Issue 4: You never let me down!

By Prof. Eunice Tang

When we all agree that the first year of teaching is never easy to survive, the first month of the first year is definitely a real challenge. The uncertainties, frustrations, anxiety and helplessness seem to have overshadowed all the passion, eagerness, enthusiasm and confidence. Probably, the most frequently asked question at this time is “What should we do?” I extracted a few email messages which witness the ups and downs of a novice teacher. However, I make no attempt to draw any judgmental conclusions nor prepare any survival kits. I see them as reflective messages to examine our own beliefs, values, thoughts and practices, no matter we are a novice or experienced teacher.

(Upon request, the name of the teacher remains anonymous.)

Date: Thu, 05 June 2008

Dear Eunice,

Quite worry about you because I haven’t heard from you after your last mail. Hope you are just being busy but have not got any other problems. Well, boat trip again, all of them believe that you are coming and they have the same interpretation as mine when reading your last reply. Please confirm again. Please come because you love to meet us and love to have fun with us, right? There is gradually more good news from all the girls. I’m sure they all have a GM post at hand. Our group should be the best!


Date: Fri, 26 Sep 2008

Dear Eunice

I really don’t know what to say. Every day, I’m like having a fight with my students. I am teaching three classes, one good F3 class in that school (though good, but still weak), the other classes are the worst class in F1 and in F3. The students only talk and sleep. They do not respect teachers at all. For the F3 class, they know only a few vocabulary items. I am forced to use Cantonese in the lesson because they complained to the Panel that I was using too much English. I think the standard of the F3 class is even worse than the worst class in F1. They never hand in homework, so I insist that they should do the work in class. But they replied, ‘I don’t know any English, how can I write?’ So, I made up a guided passage and required them to fill in some words. However, they didn’t even try. I said if they could not finish it, they needed to stay until the work was completed. Then, they copied from one another. Sometimes, they even copied something which was not relevant. They were just some English words with no meaning. So, the paper seemed to have been filled in order to get released from me.

I have not let you down because I have really prepared for each lesson, as such, I have to make up different lessons for the two F3 classes and do not use their normal worksheets nor teaching materials. For the F1 class, I try to cater for individual differences. Although there are only 16 students, they have a lot of problems. I know that they have different problems, but I do not have time to really understand each of them. Each lesson, they have different discipline problems, I just don’t know how to teach a good lesson. Every day, I stay in school up to 7:30pm but I still cannot finish my work. I am wondering how long I can stay in this job. I almost give up. The students in the worst classes are actually too used to be punished. They treat detention as a regular appointment. Even though I have not given them any detention, I always saw them being punished by other teachers. My colleagues are very nice but we share different teaching philosophy. Just like in the typhoon day, I was worried that my students would miss two lessons because of the typhoon. They said even if they had not missed the two lessons, they would not have learnt more. They calmed me down by telling me not to expect too much from the “bad” classes, just to think of the month-end pay and passing every day [I think “pass each day” is fine here; the verb is an infinitive for sure].  No matter how hard you teach, they will not have any hope, so every day they are only waiting for the time to pass. But the problem is, I am not aiming for my pay, so what am I aiming at?????? I really feel confused. (These students are much much worse than the students in my TP. They do not have any motivation at all in all subjects, and English is even the worst.) Poor English teachers! I think they must have tried very hard when they were still new teachers. Will I become one of them, just ignore everything but keep myself survived until the pay days? But what’s the meaning to be a teacher like that? Maybe I will just go back private tuition, At least I can really help some students. In the past, I thought I could help more, but……….. maybe I am too naive. I am very sick now because I have caught a cold, for a few days already, how long can I stay?

God bless.

