It has been a long time—too long—since I wrote The Perks of Being a Teacher / Part 1: Students. It was always in the back of my mind that one day I should and would sit down to write about the co-workers I had the privilege of working with as a teacher, which made teaching so much more meaningful and fun.
I believe there is a special kinship that forms between teachers as we go through similar issues: students who are acting up, parents who complain or blame, administrative officers who are not cooperative, classroom management, government requirements, the list is pretty much unending.
There’s something special about suffering together that bonds people faster and closer than a life of no worries. And trust me, the life of an average teacher is rife with reasons to worry or stress. But because there is such a rich mix of experiences, personalities, and methods of teaching by different teachers that we support and learn from each other in unique ways. So, yes, suffering brings us together. 😉
But trust me, we also know how to have fun! I loved having co-workers who were humble enough to share in suffering yet also knew how to cheer each other up. Even a short meeting at the photocopy machine or the blessed lunch break would be enough to refuel us. We would sometimes share crazy stuff that happened in our classes, a sweet comment by a student, or go on about our own inside jokes that might have started as we co-led some school event.
At the two schools I worked at, going out or hanging out in someone’s house was a regular way of letting off steam. At one particular school, I especially bonded with this friend with whom we would have impromptu meal dates, short trip dates, and music jamming dates.
I guess what I am trying to say is that as a teacher, I felt that my co-workers were not just co-workers. They were like brothers and sisters; friends; empathy-givers. Our relationship was strengthened all the more because we all had the mentality of serving to the best of our ability. No one was just trying to “put in hours.” We all had the common goal of providing the best sort of education we could to the best of our ability.
We all had our own share of weaknesses and lazy sides, but the engine of love for students was one and the same, and there was always something to learn from each other.
So, here is to all my fellow teachers, who laughed and cried with me, listened and shared with me, learned with me and taught me: thank you and I love you!
I realize I wrote mostly about the grieving or hard aspects about being a teacher. Thus, to communicate how meaningful and grateful I am for the last three years I spent as a teacher, I want to share some of the small and big joys of teaching. Because there are too many good things to talk about, I divided my experiences into several categories. This post will focus on the joy a teacher can have in her precious students.
My Angel Student
She was very shy. She was in my Spanish 1 class when I was on my first year of teaching. I know that as a first time teacher, I was bound to make mistakes, and in this particular class, I seemed to have no control over my students and I always felt frustrated. But whenever I looked at her, she would flash this angelic smile and it always strengthened me. Not only this, but when I met her in the hallways, I could tell she was genuinely glad to see me, and so was I.
One time, she was absent for many of my classes. Thus, I offered to help her catch up after school on a weekend on campus (she lived in the school dormitory). We met after lunch, and in the cafeteria, I taught her colors in Spanish. It took her a lot of time to understand because she wasn’t fluent in English or Korean. As I sat with her, explaining different concepts again and again, I was amazed that I wasn’t frustrated at her lack of understanding. It was because she was so genuinely willing to learn and trying her best; it gave me the strength and will to do my best to explain it again and again in a better way. In a sense, she made me want to become a better teacher. And when our session ended, she was all smiles.
As the semester went on, I ended up offering to buy her lunch on campus. We ate, talked, and as I was taking her back to her dormitory, she smilingly held my hand and put our hands in my coat’s pocket. It was such a sweet and innocent act of love that I just melted inside. I couldn’t help but think, “Wow, how come I get to have such a sweet student?”
If you thought this was enough sweetness, it was not. In her music class, they had to compose a song about someone they knew. And yes, she chose me. The song was simple and very touching, and she asked me to play the guitar as she sang this song. I gladly said yes, and we recorded it in the classroom. The lyrics still touch my heart and sometimes I feel undeserving of the lyrics she wrote.
Thanks to her, when times got tough, I had a fond memory to give me reasons to keep trying to be a better person and teacher.
Everyday Joy-Giving Students
There are many students that come and go through a teacher’s teaching career. And I realized that there’s this group of unnamed students who boost up your energy in small ways here and there. Here are some instances:
The student who gave me a precious piece of candy or shared some kind of snack with me to see me brighten up at their sharing.
The student who greeted me with a smile or a big wave even when not taking my classes (I was sad to see that many students stopped greeting me cheerfully once they stopped taking my classes, but the ones who did acknowledge my existence afterwards made up for all the heartaches)
The student who came to just tell me how their day was, asked me how my day was going, or noticed I was feeling sick or bad and made a caring comment about it.
The student whose eyes and body language told me they were thankful for the activities I prepared and were busy enjoying themselves in the lovely world of learning.
