Monday, February 18, 2013

2013 so far

Where did the time go?

2013 is my fifth year of teaching! FIFTH!!

This year, I'm teaching three Form 3 classes and two Form 5 classes; students who will be sitting for the public examinations at the end of the year.

In the Form 5 classes, I was reunited with several students whom I had taught when they were in Form 1, five years ago.

Those small, innocent-looking kids have morphed (seemingly-overnight) into young men and women. The boys - I still call them boys - have all outgrown me. All of them are at least a foot taller than me. Where did the time go?

What did I do wrong?

The year didn't start off particularly well. Our school's PMR results were a bit disappointing. By that I mean the number of straight-A students decreased. Now, I'm not the kind of person who bothers about straight As and stuff. But the analyses showed that English was the main culprit for our school's drop in the percentage, grade point average and what-not.

There were 62 failures for English compared to a dozen or so failures in other subjects. All the English teachers were dumbfounded. What did we do wrong last year??

And when we did the postmortem, I discovered that my classes did slightly worse compared to other classes of similar abilities.

I was gutted. Now the question wasn't 'what did we English teachers do wrong?' but 'what did I do wrong?'

Making sense & shifting blame

I never believed in teaching to the test. I couldn't bring myself to ask students to memorise sample essays or teach them techniques that would enable them to get some marks, sans comprehension.

I just couldn't bring myself to do it even though it could potentially reduce the number of failures. Years from now I don't want them to remember me as the teacher who asked them to memorise meaningless texts; I hope I had taught my students something of value.

Having said that, whatever it is that I believed in, whatever teaching methods I may have employed (that reinforced that belief), why did my students do so badly? Shouldn't doing well in exams be a by-product of comprehension and overall language abilities??

Having no answers to the above questions, I did the most predictable thing next: I shifted the blame around (!).

I reasoned that I wasn't able to give my best to the students because I was too bogged down by various posts. That darn SPSK was the root cause of all this mess!

Maybe there are some truths to the claims above but in the end, I have to admit culpability. In order to not let 'pisang berbuah dua kali', I needed to do something about the way I teach this year. I need to become a more effective teacher despite the energy- and motivation-sapping SPSK.

Talking strategies

Now that I have made my dislike for SPSK clear, let's talk about strategies. Language learning is dissimilar to the way you learn other subjects. You can't rely on the 5 periods (3.5 hours) of English lessons per week  nor can you pull an all-nighter just before an English test, as you probably can with other subjects. Instead, you have to be committed to learn and apply the language consistently.

Thus, a teacher can only do so much. It's hard to drive home the point that students are the ones ultimately responsible for their own learning. They need to occupy the driver's seat and helm the steering wheel. But the majority of students are happy to be mere passengers - very lackadaisical ones too!

It's incredibly frustrating but I need only to remind myself that I was just like them when I was their age. I knew that I must have frustrated my BM, Physics and Maths teachers with my lack of effort.

The young are just resistant to well-meaning advice, I guess. In Malay, we say 'sudah terhantuk, baru terngadah'. It's only after personally experiencing something unpleasant do we recognise something to be true.

So while waiting for the bang-to-the-head moment, teachers just have to plod on and pray for the best.

I'm sure that was what my teachers did for me and in the end, I guess I turned out all right ;)


My attempt to get my students to take charge of their learning is to set them targets. The students have to:
1) Read at least one English book per month
2) Read the news everyday
3) Write 2 journal entries per week, and
4) Speak in English as much as possible

All these are very hard to monitor but I do make the effort to check on the books they are purportedly reading and quiz them on current events.

The journal project is a lot harder to get off the ground because a) most lessons leave little or no time for the students to write a one-page entry, and b) I prefer to do other filler activities when we do have extra time because the class is easier to control that way.

I feel that if I gave them 15-20 minutes to work on their journal, they would end up doing something else and make a lot of noise in the process. My taking the easy way out shows that I still lack conviction in my classroom management skills (my perennial Achilles' heel) and in the long-term benefits of the targets that I have set.

Different year, new challenges

Despite these niggling self-doubts, I do think that I'm improving as a teacher. I'm a lot more organised and confident now. The wonderful thing about teaching is that you never stop learning. No two academic years are the same, no two classes are the same, and no two students are the same.

This year, I have a special-needs student in one of my classes. I used to dread entering that class; fearing that I would say the wrong things or react in the wrong way, thus provoking the student into a violent tantrum (which had happened before).

He reminds me of the protagonist in the book 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time'. His manners are abrupt and might seem downright rude to the uninitiated. So handling him plus another 40 students in the class is no mean feat.

One of the blessings of being a teacher is, it can mould you into a better person. That may sound like a grandiose claim but it's true. You teach around 200 students every year and this trains you to get along with, or at least be accepting of people of various backgrounds, personalities and temperaments. Further, to survive in this profession, you have to have a high threshold of patience.

How do you solve a problem like Calvin?

Before I round off this unreasonably-long entry, I must talk a little bit about 3H, my 'kelas yang menguji kesabaran' this year.

Usually, students are on their best behaviour in the first week of school. With their bright new uniforms, pristine white shoes and school-compliant hair, they look like they had turned over a new leaf and are now ready to become serious students of knowledge. So typically, teachers live a blissful existence under this illusion for one whole week (for a month, if they're lucky) before all the drama and crises unravel.

But 3H is something else. They showed their true colours, along with their sharp claws and fangs on the first day of school itself. They did away with the customary pretensions altogether. I remembered bumping into my colleague after that first class and blurted out; "I just got out from the class from hell". Haha.

Things have vastly improved since then. I learned that the 6 troublemakers in that class reacted strongly against harsh rebukes but would comply when cajoled gently.

Thrice now, the ringleader, this incorrigible boy we shall call C, had been hauled up by the counselor for disciplinary actions in the middle of my lesson.

A sudden hush would always befall the class when C and his accomplice for the day were called out by the counselor, a person not to be trifled with. When all this was unfolding, I had to hide my glee that C finally got his comeuppance.

I dare not admit this but I'm actually intrigued by C. He's been publicly reprimanded in front of the assembly, by the principal no less!, he has been caned, he has been scolded at, he has been hauled up by the counselor, he has been subjected to all possible disciplinary actions, yet he still comes back to class with that smirk on his face. It's bewildering. Any other student would have looked enraged or depressed, or at least subdued after being punished. But C, he sauntered into class while smiling, like nothing had ever happened.

"Kebal betul budak ni", another teacher remarked. This quality of his - I don't even know what to name it exactly - intrigues me. It is as if he has this iron will to not let people pull him down. If only we teachers can harness this stubbornness towards worthwhile pursuits.

Come to think of it, he's like a hard-core version of Calvin (of Calvin and Hobbes). He hates authority, he's a rebel-without-a-cause, he's bent on causing trouble and it's impossible to fathom what's he's thinking.

Any child psychologists out there that can shed light on the matter?