Date: Fri, 26 Sep 2008

Dear F

Please get well soon. You need rest. If taking a day off helps, please do. I can understand fully your anxiety and frustrations. Tell you what, up to this moment, after 20 years of teaching, I still feel indebted if I take a sick leave. I always feel guilty when I am absent from class, no matter it’s the early morning one or an evening one. I feel that I would disappoint them if I don’t turn up. This is US. It’s because we care, we still have the passion and heart for what we are doing. So you just have to take it lightly sometimes, as you can’t do a good lesson too when you are sick. So, get well soon! Now, the other problem is the students. I don’t see much as a proficiency problem as it is expected. I will see more as an attitude problem. So I would use a different method. First, you yourself have to lower your anxiety in the classroom. They can feel it and as a result, they will also have a high anxiety level and find it hard to learn or they simply confront you. Relax! Then, it’s the level. As expected, their English is poor and the textbooks are too difficult. This is beyond their i+1 already so they can’t manage. You need to scale down the level of difficulty (mind you, don’t think that giving more instructions and exercises will help if the level is too high for them). Do something simpler. They need a sense of achievement and satisfaction. They need to see and hear that they can do it. They need encouragement and sympathy. Finally, the learning behaviour of the students is as important as the preparation of the teaching materials. Spend some time to discipline them on their learning behaviour. Sometimes, the time spent on moral lecture will bring positive return to the overall learning. Think about it. F, there seems to be a mismatch of expectations between you and your students. You must narrow it and show the students you understand the gap and you are helping them from their level. Don’t set an unachievable level right at the start as they will think that they can never do it. Then life for you and your students will be very miserable and painful. It takes time to understand what is happening and look for improvement. Give yourself some space to re-work your strategy. I would love to hear from you again. Take care!


Date: Sat, 27 Sep 2008

Dear Eunice

Some comfort today, don’t know whether it is only a shower.

Last week, I asked the students to write a bi-weekly journal which was supposed to be an email to a friend talking about what they had been doing in their summer holiday, as a H/W scheduled by the scheme of work. None of them submit a piece.

I took it seriously but I still patiently gave some guidelines and a sample of email and let them do it in class the next day. Since it was the last lesson, I warned them that if I could not collect all, the class would not be dismissed. What happened was that they only copied my example (one was even worse. He copied my instruction sheet as the content) and handed it in to me in order to be released.

I felt quite upset, but when I went home, I thought maybe they were really too poor in ability to write or read anything. Then I started around 11pm at night and designed an email (like a worksheet) which requires them to fill in some very simple information. I gave it to each of them, explicitly explained what would be needed for each blank. This time, about 2/5 of the class tried to do it under my supervision. I felt much better, but I still insisted to have all of them finished the worksheet. The 3/5 of the students just ignored me and kept talking or doing other thing as usual. At last, I think they were afraid to stay behind, they just seized the others’ work, copied the answer and handed it in to me. I felt quite frustrated because they didn’t even read the words on the paper. If they had, I really wouldn’t believe that they were unable to fill at least part of the worksheet.

Today, I had only half of the class while the other half went to the NET teacher. We needed to do the reader today, I showed them the powerpoint in which there were some pictures showing certain settings of the ghost stories, then I read and explained the introduction of the story with some Q&As to let them know a bit more about the story. Then I gave them a worksheet (a very simple one), they only needed to flip two of three pages to find out the answer. For example, they were asked to fill in the title of the book, the name of the author, the number of pages, the number of chapters, the number of characters in the first chapter, etc.. Or, they only needed to find out the names of the characters. I gave some hints describing the characters and asked them to guess their relations, etc.. Only 4 out of 16 started working. I sighed and said to them from my heart, “I know that you always think you have no hope in learning English. I know you have difficulties in writing a journal. So, I tried to change it to a simpler one, just hoping that it will help you start your first step, no matter what you have given to me. Although some of them just copied “rubbish” to me, I still used my heart to mark them. I spent my time to really read all of them and gave you some feedback. The worksheets I prepared are only for you, specially made for you and are printed by myself, using my own money, .I am not expecting you to appreciate what I have done, I only hope you can really do something to help yourself. I am very disappointed, because you had not even tried before you gave up. This worksheet, again, I made it for you. Just open your eyes, read the first page, you can certainly find some answers. I trust you can do it, you should also trust yourself. Try it, let me understand more about your real ability.”

Suddenly, a few students really picked up the book and the worksheet and started to read and look for the answers. One student seemed to take it as a normal gesture and passed his completed worksheet for the other two to copy. I went beside them and said, “Don’t look down upon your classmates, they can do it.” The other two students also smiled and said,” Ya, don’t think we can’t do it. Take it away, we can do it ourselves.”

Finally, only one student had not filled in the worksheet. But, I am really very happy and have been happy for the rest of the day. You know, at that time when I talked to them, I almost cried from my heart, I didn’t know whether this has been shown on my face.

The next Monday? How would they become again?

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