The student who encouraged and helped his/her peers with a genuine concern for that friend’s welfare.
The student who helped me sort papers and grade them at a time I was crazy busy.
The student who gave me hugs.
The student who wrote me unasked for and heart-felt apology notes.
The student who complimented me on days I wasn’t feeling pretty at all.
My Trouble Students
I have a few trouble kids (sweet and crazy students) who are all boys. These kids usually don’t have much interest in grades, enjoy having great fun, and have a certain depth in them. They are the students that brought great laughter and great drama into my day-to-day life as a teacher. Without them, my days would have been rather bland. All of these students started out pretty defensively against me. Their body language, their stare, everything about them said “I am planning on doing nothing in your classroom except for causing trouble.” However, time and genuineness brought what I’d like to think of as genuine friendship.
[Thoughts in parentheses about the trouble kids]
(In a sense, I wanted to influence these students in a big way, but I can’t say I have. Most of them kept getting detentions and would still get in trouble after they got close with me. And no matter what atrocities they committed, for some reason, I couldn’t not like them.
I felt like these kids had a lot of unanswered questions in their hearts and minds; which was why they were acting out. What I saw in their fierce eyes was a lot of untold hurt. Thus, I wanted enough wisdom and discernment to be able to provide an environment for them where they could speak out their fears, the things they felt were unfair, to express the desire for hope, or whatever else was in their hearts. However, I don’t think I did this well enough.
I wished there was a way that I could freely speak truth in love into their lives; I wished all of us as teachers got together to pray for them instead of labeling them as impossible kids. I wished their questioning wouldn’t be seen as defying but would be guided into positive curiosity. I wished I could have done more for them than I did because of how busy I was with the curriculum I taught, the activities I had to lead, and the legalities of being a ‘teacher’.)
Even though I feel like I haven’t impacted their lives as positively as I would have liked to, they definitely affected my life positively. Below are some instances where they made my life just a tad bit sweeter:
On my first year of teaching, there was this student who wouldn’t stop talking in my class. He had a very loud voice and was constantly distracted. I thought he hated all the activities I prepared for class and found them so boring that he was constantly distracted. Then, after the midterm exams, he came to me with a 미안한 표정 (an I-am-sorry-facial-expression) and said, “Profe Eli! I’m sorry! I’m so sorry! Next time I will do much better in the exam! I will be really good in class!” and hugged me as he said that. I was surprised at this because I genuinely thought this student was apathetic to my class and its results. I laughed and told him that he’d better behave better in class. From then on, our relationship got better and better.
There was a one-sentence note that melted my heart; written by a student who was particularly evasive of any positive talk. He wrote ‘3년동안 감사했습니다 (Thank you these past three years)’. And I was thankful he thought and wrote that to me because I was thankful to have met him as well.
Our school had an annual water balloon fight at the end of Sports Day, and when all the kids were busy throwing water balloons at each other, these two students made it a point to find me and throw these water balloons at me. It was more significant because I knew they were kids who preferred to be ‘cool’ and not mix with school activities.
Another student, whom I taught for one year only but got to know deeply, called himself my first disciple. I was taken aback by the word ‘disciple’ because I had never thought of being wise enough to be in the position of discipling someone. Even though he said it half-jokingly, it gave me great joy to know that the conversations, corrections, and activities we did together as teacher and student affected him to the degree of wanting to call himself my disciple.
*(I want to write a few more instances, or make them more detailed, but I think it might invade on someone else’s privacy so I will keep it short.)
As much as these students made some days really hard to teach, I felt like once we established a relationship, it was much moregenuine and respectfulthan many of the generic teacher-student relationship I had with many kids who were trying to be good to not get in trouble in my class. In other words, these students eventually saw me past the rule-giving teacher, and saw me as a teacher who loved them and therefore put certain rules and disciplines, and only then were willing to obey or try in a humane way. I guess in a way I prefer the questioning as long as it’s done in a respectful way that is seeking for truth. Isn’t this what God desires of us? That we ask, trust, and obey Him in this manner?
I believe students affect a teacher as much as the teacher affects the students. And I am so grateful to have met such precious students in my short teaching experience. They helped me know my strengths and weaknesses, and I know my life is now richer thanks to their input into my life. I hope and pray that from their interaction with me, what will remain embedded in them is Christ’s love, because I know I have learned much of God’s love through them.
I am crying out to God saying, “Why do I have such a multi-tasking, too-diverse job?”
It especially seems like end of the year is a controversy between “Hey, it’s Christmas season and it’s a jolly, jolly seasooon!” and “WHY DOES EVERYONE AND EVERYTHING NEED TO HAPPEN AT ONCE OR CHANGE AT THIS TIME, WHEN WE ARE ALREADY WITH OUR HANDS FULL?”
