Wednesday, September 16, 2009

And so life as a teacher goes in Asia...

They told me this could happen. It is Tuesday morning. It is 7 a.m. on Tuesday morning, and I am sitting at my desk at Commonwealth Secondary school. I have officially been in the classroom for one day. I just found out I will be teaching one of my own classes starting next week. I will officially observe eight more lessons until I am actually required to teach these students myself. I have no syllabus. I am supposed to be reviewing. Reviewing what? I don’t know. I suppose it has something to do with the novel “Holes.” I read the novel “Holes” yesterday. All 236 pages of it. Do I seem calm? I’m not. I think I’m still in shock.

It is 9 hours later. My initial shock has passed, and, while I did go into panic mode for about 2 hours and 13 minutes after the shock wore off, I am legitimately calm now. Today, I was given a learning scheme for my Sec 1 and 2 students, several suggested lessons, and some great advice from the other teachers about my lessons next week. I also observed a few more classes. In addition, I am not required to teach all the lessons as I was initially told, just a few per week. And I will have another teacher observing my lessons most days. It is going to be fine. In fact, I might just get the hang of this. No need to panic. No, no need to panic at all, but I am still a bit nervous.

The thing I’ve noticed about the Singaporean education system is that it is quite exam driven. Not that you have to be some kind of genius to notice this little fact. They tell you it straight out. But it is interesting that it is so blatantly obvious. Teachers mention the exams at least once a lesson, and often ask students to generate questions they think may show up on the exams. Examples revolve around what may or may not be on the exams, and students ask questions like “How does this relate to the exams?” They say that is one reason why foreign teachers are here. The teachers here have to be exam driven. The education system necessitates that. But they also want to be more creative (and less obviously exam driven on the surface) in their lessons. I think I can handle this. Creativity is not something I tend to lack. However, I hope I can also adequately prepare the students for their all important exams while also being creative. I think this is what I’m most nervous about…my students failing. I mean their future really does depend on their exams. I can definitely empathize with the teachers for teaching to the exams.

Don’t get me wrong though. It isn’t like I just sit around at school watching lessons that teach to the exams and staring at my computer screen trying to come up with lessons that don’t and being all nervous in between. I am truly enjoying my experience at Commonwealth so far. My colleagues are all really nice and helpful. They often stop by on their way to the pantry (I’m a newbie so my desk is actually directly next to the food pantry/kitchen/break room) and introduce themselves, offer me some kind words of advice, or, more often than not, offer me one of their biscuits, cookies, chocolates etc. At least, I won’t ever go hungry.

In addition to having really great colleagues, I also love the students. The ones who know my name, which isn’t many considering I’ve only met about 120 out of over one thousand kids, will nod as they pass me in the hallway always saying “Good morning or good afternoon Ms. Rachel.” It is so sweet. It is like my babes’ class at Forney Cronin Studio, and their “Thank you Mrs. Cronin, thank you Ms. Rachel” ritual after every class. The students who don’t know me will bow as they pass anyway, often offering only a slight smile and a shy sideways glace. I have been really impressed with the students so far, they really are lovely young people. I mean, try asking a group of 13-14-year -old American students to stand at the beginning and end of each class to greet and thank you respectively. Let alone, even look at you in the hall.

Also, because my workload is fairly light right now, I’ve been able to leave the school between 2 and 3 p.m. and still have time to run a few errands and prepare a lovely, slow home-cooked meal before I sit down to read, research lesson planning, and blog like I did this evening. And now, I must be a grown-up and get ready for bed because it is getting close to 10:30 p.m. Just hearing myself say this paragraph in my head, makes me think I sound lame. I actually just thought, “Wow you are a lame adult.” But 5:50 a.m. is calling…

…and in the form of a noisy alarm clock it called right on time. I learned a few more interesting facts about my school today. I joined three contract teachers on their tour this morning. Contract teachers are teachers from other professions and specializations who come into the schools to observe and teach a bit before going on to obtain their one year teaching degree and practice. We were given a tour of the school together and were able to ask open questions about the school’s policies etc.

