Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Day by day

It is unfathomable to me that our second semester is coming to a rapid close and our final classes are this week. CMU feels natural. That striding and dancing in front of classes of forty students basically my age, has come to be exactly what I feel I should be doing. Why then is the semester wrapping up?

Over the last nine months I have come to love much about my new home – swerving between cars on my motorbike, slurping gummy rice noodles, struggling to reshape my mouth so as to make some of the more challenging Thai sounds. But I’ll say with utter confidence that more than anything else I have experienced here, I love the teaching and I love my classes.

Yes there are the frustrations – students not understanding, complications with the institution, the finer points of English grammar. Yes there are the worries - how do I explain a vocabulary word on the spot? Will a certain game or assignment work? Yes there is the loss of sleep – the hours spent grading piles of exams at coffee shops, or trolling through websites and youtube clips simply to compile a single hour and a half lesson.

But I would say that all of these are inherent to teaching. Indeed, in a perhaps ironic way, they are essential to teaching, because it makes those moments – a student’s dawning understanding, a game that gets students jumping up and down, even simple laughter – mean the world to me.

Last week I spent hours preparing a review scavenger hunt for my 202 classes. I had students racing all over campus – much to their incredulity – “we have to actually go all the way there?!” Seeing my three successive classes excitedly huddled in circles, flipping through textbooks and huffing back up four flights of stairs after finding a clue on the teacher room’s door made it all worthwhile and more.

In the last two weeks many of my classes have been devoted to presentations, and again and again I find myself close to tears with laughter. There have been the commercials advertising: “ghost wax” and “cupcake perfume.” The skits describing new products – a hat that makes you dance, exercise, or play guitar depending on the music played, and where the students slyly chose a “random” subject to test out the dance function…namely me. There have been the presentations where two of my art student ladyboys dressed and danced in the style of a “Traditional Thai woman from Rama V” and the other as a “Traditional Thai woman from Rama the IX” in order to discuss the changing roles of women in Thai society. Students have sung songs about condoms, lathered their faces with mustard yellow “magic cream” who’s secret ingredient was cow piss; they have impersonated terrible teachers to illustrate the country's educational failings, and they have serenaded us with guitars.

In my own struggles with learning how to teach I often seem to forget how hard English is to learn. I can get easily frustrated with the education system and with the language barrier that still stands partially erect between my students and I. But I think back to my own struggles with language first in high school and then in college. I remember hating to be called to answer questions, let alone to perform - so worried was I that I would make a fool of myself. In this last week I have watched all hundred and forty students of mine get up in front of the black board and put their all into not only practicing English, but doing so with confidence and creativity. I cannot be more inspired.

In the end though, it will be the small things I will miss most – the certain exuberant way one of my social science students greets me every morning, or how one of my art students will admonish the others to “speak English” in a copy of my tone and voice. It is that grin of a specific political science student who sticks out his tongue when he understands a grammar point or when something is particularly funny, or it is the exaggerated way that a collection of my art students greet me with when they stroll in ten minutes late. It is all the many personalities and characters, the class cohesions and the class quirks that I have been honored to take for granted for an entire semester.

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