Another school year has come to an end. While this was my third year working as an EFL English teacher, this was my first experience working with the bigger kids. This seemingly small change came with a myriad of ups and downs. When reflecting back on the beginning of the year I have to laugh at how stressed and overwhelmed I felt at times.
To be honest, I ended the school year still feeling stressed and maybe a bit overwhelmed, but no longer was my classroom the source.
My previous two years teaching experience was working with first graders. The first grade classroom is filled with its own unique struggles and the beginning of the school year with first graders is no walk in the park–but the kids are so freaking cute that I was always able to just push through. By the time the kids are in level 4 English their cuteness factor has decreased substantially and their emotional baggage has matured an equivalent amount.
The first three or so months of this school year left me feeling inadequate leading a classroom full of students carrying incredible amounts of emotional trauma. I was overwhelmed by the emotional burden of my students–feeling the need to not only teach them English, but to also fill the needs of their young hearts and maybe take one or two home.
My trying to ‘mother’ and ‘heal’ my students may have been sustainable if the majority of my class was made up well adjusted students from loving families. That, however, is not my teaching environment. Very quickly the burden became too much and super star Samara began having emotional breakdowns right alongside her students.
**Lets take a moment to remember that amid all this, I was also writing my research proposal, implementing my in class research and collecting data, writing my thesis and trying to get my advisor to meet with me.**
Breakthrough happened a couple months into the first semester when the Still Small Voice reminded me He loves the students in my classroom infinitely more than I could ever begin to and that while He has me in their lives for this year, I am only one of the many other people He will place in their paths throughout the rest of their lives. I am not their savior.
It amazes me thinking back to how quickly that simple reminder was able to lift such a huge burden off of me.
What also amazes me is that friends and family were telling me this all the time, but to no effect. It wasn’t until the truth came from the Still Small Voice Himself that the self-inflicted burden was lifted.
Now that the school year is finished, my research has been written and my thesis has been defended, I feel like it’s a good time to think back and reflect on a few of the successes and failures of the year. I’ve decided to share those reflections here.
THINGS I DID RIGHT:
1. Asking you to adopt students to pray for.
Once I realized I was not The Savior of my students I felt free to ask for help. So here is a hearty THANK YOU to those of you who adopted a student or two and committed to praying for them over the course of the year. There were dramatic changes in particular students and situations and no doubt some of that is due to your prayers.
2. Moving away from the Bible curriculum.
Pretty early on in the semester, I made the executive decision to not focus our Bible time on the weekly verses that the rest of the school was memorizing. Most of my students had been at the school for at least four years, meaning they have practiced the same Bible verses every year for those four years. Instead we did class declarations. We would talk about characteristics of God and the implications of being His child; then we would stand on our chairs and shout those truths out. My class would fail Bible memorization test, but they will be able to talk about God’s faithfulness in their lives.
3. Creating a safe environment.
The bulk of my research rests on the assumption that the teacher has taken certain measures to create a safe atmosphere. Alls good in theory, but when actually putting theory to practice, things get interesting. Because I was deliberately setting out to do things differently than what happens in a ‘traditional’ classroom, I had a lot of groundwork to build, but by the end of the year the fruit of my labor was apparent. Our classroom became a stress-free zone, even when stressful things were happening. We worked together to problem solve and help each other out. The students were free to share their opinions and give suggestions in the class.
4. Promoting speaking skills.
The research I was doing was specifically about enhancing my class’s speaking skills. So, instead of spending the year working on vocabulary, spelling and grammar, we worked on speaking. This again, was not easy. Thai students are trained to memorize and recite, therefore, I had to re-wire their malleable brains. For the first weeks of our time together my students moaned and groaned about all the presentations and speaking I was requiring them to do. Flash forward to the last week of class… unexpected things interrupted our schedule and their final presentations were cancelled and you know what–they complained. My students were unanimously disappointed that they didn’t have to stand up in front of their peers and talk about their States.. in a foreign language. My research had been long done by this point, but I was astounded at how far they had come. My prayer now is that this confidence in speaking English sticks with them throughout the rest of their English learning career, regardless of their teachers and method of instruction.
5. Using authentic materials.
Again, my research made the claim that real materials should be used in the classroom. If we are learning about fruits, we should have real fruit in the classroom. Over the course of the year we made cakes and frosting, smoothies and ugali; we packed bags to go camping and set up a tent, we took pictures of each other using real, fancy cameras (not just a smart phone), we learned how to make a pour over cup of coffee and drank too many cups of it; we built paper maché states and created our own, fully playable board games. I probably spent too much money, but our classes were memorable.
6. Building the classroom around my students.
My research had to be done according to the very particular timeline and specifications that had been proposed to my advisor, so I didn’t have much flexibly there, but once that was completed, I let the students decide what we learned about. The result was that the English language classroom turned into a world geography classroom. Students voted on regions, countries and what we would research about those countries. I gave up an amount of control but gained a class full of interested students.
THINGS I COULD HAVE DONE BETTER:
1. Teaching the other communication skills.
While I ended the year with a group of students that are able to speak better than many of the college-aged students I come across, I really didn’t focus on reading, writing or grammar. I can clamor on and on about the theories backing up my speaking skills focus, but that doesn’t negate the fact that all four communication skills are important and that in Thailand…grammar is king. I probably could have been a bit more well rounded in my approach, maybe especially after my research was complete.
2. Building my units once my research was complete.
Well, after my research was finished I had the **astonishing** realization that I still had a semester and a half to teach. I had spent a year writing the curriculum for my seven-week research period and didn’t give any time or brain power to thinking about what I would do when I was finished. Once this dawned on me, I kind of had to scramble. While interviewing my students I found out that they were interested in learning about the rest of the world… this is how our class turned into a geography class. And all in all, it was a success. HOWEVER, it could have been so much better. If I would have spent the amount of time planning the geography units that I spent planning my research, those units would have been amazing. As it was, they were very surface level. I could have done better.
3. Lesson plans.
This kind of falls in line with point number two. The lesson plans that I wrote for my research are impeccable. They are pristine. I don’t think I’ve ever seen more detailed lesson plans…ever. Well. Those amazing lesson plans, that anyone could follow, were short lived and replaced with bullet point lists of activities and mysterious phrases that only I can decipher. At the end of the year, when I had to turn in all my lesson plans for the year…I just kind of slipped the ‘sticky note’ lesson plans underneath the beautiful crafted ones that earned me a masters’ degree.
4. Consequences/Follow Through
At the beginning of the school year I had the class create a ‘consequence jar’. Each student wrote consequences on slips of paper and put them in the jar. The consequences could be as lenient or severe as the students wanted and as a result, most were quite severe: run around the field ten times, do fifty push-ups, stand facing the back wall all class. All way worse than I would have given out. Well, while I thought this was an amazing idea…what ended up happening was that the kids were so excited about the element of surprise within the consequence jar that they WANTED to get in trouble. I even had a student–who never got in trouble–ask me if she could have a consequence. Fail. From that point on I had to revamp my discipline policy and it changed multiple times over they year. In the end, I landed on a ticket system. The power of tickets over little children’s behavior will continuously amaze me.
I’m sure there are WAY more highlights (and lowlights) that I could add to this list. It seems like every year spent as a teacher offers its own areas of challenge and room for improvement. The end of each year makes me excited to start the next year, to try again and do better.
However, instead of doing it again next year and perfecting my practice, I am taking a year off of the School of Promise and will be giving my time and expertise to Chiang Mai University.
Working at the university puts me with yet another new demographic of students and a whole other learning curve to conquer.
Wish me luck.