ESL. acronym for English as a Second Language. My classroom of residence for the past 10 weeks; also home to the cutest kids on the planet.
My term as an elementary ESL student teacher comes to an end this week. I’ve been camping out in the ESL room for 10 weeks now, working with kiddos in grades K-5. These are the stories that shine as I ponder this experience.
I think the gene for teaching the very small ones skips a generation. My mom is a rocking kindergarten teacher, and I spent Thursday evenings throughout high school watching her work with little guys at ECFE. And then my turn came. I sat at the tiny table with the tiny kinders, the ones who hold hands when they walk out of the classroom and tell me sometimes, “Miss C, you look beautiful today.” And I realized that I had no idea what I’m doing. How is teaching the alphabet, numbers 1 through 6, the question “What do you do with your family?” so hard? I planned lessons I thought were fine and showed up to have my squirrely group distracted and my timing off and my teacher reminding me to pick one focus and to keep them moving and teach behavior over content and do the whole thing differently. So I sighed a lot and kept trying and asked for feedback and wondered why on earth the simplest concepts in school were so dang complicated to teach.
And one day, lightbulb. We were working on numbers, and I was stressed. Math has caused me more angst than any other school subject, and the trend was continuing. But I tried. I found a worthwhile new game on the miraculous Internet. I thought through my plans. We moved through the activities “boom boom boom boom,” as my teacher says in her rapid-fire Chinese accent, and I saw that they had just enough knowledge to be successful but still struggle productively, and they were engaged in making independent choices the entire time, and they didn’t go bananas when I handed out materials. I overheard my cooperating teacher tell another teacher that I looked like a veteran, and I wanted to cry.
She did not say that every day after that. Some lessons, we spend more time practicing not kicking the table and keeping eyes on the book and not talking when it is not our turn than learning vocabulary. Some lessons, I still got reminders from my teacher to pick just one focus, and I wanted to say, “I’m trying! I promise! I am actually thinking about this! Why is that not clear?” But there were shining little moments, where I asked the right questions and had good pacing during drawing time and used helpful visuals, and I saw a glimmer that I was doing some tiny thing right. I saw my mistakes, stopped agonizing over them, and did better the next time. Try and fix and try and fix and try and fix. That is all I could do. That is all I needed to do.
The 2nd graders caught the giggles a few weeks from the end. The entire time I was videotaping lessons for assessments, they were golden. They were engaged and curious and only occasionally distracted. Classroom management? Why would I struggle with classroom management? said the prideful one before the fall. Because then the honeymoon ended. And they caught the giggles. A sentence about a character named Eric and his parrot triggered laughter. A little dude’s deep, throaty impression of The Voice of the Mountain caused explosions. One girl’s slouching so low she nearly fell of her chair provoked giggles. And I’m all for laughter, but not when it does not stop. In my last week, we had serious talks in my teacher voice about what it looks like to be active listeners. The skills were practiced and modeled, the reminders were given, the countdown to quiet was attempted, the consequence of taking a break in the hall (horror of horrors) was in place. I thought that maybe, just maybe, I was making some headway. And then I told the kids it was my last day of teaching them, one of my dear distracted dudes said, “Aw, now we can’t be weird anymore!” And I realized that they knew. My newbie status had been found out. I wanted to laugh and cry and possibly send the kid back to Vietnam. (I kid, I kid.)
I realized that maybe I’d screwed up. Maybe I’d been a little too chill. Maybe I’d let the consequences go unenforced for too long. Maybe my teacher would take over and wonder what in the heck I’d been doing for eight weeks. And it would be okay. The world would not end. The kids had still learned something. I could smile. I could fix it next time.
I started stepping away from classes this week, to observe how a rockstar 1st grade teacher manages her classroom and what upper-grade Language Arts teachers do for context as I step into 7th grade English. On bus duty, telling kids to “Walk down the stairs, no, you come back and try that again, that is not how we walk to the bus,” my cutie-pie kids waved at me. They missed me. They asked why I wasn’t in class and if I would come back and teach them tomorrow. My 3rd graders, the ones who always ask “Can I tell you just one thing?” which is never just one thing, check every day now when I’m leaving. One of them made sad faces at me when I watched my cooperating teacher teach their class and hugged me when I walked by in the hallway.
I look back, at the moment on the video recording of one lesson when all of the students leaned in close over a simple experiment, curiosity piqued. At the time when the brand-new kid used the words “my brother” for the first time in conversation. At the look on the 4th grader’s face when he found out we were writing letters to the principal, and that she would actually read them. At the quiet embarrassment of the kiddo translating his own strengths and challenges into Spanish for his mom at conferences. At the questions of the 1st grader, who requested, after some stubborn prying into my personal life, “Can’t you bring your boyfriend here, so I can meet him?” And I tuck those snapshots away. In the middle of this placement, I got restless, so ready to move beyond ABC and 123 and truck-car-train. In my hustle, I forgot that this time has held sweetness.
Sure, it’s been complicated too. I have been challenged and passionate and bored and confident in the same morning. I am sad to leave the cute little faces and the setting that’s become familiar, class by class, but I am ready to move on. I want to make a big dramatic stink over this, but this messy ball of feelings, the way things move on before you’re ready and after you’ve been ready for forever, is life. And life involves beginnings and endings, changes and transitions, hellos and goodbyes. All I can do is name the good and the hard, and let them quietly change my heart.
So adios, kiddos. May you always be adorable, and may your vocabularies always be increasing. Thanks for teaching me more than I taught you.