Visual of a lesson plan

The rabbits hopped all night long

Some people were wondering how I make my magic:

First off, organizing this thing called teaching, would be a heck of a lot more difficult without my wonderful teachers from the Concordia University TESL/TEFL Certificate Program. Those women are idea masters, and while I’m sure they’d look at my lesson plans and find tons of areas for improvement, including my inability to set concrete objectives, I know I’d be doing worse without having basked in their wisdom for three weeks last summer.

I have an English curriculum but my kids are so behind that I’ve barely looked at it. We started the year by reviewing the present simple (Rabbits hop. Do you hop? They do not hop.), present continuous (Those damn rabbits are hopping!), past simple (The rabbits hopped all night long.), and the past continuous (While the rabbits were hopping, the students failed to understand this tense.). That carried us through the first two parcials. Now in the fourth parcial, we’re slogging through comparisons, including similes (She is as ugly as a monkey. My feet are smellier than your feet. They are the smelliest in the world!). Along the way we’ve started and quit Holes by Louis Sachar, a wonderful book but too difficult for my little bilingualites, studied parts of speech, basic sentence structure, the paragraph burger, spent an entire term on pronouns, and are about to explore the future simple and “going to.” We will probably wrap up the year with a review of prepositions. If this were third grade, I’d feel rather accomplished!

I’ve seen others’ lesson plans and can only drool at their simplicity—“Grammar tense,” “Do stuff,” “The End.” My memory is crap, as are my improvisation skills, which years of theatre games only reinforced. My lesson plans are detailed and color coded and written in Excel so I can have everything aligned and indented just right.

I plan my week around a short list of goals, usually a grammar tense, to be practiced in reading, writing, speaking, and listening (RWSL), and a specific writing skill, like paragraphs, and build my lessons from there. Starting with the third parcial, each day of the week has a certain task or skill area we always do. For example, we start every class with a Phrase of the Day to work on pronunciation and do an activity with that week’s vocabulary. Mondays always introduce new vocabulary; Tuesdays and Thursdays include reading a short story; Wednesday, a listening activity and review of troublesome sentences from the vocabulary homework; Thursdays, Bingo; and Friday, vocabulary quiz. Well, those are the goals, anyway. Inevitably, the activities take longer than anticipated and things get shuffled around, but the outline of the ideal week saves me so many hours of wracking my brain for a variety of activities that work on all the skill areas. The first two parcials found me floundering in a sea of how to fill my all of those minutes. Now, I still flounder, but less.

As for the day to day…here’s what it looks like:

Phrase of the Day: I found a TEFL site with silly limericks. We practice a line a day and then put it together at the end of the week. Pronunciation is tricky to practice because the kids feel self-concious about speaking alone, and I can’t correct them too many times or they retreat.

Vocabulary: There are only so many activities I can do. Some activities found online look fun, but I can’t imagine my kids understanding them or cooperating, or having the resources for them. But we have a staple, including the race-to-the-wall-to-find-the-paper-with-the-correct-word-once-Miss-T-has-read-the-definition-but-do-not-attack-your-competitor game.

Grammar: Look on the internet for exciting, limited resource, kid-appropriate activities, that will also accommodate their miniature attention span. Eliminate the numerous websites that promise “exciting worksheets,” an oxymoron if ever there were one. Consider low-tech alternatives to high-tech ideas. Consider prep time. Superlatives lead to a boon of activities the kids liked, including “Best of the Class.” The kids voted that Joe is the most handsome and romantic and that Kim and Jojo are the silliest. Krissy, by a landslide, is the strongest. An ideal activity can be exploited to cover more than one skill. Writing—students had to make a correct superlative sentence for their vote to count; speaking—students had to discuss with a partner if they agreed or disagreed with the results (not that the students ever talk in English unless I’m hovering over them); writing/paragraphs—students had to write about one of the results and why they agreed or disagreed with it. Later I might copy out some of the paragraphs and use this as a How to Improve Your Paragraph study.

