Saturday, May 27, 2006

Teacherly authority

Today I had the lovely but depressing class who had so much trouble with their very basic homework last week, and one of the students gave a demonstration of how cooperative and dedicated this class is.

It went like this.

In that particular classroom there is no blackboard. It is in a new building, and they have blackboards and whiteboards in the better rooms, but I have been given what they have called, mysteriously, a Practice Room, which is oddly elongated and contains only a whiteboard. This whiteboard is far too small for the length of the room - the students at the back cannot see it very well - but still, I prefer it to the blackboards. I do not end up with so much yellow chalk dust to clean out of my nostrils at the end of the day. (How come the white chalk always runs out but there is always a huge quantity of yellow chalk?)

The biggest problem with the whiteboards is that nobody ever seems to replace the markers, so that you end up with half a dozen markers and none of them work properly. The supply office is on the ground floor, and while I try to remember to carry good markers with me, this doesn't always work. I use the markers in one room, and forget to put them back in my bag, so the next time I'm in a classroom with a whiteboard I am again markerless, and have to rush downstairs.

Today there were several markers but the only one that worked was a red one, so I used that. But then it started to fade badly as well, and although I had already rooted around my bag looking for a good pen I decided to give it one more try, and experienced a minor miracle. There was a blue marker right at the bottom of my bag.

This meant that what I had written, which was a very simple list of ways to respond to things people say, switched somewhere in the middle from faded red to bright blue. No problem, right? It was all legible.

As the students were copying what I'd written I wandered around the classroom, as I tend to do, and looking over shoulders noticed that one of the students, who was writing very carefully indeed, had copied not only the words but the colours. He had written the first part in red, and then switched to blue halfway through the word Really?. Re was red, and ally? was blue, just like it was on the board.

I nearly said something, but decided not to. What was the point? It would just embarrass him. But I thought about it as I continued my perambulations around the classroom. The student obviously thought my switch of colour had meaning, but what did he think it meant? Hadn't he seen me frantically searching through my bag looking for a new pen? Hadn't he noticed that the red pen had faded so much you could barely see it? Did he think I was searching for a blue pen especially so I could switch colours? What POSSIBLE REASON could he think I had for switching colours in the middle of a word?

Then I started thinking about what OTHER meaningless things I do in the classroom that the students might think are significant, and I began to worry. My god, is every single thing I do scrutinized for significance that the students are afraid of missing? I already know that my awful stick figure pictures of various things will be copied, with painful, embarrassing accuracy, by these students, but it hadn't occurred to me that the students were copying them so carefully because they considered them meaningful. I thought they were copying the pictures to laugh at, later. Do they think they will have to reproduce them in a test at the end of semester? Do they practice drawing like I do, do you think? And if the word really turns up in a test, will that student write it in red and blue?

To be taken so very seriously is frightening. If I think about it too much I will be paralyzed.


After my last class today, I managed to get away a little sooner than usual, and went along the corridor beside some classrooms on my way out. The sports classes are in the evenings. These students take their sports very seriously, but their studies not at all. Some of the sumo wrestlers had arrived for the English class, I noticed. Seven or eight huge blokes were in one classroom, sprawled over desks that looked suddenly midget-sized. They were sleeping deeply, and I had no doubt they would remain comatose for most of the class. I think what they do is practice hard all day, eat a huge dinner, and then arrive at their evening classes (starting at 6.10) just in time for a nice long nap. These guys barely speak in grunts even in Japanese. Trying to teach them English is famously hellish, and I'm very glad I don't have to.

As I carried on along the corridor a bunch of four more sumo wrestlers approached me from the stairwell at the other end, and as they got closer I started to feel nervous. They were very tall and built like brick shithouses. Their faces did not encourage friendliness. I think they are taught to look dumb and scary as part of their training.

I walked a little slower. They were using up all the corridor and making me feel like one of my own stick figures. I was too tired for confrontation, and wondered whether to chicken out completely and duck into an empty classroom. But then I thought, Hey, wait a minute, I'm a TEACHER! I have AUTHORITY! I didn't feel very authoritative, I must admit, but I also thought, And what if I end up having to teach them NEXT year and they already know I'm scared of them?

So instead of running away, as they neared I looked the biggest one in the eye, smiled, and said cheerily, in English,

"Hello! How are you?"

The effect was electrifying. Two of them shot past me, skidded to a halt at a safe distance, and turned to see what the alien would do next. The one I'd addressed dropped his umbrella and bent over to pick it up. The fourth stood there like a big ball of putty and stared speechlessly with his mouth open. I raised my eyebrows and asked, "Fine?" After a moment he grinned, nodded, and looked goofily pleased. He'd understood!

The one who'd dropped his umbrella fumbled and dropped it again several times. Bent over like that his bum looked like a mountain. I've never been that close to a sumo bum before, and even though it was clothed it was still intimidatingly huge. I decided I'd asserted my teacherly authority enough for one day.

"See you later!" I said, and walked on. I turned as I got to the stairwell, and they were all staring after me. I waved. They waved back uncertainly.

As I went down the stairs I discovered I was suddenly feeling much taller.


Kevin B. said...

Absolutely brilliant! BadAunt, this post is a perfect example why I love your blog.
Of course, I think my co-workers hearing the prolonged snickering from my cubicle will not improve my professional reputation...

Carrie said...

I agree with Kevin B. Brilliant. I just can't imagine a classroom full of sumo wrestlers.

kenju said...

Good thing you showed them who was boss...LOL.

StyleyGeek said...

I completely identified with the first half of this post! The more... let's say challenged among my students take me far more seriously than I want them to too! Fortunately they usually ask for explanations, but I can't count the times I've had to answer a "But I don't understand why you did X here and Y there" with "No, no! That's not important! It just happened that I [explanation]"

Just last week I had a student bring their notes up to me after class and say, "I don't understand why this formula is all on one line, but this almost identical one breaks in the middle and has the second half below the first half."
I had to think very hard for a minute until I realised that I had run out of room on the whiteboard halfway through the second formula, and had to write the end of it on the line below!"

And thanks for making me smile with the sumo wrestler story!

Pookie65 said...

The evil side of me wants to suggest that you not only change colors more often but start adding little drawings to replace words ;-)

But being the nice person that I am I can only say how wonderful of a teacher you must be to have the students try so hard to emulate you.

The sumo story was delightful -- as are you.

Have a wonderful weekend and thanks for the kind words you've left on my blog as late. It is so mice to have a bit of order back in my life.

Robert said...

I must be evil because I enjoy playing with the gullible students. I'll assign an essay (which I expect to be 400-600 words) and they'll ask me, panic stricken, how long it has to be. Deadpan, I'll say 7-10 pages, due tomorrow. The looks of horror before they figure out I'm teasing are priceless.