Christmas Party @ SPYC

A few days ago I went back to the Christmas party in the secondary school where I taught. Very joyful atmosphere swarmed with candid laughter of kids. Students who might be unruly and mischievous on normal school days always become more innocent on such a day. Unlike previous years when I would be staying with my own class, this year I went around the school to different classrooms finding faces I know (and getting different food).

To my surprise, the kids were actually exhilarated when I appeared, and people kept asking me for photos – of course, they did this too on previous Christmas party days when I was still a teacher at the school. I was also surprised by the realisation of how many students I’ve actually taught in the past three years. I was very happy to see them again too (especially without having to undergo the toil of chasing after them for homework and marking their terribly ungrammatical compositions anymore).

Christmas party day is definitely one of the happiest school days, and I will soon miss it. Celebrating Christmas in school is always different from any other Christmas gatherings. But as one cohort of students leave the school after another, I will soon be a stranger when I visit the school again. No more innocent kids surrounding Mr Chan sharing food and taking selfies with me.

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What my 2014-15 Class 3D drew on Christmas party day

Or will I miss it? Will I become so old already that I no longer find joy in such occasions? Even if I stayed and continued to teach, would I enjoy the occasion less as I grew older and older, with a wider and wider generation gap with my students? This is something I probably won’t be able to find out. This is the road not taken.

But I’m glad that I’ve been a teacher. I feel blessed to know there are kids who miss me. (Irony: They never do until you have left!)

***

And I met a boy whom I taught for two years in S2 and S3. Having left our school after S4, he’s now studying in Canada. He reminded me of the episode in the last S2 English lesson, when I half-jokingly asked him to copy a Japanese phrase (なに) for 100 times as extra summer homework because he shouted the word when I was giving out the English summer assignments. He was unlucky enough to fall into my hands again after the holiday so I did chase after him for that. Now he is telling me that in the process of copying he actually felt that the Japanese characters are beautiful and this made him want to learn the langauge.

Really couldn’t have imagined that. You could never imagine how you may influence your students. Things that cannot be encapsulated in the ‘learning outcomes’ we designate in our teaching.

He also thanked me and another English colleague for encouraging him throughout the years (though I think I teased him more often) and helping him with his English. Didn’t exepct this either, as he didn’t appear to care much back then. Boy. Perhaps too good at hiding emotions.

I will probably miss this kind of satisfaction.

Introverts and Classroom Participation

[This post is inspired by and written in response to an article entitled Teachers, Quit Telling Introverts They Should Participate More’ I read on Introvert, Dear.]

The author of the post is a school teacher, and so was I. She identifies herself as an introvert, and so do I. Perhaps I was too much of a goody-two-shoes in primary and secondary schools, but I do share a lot of her anxiety as a student in the university classroom myself, and agree with much of her advice for teachers.

During my undergraduate studies, as English majors, we often had to discuss in tutorials, but it usually took me minutes to formulate my opinion in my mind, carefully rehearsing it, and waiting for the right timing, perhaps waiting for that girl sitting opposite me to finish her point first, before I could anxiously make my comment. After making the comment, please gosh don’t stare at me. Don’t come back to me – I’ve made my contribution. Not that I’m not interested in the topic. I’d love to hear different people’s opinions in tutorial discussion, but please don’t pick on me and ask me to say something when I’m not ready.

Then I did my MPhil. All research students in my university have to be teaching assistants. I actually like teaching and I enjoyed being a TA. I was then the one holding tutorial discussions, having to ask my students to express their thoughts. Perhaps I should have been more compassionate about those who was anxious as I was as an undergraduate, but I seemed to have internalised the notion that verbal communication and participation are essential for students to make the most out of their literary studies. The most important (and inconvenient) reason was that, since I was not the assessed but the assessor, I did not feel the same anxiety.

But then we also had research student polemics where we got together and discussed scholarly articles with a professor, and I shrank back into the nervous anxious student. We actually had a debate in one of the polemics over whether polemics are constructive in academic training. I tend to stand on the negative side with a few of my peers, believing that carefully constructed and researched arguments are probably more valuable than on-the-spot debates, though we all have to acknowledge that verbal exchanges are a necessary part in scholarly activities in reality… conferences and viva!!!

After that I became a secondary school English teacher. The PGDE training tells us to increase classroom interaction and encourage student participation. Of course I’d agree that if it’s all chalk-and-talk, quite a lot of students will just drift off and not learn much in class, but we must also acknowledge that there are introverts in the classroom who would just be discouraged from learning if constantly required to speak in front of the class, or even just have their work displayed. It doesn’t mean they aren’t attentive or interested in the lesson, but the mode of learning doesn’t suit them.

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The boy is well liked by teachers because he is actively participating in class, but look at the anxious face of the girl… She probably isn’t disinterested in learning, but just feels uncomfotable about the way teachers recognise students’ effort in class.

The author of the article has given some good suggestions for teachers: trying to get them talk in small groups where they feel a bit more at ease, and allowing writing as an alternative way to share their ideas. I’d add that multi-modal assessments should be encouraged especially in the secondary school classroom, where the diversity in learning needs can be large. A mix of written assessments, oral presentations, creative assignments, or even video production, if the students are tech-savvy enough (with tablets and apps this shouldn’t be difficult), would probably make learning more stimulating and at the same time help develop the different skills which will be really useful in the future too. This is also fairer because I supppose no one is good at everything, and where they aren’t good at, they should be given the opportunities to hone those skills.

It might actually be the teachers who aren’t very comfortable initiating such changes due to their unfamiliarity with the various modes of teaching and learning. This is understandable. Schools should allow more room – not only the freedom, but actually releasing their workload (instead of asking teachers to add new things to the plate while keeping up with everything already there – for experimentation. At the end of the day, we just want our students to love, instead of fear or hate, learning, and schools should help teachers achieve this mission.

Educational Managerialism

These days I’ve been reading a book entitled Educational Leadership: Ambiguity, Professionals and Managerialism, by Eric Hoyle and Mike Wallace. (Warn you, not a leisure read – I read it for research purpose.) It seems to have summarised some of the problems we teachers face in the workplace under the climate of increasing educational managerialism.

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The following excerpt will probably generate some resonance if you are a teacher:

Meetings are particularly rich in opportunities for finding problems. Meetings have now become a major leadership and management tool. In many schools, attending meetings has become almost a way of life. They occupy time during the school day and also after school hours, contributing to the high number of hours worked each week by teachers. … Such meetings exist to enable staff to solve problems and make decisions. But they also fulfil many other functions, including reporting, mobilizing, motivating, reinforcing group identity, impressing colleagues, or parading grievances. …

But meetings have increasingly become opportunities for generating problems. Constructing an agenda often entails a search for problems … Some committees and working parties are dumping grounds for ‘problems’ that are not resolvable at a particular point. Managerialism thrives on meetings. To reduce the number of meetings may be to reduce the number of ‘problems’ that unproductively absorb staff time. But to do so would be heretical to the managerialist mind. (98-99)

To simplify, there are two types of meetings – meetings that solve problems and those that generate problems. The former is necessary and purposeful, while the latter is exhausting and demoralising.

No one really likes meetings, I suppose, not even the school administrators. Yet, why are we teachers still pestered by all the meetings big and small, eating up time for lesson preparation and generating problems and work that do not always relate to the benefit our students?

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If the school administrators aren’t sadistic, then there must be reasons for them to believe that such meetings are necessary or meaningful for the school (not necessarily the students). Such is the force of the governmental management which wants to tighten its grip over schools.

Yet, Holye and Wallace also point out that ‘there is room to manoeuvre over how far to enter into the spirit of these tasks, as opposed to doing the minimum required’ (91). Administrators ought to exercise their professionalism and decide what is in the best interest of their students, and this should vary from one school to another.

Another point worth noting is that while many activities or programmes could be beneficial to students, a question to ask is ‘whether these improvements have been of a magnitude that justifies their heavy costs, financially and in terms of sapping the energy and lowering the job satisfaction of teachers’ (95). And of course, to view the issue on a macroscopic scale, the same logic applies to governmental directives at the cost of school administrators’ burnout.

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Schools should always put the interest of students at the first priority, but in order to be effective, the working conditions and job satisfaction of teachers must not be overlooked. At the end of the day, who are there to teach the students? Would passionate and enthusiastic teachers inspire students better, or would overworked and unhappy ones do a better job?