If I can’t find useful ideas online or in my Azar grammar book, especially for speaking, I attempt to create my own, with varying success but almost always with slips of paper with drawings or words on them that the students have to pull from a pile to utilize in some way. Some work in reality, others, only in my mental classroom. As for worksheets, the few times I’ve downloaded them from websites, they’ve been for too difficult for the students, or just really bad, so I write my own, an exercise in tedium.

Tap dancing: In general, this is how I feel as a teacher, that I have to entertain my kids every moment. Be the most interesting thing in the room, make learning inspiring and dynamic, blah blah, all the responsibility is on me. I completely agree that a teacher should try to make lessons as interesting as possible, but the kids take this one step further and expect playtime. Sometimes I get that old fart feeling akin to the “When I was a kid we walked up hill both ways to school.” Boring or not, I/we did our work. I don’t remember my classes being activity filled. I don’t remember working for parties or behavior points. Yet, that’s what I’m expected (by the kids) to do, and if I don’t, all I hear are whines of “This is so boring” or “You never let us play football.” They’re kids, I get it. I take this all too far too heart. I’m not meant to teach kids at this level. What would it be like to teach people who wanted to be there? The occasional moment I hit on something they like is such sweet relief, this happiness, that learning or no learning, I want the moment to continue. I make note of the wins and failures and hope for the best.

As the end of the year nears, it’s tempting to just phone in the lessons, give them free periods, try to avoid bumps. But, like I tell the kids, I’m mean. Yes, it’s 100F outside and in, and I still expect them to know the difference between a noun and a verb. I refuse to be sorry. (Okay, I wish I were that firm…but I’m just so tired.)

Back to the whiteboard,

theresa

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Grover

Now and later

Many adults, caught in the tangled net of responsibility, look upon their childhoods or those of their own children with nostalgia. They recall childhood as easy, but I know I wouldn’t want to travel backward, except to visit moments here and there that weren’t so hard, that weren’t rife with confused emotions, intimate conflicts with friends, and tall people telling me what to do and feel and laughing with condescension at my wounds. Then kids, too, get bundled up like debris in the messy lives and emotions of their adults, whether those are parents, guardians, or teachers, people they’ve been told to follow, but who at times have no idea what they’re doing. Yet they tell their kids, Follow me, while another adult, doing something completely different, also tells their kids, Follow me. Still others are punishing their kids in order that their life won’t be followed.

Kids are told to do this now or don’t do this now for reasons they’ll understand later. They’ll get to thank some big person later. Study math now because you’ll need it later. Don’t have sex now and you’ll understand later. Too much of a kid’s life is spent in a vast later that stretches beyond comprehension, because when you’re five and those five years have seemed pretty long, the next 13+ years of later is forever. I would imagine by the time you’re in the adult-dreaded teenage years that later is a pretty sickening word, especially because you’re starting to feel more like an adult, be given adult-level responsibilities, but with none of the freedom, and are still hearing about that neverland later. You know that later is closer but still much too far.

This is me, trying to be compassionate with my students.

One of my seventh graders, KB, lives in one room with her family, her mother, her older and younger sisters, and her niece. The fathers of her sisters are semi-involved financially in their lives; hers is not. Their family relies on her mother’s part-time income and foreign support. KB is the responsible one, for her little sister and for her niece when her older sister isn’t home. She worries about too many adult things, like rent payments, because she has to. She has adult worries but not adult trust, and KB is very torn by this. Her mother gets suspicious whenever she talks to a boy in her neighborhood and has punished her upon hearing rumors of such conversations. I’ve been told about name calling and shouting over this issue. My student knows why her mother is concerned—pregnancy—but all KB wants to do is talk, and it’s unfair that she’s responsible enough to take care of her family but not move beyond the gate that closes their apartment to the street. I have heard this story many times this year.

With my oh-so-vast adult wisdom, I can see as her mother does, how talking leads to one thing and another, as it did for her mother and so many others—and too many of the others are barely older than KB—and I can understand that her mother fears most that this second daughter will create or end up in her same circumstances and is determined to lock her up and even beat her to prevent this. I can also see that KB is fiercely loyal to her mother, protective of her family, responsible as best she can be, and she honestly just wants to talk to this boy (Okay, I bet if a kiss happened, she wouldn’t mind.). But there’s no way that KB will understand that for now she gets to worry like an adult, care like an adult, but can’t be trusted like an adult. There’s too much now and later.

