The Classroom

When I say I’m teaching in the school here’s what it means. The class is filled with 20-30 students. There aren’t desks for everyone, and if it’s the first class of the day some students inevitably have to wonder off in search of a chair. The chairs have seen better days—they’re covered in graffiti, their desk arm is broken, they’re a little crooked.

The classroom door won’t stay closed, so if I want to reduce distractions I have to prop a chair against it. All classrooms have chalkboards—they don’t always have erasers, so sometimes I use a broom. My school has a projector, but I haven’t worked up the courage to try it yet, mostly because I worry its setup will take half the class period. Between transitions in the school and holidays and any number of activities that get in the way of learning time I don’t want to lose time—it’s a useless obsession of mine to attempt to have no wasted time in my class, but it’s one of those unachievable goals I strive for anyway.

There’s always a group of students in the back who hardly (or won’t) participate. In the younger grades those students do their homework for the next class, and in the older grades those students listen to music, send texts, and crack jokes. There’s usually one student who wants to help, one students who simply disappears, one student who looks utterly confused, one student who looks on the verge of sleeping, and one student who looks vaguely interested. The rest of the class falls into those categories too.

Before Paraguay, I’ve heard it argued that teaching is a gift or that teaching is something you learn. From my time in the classroom I’ve come to a hybrid conclusion. The mechanics of teaching well is something you learn—through a somewhat painful process—and the ability to find the nugget that makes any subject interesting is a gift.

Each class I teach I think is better than the last. I haven’t got the teaching thing down flawlessly, but I have plenty of time to get there. I’m getting better because I’m seeing first hand what my students like and dislike. I’m also uncovering my own limitations. Language is a problem, so I’m learning what kinds of things I can explain and which ones are just beyond me right now. Not a class passes without me wondering if and how much better the class would be if I was fluent in the language.

I don’t see any value in fighting my students. My desire is to find a way where my interest in the topic of the class is contagious. I’m getting closer. The students are starting to get used to me—I wouldn’t say that familiarity is translating to greater respect but it is crumbling some of the barriers they put up between us when I first entered their classes. I keep telling myself that I have next year. I focus on listening to them. I want to know what makes them tick. I want to know what drives them. I reflect on every class and think about what worked and what didn’t work. I’m reading about classroom management. I ask other volunteers about their teaching experiences.

Looking back, I’m mystified how my high school teachers were motivated to enter their classrooms day-in and day-out for years. There is a wonderful energy that emanates from the youth in my school, but it doesn’t always make up for the hours of preparation and grading. I keep telling myself that I never know how I’m impacting my students. I like to think that something I talk about will stick, will make a lasting impression, will have a positive impact. But, I’ll never know.