Saturday, 13 August 2011

Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde and Teacher Valeria

I’ve discovered I have a mild personality disorder when it comes to teaching.

In my Medio classes, I have about 25 students between the ages of 18 and 45. When the bell rings, I’ll start with a warm “Good morning!” to which they respond “Good morning, Teacher Valér!” and maybe a comment on some novidades – “news” – about the weather or something from the news or some changes in the school, which sometimes leads to a brief discussion. Then I’ll tell them to turn in their homework while doing the warm-up activity so I can call roll. When break time comes around, since many classes last two hours, they have five minutes to do whatever they need to, and when they return I’ll usually introduce them to English exercise vocabulary (i.e., we do “jumping jacks” or “jog in place” or simply “stretch – reach for the sky!”) to make sure they’re awake for the rest of class. If we finish early, particularly when they do activities in pairs, I’ll let them leave early, but most of the time it’s the opposite – someone will ask a question that turns into a debate that gets us all off topic for a little bit, but hey, it’s all in English, it’s a cultural exchange and they’re often more engaged than when we talk about present perfect or second conditional or whatnot. (Digression: One of my favorites was when we were learning religious vocabulary and got onto the topic of family – my students were appalled to hear that it’s not looked down on or uncommon to be unmarried or to be married and not have children in the United States, which led to a debate about cultural expectations and reasons for not getting married. When I challenged them with my personal take on the issue, one of my best students put her new vocabulary to use and asked me in all seriousness, “Teacher, do you want to be a nun?” I had to apologize afterward for laughing so hard.) In short, I leave my Medio classes with an elevated hope for Mozambique and humanity in general and feeling confident that I could be content to do this in some capacity for the rest of my life.
Then, I have Basico.
The youngest students are 13, but the older ones (18, 20, 24) are the ones to watch out for in these classes of 40 students. I walk into class with a bellowing and severe “Good morning!” which actually means “Sit down and be quiet – Teacher Valéria’s here.” I shut the door after I call roll, and if students try to enter after that I tell them I’ve already marked them absent but they can stay if they want to. While they do the warm-up, I walk from desk to desk to collect homework – if they don’t have it out and ready to hand in when I pass, I don’t accept it.
If you talk out of turn, you get one reminder before I tell you to leave the classroom. If I catch you sleeping, I tell you to leave the classroom. If you show that you clearly aren’t paying attention when I call on you, I tell you to leave.
I make a conscious effort not to smile in my Basico classes. The ones who’ve spoken to me outside of class know I’m really a softie, but they also know that ends when you walk through my door.
Unlike last school year, I have not had any discipline problems in my Basico classes. I have also noticed a definite increase in the number of homework assignments I receive and a sharp decrease in the number of tardy arrivals.
I’m pretty sure they’re terrified of me. But they can warm up to me in a few years when they’re in Medio. I got this system from my favorite teacher – my mom.

I also teach at the nearby Instituto Superior Politecnico da Gaza – the rough equivalent of a technical college – where I am “Doutora Valer,” since I have a degree. I teach first year English, which means I’m stuck in a tiny classroom with 100+ college freshmen (the majority boys) for a few hours every week. I have to keep these guys – most of them my age or older, though I will never tell them that – under control enough to teach some finer (more boring) points of the English language. At one point, I genuinely considered bringing my Peace Corps-issued air horn to class. However, I’m not about to baby-sit them and it’s not particularly my concern if they fail to show up or turn in their homework and I’m not going to hunt them down if they miss an exam. When students come up with sob stories about why they missed this or didn’t turn in that etc. etc., I’m pretty merciless, because, heck, they’re adults, they should be able to take care of themselves and their bosses won’t coddle them when they’re in the real world, either. But I also have no problem diving into an off-topic discussion or sharing personal anecdotes or jokes with them. If there were just about 80 less of them, we’d probably all be great friends (as long as they don’t know I’m single.).

And then, once a week, I go to the preschool. I’m welcomed with shouts of “Mana Valér! How are you?” And I hug and I kiss boo-boos and I wipe tears and I don’t mind when one goes an entire day without once letting go of my blue jeans. The teachers and I have a tacit agreement – they’ll handle discipline and yelling and keeping the kids on task, and I’ll handle the encouragement and praise and confidence-building you just don’t find in this country.

Thankfully, I also have weekends with friends, when I can talk about anything, make some good food, play games, and just be Valerie for a while.

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