This is me trying to be compassionate when she fails a test and can’t help flirting with a classmate rather than take notes.

Kim is insecure and not a little goofy. She’s tall, long-limbed, and has a birthmark on her face she’s ashamed of. Rather than believe in herself, she idolizes other girls, girls I wish she wouldn’t, because they are terrible role models, girls who need good role models themselves. For a few weeks early in the school year, Kim and I had a breakthrough and she went from coloring in class to wanting to please me, which translated into her working. Now, she works and will participate more than she did at first, but if her friend isn’t working, neither is she. So I try to sit them apart, and her mother wants this as well, but Kim is shy, a little strange, and a lot of the kids don’t like her. How can I begrudge her a friendly elbow partner? She gets mad when I move her and sulks with her head on her desk. She tried to cheat on her last parcial exams. Then, after lunch, she’ll zoom around the room and stand an inch away with her lovely lopsided smile and a “Hello, Miss Theresita!” Of course it’s a joke on me, but I’m glad she’s comfortable enough with me to be that weird and, honestly, I’m quite weird. I just worry that the sparking light I see in her is going to be twisted by whomever she places her trust in and not lifted, as it needs to be, but she’s not strong enough to lift it herself. Yet.

Lately she’s been in detention a lot, for not doing her work. When she’s upset, she shuts down and it’s hard to find access. Sometimes I have to threaten her with going to the office.

Her best friend and idol, Jojo, has divorcing parents and a distant father. Too many dads are out of the picture. Jojo’s been a slippery enigma since the beginning. She has a wall a mile high, much of it fortified with insecurity. I also can’t sit her next to anyone else in class because, as I’ve said in my less compassionate moments, she gets her claws into them and brings them to the dark side, as she did with Kim. But I’ve found some chinks in her armor. If she doesn’t do her work, it’s often because she doesn’t understand, which she’s too proud to admit, and so I always thank her for her questions and invite her to ask more.

This is me trying to be compassionate when they both ignore and giggle at me and I itch to place them in hugs bordering ever so slightly on a chokehold.

This is me trying to be compassionate when Fred, mortified at being so behind, yet again cancels our tutoring session, but the fact is he shouldn’t be in seventh grade, he’s already failed once, and he continually disrupts class because he’s bored and lost. He gets by on his sweet smile.

Sometimes I have no idea if my sandwich is being buttered with bullshit. I wasn’t prepared for life in this emotional blender of compassion and adolescence. Did Jojo really not understand the homework or is that an excuse for forgetfulness? How can I blame the kids for whining when it’s over 80 degrees in our classroom with the broken fan, but I need the whiteboard for our lesson? Was the science quiz too difficult or did the kids just not study? Am I explaining this poorly or are the kids just not paying attention? I’m not proud or arrogant to enough to assume I’m always right. I dole out negative reinforcement with secret guilt, wishing the positive reinforcement were enough.

Often I forget they’re kids. It’s hard not to when they’re practically adult sized and not cuddly like the wee ones. I struggle to comprehend that they (mostly) aren’t kids like I was, who paid attention, who suffered the boredom silently, who didn’t like but understood the importance of later. I forget that my world is not their world. The other volunteers were more normal as children, or perhaps they’re just more resilient, and don’t appear to be caught in this emotional goo. I forget that inadvertent rudeness happens when you don’t know the subtleties of the language you are learning. I get impatient and sometimes unfair and too often take this all personally.

My kids are kids; they barely comprehend tomorrow, much less later. As I write this, the compassion swells into my fingertips and my weekly forecast is tinted with hope and strength. I can just see myself navigating these moments with skill and grace. I feel myself remembering childhood and the future that came much too slowly. And then…I can feel myself dreading the alarm Monday morning.

I’ll try.

