School’s out for summer

I’ve never been the most assertive person. I had a hard enough time maintaining some semblance of authority when I taught high school math, that had I really stopped to think about it first, the prospect of teaching English to adults would have been pretty daunting. Luckily, after a week of cliff-notes English grammar with Sam, I was thrown into it without any time for reflection. In fact, if memory serves, my deepest reflection at the time was probably the astounding realization that regardless of purported destination, all three 847P buses pass through Vila Madalena, and why the heck did I first need to walk the entire length of Faria Lima to find that out? But I digress…

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Ok, so they’re not all perfect—one of my students sent me this picture, ten minutes after class (in Berrini, of course) should have started, saying he couldn’t make it because he had to hang out with his new dog

After I figured out how to get to my classes without first extensively researching and googlemapping each route the night before, I realized maybe the time had come to focus on the content of the classes themselves. Checking in with myself thus, I was disappointed to find I wasn’t doing a very good job. The two-hour long, back-to-back classes every day made it difficult to attain even the oft-cited first year teacher bare minimum of staying a week ahead of the students. Every day I found myself frantically skimming each class’s textbook in the hour ahead of time and mentally sketching out a lesson plan through the book’s various parts. And inevitably on the days I felt least prepared, I would hear a knock at the door 20 minutes before the start of class and in would breeze Rafael or Luciano, so enthusiastically escorting my similarly over-zealous student that it seemed he was instead bringing me the long-lost puppy I didn’t even know I had, never mind had lost. Didn’t my students know they were supposed to be late or not show up at all?! Seriously, why did I have to get the good ones?!

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Gaining visitor access for an In Company class

Many seasoned expats caution against the mentality that just because you speak English you can teach it. While I never questioned them for a second—I have enough experience teaching to know that being an effective educator is challenging enough even without trying to teach material you yourself never actually learned—but I will admit to just a teensy bit of hubris. I’ve always liked writing and even presenting. I particularly enjoy the challenge of exploring different ways of framing or, in the case of editing, reframing an idea. Add to this a little bit of teaching experience, and I thought maybe, just maybe, I would have an easier go of it than those other hapless expats. And yet, there I was, on one of my last days of classes, facing my waterloo: an extremely confident middle-aged man questioning me publically on a grammar point about which I was not absolutely confident. I tried to answer him assertively, but my confidence began to waver as he tapped away, consulting his smartphone. “I mean. Maybe, it’s different in England?” I concluded, backpedaling.

Interchanges like these felt like defeat in more ways than one. I really should have known why the auxiliary verb “do” is required to make the question “what did you do?” but not “What happened?” And I should never have second-guessed my knowledge that “if she were older” is correct no matter how many British people say “if she was older.” It’s the one example of the subjunctive mood in English grammar, and we should embrace it as such. Far more disconcerting, however, was my readiness to assume my complete lack of knowledge in the face of anyone questioning me assertively. Of course no teacher can be expected to know everything, but there are professional and even productive ways of handling such uncertainties. And yet, in teaching English I had abandoned them all only to mire myself in further self-doubt.

In an attempt to stave off future saudades, I snapped a picture of my last commute to work across the beautiful Rio Pinheiros

I also had the luxury of getting feedback from Samantha who observed several of my classes. While some of my classes were ok I think, the reality is I didn’t even really need her notes to know that I was committing every cardinal sin of teaching in my beginner class. I talked too much. When students were unclear on a concept, I talked still more, trying to get my point across. My directions were muddled, and worst of all, I had unclear goals for what I wanted my students to be able to do by the end of each class. I even added the trade-specific touch of speaking too much Portuguese and too little English. Some days it was just easier. How do you give directions for the next exercise when your students don’t speak the language?

Not only did I realize that I am not a good English teacher, but it was again driven home to me that it’s so much more enjoyable to teach something that you are truly passionate about. For me personally, English as a second language is just not exciting. Not that even the most advanced students don’t have occasional lapses in correctly conjugating the third person singular, but, in general, the biggest challenges for ESL learners are phrasal verbs and prepositions. And there is no rhyme or reason to these. The best teaching approach seems to be simply telling the student to study them and to give them as many opportunities to practice as possible. English speakers say, “look forward to” or “pick up” because we do, not because they follow any elegant grammar pattern. And worse still, sometimes it’s acceptable to put a word in between the verb and the preposition (pick it up) whereas other times it is not (getting over it). For me, there is no joy in this kind of teaching. By contrast, when I was teaching math and a student challenged me, for example, on my assertion that 0.9 repeating is equal to 1, the class was able use that as an opportunity to explore different proofs and to try to reach a deeper understanding. When I TA’d biology courses, it felt like there were endless questions to explore. What would happen if a certain protein in a signaling pathway were mutated? Did it matter where the mutation occurred? How could we test this hypothesis?

