“The word ‘education’ comes from the root e from ex, out, and duco, I lead. It means a leading out. To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul.”
-Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1999)
In the past two weeks, I’ve clocked a total of 60 teaching hours.
In a month’s time, I will have reached my one year anniversary of being a teacher.
In hindsight, it doesn’t feel like that much time has passed, which I guess is a good thing. Time flies when you’re having fun and all that. If anything, I find it scary how quickly time flies by these days.
Every morning, as I make my way up a semi-slope that leads to my workplace, I feel like a walking locomotive chugging a brainload of stuff, some useful, others confused, but mostly just mush.
As usual, I blame the heat. Blame everything on the heat – that’s the mantra to get by in Hong Kong summers. At least for me, anyway.
There’s something very British about making a scapegoat out of the weather, and by dint of that postcolonial gene, I suppose Hong Kong weather lends itself well to this purpose.
The classes were fun to teach, but at certain points, I found myself flailing to communicate some ‘big picture’ ideas, which is embarrassing for someone who spent three years on a degree that’s mostly about communicating ‘big picture’ ideas. I mean, you try explaining ‘love’ to a bunch of 10-year olds, whose responses to “what is the one thing you’ve felt most deeply about in life?” are “POKEMON!” or “DUCKS!!” or “basketball” (okay, legit) or just a silent, blank stare, followed by the dreaded –
“I don’t get your question, Miss Jen.”
If you proceed to let them in on that time when you fell in and out of love as an example of the Boethian rota fortunae (an anecdote you’d never tell with as much theatrical passion in front of friends and family), expect to see everyone miss the point of your illustrative teaching and start giggling themselves silly while chanting the cheesy playground song:
Miss Jen and *bleep*
Sitting under a tree
First comes love
Second comes marriage
Then comes a baby
In a baby carriage!
But anyway, whatever gives the class energy a boost is good stuff, even when it means having to pull embarrassing tales out of Miss Jen’s Arse-eh, Arsenal of Awesome Anecdotes.
Practising empathy: Teaching literature to strong and weak students
What’s arguably more difficult than explaining big ideas to small kids, though, is teaching ‘difficult’ literature to linguistically weak students. In one of the more advanced courses that I taught, there was quite a wide discrepancy in student ability. All six were around the same age, but while three of them went to international schools and sounded more like Californians than Cantons, the other three came from local Chinese schools and had trouble pronouncing words with more than two syllables.
Had it been a reading class where everything plays more by the book (literally), perhaps the difference in standard would have been less evident, but because this was advanced level writing, the curriculum covered topics like Aristotelian rhetoric, the use of metonymy in Victorian prose, cultural patois in American diaspora lit etc., which I think the weaker kids found overwhelming on the whole.
Now that the course has ended and I’m able to put my empathy goggles on, I suppose their experience would have been like me – an elementary Spanish speaker – attending a seminar on Cervantes’ Don Quixote delivered entirely in Spanish.
My classmates would be fluent Spanish speakers/native Spaniards, so whenever I open my mouth to fumble for the right word to say in discussions, everyone will click their tongues in impatience because they cannot understand why I struggle so much to say what I want to say – because, well, they can say it no problemo.
As a result, I either die trying and drag the lesson pace down and feel mega self-conscious afterwards, or give up out of frustration and say no entiendo to everything, which only ends up pissing the teacher off, who thinks you’re just not trying hard enough.
I’m not going to lie, navigating that class was like pushing a broken, heavy wheelbarrow down a high-speed rail track.
What Jonathan Swift and Miley Cyrus have in common, and why John Donne is hilarious to Hong Kong kids
At times, there were sparks of brilliance; it’s just that they came almost entirely from the stronger students.
For example, in a lesson where we looked at the use of enumeration and cataloguing as speech-writing techniques, one of them was able to creatively parallel Jonathan Swift’s listing of English vices in Gulliver’s Travels to the lyrics in Miley Cyrus’s ‘7 things’, which I thought was an interesting cross-era allusion:
… vast numbers of our people are compelled to seek their livelihood by begging, robbing, stealing, cheating, pimping, forswearing, flattering, suborning, forging, gaming, lying, fawning, hectoring, voting, scribbling, star-gazing, poisoning, whoring, canting, libelling, freethinking, and the like…
(Gulliver’s Travels, Ch. 6)
The seven things I hate about you
Oh, you/You’re vain, your games, you’re insecure, you love me, you like her, you made me laugh, you made me cry, I don’t know which side to buy…
Call the lit crit brigade on me for putting Swift and Miley in the same sentence, but this ability to compare old and new forms of writing is exactly what I try to instil in my students. So this kid definitely has my seal of approval, even though my professor back at university would probably consider the above a grave act of ‘hermeneutic sacrilege’.