Indubitably,

theresa

P.S. Grover came to Honduras with me. Despite his self-doubt, he dabbles in superheroism.

A card

I did it

I made it until Christmas break. I survived four months of being Miss Theresa, Miss T, and just plain Miss. Sharing a room with someone who daily complains about how fat and ugly she is (including to students, which really irks me), how stupid our students are, and observes that one of her best friends is gay but “you can’t tell” (whatever that means). Kids throwing paper across the room, abusing books, blatantly disrespecting and lying to me, and complaining how boring class is. Not having adequate supplies to do my job. Increasingly cold showers and going without running water for four days in a row. Music blasting at top volume and kids throwing firecrackers right outside my window. Levels of alienation and loneliness I hadn’t experienced for some time. Theft of my ATM card number.

I’ve also survived the above pictured Christmas card, enchiladas and plantains and impromptu punta lessons at the houses of my students, smiles tugged out of frustrated faces, and unexpected hugs. Students asking impossible questions, surprising questions. I’ve survived the kindness of our school administrator, Miss G, paying for the partition I requested be built in my room and was fully prepared to pay for, finding my path blocked by slow moving cows, and the sight of a horse sleeping outside a pulperia. The willing ear and confidence of our volunteer coordinator to my oft expressed classroom management difficulties. The rainbow cobbled streets of Copan and the overcast beach of Placencia. Days upon days upon days of sunshine and warmth (bye-bye Rayaud’s!). Daily waves with the secret pulperia owner’s daughter. Attempted conversations in Spanish with patient listeners. Generous care packages. Moments of friendship (and Bananagrams) with two other volunteers. Sightings of bright blue birds and birds with bright yellow breasts.

Now I have two weeks (at least half of which sans roommate) in which to rebuild my mental and emotional strength with reading, writing, Spanish studying, traveling, and teaching-strategy development. I foresee that my panic levels will increase as the break comes to its inevitable end, but let’s not think about that.

Shortly after we return to school on January 5, I will turn 35. While I’m not the type of person to complain that’s old, the size of the number does contribute yet another layer of urgent personal introspection to this experience. I am a person adrift, on a quest for meaning, purpose, and a way to support myself that I don’t detest. Am I any closer to finding this? Once I round the bend of the new year and catch sight of June, the end of the school year, first from afar but ever closer, I will inevitably dig for this answer daily.

What have I learned (or confirmed) since I arrived here on August 11th?
* I survive intense stress, but poorly. I also create stress when I don’t acknowledge that I’m up against unreasonable expectations, sometimes mine, sometimes others’.
* I cannot live with a roommate again, unless that person is a man with an absurdly large t-shirt collection.
* I do not want to teach a class of kids under age 14.
* It’s easy to get by with minimal Spanish but real conversation takes more words.
* My moods are much more manageable with near-daily infusions of sunlight.
* I can live minimally.
* People can be so kind and nice to me.
* I don’t want a job where people think it’s okay to run over me, a.k.a. I need to demand respect.
* I don’t want a job that takes up my entire life, because I need time to read.
* I love making people happy.
* Life without a clothes dryer is okay, as long as it isn’t rainy.
* Life in Portland, Oregon has influenced me more than I’d like to admit.

So I’m gonna let the post fizzle to a close with this list. I need to nap and then pack for my trip to La Ceiba, where I plan to spend some time at Pico Bonito National Park.

Ta ta,

theresa

Christmas card

Bubble thoughts

I don’t have any Important Thoughts screaming to crawl out of my fingers today. Really, what is occupying most of my thoughtmosphere is Christmas break—one week, baby! One week until I can push the planning and worrying and kids into a box and tuck that into the closet for just a little while. Between now and then I need to coordinate the 7th grade Christmas presentation, find a present for Joe, my Secret Friend, make an extra-credit-for-failing-students-because-it’s-illegal-for-students-to-fail homework packet, and avoid putting everyone in permanent time out.

