Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Who Needs Brit Hume's Drama When You've Got My Job

The situation at work I described in Monday's post ramped up impressively yesterday. After a night of little sleep, I found myself chanting the nembutsu all the way to work, and watching a litany of imaginary shouting going on whenever I stopped chanting. Entering my workplace, I saw the new student speaking with our education director again. I felt grateful to have had a simple chant to shift the flow of venum within me, but like so many Buddhist bloggers over the past week, I felt compelled to drop the silence and say what I thought about the situation. Walking into the office, I was immediately seen by the new student, who seemed confused by the discussion he was having with our education director. (I found out later she was trying to suggest that he go to another school.) Anyway, the student says to me something like "What's all this? You remember yesterday when you corrected those two errors I made." "Yes," I said, thinking to myself how the hell could I forget. And he says "So what's the issue here?" I stumbled over my words for about ten seconds, trying to find something to soften the situation. Then it hit me - there's nothing to soften this situation. So I looked at him and said "I can't serve your needs. You don't fit in this class." The conversation went on from there, but I had said what I needed, and then during a break, when he went with another teacher to discuss a possible tutoring option with her, I told the education director - "I'm at the end of my rope. Either he goes or I go." Not much you can do to sugar coat it when you're ready to walk out like I was. The message was heard - she came and apologized for not being clearer with the student yesterday about his misplacement in our program.

You know that feeling you get when something is over and done with? I got exactly the opposite feeling as the new student walked out the door.

An hour later, his friend, the student I've had a lot of trouble with over the past few months, was called into a meeting with our social worker. Up until the past three months, I always proudly spoke about how I worked with wonderful adult students who mostly get along and how being in the classroom with them is the best part of my job. This woman, as well as her ejected friend, have flipped that narrative on it's side. Anyway, I had a sense this meeting with the social worker was going to be about the comments I, other teachers, and students have made about her behavior - and it was. She returned to my classroom sullen, spoke little over the next few hours, and then cornered me as I was about to take half the class to the computer lab.

"I need to talk to you. Please."

It was a desperate kind of please, one you know is going to be followed up by a long, emotional outburst of some sort.

It's funny - I'd continued to chant the nembutsu, even though the other situation had ended.

namu amida butsu, namu amida butsu, namu amida butsu

And so when she said these words, something seemed to shift within me. No more avoiding, no more skirting anything. She told me her story, about how some students had told our social worker she was a trouble maker, etc. etc. I felt a wave of compassion for her, knowing that she truly felt isolated and disappointed that she wasn't liked by the others. And I also told her that her style and approach in class creates a lot of frustration for the others, and that I've seen students pulling back from her because she's so loud and forceful.

I still feel like it's not quite over, but I got a good lesson in letting go of others' potential perceptions of you and just being direct and to the point.


spldbch said...

I'm glad you were able to feel compassion for her. You didn't let some of the personal feelings you have about her get in the way of your ability to view her as another human being who is simply trying to be happy like the rest of us.

By the way, I'm still working on those questions. I've answered about five or six of them:-)

zendotstudio said...

To say the hard thing, the thing that needs to be said, but without anger, that is always the key for me.

I am glad you were able to approach what needed dealing with. It is always amazing to me when we shift our energy, how it ripples out into the world.

And how freeing it is for us. It is the act of doing, not the resolution that seems so important. The faith that yes, I can do this. No I am not trapped here.

I see movement and new beginnings but perhaps not in the way we traditionally think of them.

Anonymous said...


As someone who has been teaching English for the past 14 years, I have seen the very situation you describe a number of times.

I think that, of course, your approach was marvellous. You tried to understand where your students were coming from, and you kept communication open with both students and other teachers.

If I were to offer one piece of advice (I don't know if this is welcome or not), it would be that sometimes, in one's desire to "share power" in the classroom, it is possible to forget what many students want, expect, and feel comfortable with in a teacher.

By giving up too much control in the classroom, you can have a situation where things are unstructured, students feel insecure and exposed, and the space is opened up for the kind of students you're describing to step in and take over.

In my experience, students need to feel safe in class. Most need to know what they are meant to be doing at any given time and appreciate being encouraged to do it.

This doesn't mean any kind of stifling of their own creativity, communication, or fun - but it does mean that ultimately it is you, the teacher, that runs the class. And thus problems like this (one student taking up all of your time for example) can be soon identified and nipped in the bud within the classroom.

However, having said that, there have been times in my teaching life I've had to do exactly what you did this week! "If this student doesn't leave my class, I will!" LOL!

All the best mate and thank you for sharing this.


Algernon said...

Showing us once more that direct need not be unkind. Thank you.

Nathan said...

Hi Marcus,

Thanks for the comments. I completely agree with you about power issue in the classroom. I've tried to take an approach based on the dynamic of the classroom. When the class seems to work together well, and there's a lot of energy, I share the power more. And when the class is struggling, I'm more of an in front of the class holding the "stick" kind of teacher. This situation has been more extreme than any others' I have had over the years, so it's taken me awhile to figure out how to handle it.


Anonymous said...

Hi Nathan,

Oh, yes, of course. And I certainly didn't mean to suggest you are doing anything other than a fine job - which you clearly are! I hope I didn't come across as such.

I remember my most extreme incident ever. I used to work in Istanbul and it would sometimes happen that when a girl signed up for English classes here boyfriend would come along too. He had no interest in studying of course!

Well, anyway, this one time, the boyfriend refused to even pretend (as most happily did) that he was there to study. He sat at the back of the room and told me, in no uncertain terms, "I am here to watch".

I coaxed, encouraged, explained, left it, came back to it, discussed it, thought about it, and on and on.

At the end of the day I was lucky. I had a great DOS who came into class, took him out, gave him his money back, and sent him on his way!

LIke I say though, espcially for anyone with no experience teaching EFL or ESL, this was the one really bad experience in over 14 years teaching! Most of the time it's just a lovely job with really great people.

Wishing you all the best Nathan,