Monday, October 25, 2010

You’re an English Language Teacher?

When I meet someone just starting out as an English teacher, I can’t help but recall what it was like when I was a young teacher myself! It was of course back in the days when dinosaurs walked the earth. But it seemed just like yesterday when, with little more than a pocketful of dreams, I went to my very first school.

Two of my younger brothers were studying in this school. John, the older of the two, was in Form Four. Imagine my surprise when one of the teachers asked: Who is older, you or John? I was taken aback. I knew I looked young… but to be thought I could be younger than a Form Four student? Nowadays, my son would say that’s a ‘soalan bonus’.

I had trained as a geography and art teacher. Back then we had to choose two optional subjects in addition to Education, BM, Library Science, English and PE. I loved my options but teaching art could be a pain in the you-know-what. Suffice to say that I didn’t enjoy ‘teaching’ art when my students had nothing but air on their desks. We couldn’t be doing just origami every week, could we? Or just make collage from dried leaves, bits of stones and sand?

In my next school, I ‘promo’ myself as an English teacher until I was teaching nothing but English… sometimes up to 30 periods a week. Not a walk in the park especially when students could number 45 per class.

I could divide my students into three groups: interested, so-so and indifferent. The interested group was a joy to work with. They did their homework, paid attention in class, borrowed books from the library, even tried to string together and say a few English words.

I encouraged the better students to keep journals where they could write anything under the sun. I collected these once a week, scanned through the daily entries and commented on how they could improve their writing. Some of the journals evolved to become a kind of personal communication between the kids and me. I learned what happened to them at home and in school. They told me their fears, their hopes, their insecurities and little secrets. I got to know them beyond the casual banters along the school corridors and the student-teacher interactions in the classrooms.

The students in the so-so group were those who’d say “Can’t you teach us in Malay?” They were the ones who sighed and protested when I insisted they completed their homework, or when I announced we’d have a spelling quiz. But they could be coaxed, persuaded, psycho-ed to contribute more positively in class. Not always easy because there was the indifferent group vying for their support and attention.

The indifferent group consisted of a few boys and maybe a girl or three. They usually sat right at the back or near the windows where they enjoyed a clear view of passers-by with whom they’d call out greetings and exchange smiles or frowns. Many of them were hyperactive and I’ve come across a few who’d start walking from desk to desk as soon as the class had been given an assignment.

Their favourite places in school must be the washrooms because they went there every chance they got. Some would ask: Teacher can I go to the toilet? Then off they went, even before the question was answered. Some just assumed that it was okay to say: Teacher kencing! And then to make a quick exit.

This group took their time to enter the classroom for the class immediately after break. When asked to turn in their homework, they’d look surprise and say: Belum siap. Not finished yet. But when you checked their books you’d see that they had not even started doing the assignment.

A lot of ‘teaching time’ was used up settling petty problems. As new comers in Form One, many of my students’ favourite activity was calling somebody’s father’s name! Teacher! Dia sebut nama bapa sia! *Gasp* How should I handle that? Telling them to refrain from calling the names of adults (a no-no and considered ill-mannered) was far from effective. At the end of my tether one day, I summoned for the caller and callee. I said: Dia sebut nama bapa kau? Baik, sekarang kau sebut nama bapanya. Both turned to look at me, speechless, their eyes popping out. For these two, at least, there were no more name-calling in my class. And I have saved valuable minutes from trickling down the drain.

I could go on and on about my students’ antics.

Maybe you’re a teacher, too? (What? You’re my former student?)  Teachers tend to speak the same language when they talk about their students. We love them but oh, how their pranks drive us up the wall! 

Note: Photos show some of my favorite students. If only they had known!


  1. dear Tina,
    how true! we love them, but, they (students) sure made us mad sometimes.

  2. I've fond memories of so many students but how I wished there were fewer 'difficult' ones!