Here is, in listicle fashion, what’s been knocking around in my head this week:

1. Jellyfish. I feel helpless when I suspect my students are making fun of another student in Spanish, but I’m uncertain and don’t know what to do. It turns out that after I drew a jellyfish on the board that some of the kids compared that unfavorably to another’s head.

2. Bananas. On grade day, when students are absent and parents visit teachers to pick up report cards, I commented to the school cook how much I was enjoying the quiet. This prompted a bevy of “Children are the lights of our heart”-type responses from the cook and two mothers who were helping. I left the kitchen that day embarrassed and convinced that I was now on the cook’s bad side. I’m glad to report I was wrong: she cooked me, and no one else, a sweet banana on Friday.

3. Fridays. Fridays are the worst days for the 7th graders and me. While we have only two classes together that day, I’m so burnt out and they’re so squirrelly that we almost always end the week on a bad note.

4. Dichotomy. I am unable to reconcile my frustrations with a student who disrespects me during class enough to ride the busito home with her to tutor her sister for free. While I enjoy the tutoring, it is awkward for me to have casual, occasionally confessional on on my 7th grader’s part, conversation when I was so annoyed with her only two hours earlier. But, I’m also just really tired. She’s a good student who has more life stress than a girl her age should have. I tabled the tutoring until after the break.

5. Song. How the heck do I teach a song that I can’t even sing?

6. Goof. Two of my 9th graders asked me if I am a serious or silly teacher. They said I am silly. I said I am serious with a touch of goof. This was a goofy-teacher week, no doubt fueled by break anticipation, that involved a lot of arm bending and waving (animal undulation and oscillation), hand fins on my head, sides, and butt (more oscillation), and cruising sllloooooooowwwly across the class to demonstrate that while turtles may be slow, they do locomote.

7. Oatmeal. I must not finish all the maple brown sugar oatmeal (gluten-free, care package gift) this weekend. Helloooo, sweet tooth.

8. Gifts. What do you buy a 13-year-old Honduran boy?

9. Holiday. Over break I plan to travel to La Ceiba—the party town of Honduras, but I’m going for the nature—and may be lucky enough to stay in someone’s apartment, if her current tenant is still out of town [update: the tenant is coming back into town; other plans in the works]. Also, it’s expensive traveling solo but not wanting, because I already live in a house with five other people, to stay in a dorm on my vacation, because I have to pay for two people.

10. Borax. So many cool Christmas science projects involve Borax. There is no Borax here.

11. Grrr. “It’s all in your head.”—roommate to me.

12. Water. Sometimes the morning shower is a little too cold.

13. Teaching. At about 26 classes a week, I have the heaviest teaching load. Is this a normal load? Do I do a normal amount of planning? If so, I don’t think this life is for me. Then again, the school did just give me two textbooks that appear to follow the science curriculum. If they find a biology text, I just may have cut my planning time significantly.

14. Students. I really like some of my students.

15. Bubble. I rarely peek outside the microcosm that is my teaching life in this small town. While I see the headlines and occasionally read articles, I don’t have strong emotions toward any of them, like Ferguson or face-sit ins. I get the gist and move on. On reddit I’m more likely to look at cat pics. Is this good, to so willfully disconnect from all the rest of it? I am not a good citizen of humanity.

16. Feet. After school my feet are really stinky.

Undoubtedly,

theresa

Kids and me dancing

Level up

I just don’t think quickly. My high school biology teacher said he liked to watch my face during class because he could see me putting the pieces together. Sometimes I do feel like my thoughts are a Tetris game, somewhere around level 4, when the pieces are falling a wee bit faster than the initial level. An idea drops down, I slide it into place, another idea drops, I flip-flip-flip it and slide it into place. Idea by idea, click by click, until things are lined up and…release: I understand.

Early this week a final piece fell into place, and I leveled up after verbally chastising a student again for an action that deserved at least a name on the board, lost my train of thought, as I do during these moments, and turned to wipe the whiteboard, while the gossip behind me quickly rose. I am a teacher, regardless of the green around my ears, and I deserve attention and respect. Why am I not demanding it from my students? Why am I not teaching them what I need and deserve? Why am I disrespecting myself? If I don’t demand it, if I don’t teach them how to practice it, if I don’t show it to myself, how can I expect my students, children who laugh when someone hurts him/herself, leave books on the floor, and have no trouble telling me their peers are stupid, to give me respect? I can’t. Having read my teaching posts, I would expect loyal readers, or actually anyone, to be thinking, Took you long enough. 

