Joy to the World, the Semester Has Begun!

9 Oct

I was teaching about the difference between being boring and being bored the other day, and I posed a bunch of questions for the students to talk about with a partner, using other –ed vs. –ing adjectives. “Who is an exciting person that you know?” I asked them, along with, “Who do you know who is easily excited?” (Careful, Spanish speakers, excited isn’t excitado in most casesget your mind out of the gutter!)

Apparently these young folks don’t have enough excitement in their lives, though, because many of them seemed stumped about exciting and excited folks. I started telling them about my kids, and how everything excites them- airplanes, dump trucks, the moon, you name it. (Khalil gets up every morning, and points and shouts at everything he’s excited about until I name it. It’s the only reason I forgive him for cutting into my quiet/exercise time at 6AM.)

Finally one of my students said, “You, teacher! You are easily excited.” It wasn’t quite what I was looking for, but at least someone finally answered. And it’s true, I realized. I am so excited every day! I have way more fun at work than most people, I’m sure. Between my grown-up personality (which is somehow less jaded and more light-hearted than when I was younger- go figure), my kids’ contagious excitement, and loving my job, I am pretty damned excited about the universe.

I love my students. I love teaching. I love being able to use my Spanish language skills to instill my mad passion for language and communication and critical thinking into my students via their obligatory old English class. I love that I get to set an example of joy for lifelong learning with a whole bunch of helpless “victims” of my cause- 5 days a week, 4 times a day. I love my job!!! (Yes, I am using excessive exclamation marks, thank you very much, you punctuation snobs. I am expressing precisely how I feel, so there.)

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This is totally what I probably look like in class, except with a bunch of grown-ups in a boring, all-gray classroom. photo from: 

http://www.gettyimages.in/detail/news-photo/karen-renton-is-retiring-after-a-32-year-career-as-a-music-news-photo/477724468#karen-renton-is-retiring-after-a-32year-career-as-a-music-teacher-at-picture-id477724468

I’m starting my 3rd year with the curriculum that I helped invent, so I’m feeling extra confident- perhaps even just a tad cocky- about my ability to invent more and more fun and interesting ways to teach what I need to teach (on a good day, at least). On top of that, I’m a textbook extrovert who gets more energized and motivated after each class. And I have fabulous students this semester. “You say that every semester,” says one of my co-workers, jokingly scolding me.

We just finished up the two month-long introductory period for this year’s new students, and for that I lucked into really great groups again. “You say that about every group,” my co-worker said, rolling her eyes at me just a bit. Really, though, just about all the kids in their intro course are sweet and enthusiastic, so it’s easy to adore them. Even my three students who tested out of the course still wanted to participate- that’s the kind of innocence and awe these first-year students have at the very beginning.

My 12PM class of Biology students was really sharp, as the Bio students tend to be. But they were also really adorable. When they asked me if I was going to be their teacher for the fall semester I explained to them that I definitely would not be, because we rotate classes so that nobody has the same teacher two times in a row. I tried to explain why this policy is good for them: you get exposed to different accents, to different teaching styles, and if you dislike a teacher you don’t get stuck with them for a whole year. I refrained from telling them that the reverse applies for us; we don’t get stuck with a class we dislike for two semesters in a row. “But can’t we request you?” a couple of them asked hopefully. I wanted to tell them that it’s college, not Burger King, but nobody’s ever even heard of Burger King, so I shook my head sadly instead. Now every time they walk by my class, each one of them waves happily at me. “Teacher, we miss you!” they tell me (in Spanish) when I see them around campus. I’m enjoying it while it lasts.

My favorite thing in my 12pm introductory course, though, was my student with the disgruntled faces. While some students are always less-than-thrilled to be called on in class, this student was loathe to answer. She’d scrunch up her nose and make other disgusted faces every time I called on her for an answer or to read aloud. But I called on her anyway, sometimes saying all of the sentence aloud with her, one word at a time, pulling it out of her, pushing her along. But I forced her nicely, and I was constantly, jokingly reassuring her that soon she will love English. I noticed- and made sure to applaud her for it- that she was really good at reading comprehension, and better than everyone else at guessing the word’s meaning based on the context. I found out that she speaks Zapotec (one of the many indigenous languages around here), and publicly congratulated her on already being bilingual. By the end of the course she had changed her disgruntled faces to resolute faces, a sort of willingly-going-into-battle stance. And she joined the “Teacher, we miss you,” club. I absolutely called it a win.

My 6pm class was a tiny class of Forestry students. All 7 of them were kind and studious and interesting, as our Forestry students tend to be, in my humble opinion. My favorite class last year was also half-filled with Forestry students. Last year’s students- a level two group, no longer aiming to please the teacher- even came to a Friday evening class when the other half of their class was out on a field trip, just because I promised to make them popcorn to go with the educational video. I love my Forestry students- those guys and these new guys. (“You love all your classes,” I can hear my coworker saying with a jovial eye-roll.) Look at these Forestry students, though! In my introductory course, at the end of the final exam, each one of them came up and shook my hand as they turned in their exam. One of them, my little Guns n Roses-loving rocker, even hugged me. How adorable is that? Their little wanna-be-professional handshakes. Bless their little hearts. You know you’d love ‘em, too.

This semester- the start of the new school year- I have two first level classes. One of them is a group of Animal Science (Zootecnia) kids, known for their high energy and rebelliousness. If any of our students are coming to exams drunk or high (most of them definitely aren’t), it’s bound to be a Zootech student. My least favorite class at this university was a Zootech class with over half of them dutifully resolved not to learn anything, at whatever cost necessary. Their strongest tactic to evade new knowledge was to spend at least 20 minutes out of every 50 minute class outside. “Teacher, can I go to the bathroom?” was the only thing they mastered all semester. Some of them were still kind of fun when they were in class, though. The Zootech kids are their own little zoo.