Everything is due at the same time (most of it given to me to due from last Friday and most of it due tomorrow or Friday, actually. Yay!):
Videos for an elementary event
Administering final exams for 4 different classes
Grading final exams
Yearbook publishing (I am in charge of logistics and looking over the creative aspect for students)
Ending our Sunlin Orphanage club logistics well (NEIS and Social Service Hours)
Putting in grades and comments in the blessed NEIS system
Putting in Homeroom stuff into the NEIS system
School curricular changes happenin’ faster than the speed of light from around November
Balancing middle and high school final exam schedule with normal elementary schedule while trying to keep my elementary students calm while doing a Nacho Party with them.
Some elementary students didn’t do a final assessment. Gotta reprint it for them and ask them to give it to me next week at the latest.
Non-school related stuff that is due very soon:
Ending personal relationships well:
HGU students who are graduating
HIS co-workers who are leaving right after school finishes
HGU-related random friends I have met
HIC life group members
Grad School Application (need to finish two essays)
Organize my stuff (what to give away and what to take with me)
As silly as this may sound, I am telling God, “God, next time I have a job, can it be a job that doesn’t entail teaching 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th grade Spanish, Middle School Spanish 1 and 3, High School Spanish 1, Speech and Debate, English, and Yearbook? And a job that won’t include so much administration work that is frustrating in its bureaucratic format? And a job that won’t make me be something like a homeroom teacher? (To clarify, it’s not that my homeroom kids are terrible, it’s just that I couldn’t fulfill the emotional/social aspect of being a homeroom teacher due to my scatter-brained status.) I just don’t know how much longer I can do this multi-faceted-need-to-be-social-job-kind-of-thing. I feel like I’m being mean and annoying to everyone, I have zero patience for anything, and I literally feel my mind going blank. Yet at the same time, thank you that my Spanish 3 class ended up being just 2 students (less grading!), thank you that my Speech and Debate class and Yearbook class don’t need to have Final Exams, thank you that Elementary Spanish isn’t really graded, and thank you that so far no one has rebuked me for doing a terrible job, because You know that’s how I feel most of the time. Please, please, can I have a non-애매한 job/stage for my next step? Or is the hectic-ness of my mind due to my lack of trust in You? If so, please help me hear You out because I really am going crazy. Help me to not be anxious, but to bring my requests before You in prayer and petition!”
(You might be thinking, ‘Hey, this must have taken you some time to write! Time that could have been well-spent doing the stuff you need to do.’ This is very true, but if I did not write this, I would currently be crying and going super-mind-blank. So, all in all, I needed to write this out in order to function better as a robo… I mean, human being.)
Today was an all-out “gray” day. I didn’t feel the joy or thrill of teaching. I felt like I was going through the motions. The whole day was a blur of busy tasks without purpose. In one of my classes, an image of a prison suddenly came to my mind as one of my students was a bit sick, and the rest of them were in goof-off mode. I wondered why I, as a teacher, had to force my kids to stick through the class inside these four walls. It was an image of infinitely high walls surrounding my students and me; we could not get out. And I wondered what would happen if I just let them have fun instead of doing class.
There are days when students don’t want to learn what I prepared; there are days when teachers don’t want to teach in the ‘prescribed’ way (a.k.a. the teacher has some lesson plan that we need to get through today). Where did the ‘prescribed’ way of teaching and classroom setting come anyways? Wasn’t it from the industrial revolution? Before that, those who were hungry for academic knowledge sought teachers out and learned, those with thirst for commerce knowledge went into apprenticeships, etc.
If the present educational model mainly comes from the needs created by the industrial revolution, isn’t this a very new system of systemized torture that we put on ourselves? Yes, I call it torture because we need to come Monday to Friday at the same times, study the same subjects in different time slots, and get graded for it (students) or prepare ‘lessons’ for grading (teachers). We put a system around ‘education’ that is more like an ‘assembly line’, except that instead of products, we are dealing with human beings. Obviously, if we have early-on thinkers, they will start rebelling against being treated like a machine early on. But instead of rewarding them or providing some other dignified option, we give them detentions, referrals, or whatever other form of punishment. But the machine-conforming kiddos we reward and love. I know this because I was one of them. I wasn’t excellent, but I wasn’t mediocre. And truth be told, this current system of schooling has not taught me much. What has taught me in spite of this horrible system are the amazing teachers, mentors, and professors I met along the way.
