"I am not an animal! I am a human being!"
--- John Merrick, (The Elephant Man.)
I've never been much for reality shows. American Idol is pretty good, I suppose. But the rest of them are ridiculous. Take the latest reality show in The Netherlands--- "I Want Your Baby--- And Nothing More." If the title isn't self-explanatory, it's about a woman who, after "dating" and "interviewing" several men, chooses one of them to have his baby--- and nothing more. The "lucky" fellow gets to donate his sperm to this "lady" who then lives out her dream of having a baby without all of the emotional ups and downs of an actual relationship. Convenient, huh?
I bring up this reality show because it reminded me of a horrible class I had last month. Or did this horrible class remind me of this reality show? It was an upper-level academic writing class. I tried my best. I really did. Like all the other classes, it was supposed to last six weeks. But I was kicked off the ESL island after only three weeks. It simply didn't work. The students were way too serious. Or was I not serious enough?
By the beginning of the second week, one of the managers gave me an interesting idea. Get the students to write a letter to you, (the teacher), telling you how you can help them with their writing. Good idea in theory. A bonehead move in reality. Eleven students, eleven different letters. Eleven different letters, eleven different ideas. Eleven different ideas, eleven different ways on how I can help them. Eleven different ways on how I can help them, eleven different demanding students pulling me in eleven different directions. All at the same time! You see where I'm going with this.
To make a long story short, most of them complained bitterly about me. And why wouldn't they? I was well prepared for every lesson; I spent time and money downloading writing material from the Internet, (the textbook was sparse, to say the least.) I downloaded lighthearted stuff, like the "Happiness Journal" created by Marc Helgessen, who has been teaching in Japan for over 20 years. When I handed it out, they didn't even crack a smile. Nada. Zilch. Nothing. Zero. Zippo!
For the August 12th Mother's Day here in Thailand, I shared stories with them about my mother. I showed them pictures of her in her wheelchair while telling them about her bout with Multiple Sclerosis. I played the song "Coat of Many Colors", by Dolly Parton, a beautiful and touching song which tells the story about a poor girl who's mother makes her a coat from rags because the family couldn't afford a new one. Then I invited them to write an essay about a wonderful thing that they're mothers had done for them. Did it have much to do with "academic" writing? Probably not. But who cares. I'm an ESL teacher, and part of our job is to touch our student's hearts. If you can't touch your student's hearts, then you've done nothing.
By the end of the third week, most of the students marched lockstep into the manager's office and demanded another teacher. Fair enough. I stepped aside. Was I ready for the seriousness of this class? Absolutely not. I had absolutely no intention of treating this class, or any writing class, with the seriousness that the students demanded. I am a human being first, an ESL teacher second.
You can question my expertise, or lack thereof, all you want. There isn't a day that goes by that I don't question it at least 20 times. I'm sure that the students, who marched lockstep into the manager's office, questioned my lack of expertise as well. I'm sure that there are many times that the AUA managers question it too. And why not? No one's perfect. Not even the AUA managers. We are all in the same boat doing the best we can.
I have been very fortunate to have such sympathetic coworkers and friends at AUA; fellow teachers who know from first hand experience what's it's like to have a difficult and demanding class. My fellow teachers certainly know what it's like to be an ESL teacher with all of the joys and frustrations that go with it. Since this experience some of them have told me, "Hey Steve, this is only a 350 Baht an hour job. It's not worth it." I understand their rationale. And maybe they're right. But I'm not here for the money. This is Thailand, who is? I'm here to make a difference. I'm here to help.
I'm a huge fan of ESL teachers bringing their humanity, their humanness as a teacher into the classroom. I'm also a huge fan of AUA's professional development program (PDP) for it's teachers. I always have been and remain to this day. (I may be one of very few teachers at AUA that likes the PDP and its managers. This is why I'm very comfortable in asking the questions that I'm about to ask.)
