A teacher’s voice - challenging, hilarious, touching moments and life lessons
Being an English, Literature and Music teacher turned freelance writer was initially a fear-filled step to take. I originally believed that there would be a great disparity between the two professions, one having more introverted inclinations than another; systems are also different, and some adjustment was, and still is, needed. Having said all that, though, I will always be a teacher at heart - being a teacher brings with it powerful memories that will always be cherished and never left behind. These memories harbor lessons that will be essentials for life. I also wish to provide a Singaporean teacher's unique perspective.
A Singaporean Teacher’s Challenges
The beauty of the teaching profession is that some experiences are universal - by that I mean that any teacher, anywhere would be sure to have certain run ins. Yet, there are some experiences that retain their Singaporean essence. I am very sure, though, that any teacher reading this will be able to relate to at least a few of these hilarious, sometimes angst-filled and yet heartwarming experiences.
A perennial struggle for all teachers, the problems of disciplining rambunctious students exist very much in Singapore as well. Any teacher knows that these encounters can make us experience the emotional paradox of both laughing and crying; these students can be so hilarious, yet make teachers want to tear their hair out. To illustrate the point, there is a must-have in every classroom - the attention seeker. And he tries to get attention in many ways.
A student in one of my literature classes was the classic attention seeker. He had the annoying ability of turning my statements upside down and adding to them unwarranted connotations. Take the example of the discussion of images of hills and valleys in a poem;I think I need not mention what went through his immature mind when he vocalized his rather - for the want of a better word - interesting thoughts.
Then there were the perpetual latecomers to the classroom - those who persistently provide the most ridiculous reasons for not being punctual. The most side-splitting of excuses, other than the usual bout of diarrhea and being edged out in the bus crowd - “Mrs. Liew, I’m allergic to literature.” Then there was the student who simply loved to imitate and irritate - try saying “Why are you so late?” and he would simply follow up with his rejoinder - “Why are you so late?” His mimicry literally tore my emotions into two frustrated and humored halves.
Homework issues were, of course, the order of the day - some recalcitrant students persistently forgot their assignments and it took two weeks and a couple of phone calls to parents to retrieve them from these lazybones.
Of course, there were the various bags of tricks and Attention Moves we had to put in place just to secure an unfocused student’s attention - moving closer to students, the use of voice and the use of the Broken Recorder Technique - repeating the same words and instructions over till we get compliance. These moves were, at times, very difficult to put in place especially when one had more of the challenging classes.
There was the most interesting - yet dangerous encounter I had - the setting of fire in the classroom by a few inquisitive, hyperactive students. All it took was a lighter, paper and a wastebasket - thankfully, the outcome of their meaningless activity was a burnt wastebasket and nothing else. This was, of course, followed up by spate of lectures on fire hazards and phone calls from myself and the Principal of the school to parents. All in all, the experience was nothing short of nerve wracking.
Such discipline problems are indeed universal - and the backbone of every teaching career.
Being a teacher, of course, requires involvement in all manner of projects - some of which were more challenging than exciting. Nonetheless, they presented learning opportunities I daresay will not be gleaned elsewhere.
The trend these days is to get students involved in environmental causes - hence the various “Paint A Dustbin” projects I was involved in over the last few years. The objective, of course, was to make dustbins attractive enough to draw people to use them - and to keep litter off the floors. Here was where students show cased their artistic skills - some of which were very pronounced!
When I enrolled as a teacher, I never expected that I would end up being the Music Teacher, organizer and the judge of Singing Idol Competitions - these being organized in honor of school and national anniversaries. The outcome was sometimes nothing short of hilarious - from the singer who persistently sang out of tune to the boys who threw sticks in the air in a haphazard manner as a form of entertainment. Though it was hard not to laugh, the sheer effort the students put in was enough to discourage any mirth. They took these opportunities for showing off rather than their own lessons, with utter and focused seriousness.
And there were the camps - countless camps. I must say that teaching taught me how to be a real outdoorsman - or woman - and I became pretty adept at ab sailing, kayaking and at the skill I least expected to learn - the Tree Top Elements, which required that I conquer my vertigo. I must say, I became physically more flexible and tougher, thanks to my students.
Being a teacher requires a person to be somewhat of an efficient Speedy Gonzales. I leapt from task to task with necessary speed and gusto, completing marking as I watched television (now parents, no stones please.) I often had two or three computers on at the same time to make task fulfillment that much faster.
And there was the running to class on time - going into complete disarray upon being late(which thankfully did not happen too often) and having to carry heavy loads of books to other classes upon period changes. Thankfully, the Singaporean student is a blessed help and voluntarily lends his or her kind assistance. Still, clumsy me kept dropping things all over the place.
