On Teaching

The first day I twisted a tie around my neck, slipped into my suit, and wrestled on a pair of sober, sombre socks, I felt a nervous jolt of energy. After waiting around interminably for 3 months to receive my National Service enlistment notice, I realised I wouldn’t be able to enlist in the February cycle, which meant the earliest I could enlist was in May, another 3 months later. I decided to find a job in the meantime, if not to earn some pocket money, then to occupy myself gainfully. Having been a student for 12 years, a sense of industry and a yearning for productivity have been somewhat ingrained in me; while I enjoyed the lull of late mornings and long afternoons, my enjoyment was tinged with a nagging unease that time was slipping by and that I needed to make the most of this period, this borderlands between carefree adolescence and hectic, burdened adulthood.

I submitted my resume and went for job interviews, and a week later, I started work as an English relief teacher at a tuition centre. Starting work seemed curiously like an extension of my schooling life. I was once again awake at 7am, I had dress codes to abide by, and there were assignments to complete, proficiency tests to sit for, training lessons to attend. As I prepared for my very first lesson, it felt as if I was doing research for a school presentation. I found the definitions of difficult words in comprehension passages, I brainstormed ideas for creative writing prompts, I collected videos to pique students’ interests in topics like drones, art, technology. Basically, I did my research judiciously and academically, like a student would. There was definitely the trepidation of stepping into unfamiliar territory and the pressure of having to know everything – I was especially worried that I would misspell a word like ‘manoeuvre’, or struggle to explain the difference between ‘who/whom’ – but the challenge felt mostly academic, in the sense that all I had to do was research content, understand concepts, and present ideas.

I taught my first class to a group of Primary 6 students. Five minutes into the class, after I had introduced myself, a boy raised his hand.

“Nice suit,” he said. A chunky G-Shock watch hung along his outstretched wrist, and a small logo of a polo pony strained against his chest.

“Thanks,” I replied.

“But your sleeves are too long,” he quickly added, with the critical air of a connoisseur.

Unsure of how to reply, I smiled awkwardly and hurriedly returned to introducing the scope of that day’s lesson. It struck me how out of place it felt to be a teacher. The difference in dress codes – suit and tie as opposed to slippers and t-shirts – is the most visible way teachers are separated from their students, but the gulf of knowledge and maturity also erects a veritable barrier between teacher and student. Of course, teachers should be more knowledgeable and mature than their students, but the paradox of teaching is that teachers have to relate to students, to see and empathise with their world view, while simultaneously rising above, teaching concepts that are as of yet inaccessible to students, and imposing order on the free-wheeling anarchy of the classroom. Once, as I was going through the structure of a narrative essay, two of my students inexplicably started grinning, then jabbing each other’s ribs, before crescendoing in bursts of hacking, grating laughter. Unable to continue my lesson, I gripped my whiteboard marker tightly as I contemplated the dilemma between telling them off and restoring order to the lesson, or trying to be let in on the inside joke and winning their support as a fun, understanding teacher. After the lesson had ended, I asked some of my colleagues for advice, and I gathered that, as with everything in life, there is a delicate balance to be struck, and that controlling classroom dynamics is an art, not a science. But like any other piece of cliched advice that begins with “as with everything in life”, this wasn’t too helpful. What I found more helpful was the advice of a senior teacher, my designated mentor at the tuition centre, who told me to picture myself as the alpha male, the pack leader of my students. Earn their respect and relate to them, she advised me. But most importantly, remain in control.

It seems almost truistic that good students make good teachers – that’s why outstanding A-level graduates are highly regarded as tutors, and why we sometimes attribute the stellar performance of our education system to the fact that teachers are hired from the top 30% of the cohort. But teaching, especially to primary school students, quickly becomes less of an academic exercise than a test of patience, passion, and student psychology. It was frustrating to have prepared an extensive and enriching lesson plan, only to have to cut it short because time was spent restoring classroom discipline. And even if I managed to say what I wanted to say, between all the chattering, fidgeting, and bored looks, I could never be sure that my students had understood what I wanted to convey. It felt like being a mute singer, a fingerless pianist, or a debater who speaks so fast that no one can understand him.

Every Saturday afternoon, I taught the same Primary 5 English class. I dreaded Saturday afternoons. It was a perfect storm – there were rowdy students, the class was held in a long, rectangular room that forced me to pace up and down to monitor all my students, and it was often the 2nd or 3rd lesson I taught on Saturdays, so I was already tired before the lesson begun.

The broken windows theory hypothesises that petty offences like vandalism or breaking windows create an atmosphere of lawlessness that beget more serious crime. After a few Saturday afternoons, it dawned on me that my rambunctious and riotous classroom was, analogously, the cumulative effect of ‘broken windows’, or in this case, the stolen whispers to desk mates or the occasional wisecrack. That class was among the first classes I taught, so in my inexperience, I failed to correct those warning signs of misbehaviour. By the time I realised that I needed to take a stronger stand, it was already too late. On the advice of my colleague, I tried setting down ground rules at the start of my subsequent lessons, but it was barely 30 minutes before my stern warning to follow the rules had been forgotten. There was a pair of boys who, being equally mischievous and disruptive, I could never differentiate between, and they wrecked havoc.