My Zootech class this semester is ragingly high-energy, and blessedly enthusiastic about English. I’ve already had to remind them that all words are good to learn but not all words are good for English class. “Motherfucker,” for example, is great for Pulp Fiction auditions, or for your rock band, but not okay for our class. This 6pm class is full of jokers and inside jokes, after having completed two months of stressful introduction to the university together. I don’t get all their jokes- like the student they call Saul even though neither his first nor his middle name slightly resemble Saul. But I can certainly appreciate their enthusiasm. I love how I don’t have to tell them twice to get into groups or to practice talking about whatever we’re learning. Even my foursome who failed this level last year couldn’t resist asking “Have you ever…” questions the other day. So obviously, I love this class, too! (“See? You do say it about every class,” I can hear my coworker point out.)

Admittedly, I love my 10 o’clock nursing class, too, this semester. On the first day of class, when I had all of my classes make their own list of rules and suggestions for building a mutually respectful classroom, one of the kids in my ten o’clock class was already announcing dramatically, “Teacher, we love you!” How could you not love a class with students like that? More than half of my level one nurses are shy, according to my icebreaker/survey, but they’re comfortable enough with each other that they don’t need too much prompting to participate. One of them felt so comfortable that he wrote on his paper to me about himself, “Hello Teacher, I’m gay!” I was honored that he marked me a safe person for him to tell that to. (See? You love my classes, too.)

My level one students, who don’t know me yet, were surprised and impressed by my culinary knowledge, when I reported, for example, that my favorite Mexican food was “Chepil tamales with a salsa made of chile costeño.” (“Sí se la sabe,” said one student to another: “She knows her stuff.”)

In my level 2 classes, most of the students have been my students before and thus my reputation precedes me. I guess my credentials for Mexican slang knowledge and Spanish pronunciation still needed to be proven with a couple of my Level 2 nurses who hadn’t been my students before. “Teacher, how do you say refrigerator in Spanish?” one of my favorite students asked me in his impressive English, and I accidentally answered on autopilot before I realized his purpose- proving my pronunciation capabilities to another student. The new student was much more impressed by the slang I knew. “Teacher, do you know what pistear means?” I grin and nod, lifting up my fingers in the international sign of chugging an alcoholic beverage. I turn back to continue erasing the board, but I hear the same student saying, “See? She’s more Mexican than Gringa.” As if they expect us English teachers to somehow be living here in a vacuum, in which we don’t learn any slang or other relevant cultural things. Bless their little hearts.

Once I had a student tell me he was really disappointed that I could correctly pronounce the word for turkey (they don’t say pavo here- the word is guajalote, which sounds like wah-ha-loe-teh). While students partially appreciate my Spanish abilities in, say, their grammar explanations, I think they prefer to have some language points to feel superior about. I try to keep it in mind, although truthfully my spelling and vocabulary in Spanish is better than that of many of my students. (Because I studied my ass off in college, dear students, and because I love to read about like I love to teach.) But I digress.

So it’s true, I suppose. I do love all my students. I do think all my groups are fabulous in some way or another. I know, the two-month introductory period for new students, followed by the first week of the regular semester, is definitely the easiest part of the year. We’re all happy to be there and students aren’t yet overwhelmed.

But I’m pretty good at keeping up the mood when the going gets tough with my students. (How do you come to class so animada– excited, animated- every day?” my little newbie Biology students asked recently. Bless.) One of my challenges to myself that I started last year is to have more and more compassion for my students, and more and more respect for them, and for where they are in the learning process. Granted, I’m still the first teacher to ask folks to leave the room if they can’t stop disrupting other people. But I don’t hold it against them the next day, and I find things that I like about them anyway. In general I try to assume that students are doing the best that they can do, even if that’s not quite what I’d like them to be doing. I don’t know if that helps them much in the long run, but it definitely helps me to not be angry when, say, kids aren’t paying attention or haven’t done their work. It definitely helps me to be a happy teacher. I work with and know some pretty awesome teachers, and I definitely don’t think I’m a better teacher than other folks, by any means. (Besides, comparisons are odious.) But I get to do pretty much exactly what I want to do, the only standardized tests I have to give being the ones our team made, no excessive paperwork to fill out. I do think I’m enjoying my job more than most other folks. And I think that joy, like excitement, is often contagious. I don’t think that my students are going to switch from nursing to an English career, but if they can get through the semester and actually enjoy learning a thing or two, I’m calling it a win. And I’m publicly announcing that I love all my students! I love my job!!!!! (With plenty of exclamation marks, so there.)

5 Responses to “Joy to the World, the Semester Has Begun!”

  1. dedeeharrell October 9, 2016 at 7:19 pm #

    Julia, FYI:”Saul” is most likely a TV reference, Saul was a character on “Breaking Bad” who now has his own show “Call Saul”

    • exiletomexico October 10, 2016 at 9:36 am #

      Maybe so! I’ll ask them sooner or later. You know I’d never get it on my own if it’s a TV reference. Thanks!

      • fml221 October 10, 2016 at 10:05 am #

        Yeah, he was telling me all about it last night, and I was like, “Um, you need to tell Julia.” Lol

      • exiletomexico October 17, 2016 at 8:13 am #

        FYI- I found out that it’s actually a reference to someone from their intro class that was the only one that failed. : (

      • fml221 October 17, 2016 at 8:17 am #

        Oh, good to know!!

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