Sunday, July 19, 2015

New Beginnings/New Learning

Friday’s event at Georgia Tech brought many new ideas and learnings to me. It’s hard to identify the most important but I shall try. I have grouped them into categories for ease of reading. I will say that I could have kept talking to my group for a few more hours and not run out of topics to talk about.
Importance of Being an Effective Discussion Leader in the Classroom
I think this was my biggest takeaway. I’ve always considered myself pretty skilled at getting people talking, which is one of the reasons I chose the field of ESL teaching to explore. I approached the discussion with an air of curiosity in my voice so that I was asking my table to comment on various topics after introducing themselves. What I discovered is it’s really hard to keep a group of just six people from different backgrounds and cultures talking to each other as a group. There were many points in the conversation where I could tell the Panamanians and the Koreans just didn’t understand and didn’t know what else to ask. I tried to insert my clarification of what I think was said, but I could never be really sure if that is what they were intending to get across. There were several points in the conversation where the table would split, and pairs would start talking to each other for longer periods of time, and I was afraid they were bored. I had two men even start texting for a period of time but they eventually came back to the group. 
I know that I am a person that needs to feel comfortable with a group before leading, and so introductions are not necessarily my strong suit. I know I will have to work on this for future classes because knowing what I know now, introductions are crucial. I didn’t really feel like we got into the meat of things until the last thirty minutes and felt like this part was rushed because of time. It always takes me a few extra minutes to really feel comfortable with leading a group. Once we got into our conversation, I felt comfortable enough to ask “Why did you become an English teacher?” In hindsight, I should have asked this question as one of my first but shied away thinking it was too personal for having just met. This question is the one that helped me understand everything else said during group and served to neatly close the conversation, which I suppose is good too. Leading a conversation is one of the hardest things to do, I learned. I don’t want to talk too much, but I want to make everyone feel comfortable at the same time. It’s almost like walking a fine line.
Motivation for Becoming an ESL/EFL Teacher: A Cultural Divide
When I asked the “Why did you become an English teacher?” question, I got two major answers: one from the Koreans and one from Panamanians. The Koreans always answered among the lines of “It’s a solid/stable/respected career with good working conditions.” I thought about this answer quite a bit. How is this different in the United States? I know as a certified teacher I will always have work. That, however, is where the similarities end. I wouldn’t call teaching a respected career in this country. In fact, when I came home from college my junior year and told my parents I had changed my major from Nursing to Early Childhood Education they had one question for me: “Why?” Then they asked if I intended to marry rich. I had no such plans. They were incredulous and made it seem like they wished better for me. Working my way through two years of teaching with Minneapolis Public Schools made me see my parents’ original point. It’s a thankless job and the working conditions (namely sheer volume of time put in to achieve a mediocre result) were less than average. 
While my kids were always great, my parents seemed much different. I was constantly questioned and criticized about every step of my teaching process, from my classroom management to my assessment practices, to my ability to run a classroom when I was not a parent myself. I felt just a general lack of respect, and I was not alone in my feelings. I had an entirely different experience in Korea though, and I could see that there was a much different attitude taken toward education in that country. I was suddenly an authority, and if my students did poorly on an assignment, it was their fault, not mine. The sense of responsibility the learner has is greatly increased. Which makes a teacher’s job much easier (while still not easy) in comparison. I had a moment where I understood why the Korean teachers at my table thought that teaching was a respected, stable, steady career.
Meanwhile, the Panamanians answer to this question was very different. They were elementary teachers, and it seemed like a second career for them. One woman was a journalism major who couldn’t find work in that field. She took advantage of the president’s initiative and hiring bonuses after graduating and grew to love children and teaching. The other was similar from what I gathered. Both of these woman talked about the profession similarly to the way I view elementary teaching here. Low pay, high stress. They talked a lot about inclusion in the classroom, having children with both physical disabilities and behavioral disabilities included in their classrooms. This was a concept foreign to the Koreans, and I remember having to explain the word inclusion and write it down for them. I was surprised (I don’t know why) to learn that the population of children on the autism spectrum was high in Panama. The Panamanians seemed to describe their working conditions as chaotic and stressful. They have six classes a day and move from classroom to classroom, often carrying their materials on a cart or rolling suitcase.
Behavior management is something they struggled with because they were not the classroom teacher but often the floating ESL teacher. They would enter a classroom, calm children down, do a lesson and move to the next classroom all in 50 minutes. One teacher talked in detail about the breathing exercises and meditation activities she did to calm her students. When I asked the Koreans how they handed behavior in the classroom they simply said “Students are highly motivated by scores, so when they misbehave we take off points on a test.” It seemed to work for them. I could just see the learning happening at my table, though. Neither group knew quite what the other was talking about, but they all were working for a common goal: to help children be the best they could be, and that is where I stepped back to say to myself, “Wow, what an awesome field I have chosen for myself.” Honestly, I couldn’t be happier working with the learners I work with now, learning about different cultures and constantly learning about myself. This sounds cheesy, but this is really an AWESOME life!

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