Thus, in the midst of this crazy, inhumane system, some teachers manage to squeeze in humane-teaching. However, on a tired day like this, I don’t even want to try. I’m tired of racking my brains to make something up so that my students, who were conditioned to accept this assembly-line-educational-system, might ‘enjoy’ the class.
Am I an entertainer? Apparently, that’s part of my job description. And yes, if I had 2~3 subjects to teach, perhaps I would be a better entertainer than now (I’m teaching ~10 classes plus other responsibilities). But, what then? What if I am an entertaining teacher? Why does it have to come down to that? Isn’t education supposed to be a tool for effective lifelong communication with society? So that when you grow up, you will have a voice, and know how to use it for the benefit of humanity? Why do we torture ourselves with this system? Why did we bring in the concept of “forcing children to go to school” into our world?
On my first year of teaching, I was shocked to find that 99% of my students came in with the assumption that I, the teacher, would come up with ways to “force” them to study Spanish. And if they didn’t complete a certain homework, or if they got a bad grade, they would say ‘sorry’ to me as if they were doing the studying for me, and it wasn’t about their learning at all. This mindset broke and still breaks my heart because even our ‘educated’ population is missing out on ‘education’. Honestly, I don’t want to teach if it means teaching hundreds of students who come in with the assumption that the teacher will try to force/squeeze in some learning into their brains. I would rather have any random person come to me eager to learn, so that we can simply focus on learning.
Did Jesus force his audiences to hear him out? Not really. God doesn’t force me to learn anything. He waits patiently. However, today’s educational system tries to force everyone to learn at the same pace and it considers you a loser or someone with some kind of disability if you can’t learn in that certain ascribed piece of time. I wish our educational systems allowed for more freedom; like God allows in our lives.
Lastly, the biggest feeling today is disappointment. I am not proud of how this year is ending for me right now. I literally feel my energy ebbing away exponentially and I am afraid of what I saw in me today. It was something near apathy. Even though my students enjoyed some of my activities, even though I laughed a bit here and there, there’s something in me saying ‘Just give up. It’s too much.’ It’s hard to try to care and advocate for genuine things because there’s such a current that goes against it. So today I feel defeated.
But! I am struck down, but no destroyed.
So I will take some rest for this weary brain and heart; even if that means that I am a worn out, not-entertaining-teacher, and ask God to help me be faithful in the mundane, so that a good harvest may come in due time.
I wish I had enough energy and resources to think through this in a better way. But for today, I am writing an incoherent, no-transition blog. It might not make complete sense, but here it is.
Many times, when people hear me explaining something, they say, “Wow, Eli. You are really teacher-material. You explained that so clearly and so well!”
While I am flattered and thankful for those kind words, I know every day as I walk into my classes that this is not true. Explaining something thoroughly to someone who wants something to be explained is one thing. Going into a classroom full of 10th to 12th graders, some of whom have no interest in Spanish at all, others who are studying this in a purely academic (a.k.a. like a zombie) way, others who are actually excited about the material but are slowed down by the rest of the class, some of whom just come to receive some sort of attention, is a whole different story. It requires a whole lot more of me than just having the “gift” of explaining things clearly.
To be what I would consider ‘teacher-material’, I need to be filled with God’s love every day in order to serve them. Patience to answer the same question a million times, perseverance in explaining to my students that I want us to make a positive learning environment together by asking questions, wisdom to make valuable and meaningful lesson plans, discernment in classroom management, etc.
Not only do I need God’s love to serve them, but I need it for myself every day. You see, my most persistent struggle is self-esteem. Too many times I want to put focus on how much of an inexperienced teacher I am, on not having prepared the best curriculum ever, on not having prepared meaningful learning, the list goes on. Because I am particularly insecure about myself and fearful about making mistakes, I am glad God has called me here and now. He has been revealing Himself to me in too many ways to count.
For example, when I think of how inadequate I am, I tend to go to my pity-party, where everything starts with “Woe, me…” But God firmly convicts me that this is no longer a thought pattern I am to go to. No more excuses! Instead, more of “I can’t, but it is no longer I but Christ. Have it Your way.” And the more this happens, the more freedom I experience: freedom in making mistakes, freedom in being vulnerable (and not getting scarred because even if I get hurt, I take my burdens to Abba), freedom in enjoying Abba’s delight in me. Yes, for some reason, I forget that key point: God delights in me. His joy is my strength. When I feel His pleasure, I can be most creative, bold, and loving.
Our 2nd semester of school is coming up soon. I will meet my lovely students again. Because He has proven Himself so faithful and loving each step of the way, my only prayer is this: Abba, may Your will be done ❤
Yesterday my Spanish 2 (from now on to be called ‘pumpkins’ because that’s what I call them every now and then ^^) had their finals. And I think we all had fun!