The parents I’ve interacted with give me respect without my having to ask for it or prove myself. I was invited to a birthday party for one of my 8th grade students. The mother seated me and my three fellow volunteers at the table on the best chairs. The mother, aware of my passion for fried sweet plantains, made a special plate of them for me (which I reluctantly shared). When we parted she told me, “Nuestra casa es su casa.” Other parents and two of our Honduran teachers have said the same, and while the phrase is almost cliché, part of the travel-outside-of-the-US-everyone-is-so-kind lore, the faces the words come from appear genuine (and, goodness, I sure would love to visit these houses more often if it weren’t so damn awkward for this monolingual wallflower). If these parents can give me, a neophyte teacher, such respect, even kindness, again, how can I not give it to myself? Level up.

‘Cuz this shit’s for real. I may be green but I am one of the many tools that will help mold these little human beings into adults, and I’m no less important than any other. Rationally, I know this is true, but within the emotionally charged spaces of my mind, in the gaps between my bones, I feel so small, like a wisp of a person who’s barely there at all, or bothersome, like that person who is blocking the [insert tasty food stuff here] you want, and my personhood, the fact of my existence, is much less important than yours. Reader, whomever you are, I will usually assume that despite my having grabbed the last jar of [insert tasty food stuff here] first, you deserve it, somehow, because your presence is much more solid than mine, your immediacy is felt, your wants are known. Much of the time, that is my reaction. Though not always. Sometimes I will take that damn [insert tasty food stuff here] because why the hell shouldn’t I? I need more of those days.

I ponder the origin of this conflict and some of it I know, some will remain a mystery, part of my chemistry reacting to the world, but ultimately the origin is unimportant. I am here and now.

Now, where does this all leave me? Still wiping the whiteboard, burdened with new understanding, uncertain of strategy. The blocks fall faster now and I’m not flip-flip-sliding fast enough. A fellow teacher said I must like the battleground that can be my class, otherwise, why wouldn’t I change it? Well, I’m only an inch tall today.

Back to class. Friday afternoon was playtime since it was the first event of the school Olympics*. The Olympics ended early, leaving me with 8th period to fill with practicing our song for the school Christmas celebration, and then the last 10 minutes free after the kids give me 3 past continuous sentences. I admit my attention is elsewhere, then I turn to see one of my girls climbing the forbidden stairs, forbidden because they lead to the roof and each step is just a metal frame, with no center. And what was it about that moment? Was it the uncertainty I was feeling over how to teach the student-chosen song and my kids’ growing frustration with it? Was it the post-performance crash after the rush of my Olympic team being the highlight of the presentations? The girl, and her cohort, managed to push the Activate Teacher Yelling Voice button, which did draw them back to the group but didn’t stop their giggling through incomplete apologies. Then I felt ashamed. Another teacher, who witnessed the event, felt my response was just right, but…I don’t know. This isn’t the way I want to do these things, but I have put the pieces in place that lead to that moment, despite my knowing I should do otherwise.

It’s two weeks until Christmas break and I doubt I’ll do much changing until then. For now I’m hanging on, trying to balance teaching with the fun of holiday classroom activities (Secret Friend, decorating, blah blah). But after Christmas break, a time I’ve read and heard that newbie teachers return to school invigorated and with new plans in place, I have to empower myself for change.

*So what are the school Olympics? The students are divided into houses (Yellow, with Vee) and the houses pick a country (Italy) and the first event is presentation of the country to the school. The event du jour was unanimously mine, a simplified Tarantella with the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders, a simply sweeter than sugar group of kids. Throughout the year are other events, such as the sports competitions this upcoming Friday. Kids can earn additional points for their team by being awesome in class (I am terrible at awarding these points.).

