Anecdotes from the Classroom

I retired from teaching just over two years ago. I spent sixteen years in the the trenches, mostly teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) but also two years as a secondary school English teacher. Some days I miss it, some days I don’t.

Image by Kevin Phillips from Pixabay

Lately I’ve been thinking about some of the kids I’ll never see again. There was the 14-year-old girl in Pusan who would bring her small robots to class with her. There was the young boy who had the most inquisitive mind, and who drew knowledge from me that I didn’t know I had. There were the musical prodigies, the kids who hated being there, the inevitable kid who had a crush on the teacher and couldn’t hide it… Many of these ‘kids’ have now doubled their ages. They’ve started careers and maybe families, and I’ll never know.

That’s part of being a teacher: Giving your best and sending them on to their future. We’re just one station on their journey. You don’t get to know what that future will turn out to be.

Here are a few that I’ve been thinking about recently.

I had a student, about 11 years old, who was the perfect student, engaged, happy, contributed well and in fun ways – as long as you didn’t try to get her to read. Then she became a holy terror. She would do anything to get out of reading aloud, including, once, punching the teacher (me).

I spoke with her parents (they’re paying good money to send her to a top language academy. This needs to be addressed for her to progress). Her mom knows this happens but doesn’t know why. Her school counsellor suggested it was some psychological aversion (?).

I did something we’re not suppose to do; I suggested the parents have her tested for dyslexia. I wrote it out on the board so she could take a picture of it. They’d never heard the term, it certainly hadn’t come up with their daughter’s school counsellor.

A few classes later, the girl shows up wearing glasses, all smiles. “Hi teacher, I have dyslexia!”

“OK, we can work with that.” I had a font that was supposed to be easier for dyslexics to read. I started printing a handout in that font for her (if I gave it to all the students I’d’ve had to explain why we were using an odd font.) I also had a list of all the famous dyslexics to show her that it wasn’t a tragedy to resign oneself to.

Her mom thanked my manager for my suggestion on being tested for dyslexia, and since we’re not supposed to do that, I got “talked to” and told not to do it again.

I had a new class of teenagers. When I walked in on the first day, one of the boys was barking. As I called the class to order and started taking attendance, he continued barking.

I walked around, calling names, and when I got to him, asked quietly, “Can you control this?”

His tone sounded panicked as he answered “No.”

“Ok,” I walked away. Apparently, he had a form of Tourette Syndrome. I figured it got worse when he was anxious so I tried to take the anxiety out of our encounters.

We tend to think that kids with disabilities are somehow model students otherwise. He wasn’t. He was one of the class bullies.

At one point, I sat down with him. I told him that I’m never mad at him for the sounds he makes, but if he didn’t behave properly in class, I would get mad.

This was a surprise to him. I guess a lot of his teachers gave him leeway because of his TS.

He started behaving better in class after that.

I was teaching nine-year-olds in Korea. One day, one of the boys, who had never been trouble before, started acting up. He wouldn’t pay attention and he was disrupting the class. I ended up having to raise my voice with him.

Class continued. I didn’t punish him or isolate or in any way treat him differently from before.

The next day, my Korean manager calls me over. The boy’s mom is here to talk with me (When this happens, I’d speak in English to my manager who would translate for the parent). Apparently the boy came home crying, believing that I now hated him and wouldn’t let him back into class.

I told my manager that the student was fine; He was a just a boy. Sometimes boys that age have too much energy and don’t know how to control it. I had to raise my voice to get him to focus. Each day is a clean start. I wouldn’t be upset unless this became his new normal.

Having said all that, I asked the manager to translate. “Oh, she’s fluent in English. I don’t need to translate.”

So I turn to the mom to see if she wants to ask any questions. “Thank you, you are a good teacher.” And she leaves.

That’s the highest compliment.

Again, teaching in Korea, I’m in the grocery store when something very common but very annoying happened:

“Stephen-Teacher!” A man is calling out to me. “You teach my daughter. How is she doing?”

“What’s your daughter’s name?” I have sixty students, about half are girls. Perhaps I can figure out who he’s talking about.

“Jenny.” I have seven girls named Jenny across my five classes. I tell him this, ask for more detail, meaning which class, which days. “She’s about this tall,” he answers (The same height as most of my students) “and has straight black hair” (Just like every girl her age).

Me, still with no clue who we’re talking about, “Oh, yeah, Jenny. Yeah, she’s doing fine.”

Of course, this wasn’t good enough. “But what more could she do?”

Korean kids don’t get to have enough fun, at least not back then. “She could exercise more… maybe ride her bike or play soccer with friends. Something to help clear her mind, get some fresh air.”

“Oh?” He walked away disappointed.

I walked out of class into the usual confusion that was end of day. While many kids took school buses to and from the academies, others were dropped off and picked up by a parent.

Note that each class has a camera in it and parents are allowed to watch classes through the monitor in reception (instead of standing at the classroom door, distracting us all)

A mother comes up to me, being followed by our manager, who has a panicked look on her face. The mom speaks to me, very upset. “Teacher, you asked every student 3 questions except my daughter. You only asked her two. Why?”

“Oh, it was obvious that your daughter understood everything. I needed to check that the other students were as smart as her.”

Happy mom walks away, manager looks at me with confusion. “Really?”

“I don’t know… who’s her daughter?”

Before I come off sounding too full of myself in all these anecdotes, here’s an embarrassing one.

I had a young student, I think he was 10, again, perfect: Engaged, fun, great on team work, excellent scores and talkative but not dominating conversations.

Then one week he comes in and he’s a different kid. He’s sullen, vacant, lost. This goes on for a couple more weeks (I only see his class on Sundays).

He’s young enough that he can’t leave after class until a parent shows up. So I wait around, find his mom and ask to speak to her.

I tell her what I’ve observed, then ask a stupid question, “About three weeks ago, did his dog die or something?”

“My mother, his grandmother, yes.”

I apologized, a lot.

We talked on about how this was the first time he’d experienced a death in the family. She said they had talked to him about what had happened and he said he was fine.

Apparently he was putting on a brave face for them that he couldn’t sustain when he was out.

He did come most of the way back to normal eventually, but he’d aged a bit (or perhaps matured).

One more: Even more embarassing.

It was literally my first week teaching ESL in South Korea. I wasn’t used to the culture at all and was probably still a little jetlagged.

One of the boys in class (10/11-year-olds) won’t stop talking over me. I’m going through an escalation of responses … “Ok, time to listen… ok. stop talking now .. ok, be quiet …” Finally I said, “Will you shut up?”

There’s loud gasps from all the students. One of the girls says, “Teacher swore!”

“No I didn’t.”

“You said the ‘sh… word”

“I said ‘shut up’” Large gasp again. “That’s not swearing, ‘Shut the f*ck up’ is swearing.”

Yes, I actually said that, to a class of ten- to eleven-year-olds.

I don’t know how I didn’t get fired, but no one ever mentioned it to me, not a student, not a parent, not my counsellor, or manager.