My senior teacher watched me teach an unsuccessful class by my (or almost any) standards. Things that sucked:
- We played Simon Says even though only a handful of the students understood the rules.
- I gave them a simple survey activity that ended up being too difficult for them. When I tried to make it easier, they got confused by the changes and never got a chance to actually talk to one another. That means we didn’t complete one of our main goals, the speaking assessment.
- During the speaking activity I had an “I don’t know what the fuck is going on. Oh my God, what are we going to do next?” moment. “What should we do next?” moments are normal and part of teaching. Feeling frozen and clueless isn’t. That lasted for at least a minute.
- I set up the final activity wrong so instead of all the students being involved, nearly everyone watched while two or three students fought to complete tasks on the interactive white board. It ended up being nothing more than three kids crowding around the whiteboard and scribbling.
It made me sick that he watched such a mess of a class. This is my most difficult group of students but it had never been this bad. The class is a difficult one for several reasons:
- They’re all about nine years old and working on the beginner level. We’re doing basic descriptions and body parts to give you an idea of their level.
- I see them at six thirty on Wednesday evenings after they’ve already been at school for eight hours. So they’re tired, but not calm and sedate tired. They’re “I can’t focus and I don’t want to sit still” tired.
- I’m their teacher for every other class. I’m never quite sure what they’ll know when I see them. When I plan for this class, I often don’t have a strong sense of what will be difficult for them or how they will react to activities.
So my senior teacher watches me give a class that doesn’t live up to my expectations. A class where I fail to achieve one of my aims and have a moment of total bewilderment. Then I spend a week waiting for him to organize his notes and schedule a feedback session. I wasn’t exactly looking forward to facing up to my disappointment.
Feedback consisted of him asking me a bunch of questions that I struggled to answer. It went kind of like this:
“How can you give instructions for a Simon Says activity?” (which we did in class)
“I can provide a model and give several examples, using body language to convey what students should and shouldn’t do. I could draw an example on the board or even ask a strong student to translate.”
“Why didn’t you do that?”
“I don’t know. I usually do that in my other classes.”
“Okay. How can you arrange the room so that you have more control over speaking activities?
“Well in a lot of my other classes I’ll put students in rows or small groups of three instead of letting them roam. I guess I could do that for this class too.”
Over and over, the answer included me knowing what to do but just not using fundamental strategies for this class. That helped me realize that the difficulty of the class was making me rush and abandon my strengths. Knowing that it was going to be difficult made me abandon a lot of the strategies that help me succeed in other classes. But this class is still built up of the same pieces that other classes are. There’s just less margin for error and things move faster. Because I was focusing in the diminished margin of error, I lost focus of the fact that I knew all the building blocks and how they could fit. It’s the same thing as the idea in sports that if you can make an opponent play faster than he’s used to, he’ll make uncharacteristic mistakes. So if you’re dealing with anything like this class, make sure you’re not abandoning what you do well just because you know it will be tougher than usual. You’re making it worse for yourself like I was.
Sitting with someone and going over the details of your disappointment isn’t exactly fun. Part of me wanted to cry. My legs were ready to run away. I wanted out. My senior teacher was nice and professional but no matter how nice the person sitting next to you is, it’s hard to stare at your own shortcomings for an hour. If he had just watched a different class, I would’ve gotten a pat on the back and a few small criticisms. That’s all my ego wanted. It didn’t want anyone to see my shortcomings. I like when people tell me I’m good at things. Instead, I was stuck in a room for an hour long therapy session and questionnaire.
I had my breakthrough when he told me, “It looks like you’re trying to put space between you and the class. Like you want to be closer to the door than the kids.” That was what I needed. In a moment, I realized that he was exactly right. That I was distancing myself from the class physically and emotionally. I was trying to get through the class instead of engaging with it. My number one problem had nothing to do with teaching technique or theory and everything to do with my emotional state.
This isn’t the solution I expected. I thought it would be logical or technical and that my analytical brain would have to build an answer. Instead, it was an emotional thing that has been part of my personality for my entire life. When I was unhappy or in trouble as a kid, I would hide under piles of clothes in my closet. I never responded when people shouted that they were looking for me. I just wanted to hide from whatever difficulty it was. I was hiding as much as possible in this class. Away from the kids, near the door and afraid to speak up and take control. The class had become a problem to distance myself from. I’m having more success teaching the class now because I’m making a conscious effort to engage with and embrace the difficulties, just like I do under more favorable situations.Without an outside perspective, it’s often really hard to tell where a problem is coming in. I assumed something in my logic was wrong but it was all about emotions in the end. Use the people you trust to find out what the real issue and then get to work.
I wouldn’t have learned these things without the support of the teacher who worked with me. It was hard enough to face my difficulties with a supportive person at my side. It wouldn’t have happened with someone I didn’t trust. Dealing with failure isn’t easy but I know I’ll be a little bit better at it next time it comes around. Just like a class of unruly Chinese kids, failure can be scary, but you need to engage with it and work at it instead of withdrawing and trying to hide.
Photo source: http://pixdaus.com/single.php?id=272169