The post below is a guest post. It was written by a teacher as a part of his learning journal on a training course. It was only meant to be seen by his journal partner (peer) and trainer. We thought that this entry could be also shared with wider audience. Why? Take a look at it.
“I‘ve never been to a bookstore in my whole life.” One student in my class said. At that moment, I was extremely obsessed with the awkward mood. “How could it be possible? You could just drop by there by yourself. You’re kidding me.”
Unfortunately, what he said has been proved as one of the students’ realities that I’d been confronting for a few years in vocational high school. Many students know that technical high schools are notorious for the inferior educational condition to those who come from poor families. Those poor students have never received praise from anybody and that contributed to their low self esteem. They were not motivated to get involved in all kinds of school activities so that I had been very frustrated in the process of teaching them. Actually, I could not think of any kind of good solution to teach them. However, the experience in vocational school had definitely broaden my awareness with regard to the students’ behavior that could be considered as rude without figuring out unseen reason for that. Especially it has become my precious turning point acquiring fruitful results in learning and teaching.
“Why did you move to this kind of awful school?” This was what I heard on the first day from one of the teachers in there. After having been teaching all kinds of brilliant students in public high school for several years, I was transferred to another school. In fact, I heard it would be a lot easier for English teacher working in vocational high school for their personal benefits, such as raising their own young children, attending graduate school and focusing on their personal issues. I was also the kind of teacher who was very much keen on my own academical achievement. However, what I saw and felt at first in that school was quite the opposite to what I had expected.
The class that I expected to be very easy for preparing or managing was like a disaster. Not a single student listened to me and they were just doing their own thing. They didn’t have any clear goal in life. Just like a empty grasses in an endless torrid desert, they were talking, walking and sleeping in class, expressing no interest in anything other than running out for lunch time. I thought that I had to find out the way to survive in that awful situation for my own sake. The only thing in which they were likely to be involved was absorbing fast food meals without saying anything. The main reason that I occasionally tried to buy their favorite type of food for the class was not there was any pedagogical benefit of it but that I realized that many students have never ever eaten such teenage food at home. Apparently, they had been raised in underprivileged families including disabled parents, as poor as a church mouse. They had been poorly off so that they could not afford to buy such food. I witnessed their happy grin on faces right in that moment of sharing a fast-food meal together. Surprisingly, it gave me a chance to listen to their inner voices more and more.
One of the things I did to ‘activate’ my students in class was modifying my lesson plans and adjusting them for all of the ‘ lower level’ students.. At first, I was somewhat worried to make my lessons so simple because I thought the level of task in a class was too easy to learn even for primary school students. However, I’learned that it had been totally my mistake to think in that way because several students could not even read and write well their native language. I couldn’t compel them to study English; instead I let them read several multi-cultural picture books with few English word on their pages. For the students who were expected to get a practical job after graduation to earn money for their family, studying a foreign language was seen as a meaningless behavior. Even worse, the negative feedback or ignorance from teachers aroused resistance towards school system and it made them get extremely low self-esteem. On top of that, my students seemed to be those people who had never been praised. Therefore, I focused all my efforts to develop new teaching patterns and routines.
Just for those students who could barely read and write English letters, I used several modified authentic kid songs and pictures. Even though the tasks given to them seemed so simple from the point of ‘normal’ high school students, it was fairly appropriate for my students. Also, they were consistently offered lots of positive feedback from me for completing those tasks. My new way of teaching was quite effective for them not only to motivate their learning desire but also to raise their self-confidence. The students in my class were getting more and more interested in those simple English activities while feeling that they could be the ‘right’ persons recognized or even embraced by someone else in this world.
I began to enjoy the life in the vocational school because of my relationship with the students. Once or twice a month, I would go to one of my relatives’ or significant others’ wedding ceremonies with several students of mine. These students had never experienced eating a meal in a buffet or restaurant (not just in a wedding hall but also in their whole life). Furthermore, I visited many students at home to keep an eye for a possible family problem. One furious father got frightfully addicted to alcohol and treated his children in a violent manner. He sometimes horrendously hit his son and daughter without any reason. Unfortunately, it led to divorce. All of a sudden, I got to understand why most of students had difficulty in creating sincere and close relationships with their teachers: for them the teachers belonged to the group of adults victimizing them by hitting, yelling and despising.
After understanding their poor family background, I consistently made an effort to get along with them. Another effort of mine for being their accepted teacher was sharing experience of spending an evening together at my house. I used to bring several students to my place. We cooked noodles at night, watched sports games on TV, played football games together. Taking a bath in public sauna together is a well known Korean tradition so I brought them to the public sauna in order to build more solid relationship with them. In the end all of these efforts helped me build strong rapport with students and it made me get more and more satisfied about teaching in that school.
We can not judge someone just by the prejudice on academic achievement or just visible physical appearance. I know that there are still many students in despair and hopelessness, being devitalized. Many teachers are still struggling with such problems as violence, mis-communication, illegal behavior and bad attitudes in vocational high school. However, it doesn’t mean that students don’t have the right to have their own valuable dream. I realized that they have been just waiting for someone who can help them keep them on the right track for the successful career and life. What I saw in my vocational school was not dreamless kids but the students with unseen ardent wish and desire for their bright future. Even though it was a long tough journey for me to find my students’ unseen goal, still I am making a promise to myself to keep abreast with them and to get to the goal together with patience and endurance.
“Teacher, I‘ve never been to the bookstore in my whole life.”
“Okay, you too?.. Well.. Do you want to go there with me and your close friends? I can recommend some good books for your future career.”
The author of this post, Sung Jun Cho, is a teacher of English at Bok-Su High School in Daejeon, South Korea. He kindly gave us his permission to share this journal entry on this site. If there is anything you would like to share with the author, we will pass the comments to him. Thank you for reading!