Moving with initiatives
Teaching means that change is your only constant. Any teacher would understand the challenges of coping with school initiatives - and in Singapore, this is a paramount necessity in the constant quest for improvement.
For the slightly more experienced teacher, this can pose a myriad of obstacles. An amusing one I share was when I was involved in a school-based workshop on the use of Information Technology - an elderly teacher once thought that the disk drive actually functioned as a holder for a coffee cup. At that point, it was everything everyone could do to stop from laughing till their sides ached, including the teacher, who in the jolliest of manners simply laughed at herself.
There were also many Student-Centered Initiatives to get used to - and they came at an alarming rate. Cooperative Learning was the most difficult of all to carry out - breaking students into groups and trying to get them to listen to you while they were completing tasks was a challenge of discipline and classroom management which had to be accompanied with a bag of tricks like knowing how to use classroom timers, various hand and voice signals.
Overcoming the Home Language Barrier
This is what makes teaching English in a cosmopolitan nation such as Singapore ever so vibrant - and rigorous as well. Being an Asian country, majority of students would not speak English as the main language at home - they are more used to the Mandarin, Malay and Tamil spoken to parents and among friends.
Yet, English is the language of communication here in Singapore - one that has successfully bound the country’s eclectic mix of races and religions here together for 47 years. Teaching it when students come with varied backgrounds poses a beautiful and interesting challenge - the spelling, structural and grammatical language errors can doubtless frustrate.
The beautiful consequence of what I term the “English Teaching” endeavor would be - the weakest students turn out to show the greatest gratitude for your efforts - and stick by you through every Teacher’s Day!
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My Heartwarming Moments
To many, teaching is a thankless task one would not want to attempt - teachers correct mountains of students’ work, face a tide of disciplinary problems every day and have a host of supplementary lessons to conduct, on top of daily interactions with parents to discuss the progress of their children.
The thanks we get, though, on Teacher’s Day and even on birthdays, though seemingly trite, can be the beautiful rewards that we try so hard to reap throughout the year. The thanks become even more meaningful when the students who respond are the most difficult ones of all.
A student I once had, named B, was every teacher’s teaching nightmare. He turned the entire class upside down, inside out, sat atop tables and lockers intermittently and even punched a hole in the classroom wall. I lost my cool with this 14-year-old more than a few times - something I am not proud to admit.
The emotional reward I gleaned from this boy - he was the first one to give me a present on a teacher’s most important day - a rose shaped pen that showed his appreciation. His sheepish thanks for all that he had put me through and the half grin on his face is a memory I would not forget for a long time.
Life Lessons Learned - The Do’s and Don’t of Teaching!
Teaching means learning - lifelong learning. There are many skills we are advised to implement in the classroom - and I personally find these skills to be so useful in our everyday lives and work.
Skill A : Prioritize.
Like all other professions, teaching requires a delicate balancing act - what with managing the number of lessons we have to plan, students we have to attend to and projects we have to initiate. Put first things first - and never be stressed when many things come your way at the same time!
Skill B: Never Rush.
I have discovered, as both Teacher and Writer, that rushing is never a solution - it is better to stop and think through activities and projects than to rush headlong into them. There are so many consequences for every action - it is worse if we rush and overlook. As usual, it may be applied to all things.
I used to think that I had to cover as much content as I could in the shortest time possible where lesson planning was concerned - the more I did that, the less effective I was as a teacher.
Skill C: Always have a bag of tricks ready.
As a trained professional in any field, it is always wise to have a ready host of tricks up one’s sleeves - arm yourself with as many techniques and skills possible to counter any situation. I learned this very early in teaching, and this remains a skill I continue to perfect and master.
Teaching has its requisite jargon and tricks - Student Centeredness, Discipline, Cooperative Learning among a set of skills and pedagogies I would take too long to name.
Always be on the go to learn - it ensures that one would never be shortchanged.
Skill D: Be Prepared.
I learnt a phrase really early on - that readiness is our only protection. We need to have contingencies and have the necessary on hand to be in charge of any situation, and this can be easily translated to anything in life.
The lesson observations I did not do so well in were, of course, the ones I had no time or mood to really prepare for - going into class with no materials or resources on hand really puts a teacher in a bad light. Aren’t we always more comfortable when we are ready?
Skill E: Never be partial.
Never do anything, at any time that would appear as though one is being partial to a group of people - in a teacher’s case, his or her students. It can throw things into utter chaos.
Some students saw me as partial to a group of students when I gave them a treat - and that started a whole host of misunderstandings. It is not possible to be a mindreader - but we must understand that others have varied interpretations of what we do. That understanding helps build better relationships.
These life skills I imbibed as a teacher, I take into writing - there are always matters, teacher or not, that will remain universal.
A humorous look at maintaining discipline in the classroom
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