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Teacher! My husband is bringing our daughter in after class today, just so you can meet her!

None of this is to say that my English classes or students were lacking in personality or hilarity. There was Evandro who always brought me snacks and dealt with every life setback (especially when he didn’t do his homework) by smiling and saying, “no problem, teacher. It’s normal.” And there was Ronaldo with whom I spent way too much of our one-on-one class time speaking Portuguese and talking about his adorable 4-year old grandson. One of the most touching moments for me was when I was telling my beginner class about Carolina, my family’s Brazilian exchange student, and one of my (adult) students said hopefully, “you mean, I could be your sister?!!!” There were even incredible but all-too-brief moments of real learning like the time my students actually worked together to generate their own grammar rules for when to use “nobody” vs. “somebody” or “anybody.” But when it came down to it, not a day went by that I did not feel acutely aware of my failure to bring enough energy, creativity, synthesis or exploration to my classroom. I guess maybe it’s time to re-embrace my science nerd-dom after all.

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But I can keep the baby, right?

3 thoughts on “School’s out for summer

  1. No one is a walking grammar book. I guess even as a teacher there are a lot of things we don’t think about. I remember as a kid asking all sorts of tough questions. I kind of felt bad for that at times but that’s how I’d learn. The best teachers usually weren’t those who had an answer ready but those willing to question their own knowledge, read about and get back to me later. If your students are making questions instead of just receiving information you must’ve been doing something right. That said you ‘ll be ready next time and will know better what kind of questions pop up in which situations. Students will invariably check the internet and stuff but in a way you give the final verdict after careful consideration based on your knowledge and experience.
    Also language is not straight forward like maths in the sense it usually follows logical steps. It builds over centuries and centuries over. No wonder Chomsky had so much trouble analysing the English language in his studies of formal languages and its hierarchies. Natural languages are tough.
    By the way if I say ‘if she was older, I didn’t notice’, I don’t see how ‘was’ would be a bad choice. On the other hand I were to say ‘if she were older she would know better’, I see ‘were’ as the right fit. Guess it depends a bit on the context. I could be wrong though.

    1. Ah! I think you might actually be a walking grammar book! 🙂 You are entirely correct in your examples of “if she was” vs. “if she were.” This particular student was asking about the use of “if she was/were older” in the conditional, but I definitely didn’t make that clear from the context of my post. I’m impressed with your grammar knowledge! If I can someday be as good at Portuguese as you are at English, I will really feel like I’ve finally arrived! Did you study linguistics? It sounds like you have a formal background in language. I think language is really fascinating for just the reason you imply; it constantly lives, breathes and changes with the people who use it.

      And you are completely right, being a good teacher is not about having all the “answers.” To me, a good teacher helps students develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills—figuring out the most effective way to do this is, of course, the real challenge. I think this applies to any field, but as someone so totally out of my element in teaching ESL, I failed to apply any skills I’d learned from my experience and instead just freaked out and made a lot of rookie mistakes (e.g. feeling like I always had to know “the answer” and constantly needing to assert myself as the “authority figure”). It was disappointing to feel myself doing these things when I know better. I can only hope my students are half as understanding as you are!

  2. Can’t really brag about speaking English. I’ve been doing so since I was a kid so plenty of time there. I’m writing from the UK anyway so I guess it’s needed. Being able to communicate in Portuguese at any level is much more impressive I’d say. In any case, I’m very distracted, no matter the language. I can really surprise myself with some nonsensical writing at times when rereading. It’s actually funny.
    I don’t really have any formal background in linguistics unless you count programming languages 😛 it’s just interesting I guess.
    Well, don’t beat yourself up too much. I bet the students’ level of English improved. Don’t worry about the “authority figure” thing. This is actually a good thing else the class loses focus and they’ll tend to use Portuguese. That usually happens in language classes in Brazil. Guess people need some pushing. They all loved you anyway. 🙂

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