Or take the lesson I had three days ago, when I close read John Donne’s ‘Batter my Heart’ sonnet with a literature class. Someone pointed out that the poet could have been comparing his love-hate relationship with God to that of an old married couple, whose relationship has grown so stale and passionless they came up with a plan to divorce each other – only to marry again, just for the lols:
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthral me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
(Lines 9 – 14)
Saucy stuff. If you want the poem to be, that is.
Granted, Donne’s speaker is talking about his internal struggle with faith and temptation, which is especially manifest in moments when he feels pulled towards his more devilish instincts. As such, he beseeches God to pull him back onto the path of moral virtue. Still, stretching the comparison as far as possible is largely the beauty of metaphorical conceits, so the student’s reading is perfectly legit.
Also, everyone found the idea of someone divorcing only to marry again as a way to ‘spice up a relationship’ super hilarious, so at least that got the peeps excited about the poem, which made me really happy.
The pros and cons of teaching your passion: What to do when your students don’t care for Willy Shakes
The give and take of teaching something you’re passionate about is this: when your students respond to your passion with a willingness to learn and be ‘infected’, it literally feels like the best thing on Earth, like you’re some hot shot evangelist at a literary congregation.
But when they just straight up don’t care, a demoralising hollowness sits in, and you feel that it’s not even worth carrying on anymore (the lesson, I mean), because their disinterest feels so personal. Say if I were teaching a student basic arithmetic, I probably wouldn’t take offence if she was all meh about it, because I’d be all meh about it too.
- But, kid, how could you not find the narrative tapestry in Mrs Dalloway just so amazing?! The way Virginia Woolf blends interior monologue with limited omniscience is the stuff of genius.
- What do you mean you can’t feel anything after reading Satan’s back-story soliloquy in Book 4 of Paradise Lost, when he gets thrown out of Eden by God and is forced to see “hell” as his new “heaven”?!
- By the way, isn’t it a wonderful coincidence that Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Faulkner – the three canonical bastion-holders of Renaissance, Romanticist and Modernist literature – all happen to be called ‘William’?
You don’t care??
God, okay, I give up. Let’s just turn to the next page of your handout and write three sentences using antitheses, making sure to reference the way Milton does this in Para-no, scratch that, just write it however you want. You’re not even listening anymore, are you.
And Jon, at least cover your mouth up when you yawn, please?
Seriously though, the fact that I get frustrated over moments like this tells me something deeper about the way I’ve fashioned my role as a teacher, which a colleague of mine very aptly summarised as such:
You’re more like the sage on the stage, than the guide on the side.
I think this observation really hits the nail on the head.
Judging from experience, I’ve noticed that students like me mostly because of what they think I know as this soapboxing knowledge bank, and not so much because of the way I make them feel about themselves as learners who can fall behind and still be able to catch up. I think it’s fair to say that I’m an encouraging teacher, but I suspect the kids sometimes see my encouragement more as a source of pressure, rather than of motivation.
Apparently, I also have a habit of sneering in response to student comments that I think ‘aren’t good enough’, which I feel awful about, especially since I wasn’t even aware of it until my colleague had recently pointed it out.
I’d hate to think that I’ve ever made any student feel inadequate, but if I push them, it’s usually because I think they’re of high calibre and have got real potential to do better.
High IQ vs. High EQ? The difference between university lecturers and grade or high school teachers
All this got me thinking about the difference between being a university lecturer and a grade or high school teacher. In a nutshell:
The former gains respect mainly for being knowledgeable and intelligent, whereas the latter wins hearts for being compassionate and understanding.
What’s ironic to me, then, is that for all the books literary academics read on a daily basis, they don’t exactly strike me as the most empathetic bunch of humans. But if reading is supposed to cultivate empathy, then why is it that some of the best readers I’ve come across are either not very emotionally in-tune, or just don’t care very much about anything beyond identifying an intellectual compatibility with their students?
In fact, for a lot of them, their mentality is more: ‘I’m passionate about this, and if you’re not, then I don’t really want to spend any time on you’.