What good is a professional development program for teachers if, as a result, it contributes to turning your teachers into arrogant, unfeeling, pedantic pricks? What on earth is the point of becoming an "expert" in ESL, if, in the process, you lose your humanity and can't relate to your students on any emotional level? What the hell good is it to hone your ESL skills to such a fine point that you come off sounding like an uncaring son-of-a-bitch? What the hell good is a professional development program if, in the end, it contributes to the teacher's unfeeling, robotic implementation of the school's strict pedagogy at the expense of caring not a wit about the hearts and souls of the students? What on earth is the point of getting a Master's Degree in Applied Linguistics if you can't even apply your own personal skills in the classroom? The ESL/TESOL world is full of arrogant, pompous pukes who think they know their stuff. The last thing we need is more of them.
What we need are human beings in the classroom. And a lot more of them. Human beings who feel every conceivable human emotion and are not afraid to convey that to the students. What we need in the classroom are human beings who are not afraid to take risks; human beings who are not afraid to take chances; human beings who are not afraid to take their students on the magical journey that is the English language. ESL is not rocket science. Sometimes the AUA managers seem to forget that.
I've had many years experience in this business, and I know one thing for sure: Almost every student will forgive their teacher for a "pedagogical", (how I hate that word), error in the classroom. After all, we are all human. But the vast majority of ESL students will NEVER forgive you if you come across as an arrogant, unfeeling, uncaring, robotic son-of-a-bitch. This is true regardless of wherever you are teaching in the world. First and foremost, ESL students need and deserve a feeling, caring, and dedicated human teacher.
I am perfectly willing and able to step into the classroom as a fallible, limited and imperfect teacher. (Afterall, I've been doing it for years.) And I'm perfectly willing and able to fail and fall flat on my face as a fallible, limited and imperfect teacher. (I've been doing that for years too.) What I'm NEVER willing to do, however, is to fail my students as a human being. I am not willing, and certainly not able, to step into the classroom pretending to know more than I do. I respect my students far too much to even attempt that.
The fact that I lack expertise in teaching "academic" writing is obvious. especially to the AUA managers. But what I lack in expertise, I certainly make up for in dedication, creativity, and human interaction, (or what is pompously referred to in TEFL circles as "inter-subjectivity.")
In just about every one of the six classes I had with them, I told the students that I would do all I can to help them succeed. I told them that I liked them. I told them that I respected them. I told them that I was up late into the night correcting their essays. All true. And what happened? They demanded another teacher. I did all I could for them, but some of their behavior bordered on abuse.
One woman in the class shoved the textbook in my face and demanded to know why I didn't teach a certain page that evening. A male student sternly told me that I must understand Thai society before stepping into the classroom. (Minor inconveniences compared to some of the crap that I put up with in Korea, but bordering on abuse nonetheless.)
Let me make one thing very clear: Any student who shoves a book in a teacher's face, or something similar, should be told, in no uncertain terms, by the administration, to take a bloody hike! (I would suggest we use a stronger term than "bloody.") For the record, I did not report this student to management, preferring to handle the situation myself.
As for understanding Thai society before stepping into the classroom, where do I begin with that? Rampant government corruption? Prostitution and sexual exploitation? Abject poverty? An educational system that purposely keeps most of its own people in the dark? Child abuse? Spousal abuse? Rampant addiction to alcohol and amphetamines? A lack of free press? The millions of people who are suffering from serious mental illness, and the complete lack of help that is available to them? Slave labor? Someone please stop me!
I understand enough about Thai society to make me want to barf my guts out for the next seven years! I've said it before and I'll say it again. We ESL teachers are not here to understand and interpret Thai society. We are here to help change it for the better. And for those who have a problem with that, too bad.
My parents have taught me many wonderful things about life. I call them regularly on my cell phone. Before hanging up we always say "I Iove you", and "I miss you." Mushy stuff, I know, so please bare with me with this hallmark moment. The last two things I said to the students in that writing class was,
1) "I care about you", and
2) "I promise to do all I can to help you."
Then they were gone. I said what was in my heart, and because of that, I have no regrets.
