Originally, teaching English in Taiwan was a way to travel and escape my current situation of uncertainty. I loved my work (most days) but it was not completely fulfilling me. I craved more travel and adventure in life. So I proclaimed on my resume that, "I want to inspire and empower children to speak English." But to be honest, I realized recently I was just saying that last reason because it "sounded good" and because I wanted to believe that was my intention.
Four months into this teaching experience, I hit a wall of frustration and doubt in my abilities to be a great ESL teacher. So naturally I vented to my good friend and success partner, Steph. Here is word for word what I wrote down and shared with her:
"Work has been stressful. I'm confused and discouraged because I'm not sure WHY I feel so stressed out on my way to work and also while I'm there. The weekend is great and then when I get to work, I feel almost depressed. I do have fun in my classes often, but I feel like I'm not cut out to be a teacher. Something about it just doesn't feel as fun for me as other teachers make it seem."
In response to ALL THAT, Steph calmly commented, "What are you expecting to get out of it?"
A simple, yet profound question. I knew my auto-response (see above) of why I teach English. But the nature of Steph's question was different than why. I didn't have an answer. The truth is, I hadn't really given thought what I expected to get out of the actual teaching experience. So I began to explore this question, and within just a few days I experienced a major shift in my attitude towards teaching. Several things happened to help my "shift" take root and I will talk about one of them today.
One evening after class I stayed an extra 10-minutes to sit with a student while he finished writing, "I will listen to Teacher," twenty times. This is a student who continually misbehaves in class. And on this day, his behavior was so bad that the Taiwanese co-teacher impulsively yelled aloud, "(Name) is lazy! He never does his homework. I'm DONE with him."
I guess I wasn't the only one frustrated by the student's actions. But I thought the teacher's comments were a little harsh. I imagined that student was my own child and my impulse was to defend him. Instead I bit my tongue, vowing to get to the bottom of the issue later. Even still, I could feel the embarrassment he must have felt when the co-teacher belittled him in front of the entire class that day. I wondered if "lazy" is the real reason he's not doing his homework. Did the other teacher even ask or know the real reason? What was the child feeling?
When I sat with him after class, I asked him why he doesn't do his homework. "Is it because it's boring?"... and he nodded, no. "Is it because you are too tired to do homework after school?" (Many 8-year-old children go to school from 8am to 8pm at night here in Asia!)...but surprisingly he nodded, no. Finally, I asked, "Is it too difficult?"...and then came a humbling yes nod. I then asked, "Does your mom or dad know English? Can they help you?"...and not surprisingly, he shook his head no.
I recently read the book, The End Of Molasses Classes, by Ron Clark, and highly recommend it to every teacher and parent. The author is an extraordinary teacher who created the most unique and genius school in America, Ron Clark Academy. Oprah is a huge fan of RCA, so you know it's good! His school marches to the beat of a different drum and his students are truly remarkable. Principle 13 of his book is, "Treat every child as if he or she were your own." This section of the book really touched my heart. Just because a kid doesn't do his homework, doesn't mean we should jump to conclusions like labeling him as lazy. Maybe his mom just died of cancer. Or maybe he goes home to an abusive family every night. Perhaps like my student, he/she is just struggling with understanding the material and has no one in their life who can help. Rather than jumping to conclusions or getting frustrated, we need to take the time to understand each unique child as if they were our own.
Because I was paitent and present with my student I got to the bottom of the homework issue that day. I explained to him why it's so important to focus and listen in class. I put it in a way he could understand, "listening in class equals easier homework." He was able to connect the dots. I also told him that I want him to have fun and succeed in my class. A week later the boy was a shinning star! Seriously in just a week he was a completely different kid. Both the co-teacher and his mom commented on how exceptional he had been that past week. In class, he raised his hand high to answer every single question! He didn't have all the right answers, and he still didn't do his homework...yet! But with his new enthusiasm for learning in class, his homework will become easier and easier. Something shifted in him, just like it did in me.
I was elated after witnessing his new passion for learning. I am beginning to understand what being a teacher is all about. I'm seeing and feeling the impact. He is just one of the 200+ students I see weekly. But because of this one special child, I am striving to create more "ah-ha" moments and positive shifts within my students. That is what I now expect from teaching.
Another realization that hit me about this work is: I can't expect teaching to just be fun. It's my job to make it fun. If class is fun, my students won't have to struggle to focus and listen. I know there will be days that are more challenging than others. After all, kids are people too. Little people, with BIG emotions! Taking time to listen and connect with each individual child is so SO important. They need to be understood, heard, and respected.
I'm grateful for Steph's question. It was all about the way she asked, "What are you expecting to get out of it?" Powerful words! Exactly what I needed to hear at the perfect time. She is so good at that. Thank you Steph.
Sometimes breakthrough happens when we ask ourselves a different question. I encourage you to ask yourself the same question I asked myself. It can really apply to anything that feels off in your life. After proposing this question, don't sit and analyze what the correct answer is. Just be patient and present until the answer comes. Authentic answers reveal themselves in ways we cannot anticipate.