In other news, almost all of my students passed their recent Science quizzes—a first—and many of my 7th graders are now able to put together a past continuous sentence, but despite my best efforts and use of science, my more religious 9th graders refuse to believe that humans are animals.

And that’s that,

theresa

Stickers

Detention, stickers, and earworms

Joe, along with six other of my seventh graders, has a two-week old behavior plan. At the end of each day I complete a sheet outlining his homework, assessing his behavior on a scale of 1 to 10, and providing any explanatory notes on behavior, either positive or negative, from a stock collection of phrases translated for me. A parent is supposed to review and sign the sheet everyday. Of all my kids, Joe is the most challenging. He talks almost incessantly and flings rubber bands across the room. He and another boy make porno-quality moaning sounds when my back is turned. Joe has massive goof potential and speaks to me in a loud silly voice and echoes me when I say “thank you” to him or one of the other students. His hair is light brown and styled with gel, he has long eyelashes, and like almost all the other boys at school, he is obsessed with football. He rarely does his homework. If I chastise him about anything he claims that I’m treating him unfairly because he’s a boy. He loves girls and has a good imagination. His attention span is fleeting. I like Joe quite a lot.

Many of my kids have stories of poverty, abuse, and violence. I don’t know if there’s a story behind Joe’s behavior. He’s known as being particularly problematic for all his teachers. At the recent parent meeting, which included the parents of the other students on behavior schedules, his dad (or uncle? This was never clear.) gave a bit of a speech about how tough things were at home. His parents are divorced. Joe throws school notes away or stuffs them under the seat of his busito.

My seventh graders remain a troublesome class, but (and because) I’ve been reluctant to impose punitive measures, probably because they weren’t necessary for me. I don’t have any stories of talking back to teachers or cutting class (The one class I did skip was on my 18th birthday and approved by my teacher, so that doesn’t really count.) or sneaking a smoke or drink in the bathroom. I took notes, raised my hand, did my work. I wanted to succeed and understood that I would have to do the work for this to happen. So I keep thinking that my kids will have the same understanding and that if my lessons are creative and interesting enough, I will tap into their latent desire to speak better English or discover the origins of the universe rather than gossip with each other and style their hair. My co-volunteers, more daring and rebellious, understand the kids’ perspective much better than I. They all have encouraged me to put names on the board, give detentions, because actions have consequences and the kids have to learn that. I know this is right, but it’s just so…negative. And these kids often get a lot of that negativity at home because yelling and hitting aren’t taboo here. Some parents tell us to smack their children if they’re acting up. I like giving out stickers and saying “thank you” and making people happy. I dread conflict; it makes me nauseous. I have too much self-doubt to hand out detentions. What if I’m being too hard? What if I punish the wrong kid? And what if they get mad enough that they stop talking to me and become even more disruptive? What if I’m wrong or unfair?

What finally pushed me onto Team Detention was someone pointing out that my reluctance was an unwillingness (my word) to work within the culture. The kids are used to the negative reinforcement approach from their Honduran teachers and parents. It’s what they know and expect; it’s their school culture. One of my TEFL books noted that it would be necessary to learn how to work within my students’ culture. The example it cited was Chinese students’ discomfort with volunteering answers and calling attention to themselves. They were used to attending lectures and taking notes. The teacher in this situation compromised her cultural expectations by letting the students compare answers in groups first and then calling on a group representative to give an answer. While all the other advice I was given on the issue was wonderful, citing my cultural inflexibility helped the most.

Not that it has been easy summoning the God of Names and Tallies on the Board for assistance. Every name earns a “Whyyy, Miss?” whine and a “Why aren’t you writing her/his name down?” and, if it’s Joe, desk banging on the floor. The students continually tattle on whose name belongs on the board because of something I didn’t see. I prefer the school of self-responsibility, but they also don’t understand that and, I admit, it isn’t much supported by the school, where kids throw their food wrappers on the ground for the cleaners to sweep up, ruin school property, and are promoted, even if their grades are poor. Obviously, they aren’t ready yet. Maybe we can get there.