The problem with this mentality, of course, is that it perpetuates coterie learning, which limits the spread of scholarship and great ideas (literature or otherwise) within established, well-resourced circles.
Then again, it’s easy for me to pontificate at a remove, and to be honest, I think I communicate this kind of mentality more often than I’d like, which the stronger students appreciate, but the weaker ones find harder to take.
My recent experience with teaching a group of mixed ability learners, however, has pushed me to think beyond this mind set, and to be comfortable with students not responding immediately or ‘intelligently’ to something which I myself have spent years trying to grapple with.
Basically, the take-away is that I need to hop off my intellectual high horse from time to time and see my classes from a more ground-up perspective.
Reading empathy: Remembering Frank McCourt in ‘Tis
Probably the only book I’ve read about high school teachers is Frank McCourt’s ‘Tis (1999), which is a wonderful, earnest memoir by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Irish-American educator. Towards the middle of the narrative, McCourt relates the bumpy beginnings of his teaching career when he first moved to New York, and the sense of disappointment over having his dreams of teaching ‘great literature’ shattered, because the technical school he got a job at didn’t even offer English as a subject:
I wanted to work in one of [the] suburban schools, Long Island, Westchester, where the boys and girls were right, cheerful, smiling, attentive, their pens poised as I discoursed on Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales, the Cavalier Poets, the Metaphysicals. I’d be admired and once the boys and girls had passed my classes their parents would surely invite me to dinner at the finest houses. Young mothers would come to see me about their children and who could tell what might happen when husbands were absent, the men in grey flannel suits, and I trolled the suburbs for lonely wives.
I’ll have to forget the suburbs. I have here on my lap the book that will help me through my first day of teaching, Your World and You, and I flip the pages through a short history of the United States from an economic point of view, chapters on American government, the banking system, how to read the stock market pages, how to open a savings account, how to keep household accounts, how to get loans and mortgages.
Compared to when McCourt first started, I guess I should count myself lucky. At least I have managed to shoehorn “Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales, the Cavalier Poets, and the Metaphysicals” into my curriculum, although I’d like to think of myself as having “discussed”, rather than “discoursed” on these texts with my students; McCourt’s choice of verb being a tad bit too unegalitarian for the Harkness Table setting in our classrooms.
Whether the students are always “right, cheerful, smiling, and attentive” though, I’m not so sure. Oh, and the idea that any teenager would ever have their “pens poised” is, for lack of a better phrase, pure pedagogical quixotism (read: a teacher’s fantasy).
As for teaching people how to open a savings account, I can’t even begin to imagine – I once failed to take money out of an ATM machine because I couldn’t remember if my deposits came under ‘Savings’ or ‘Current’. Not to sell myself short, but note to the wise, Miss Jen isn’t one to turn to for financial tutelage.
But hey, I can wax poetic about dead poets in highfalutin terms that no one really has to know to get by in life, so why should I be concerned about the boring basics of human living?
Surely, that shit always straightens itself out in time?
Coming full circle: Why I’m more like my students than I’d like to think
And to think that I often wish my students could be less out of touch with reality, less assuming of life as a ready-made airplane meal set with every corner immaculately laid out for them. I suppose I’m not much better; perhaps just more self-aware with the progression of years.
At the end of the day, then, I guess we’re all learners on separate journeys, all moving forward in the same direction.
Dickens, for all his social wisdom, is hardly panacea for every human problem, and Shakespeare, for his incredible insight into humanity, can only tell us so much about how exactly we should each live our own lives.
But one thing’s for sure: when one finds filling in a 2016 tax form more challenging than analysing 16th century iambic pentameter, it’s hard not to suspect that someone, somewhere, must find you quite exasperating to deal with as well.
Maybe I should look into becoming a literary preacher instead.
And this would be my first sermon:
The future of poetry is immense, because in poetry, where it is worthy of its high destinies, our race, as time goes on, will find an ever surer and surer stay. There is not a creed which is not shaken, not an accredited dogma which is not shown to be questionable, not a received tradition which does not threaten to dissolve. Our religion has materialised itself in the fact, in the supposed fact; it has attached its emotion to the fact, and now the fact is failing it.
But for poetry the idea is everything; the rest is a world of illusion, of divine illusion. Poetry attaches its emotion to the idea; the idea is the fact.
The strongest part of our religion to-day is its unconscious poetry.
(Matthew Arnold, ‘The Study of Poetry’, 1880)
[Photo credits: NYTimes, Richard Carruthers, hercampus, Huffington Post]