I said I’d never be a high school teacher

I’ve officially started teaching, with real students and real whiteboard markers and real activities. With a grand total of four class periods (2.5 hours each) under my belt, here are my reflections on teaching, discipline, learning and high school students!

1. The obvious statement that must be made: teaching is harder than it looks! Props to the countless amazing teachers I have had (including my mommy)–it’s not easy to teach, much less to be a good teacher. Kudos especially to high school teachers–you are valiant warriors and intuitive protectors of Truth, Sanity, Reason, Sensibility and Social Propriety.

2. At least in peri-urban Colombian public schools, the lesson plans will get stretched. I’m still working off of day 1’s lesson plan, four classes later! This is fantastic, because I’ve got time to develop the materials and ideas as I go. (at least this week)

3. Discipline is difficult but I’m actually better at being firm than I had anticipated. I definitely pulled the “in English classrooms, silent listening is a sign of respect.” card.

4. Colombian kids have an extreme case of “pena”, or shame. This isn’t just stage fright–this is a knock-down, drag-out fight to get them to do anything, especially in front of other people. I’m still trying to understand the deep cultural implications of this concept, because it’s pervasive throughout ages, genders and social classes. Any insight is appreciated! I realize that I’m coming from a distinctly different background, one where I grew up being encouraged to speak up, sing in front of people, ham it up for the camera, etc. I’m trying to understand the root of “pena” (some say it’s colonial) and how I can best encourage and support my students. I was SO PROUD today when all but one group successfully presented for a vocab show-and-tell!

5. These kids are incredibly artistic. I mean, this culture (at least on the coast) is clearly centered around sights and sounds (aka fiesta.) Anywhere you turn, brilliant tropical flowers, swirling Carnaval dresses and bright soccer jerseys catch your eye. At night, I lay in bed and listen: motos, dogs barking, a minimum of three different songs being played on the same corner, geckos chirping, tvs’ canned sitcom laughter, water running in the shower next door. (I woke up suddenly last night–it was too quiet.)

So I’ve noticed that my students, in addition to being musicians and dancers extraordinaire, are gifted in art. In my ADD, go-go-go personality, a request for a quick map of town warrants a sketch on scrap paper. For my 10th graders in this pre-school year reinforcement class, a quick map of town requires meticulously measured lines, carefully colored-in buildings and perfect little palm trees. The same thing happened when I asked them to make their “passports to English”–what I thought would be a 15 minute activity turned into about 45 minutes of “are you done yet, kids?” and “they took all the dark blue colored pencils so I cannot possibly continue!” ๐Ÿ™‚

6. These kids are smart. The class I have right now is a week-long reinforcement class for some students who failed ninth grade English last year (I need to write a blog about this educational system…more later.) These kids have been labeled “flojos” (lazy), so I was tasked with immersing them and giving them a sort of jumpstart to the school year, which begins in a week. But these kids are every ounce as intelligent, quick to learn, and capable of following directions (when they feel like it) as any others.

And let me tell you, they have surprised me several times already with their attention to details and presentation. For example, today I asked them to get into small groups (we’re learning that concept still) to do a “quick” presentation of a vocab word. The objective that each group would provide a definition or translation of the word and then give an example in English. (i.e., School= escuela; we study at the school.) Having learned last week that group work is a foreign concept, I thought this would be a simple way to re-introduce the idea. FORTY FIVE MINUTES LATER, I finally persuaded the first shy, embarrassed, terrified group to the front of the room.

And here’s where I learned my lesson of the day: during the 45 minutes I had been pleading, huffing, puffing, and arguing with these kids to do a simple project, they had all been working on presentations that were above and beyond what I had anticipated. They had found full definitions of the words, in both languages; some had colored their presentation sheets artfully; others had included full examples such as “Simon goes to the library to read books” and “people go to the hospital to find the cure to types of diseases.” Lesson: even though there were evident miscommunications as to the directions and expectations, these kids committed themselves to diligently fulfilling the activity in the best way they knew how (which was way more than I had asked of them).

Today my kids showed me the beautiful manifestations of Colombian culture in the classroom, with beautifully decorated worksheets, carefully constructed, accurate maps, and utter attention to the details of appearance. And now, best of all, I’ve officially found my artists for that world map I’m planning to paint in the English lab! Get ready, kids! ๐Ÿ™‚

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