I mean, so far, the chemistry I’ve had with my pumpkins has been great. All of them (except for one student, but he has quickly adapted to our class dynamics) have been with me since Spanish 1 (last year), so they all understand how I want our class to roll: fun + learning + good attitude and integrity. And thank God, they are all on board. I must admit, they receive a stern rebuke every now and then, but overall they are absolute angels. They are enthusiastic learners with great attitudes. What more could a teacher ask for?
Now, for their final exam, I asked them to memorize any of the Spanish conversations we did during the semester, and told them they were free to change the conversations up a bit. I was ready to grade it, but I was very pleasantly surprised to see my sweet pumpkins not only excel in their conversations, but put their own flair and creativity into them. Even my most shy students did such a great job that I forgot I was a ‘teacher’ and that I was supposed to ‘grade’ them. Why? Because they went beyond grading by preparing not only the necessary Spanish to pass, but putting their own color into it. And better yet! They were enjoying it! We were all smiles and laughs as they said their crazy lines and some of them even acted things out!
Then, believe it or not, things got better.
You see, along with their written exam, I gave them a survey. In it they had to rate from 1 to 5 how I, as a teacher, performed in different areas. Amazingly, some students put a 3 or a 2 on ‘Right amount of homework’ because it was “too…less” or “we need more <3” (Indicating they were thirsty to learn more!!!). Some students asked if they could add a 6 to the rating system. Some students got even more creative and wrote numbers like 25,736,278,695 for ‘Overall satisfaction with the class’. (TOO ADORABLE!!)
And lastly, after they were done with the written exams, someone mentioned the possibility of doing Spanish 3 altogether next year and we all cheered at the thought of it. My heart still flutters thinking about the positive vibes we had during our final exam (I mean, normally, finals are supposed to provide a ‘stressful/strained environment’, right? Not in our class!).
I am not saying this to boast my teaching skills, because I know I have none of that (I am barely on my second year of teaching!). I am the least of teachers. Instead, I am sharing this gem of an experience because I believe it is getting me closer to the heart of education (my quest since graduating college!), which is not about grades, or getting into a great college, but learning something meaningful together with the students. Both teacher and students are learners in the classroom.
I am so grateful to be experiencing this kind of class environment because I know it is something that is jointly made by the students and the teacher. And every time my students understand my heart and I understand theirs, I feel like there is more mutual trust and respect going and coming from each other. And that, inevitably makes subject learning more fun and interesting.
As I was taking a walk, I ran into sweet B and his wonderful mom J. B is around five years old (Korean age 6 maybe). He is the most imaginative, honest, and energetic Korean-American that I know.
We were in the car and B offered his mom one of his cookies. He said, “All of the cookies are broken except for one. Do you want the one that is not broken?” And J said, “Yes, sure! Wow, B, you are so generous!”
“What is generous?” B asked.
J explained something along the lines that being generous meant to give even though you might not necessarily have in abundance.
To that I added, “It’s something like this: Your friend asks you for a cookie. But instead of giving him one cookie, you decide to give him five cookies. Then we can say, ‘Wow! That was very generous of you!’ “
After a bit more expanding on the meaning of this word, we drifted on to other conversations.
Then, out of the blue, B says to me, “Here, have this!”
And what I see being put into my hands is a whole bar of sweets. Both his mom and I start laughing with joy at this.
We both exclaim, “Wow, B! This is so generous of you! It’s too generous!”
B is beaming ear to ear. Soon he grabs some more sweets and puts them in my hands. I thank him profusely and say that he is very generous.
Then, we hear an honest confession that just make us love him more.
B says with a slightly despondent voice, “Oh, now I only have two sweets.”
Captivated by his honesty and generosity, I say, “Well, because B has been so generous with me, I want to be generous with him too!” So I give him five of the sweets he gave me back to him.
He gratefully receives them, but to my surprise, after a while, when we almost arrived to our destination, B puts four more sweets in my hands.
I ask him, “Are you sure? You gave me too many!”
And I can see in his eyes and mannerisms that he really wants to give me his precious sweets. I gratefully receive it and exclaim, “You are so generous!”
I learned so much through little B today.
We, adults, think we know what words like ‘generous’ or ‘love’ mean, but don’t make the connection of transferring the good words we know into action. But this five-year-old, as soon as he learns the meaning of ‘generous’, decides to put it to practice.
It wasn’t easy for him because he could see his beloved sweets dwindling in numbers, but he realized there is joy in giving; there is joy in not stopping at just “knowing” what a nice word means, but actually doing it! There was an eagerness to connect head knowledge with action.