Teaching is one of the hardest jobs there is. I’ve volunteered in many elementary school classes and what has always impressed me as one of the biggest challenges of teaching — probably because I can’t imagine responding to this challenge myself — is having to be enthusiastic all the time. This is not a job where you can come to work tired or feeling down and decide you will try to get through the day by doing as little as possible or that you can get away without talking to anyone for the next eight hours. Kindergartners (and students in all grades) expect and deserve more. And their teachers somehow manage to give it to them, no matter what is going on in the rest of their lives.
Despite having directly observed the demands of teaching, I went into my first day attempting to co-teach ESL (English as a Second Language) to adults at a local community center with little preparation and lots of confidence. The students had come from Mexico, China, Iran, and Japan and ranged in age from early 2o’s to probably 60. About 40 minutes into the class, my co-teacher received a phone call notifying her of a family emergency and abruptly left. Forgetting how long the class was, I managed to get through the next 20 minutes and happily announced that class was over and we would see each other in a week. I turned my back and started to erase the board, but was soon conscious that no one was moving. I turned around and asked feebly, “Oh, does this class last longer?” Twelve heads nodded.
I told this story to friends, who said, jokingly, that if I wanted to teach the ESL students more about American culture, I should have demonstrated how, when our students get a lucky break of having a class end early, they all pack up and rush out of the classroom before the teacher can change his or her mind.
I ad libbed for the last 30 minutes and vowed to be better prepared for the next class. We have a textbook, student workbook, CD’s and one teachers’ guide to be shared among four to six teachers, and I found that the materials for Day 2 were not well synced. Exercise numbers didn’t match from book to book and it was necessary to jump back and forth from one book to another as we moved from listening to grammar to reading to writing. Earlier, not realizing how important it was to understand what was being covered in each book, I had ordered only the teachers’ guide and when I opened it to prepare for class, I couldn’t make any connection to the daily lessons. Nevertheless, Day 2 went better than Day 1 — we moved through the material slightly more smoothly than we had the previous week — probably because my co-teacher had bought all the books and was more familiar with the way the materials were organized. Students were engaged and, when polled at the end of the class, told us the material was not too hard or too easy, which we interpreted as just right, and that they had found the work interesting.
When I was talking to the program coordinator later on Day 2, she noticed the book I was carrying. “Teachers Resource Guide? No wonder you find it confusing,” she said. “That’s not the Teachers’ Guide. You have the wrong book.”
Today I ordered the correct Teachers’ Guide. There are still about 14 weeks of class left. I have great hopes that the pieces will all come together by then. Meanwhile, I believe I will appear just as upbeat as those elementary school teachers I observed for so many years. My enthusiasm, unlike theirs, will not come from skill or confidence; rather, it will come from anxiety, jumping energetically from book to book in a state of confusion, and an unwillingness to completely lose face.