In the meantime, while tallies have invoked more quiet, they have also invoked glares and whines, and my poor lonely heart wavers. I love making people happy, I want my kids to have fun, and, despite my protestations of not needing to be liked, I do want to be liked. How could I not when I see the other teachers getting breakfast and stickers and candy and hugs and devoted affection from their kids, while mine are generally too cool for that sort of thing, and I have masses of second guesses and continual longing for reassurance that this is a battle that I am qualified to slog through? The logical part of my mind knows that my lessons, at least for English, are interesting, that I’m approaching everything with compassion, and that tough love really is necessary. I also know that my kids like me. I do get hugs, smiles, and “Goodbye, Miss” at the end of the day. But…. There’s always that but, that nasty little whispering earworm.

Back to Joe. Tuesday, I made tallies and Joe collected the unlucky three. Also, some girls left class without permission to get in the recreo snack line early. That earned them detention, too, and some pretty impressive yelling (thank you, vocal training), which two girls didn’t much care about. (One girl, perhaps my sweetest, Yu, left early for the snack line but without my observing; she gave herself detention. I wanted to waive it just for her honesty.) Joe fumed and yelled about unfairness. He wrote that he was in detention because I favored the girls and that he wouldn’t be doing this again. We sat through detention. Another student apologized. We parted ways. I felt exasperatedly invigorated.

Seventh grade class doesn’t much improve, but Joe and I finally connect on Thursday. That afternoon, the kids let me know they are having no more of this sitting quietly for taking notes nonsense (and in retrospect they were right to disagree) and I divvy them into groups for some World’s Longest Sentence competitions. Joe refuses to join a group and asks to sit where he is, in a little desk island in the middle of the classroom (that day’s punitive measure). I reluctantly agree, but only if he practices Subject + Verb + Object sentences. A deal is struck. I circle the room, inspecting sentence competitions. I return to Joe and his sentences. They are perfect, even complex. The best sentences I’ve seen from him, from almost anyone. He names the S, V, and O. I ask for more, circle the class, and return to more beautiful sentences. I give him stars, pats on the back, and praise. A lot of praise. I say he can write more or just sit quietly. He chooses the sitting quietly. His behavior report says 6/10 that day, his highest score yet.

Friday is a short day for us. I have seventh grade for only two periods and one of them is filled with an assembly. The class works outside in the afternoon on a mystery game. Joe is not only the first one done with the initial part of the game—drawing a picture and interviewing his classmates—but he writes up his accusation and 14 present progressive sentences regarding what the suspects were doing when Miss Theresa’s cows were stolen, and is the only one to finish. His report that day is 8/10, a Dr. Seuss sticker, and some garbled Spanish comment in praise of his participation. After school, I want to tell the world about his work, host a parade in his honor; I have to confine myself to a few fellow teachers.

My best teaching moments so far are these, when I’m able to meet with my students one-on-one and give them the attention they crave. At 14 students, my class is small, but they are all needy little buggers and the classroom is tiny and cramped and so loud because there are no full walls in this row of four classrooms. No wonder no one can focus. All of my troublesome kids love the spotlight of my attention. Unfortunately, one-on-one moments are rare unless I have an assistant or I’ve happened upon an activity that my kids will do independently for a whole minute before calling out, “Miss. Miss! MISS! MIIISSS!” They need more.

I have another story similar to Joe’s, a girl named Kim, who spent her time giggling and coloring and was too embarrassed to answer questions. Her friends would tell me she didn’t know English. But I had my doubts as to the veracity of this after our first written test when her mark was surprisingly good. It turns out, after separating her from her fellow colorer and having her mom review the behavior plans, that Kim has some of the best written work in the class; she’s started participating. She loves getting stickers and I love giving them to her.

Sometimes, no, often, what doesn’t work in class overwhelms me and I feel pretty hopeless. It’s these moments with Joe and Kim and Krissy and Fred and Antonio that keep me going. My kids drive me batshit crazy, I doubt daily that I’m going to survive the next eight months, and I wouldn’t exchange these moments of connection for anything.

theresa