If anyone out there is a public school teacher looking at a career change or someone considering hiring a teacher into a ‘non-teachery’ job, don’t underestimate the soft skills that these teachers bring to the table:
tenacity to both smile at and set firm boundaries with a wide cast of characters – especially the ornery and the entitled
the ability to direct multiple personalities – all creative, brilliant, and sneaky in their own ways – in a single direction
compassion to understand that everyone has their own story that you may or may not know
experience making quick decisions and multi-tasking while keeping chaos (mostly) subdued
creativity to develop useful resources and meaningful experiences in under-resourced and multifaceted environments
resilience in less than ideal situations like eating lunch in 10 minutes, teaching from a cart in multiple classrooms, purchasing supplies with personal funds, fixing rickety copy machines, and lacking frequent access to the restroom
wisdom to moderate childish quarrels, soothe adolescent angst, critique political folly, apply administrative directives, and navigate parental helicoptering
the ability to explain any concept to any person at any level, and to repeat themselves patiently when that person isn’t listening or doesn’t understand
My first experience teaching English was in Burkina Faso – at that time one of the ten poorest countries in the world. My only resources were a box of chalk, a chalkboard, and a florescent light bulb. The light bulb turned on (most days) by maneuvering two wires sticking out of the wall precariously to make them spark. (After I nearly burnt my fingers off one day, my students determined they would be the ones turn on the lights.) My ride to school on the unpaved roads of Ouagadougou involved dodging livestock, steering around deep ruts in the road, and waving at the bright smiles of barefoot children seeing a nasara for the first time in their lives.
Many of the fundamental tools I still use in teaching, I learned in that sparse classroom.
Students who wantto learn can accomplish unlimited things. I had one student ride his bike two hours one way to come to my English class because he wanted to practice speaking with a native speaker to improve his English before he went to seminary in English.
There are always resources we can’t afford. Using what is available goes a long way. While we didn’t even have textbooks, we used songs, quotes, and the chalkboard. We did groupwork, individual work, and pairwork. We wrote on the chalkboard, used photocopies, and memorized poems.
Students are first individuals, students second. Until teachers know what affects students’ realities outside of the classroom, they are limited in their knowledge of how to help them learn inside the classroom.
What happens inside my classroom is not the only factor that affects students’ attitudes. The developing world makes it very easy to remember that humans do not completely control what happens around them, and that this sometimes spills over into the classroom. The donkeys braying outside my classroom every afternoon made this quite clear. On rainy days, my students didn’t come to class because the unpaved roads turned to mud and made travel challenging.
Sometimes the bigger systems keep the little systems from working right. Hungry children do not focus as well as fed children. Access to money means access to education means access to freedom of choice. Corrupt governments oppress the poor and enable the wealthy.
Being a teacher holds inherent power, whether we recognize it or not. In Burkina Faso, I represented America – as much as I hated to admit – and the power that came with it. Regardless of where my classroom has been, the position of teacher has given me a platform which affects others. How it affects them is left to whether I handle my power with humble servanthood or proud dictatorship.
This isn’t to say that resources are bad – they are, in fact, very helpful. It’s just that sometimes the most potent realities of teaching don’t have anything to do with resources for teaching is an act that occurs between two human beings, not two computers or two pieces of paper or two textbooks.
To the casual observer, it would be easy to assume that they are the ones who need me. They’re new here – foreigners from every corner of the globe learning the ways and words of a new land.
Me? I’m the ‘native’, able to translate the words and explain the customs. I’ve spent years studying how to do this particular trade and even get paid to pass along this knowledge. I know the nooks and crannies of this crazy English language and play the role of a seasoned tour guide helping my students navigate the complex streets of grammar and spelling and pronunciation.
But don’t let that fool you.
Their resiliency, fortitude, humor, and kindness are teaching me just as much as I’m teaching them – probably more. Having just given up the place I call home, a budding career in academia, and cultural familiarity to relocate our family to the other side of the country, I’m starting completely over too. Each day as I walk them through the maze of the English language, they teach me how to walk through the maze of life.
It’s ok to be sad
“I pray to my God to bring peace to my country,” a Syrian man told me with slight tears in his eyes. “But I don’t know when it will come.”
To some measure, it’s always hard to leave home. Even if home wasn’t a safe or wealthy or pleasant place, it was still home. Many fear for their loved ones left in their home countries, and they tell me this with quivering voices. Others mourn what their country has become – how evil prevails and goodness hides. Their sadness is real, and they make no attempt to pretend otherwise.
It’s ok to be happy
We had an end-of-term party which I interpreted as wear jeans-and-a-t-shirt-casual-day. My students arrived decked out in sequins, heels and perfume, ready to dance the morning away. Many lack money, papers, family, jobs. They’ve lost family members, careers, homes. But these things slip away momentarily as they swing their hips, raise their arms, and kick up their heels to merengue or circle dance. Their joy is also real, and they make no attempt to pretend otherwise.
It’s ok to be kind
It started with a package of paper cups, then a platter of sandwiches. When another student walked in with a cake that read “Happy Birthday, Jodi”, I grew instantly grateful for the ‘secrets’ that Facebook tells. Still being fairly new to this place, I don’t have many friends to celebrate with, so we were planning a small family affair. I was ok with that, but what a grand surprise to have a party thrown for me when I thought I didn’t have enough ‘friends’ for that.
Just because I’m their teacher, I’ve received Chinese candies, Venezuelan chocolates, Egyptian plates, Ecuadorian necklaces, Salvadorian coin purses. Their kindness reminds me of our individuality, of our need to see others and to be seen, even in a city of 10 million people.
I see you, I say in my mind each day as I stand before them. You are not invisible here. You matter. They’re the ones who taught me this first, I’m just sending it right back.
It’s ok to laugh at ourselves
After learning the word “migraine”, one of my students recounted a pronunciation mistake she made once, “I go to the doctor and tell him I have a ‘ma-ga-ri-na’ and he tell me, ‘Lady, you in the wrong place for a margarita.’”
As we all howled at her phonetic misfortune, she stopped us, “It gets worse! I try to ask for a ‘fork’ at a restaurant but they no understand because I no say the ‘r’ sound good. Yes, teacher, I tell them ‘I have no ‘f&*#’ on the table.”
We lost track of all sense for at least 3 minutes. It’s been a good long while since I’ve laughed that hard.
With all of its questions and pontifications, academia left me with an overdose of seriousness, and all this fun is proving to be very healing for my soul.