I'm going to leave the last word to one of the students from the class. The following words are from a letter she wrote to the manager who relayed the letter on to me. It reads in part, (including errors),
Dear manager's name),
I regretted to join our classmates for complaining about our teacher--- Mr. Steve on Wednesday. I thought a lot about the conflict between Steve and us after I returned home. Actually, I want to give moral support to Steve for things are becoming negative towards him now.
At the beginning of this course, everybody is confused with Steve's teaching method, because it is totally different from that of (previous teacher's name.) After the first discussion with you and with the time going on, Steve is getting better and better, he is improving a lot in class, and he has given us a new look. However, some of us are still not impressed by his performance, and they want a teacher who is just the same as (previous teacher's name.) This is the point why they don't accept Steve at all, and they always compare Steve to (previous teacher's name.) As other students say, all the teachers have their own styles of teaching. For writing class, we need to learn the skill of writing, and all of us are serious about it. I find that Steve tries to make us relaxed and a little funny with studying in the class, this is his original intention. It is good! Unfortunately, some students can't appreciate the way he does, and they complain all the time.
Moreover, I think Steve is also a good teacher now (some of our classmates agree with me.) I also know that he has spent a lot of time to prepare before class, and he really cares everyone in the class. At least, comparing with some of other teachers, Steve has a better sense of responsibility for students. Therefore, we can't say that Steve isn't a good teacher. On the other hand, he has already tried his best to make us clear in understanding. Unfortunately, some of students are still unhappy with him and still keeping complaint, so they just pay attention to this difference. To keep doing this, I think is unfair for our teacher--- Steve. In a word, no teacher can meet all the needs of the students.
To my understanding, students have the right to express their difficult views and even complaint in terms of teaching methods. However, to find out the solution to the problem is the goal we should seek.
Thank you for giving me your time to hear from me.
It was a nice letter. And it did cheer me up for a while. But it still does nothing to solve the problem. Huge and important questions remain to be asked and answered from ALL sides: Teachers, students, managers and directors alike. One of which is "What in the world is ESL teaching about?"
We know what's it's NOT about. ESL teaching is NOT about the managerial staff sticking their collective heads in the sand, hoping against all hope that everything runs smoothly. Life doesn't work that way and neither does ESL. It's NOT about taking the money and running away with it. It's NOT about the managerial staff hiding in their air-conditioned offices, behind their desks, academic books, and papers, emerging three times a day to eat and pee.
ESL teaching is about taking risks. ESL teaching is about taking chances--- before it's too late. It's about touching hearts, and changing minds. It's about learning from both the good and the bad moments, and all the other moments in between. It's about celebrating both the good and the bad moments, and all the other moments in between. ESL teaching is about the triumphs, the joys, the pain, the heartache, the sadness, the sorrow. It's about the what is, the what could be, and the what could have been..... only if..... It's about all the victories, great and small, and all of the many defeats. It's about showing up everyday with your REAL face. It's about falling flat on your face, getting back up, and trying again and again and again. It's about NEVER giving up. ESL teaching is about believing in your students when they don't even believe in themselves. It's about believing in yourself when the students don't even believe in you. It's about celebrating humanity and your own particular humanness. ESL teaching, like life itself, is all about getting buck-ass naked and rolling around in all of your limitations and imperfections, and inviting your students to do the same. ESL teaching is about ALL of these wonderful things, and so much more we can't even imagine.
I know exactly what kind of teacher I want to be. A human one. But another important question remains for ESL students, schools, managers and directors: What kind of teachers are all of these people looking for? I want your money--- and nothing more. I want your baby--- and nothing more. I want your English--- and nothing more. Is this what the world has become? If it has, we ALL lose; teachers, students, teachers, managers, directors. Everyone. Can we afford to lose?
(Next month: What I learned from this experience; the three most important qualities in an ESL teacher; and why we should never teach "academic" writing to Thais. "Creative" writing, Yes! "Academic" writing, No!)