One of them thought it hilarious to question everything I said.

“The definition of congested is crowded,” I would say.

“Or is it?” He retorted, not loudly enough that I would tell him off for being disruptive, but still loudly enough to be audible.

And soon that came to punctuate almost everything I said.

 

What frustrated me the most was that there were students in that class who genuinely wanted to learn, but weren’t able to do so because of those rowdy students. On one particularly noisy afternoon, after hearing one too many “or is it”s, a girl screamed at the boy to shut up. I really wanted to reprimand the boy, and assure the girl that there would be no more disruptions to the lesson, but my attention was divided, for a squabble had erupted on the other side of the room, and pens were being thrown onto the floor. As I rushed over to settle the dispute, the girl whined, “My previous teacher would never have allowed this.”

Amidst all the ruckus, I gazed wistfully past the glass doors at the classroom opposite mine. The teacher sat serenely at one end of the classroom, and her students’ heads were bowed reverently, scribbling on their worksheets busily. Every once in a while, a student would walk over to the teacher’s table to ask a question. No sound was audible from that classroom, although perhaps that was because my own classroom was too noisy.

*

On my off days from work, I ran intervals on a small road beside my house. In the breaks between each set, I would pant heavily, sucking in air so hard that my nostrils flared, and expelling air from my mouth with deliberate force. As I ran back and forth along the alley, it seemed that no matter which direction I was running in, the wind always seemed to be blowing against me. Grimacing after each run, I would think about when my sore throat would finally recover, about how to manage the class come Saturday afternoon, about how our lives are often so difficult and stressful.

I certainly didn’t feel like a pack leader.

*

The thing about teaching is that while it can be disheartening and extremely bad for your throat no matter how hard you try to ‘speak from your diaphragm’, it is also at times exciting and rewarding. I’ve always loved the rhythm and sway of an elegant, powerful idea, and being a teacher gave me the opportunity to a be curator of ideas. There were classes which I struggled to manage and exhausted me after just 2 hours, but there were also classes which were eager to learn, classes for which the challenge wasn’t enforcing discipline and conformity to rules, but encouraging classroom participation and expanding my students’ realm of possibilities. Those were the classes I enjoyed teaching.

Among my most gratifying experiences as a teacher was a Literature class I taught to a group of ACSi students. Before the lesson, I had been warned that this class was notorious for being rowdy, so I entered the classroom with a deliberate sure-footedness that belied a vague apprehension. Seated shoulder to shoulder were over 10 tanned, muscular teenagers, the words ‘Canoeing’, ‘Rugby’, ‘Track and Field’ emblazoned across their shirts. But as the lesson progressed, and I delved into my interpretation of the poem, a quiet calm descended upon the room. The students were so involved in the lesson, so cooperative, that I had the space to think. To think about how best to explain and justify my interpretation. To think about how to answer their questions without a dull drone of voices niggling in the background. In that surreal moment, I was sure that was what teaching was supposed to be – a teacher sharing his ideas and world view, and his students analysing them with an open mind, blending in his own ideas to create a rich potpourri.

As a teacher, I sometimes saw a bit of myself in some of my students – the vigour, the enthusiasm, and drive to learn and improve. And so I always strove to prepare my lessons well, filling them with ideas that had fascinated me as a student and continue to fascinate me as I learn more about them. In one lesson, there was a student who contributed particularly zealously to classroom discussions. When I spoke about how robots have been programmed to create art, he eagerly joined in with a recount of how he had designed a robot to pick up Lego bricks at school. Midway through his story, his classmate motioned for me to lean closer, and whispered in my ear.

“He’s always like that! My teacher always finds him irritating,” he said.

As he continued to share his personal stories throughout the lesson, his classmates would shout at him to keep quiet, and tell him that no one understood his stories. He smiled at their remarks, and from the fact that he continued talking anyway, he probably wasn’t too affected by their criticism, but I felt a strong sense of indignation and injustice on his behalf.

“Be nice to your friend! At least he’s sharing his ideas – how about you?” I said.

That silenced their criticism for the rest of the lesson, and I felt quietly happy.

As my last lesson drew to a close, I reflected on my past 3 months as a teacher, and wondered briefly if I should tell my students that I would be leaving, and thank them for being such a fulfilling bunch of students to have taught. But then it felt weird to terrorise those hapless students with my effusive schmaltz, so I hesitated, and they filtered out of the classroom when the lesson ended, none the wiser. I didn’t tell my students it was my last day partly because I wasn’t sure what exactly to say, and I was afraid it would be awkward, but also partly because, at that time, that phase of my life didn’t seem like that big of a deal. In some aspects, that’s true. I’m still not good at managing rowdy students, and I can’t say that being a teacher has been radically different from my life as a student.

 

But being a teacher has made me confront my inadequacies and insecurities. It has made me feel uncertain, stressed, disappointed, irritated, inspired, happy, excited, hopeful, worried. And it has thrown the veil off the mysterious, stern, and businesslike face of the teaching profession, and made me realise that teachers, too, are human and fallible, that teachers are sometimes affected by their students more than they show, and that as a students we owe a deeper gratitude than we realise to the very best teachers who care.


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