Teaching Abroad (Part 12) – a Year in Review

My first year of teaching in Spain is winding down, and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what, if anything, I’ve learned from the experience. I know I know more about English grammar than I did a year ago, and that’s gotta be worth something. I’ve also pushed the limits of my creativity and sat back in amazement at what I’ve been able to come up with. Full city maps to teach giving directions. A lesson on the porn industry to teach vocabulary. A modified version of “Jeopardy” (complete with laminated U.S. currency) to test word families. Teaching “domicilio” requires an enormous amount of imagination, so if workbooks are your strong suit, then private tutoring definitely isn’t for you.

The life lessons, as well as the challenges, however, have been different. They’ve had a significantly profound effect on me, at times testing my sanity and willpower. This is what I’ve been thinking about.

The challenges were many and substantial, so much so that they affected my health. The stress caused my face to break out, a small patch of hair fell out, and I slid into what I realized afterwards was depression. See, I had a plan for myself and this career I’d embarked on, and none of it was working the way I’d envisioned. I had to deal with last-minute class cancellations–which meant I wouldn’t get paid–a severe drop in income, and students who thought just showing up was the extent of the effort they had to make. For every one who “got it,” I had to entertain five who didn’t, no matter what I said or did. The mistake I made was to let that affect me more than it should have. I spent so much energy on making lessons interesting and coming up with fun, informative material, that every time I hit a brick wall, I blamed myself. I thought I was responsible for both teaching them and for their learning process.

The turning point was when I got fired from an agency back in early March. I’d walked out of a session with two five-year-olds because I’d had enough of their entitlement bullshit, and then vented about what I saw as a slight by a student. As painful as the termination was at the time, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The following day, I interviewed with an academy that offered not only more money, but also a chance to connect with a mentor. The head of the agency was a fantastic business woman, and her vision for the company was about professionalism and making clients happy. Unfortunately, she offered nothing in the way of staff support. For those of us who don’t have a built-in network like the Brits enjoy, or don’t benefit from easy access to other teachers for peer review, or could use a pat on the back when these challenges arise…these things mean more than you’ll ever know. I got none of that from her.

So, yeah, getting fired was a bonus from the teaching gods. Here I was, making much more money for working less hours, and I could trade venting e-mails with my newfound mentor. But more than that was the significant change in my approach to teaching. Long story short, I finally grew up.

My faculty advisor in graduate school, Jack Lynch, shared something with me that was equally demoralizing and empowering. I’d reached out to him for advice on managing frustrations with students since he’s been teaching for a while now, and what he said was this:

“Every (good) teacher realizes at some point that most students have no real interest in learning. You can take a little satisfaction in amusing them, and maybe giving them a credential that’ll make their lives slightly cushier, but that’s about it. They’re not the rewarding ones.

“From time to time, though, you get the really good student–not necessarily good in what they know when they come in; some of my best students have been the worst prepared. But they’re good because they get sparked, and you see in them some of the excitement that got you started. There’s not much of that–never as much as you’d like–but you see it from time to time, and if you’re lucky it’s enough to keep you going.”

And this was the life lesson: Human nature is what it is, which means that way too many people will do whatever they can to get the most for less. If they can get away with making minimal effort, then minimal effort is exactly what they’ll put forth. I don’t really mind this so much–except for the fact that these same people refuse to accept mediocrity in others. The students who don’t do homework, who don’t practice, who don’t review, assume that because they’re paying their money to be taught, all they have to do is show up–and everything else falls on the teacher. My advice to you is simple: Match their enthusiasm. If they give a damn, then you do, too. If they don’t, then do enough to get paid. Trust me, you’ll stay sane this way.

I’ve since refocused my energy on finding that “really good student.” They’ve appeared few and far between, but that’s been OK with me. With those students, I push myself to give them the best, and they actually respond in kind. The ones who want to blow smoke up my ass? Well, I let them. After all, my rent still needs to get paid.

So, there you have it, my year in review. Despite all the craziness and disappointments that I’ve had to endure, I have to admit that I’ve enjoyed it. I never thought I’d say this, but, if I had to do it all over again, I would without any hesitation. Why? Because I’ve learned more about myself and about people than I ever thought I would.