At Commonwealth, in each grade or section there are five express classes, two normal academic classes, and one normal technical (express, normal academic, and normal technical are tracks into which students are placed after their primary school exam). However, it is not typical to have so many more express classes than normal classes. Actually, Commonwealth is an autonomous school, which is one step below the top schools and a step above the neighborhood schools. Out of the 150 secondary schools in Singapore, 22 are autonomous schools. Light bulb, no wonder my students seem so intelligent…they are in one of the better schools in Singapore and are in the express level at this school.

I was able to observe another English lesson, Sec. 1.3, after the tour and before teaching the dance. No, this is not a typo. I helped teach a dance today…here’s the kicker…with about 2 hours notice. The teachers are performing a song and dance number for the graduating students next Friday, and this morning I was asked to help demonstrate the dance to the teachers! Everyday something new. One of the other teachers, Stephanie, had already choreographed the dance, and I was just there to help demonstrate. It was definitely an experience as the teachers seemed rather reluctant to learn the dance, let alone be there.

At “Beauty and the Beast”, I would have just yelled at them (in the nicest possible way of course), whether they were younger or older than me, to form lines and follow along. But, here I feel like I need to be very careful with authority, because I am pretty much the lowest on the totem pole you can be. In addition, Asian cultures tend to place a lot more emphasis on following the chain of command and respecting one’s elders and authority figures. So, while they all stood around and chatted and stared at us blankly, we tried to demonstrate step touches and grapevines to a pretty apathetic response. The teachers did decide they would like to learn the steps from a you-tube video though, so Stephanie is going to put it online for them to learn before Friday of next week. I think it has something to do with saving face in front of their peers in combination with the technology driven society in which I am living. It was definitely a cultural learning experience though, and I know a little more about how to approach my future dance teaching experiences. Also, I think 13-year-olds may be a little more receptive than teachers…just a hunch. And so life as a teacher goes in Asia…

A long day was rewarded with a really enjoyable evening. It was Jacob’s birthday today, so a group of about 12 of us including Leslie, the PiA assistant director who is establishing the office in Singapore, got together at a restaurant on Arab Street to celebrate. We sat in a hazy, dim-lit room on colorful little pillows around low tables and tried to explain to the Arabic-speaking waiters that we wanted to order, among other things, hibiscus flower juice. For hours, in the quiet, beautiful little room of the restaurant overlooking Arab Street we shared hummus, pitas, hookah, and first-week stories. I have to say that while I have had some interesting experiences at school, I certainly don’t have the best horror story. We’re talking things like teaching three classes on the first day with little to no warning, kids asking questions so inappropriate I don’t even want to write them here, and fellow teachers getting a little too personal. And so, we concluded, life as a teacher goes in Asia…

…and goes and goes. The teacher was sick from my first observation lesson today (Thursday) so…I bet you can guess who taught it. I don’t know if “taught” is exactly the right word though. Basically I played two icebreaker games with the students. These activities tend to be useful for me as I get to learn some of the students names and also learn a few facts about them that help me identify them as individuals (although the uniforms make even this simple task difficult). As an added bonus, I get to spot the students with behavioral problems. Icebreaker activities also help the students to learn a bit more about me, and become more comfortable with this strange looking/strange talking person’s presence. The rest of the day continued with three more actual English lesson observations broken up only by a coffee break at the canteen with Mrs. Liow, one of the wonderful teachers I am observing. It concluded with an observation of the journalism class that is composing the school magazine or newsletter. This class is taught by David, who is British. I learned one new and very interesting thing in the journalism meeting from David from Britain. I need to start using the British English spelling of words. In case you aren’t my mother and you aren’t aware of this fact, here it is: While I am a writer, I am actually secretly a terrible speller. And now I have to re-learn the spellings of colour, neighbour, harbour and the like. Should be interesting.

Off to the gym and then crashing early I’m sure. Tomorrow?...TGIF.

TIA for now and Cheers of course,

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