Monday, January 4, 2010

Yanked by Uncertainty - A Day in the Life of an ESL Teacher

While the Buddhist blogosphere continues to explode with commentary about Brit Hume and his Christian Conversion 3 (album soon in stores), I went back to work after a week or so off. My job continues to be a great source of practice opportunities, or a big pain in the ass, depending on which moment you ask me. Somehow, just when I think I've let go of it all, and am able to just do my job and be ok waiting for the next one to appear in the great employment search basket in the sky, something happens to flip me over again.

Today, a new student arrived. A friend of the student I've had difficulties with over the past few months. Just as my second class was starting, our education director walks in and announces this guy was entering my class. As soon as she told me "he's got a master's degree in physics from his native country, and he'll be here for awhile now in your class," I knew we were all in trouble. After disappearing for five minutes to get something in his car, he comes back, sits down, and looks at me, wondering what's going on. I had already started the rest of the class on the first lesson, a simple open ended few questions we practice most days to help the class get used to using past and future tense grammar constructions. So, I tell him the two questions, and then write them on the board to make sure he's got them. He looks at me funny, and then looks over to his friend who was already writing. He looks back and asks me again about what we're doing. I tell him, he shakes his head, and starts writing.

To give you an idea of what occurred for the rest of the two and half hours, I'll just give you a single example from this lesson. The class spent about 15 minutes writing. Most of the students wrote between three and four fairly simple sentences with anywhere from 1-5 grammar errors in them. The new student filled a page full of notes about the two questions, and then looked up at me and said "Do I need more?" about 5 minutes before the others were finished.

As part of the exercise, I have the class write some of their sentences on the board and then we correct them together. It's very helpful because the shared knowledge of the class always gets us through, with only minimal help from me. And many of the students copy down sentences that illustrate particular grammar points they want to study - another plus to the exercise.

So, the class starts to write their sentences on the board. The new student watches for a few minutes and then starts to correct each learner as they make a mistake. Then, when it's his turn to write, he copies down a couple of sentences on the board and then directs me to address both of his sentences first. It was an interesting moment. First, I felt my classroom authority being challenged. Now, I'm not a stand in front of the class and dictate kind of teacher. In fact, I tend to share classroom power in ways many ESL teachers don't because I feel it's most important to help my students develop confidence in the language - which often is dampened when a teacher is too focused on controlling every last thing going on in the class. So, it was interesting to have that little spike of "Don't step onto my turf, buddy" come up. However, as the day went on, I realized that I was mostly just pissed that he was placed in my class at all. It was clear after 5 minutes that the guy was much more advanced than the rest of the class, and that our class couldn't really meet his needs.

I found myself finding other teachers to complain to about the situation. Leaning on others for sympathy, although I easily feel into ill will and gossiping during these conversations. This is a habit I developed to cope with the difficulties I have had with this job since the leadership changed a few years back, and although I have tried hard to abandon it, I'm not there yet apparently.

Towards the end of the day, I spoke with the education director about my observations that he was misplaced. She then spoke with him, but I guess there wasn't any direct action taken because she said "I think maybe he won't be back. But we'll see." Which sort of irritated me. I found myself saying "ok" while shrugging my shoulders multiple times. Maybe he'll be back tomorrow, maybe not. This seems the story of everything at my workplace, which leads me this -

Buddhism is often pointing us in the direction of accepting what is. And in doing so, the teachings are really telling us to learn how to live with uncertainty. I'd like to say I'm not as frazzled by uncertainty these days, but maybe that's not the case. Maybe I get less outwardly upset by it, but wow - it's amazing how many times in a single work day I swam to the nearest rock of certainty, be it a story about what was happening, or an old approach to a fresh situation. Every time I turned away from the new student and tried to focus on the others, I knew I was just avoiding, and felt how I became closed off inside. Nice awareness anyway I suppose.

It never ceases to amaze me how it's almost always the little, everyday events that toss us away. The dramatic, unusual events - some people fall apart, but a lot of people surprisingly don't. But a familiar situation with a tiny shift you dislike can send most of us over an edge. Simple stuff, but I'm guessing that no amount of reminders is ever too much.

Bows to anonymous tagger for providing me with the photo opportunity and dharma teaching for us all.


ZenDotStudio said...

great post Nathan. such a wonderful pithy example of how easily we get caught up. ah these people that remind us of where the ragged edges of our practice are.

In our "house sale transaction" I watched myself tell entertaining "stories" to others about how badly the buyers behaved. Unnecessary behaviour on my part that I was aware of but seemed drawn to do anyway. After a few times, I caught myself at this gossipy, self righteous little game so what you've said here, really strikes home for me.

Jomon said...

Yes, this is a sticky behavior for me, too. That social bonding that happens in the telling of stories, plus the release of tension in the telling and re-telling. It meets almost as many disparate needs as smoking cigarettes did. It is very helpful to see it articulated here. Thank you for your practice!