School’s Out, Let’s Shout …

… and so ends my teaching career. I have waited for this day since January of 2007. A year. It was just supposed to be for a year. Just a year and then I’d get back to real life, back to the career I hoped would come clear during my self-imposed exile from the New York City journalism scene. It’s clear. It’s time to go home, take what I learned from teaching and figure out a way to apply it to my non-teaching life.

Recognizing the Look of Confusion: I was never able to recognize this face when I was an editor. I took sloppy, lazy mistakes in my writers’ copy as insolence or disrespect. After 2 years of speaking to people who don’t understand me, I’ve learned to recognize how the eyes follow your mouth, as if hoping to read a translated transcript there. I’ve learned to notice when the neck bobs from straining to understand what you’re saying. How many times did my writers flash these telling physical signs at me? Our advertising company demanded strict adherence to a style format when producing reports and the rules changed weekly; no wonder they were often confused. This misunderstanding of their need for help is something I regret. You can’t be an effective communicator if you don’t know how to read your coworkers.

Breaking it Down: And speaking of communicating, teaching English as a Second Language has worked wonders for me. I’ve always tended to assume people think the same way I do but, apparently, my way of thinking of a lot more convoluted than the average person’s. It’s why I can’t figure out simple instructions. Or why I can’t verbally give directions. As an editor and a would-be-writer, this has caused considerable problems. Fellow workshop participants were at a loss when critiquing my stories because they had no idea what I was talking about – opting to forego any helpful comments and instead scrawl, “I don’t understand this” all over my photocopied stories. Likewise, my editors returned my reviews and articles asking, “What does this mean?” Well, it means x, y, and z – isn’t it obvious? Obviously not. These reactions to my work led, in part, to my developing writers’ block to begin with. Why don’t they understand my stories? Am I doing something wrong? Am I not a good writer after all? Enter my students, who froze each time I asked them “How come?” As an ESL teacher, you learn that when someone doesn’t understand you, you’ve got to back up and try it again. And again. And try it another way. And another way until it finally makes sense. So you meow like a cat. You flap your arms like a bird. And, eventually, you learn to simplify your speech. Gone is my twisted, experimental grammar. Gone are my mixed metaphors and triple adjectives. So much of the writing I’ve been inspired to do in Japan has had to do with explanation and description. Learning Japanese, too, has forced me to further simplify my thought process. I can’t say “I’ve been wanting a new pair of shoes like these” because I don’t know the grammar so instead I’ll say, “I wanted new shoes.” Shorter. Simpler. And finally, instead of “I don’t understand this” I get “I liked what you wrote.” Thank you, spastic students. Thank you, kind readers.

Exploring the Hulk Smash Reaction: I’ve always had  short fuse, especially when I sense disrespect. If a person is not listening to me as well as disrespecting me, I turn green, rip off my shirt, and smash things. It’s always been a problem for me. Before I started teaching, I “loved” children. Of course, all of the kids I had babysat had been good little boys and girls; they did as they were told and said cute things. Teaching ESL was my first experience with badly behaved children. I watched helplessly as my rage ballooned to new proportions. I left class on some days with the veins in my neck throbbing as I scrawled, “GET TUBES TIED” in my roll books. My angry reaction was a horrifying discovery, and one I’ve had to struggle to remedy. I’m working on it. I’m learning that some disciplinary strategies work for some kids and don’t work for others. I’m learning what things work for me and what don’t. Most of all, I’ve learned that it’s a process – and it’s one I’m glad that I’ve discovered now rather than the day little Lucia tells me my nose is big.

There are many other things I’ve learned, of course. How fascinating it is that everyone learns a different way. How rewarding it is to see a student’s pained expression melt with relief when he finally understands. How strange and beautiful my native tongue is. My conversations with my adult students have been my best window into Japanese culture. My experiences teaching ESL have provided me with so much great writing material that I can’t see straight due to the images swimming before my eyes.

Last week was my last week ever as a teacher. I’m thrilled. I’m also extremely humbled and grateful. I was never a great teacher, but I was paying attention the whole time. I may not have always had good students, but I had absolutely amazing teachers.

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