade they’re proud of in their other classes and excitedly realize they’ve now got enough English to begin debating more complicated topics. They talk to me about their own goals, about my own goals, and encourage me to visit them if I ever travel to their countries. (My Korean students were especially excited when they heard I was planning to apply to EPIK.)
My class even cheered when they found out I would be their teacher through December.
Anyway I realize that I've been rambling (I guess finally talking about my students opened up a floodgate of stories). There are countless more moments I could share and a continually growing list of one-liners, but I'm sure you're done reading about some overly sentimental teacher gushing about her kids.
And, as it probably goes without saying, all student names mentioned were changed for this post.
Pedagogy and Reflection
We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience