I teach ESL at a local university. This time of year in our program, the teachers are in a flurry reading, correcting and marking exams. This time of year, we worry for our students. We worry that they won’t beat our English proficiency test, a rigorous four hour examination which has made its way into the lifeblood of our program. It is our entrance exam; it is our exit exam.
This exam will determine the placement of our international students for their credit courses here at the university. Although we promote literacy , best writing practices, and critical thinking skills (which we deem essential before embarking on a university education), our students demand practice exams and exhaustive grammar lessons, which we, in turn, dole out. The age old mantra: we teach to the test. But that is only part of the picture.
Every year, our careful director asks herself (and us) how we can be the best teachers we can be. For starters, she runs planning meetings for all the teachers who teach the same courses so we can share ideas, pool resources and create large binders of ‘Best Practices’. Great lessons and new concepts are always shared.
Each semester we self-evaluate. We examine the relevancy and accuracy of our program, and asses our strengths. We also prepare for the academic challenges of our students, amidst the busy lives we lead at home – at lunchtime teachers share stories of husbands and wives, lunches, buses, babies, magazine sales, and Christmas concerts. At night I flail about in my papers, envelopes, and staplers, moving piles of marking and moving three hole punches and around house.
December is crunch time for students. It’s amazing to walk around the library this time of year, checking out the study groups in their back corners, scarves draped over long tables, worried eyes scanning large books, hands scribbling away their notes. They’re drenched in anxiety, anticipation.
My mind flashes to our six year old on an amazing journey of early literacy. She traces letters and tells her teacher, “mes histoires“: her stories. Every three words is a big deal for her, the teacher says. Make it a big deal. When her father and I look through her book of stories, we smile to each other with a parent’s pride: Maman danse avec Papa.
Her struggles learning French strangely mirror the struggles of my students, who, in a foreign country, are learning English. Her classroom is a strange new vehicle, although she may not not where she is going, a different cultural setting, an unknown expectation. Both ‘littles’ and ‘bigs’ will have a long way to go.
The student’s anxiety slowly creeps into my weekend, and even into my dreams. I dreamed that one of the other teachers gave me an exam and I FAILED it; i failed the reading section. It was hard and I panicked, had a bit of an anxiety attack and tried to cheat. It didn’t work. Another teacher caught me red-handed, and then scoffing, told me that I should try a harlequin romance. I’m not sure if she meant to read it or to write it. I think my educational life is crossing over my writing life. I woke up in a sweat, looking around my bedroom in the dark.
This semester, when my students finished writing their exam, I started to mark them immediately. They botched the midterm, so I was expecting results. As a teacher it’s my job to raise the bar; as a mother it’s my job to give shelter to those wounded from it.
And I was never so happy that they passed with flying colors. I mean, if it were me in China, and I was taking exams in Mandarin – being asked to write about globalization and the economy, then I’d be in a fair amount of trouble. I even gave them each an exit interview, sharing with them the strengths i believe they have, and the progress i know that they’ve made in Critical Reading. I try to make each student realize how far they’ve come, how much they’ve learned in the short time that they’ve been in Canada. I’m delighted for them in their success. Congratulations, I tell them, you now move on to the next stage of the game.
This semester has been a tumultuous one for me, with the impact of Grade One weighing slightly heavy on my heart still. I’m treading on the front lines of literacy with kids aged six to twenty-six. But something’s changed. I’ve now become a Mom ~ of one of the students on the other side of my classroom. And I’ve realized that that the whole child (however old they may be) is so much more important than that one test, or that grade, or that teacher will ever be, in isolation. We are so much more than the sum of our parts. And that’s an awesome realization to have.
The experience has also made me quite a bit more sensitive to the needs of those students around me who are thousands of miles from their families in Asia and the Middle East, and who need an advocate for them as well as a teacher. They need someone to talk to, someone to share things with, and someone to be proud of them.
And that would be me.
Anybody else seeing themselves in this experience? Share your thoughts here, I would be so glad to hear them.