My Students and Me

Morning commute fender-benders aside, my days start the same. We all would prefer to arrive

around 740-750 am but everything seems to conspire against us and the results is our

arriving around 750-755. Once I’ve clocked in with a fingerprint I weave through hallways filled

with yelling kids. They all arrive by 750, and from 750 to 8 do coordinated shouting/ warm-up

exercises in the hallway with a whistle blowing PE teacher. It helps to organize the kids in the

morning before they walk orderly to class, it also gives the rest of us a morning migraine.

What I do like about it, is that it keeps the students out of the classroom until precisely 8 am

when the day officially starts. I have just enough time (except for those frustrating mornings

where we arrive at 759) to set up my whiteboard for class: Diary (date, book, pages, homework)

on the right, points (teaching focus and lesson) on the left, and subject above. Having even two

minutes to prepare my board before students walk in is essential. Two minutes less that I have

my back turned to them, and two minutes more that I can focus immediately on a proper start to

the class period(s). Students, not teachers, have designated rooms. We teachers move from

classroom to classroom for different periods. As such, passing periods do not exist. The bell

that ends period one is also the bell that begins period two, so I have no time to waste or lose.

Preparation time for my whiteboard is scarce and invaluable
Preparation time for my whiteboard is scarce and invaluable

I’ve already been told a few times that my classrooms are a little louder than the others on

campus. More like scolded, really. I know, and can tell that some teachers and administrators

dislike the energy and noise level that I frequently harbor during instruction. I think their

disapproval comes from either being having to teach the same kids during different periods, or

that my pattern is an obvious failure to cooperate with the established norm. While my classes

are loud and at times overly energetic, I do not want to curb or cage what enthusiasm they bring

to the classroom.

I try my best to find subtle ways to insert improvisation and unexpected moves. No twelve year

old brain can properly process seven hours and forty minutes of intensive highly- disciplined

education a day, and the syllabus is so crowded with sub- subjects within English alone that I

can not afford a single day off for outside teaching tools. My students know what to expect in

curriculum, what will e taught, but they don’t know how I’ll teach it. This has been the fragment

of space in which I’ve had the chance to insert some unexpected.

Kids in this system (especially at the age I teach) are given few opportunities to enjoy their

learning, and the slightest changes from expectation, even letting them work at a higher volume

than the deathly quiet so often enforced, creates enough enthusiasm and positivity for work in

my classrooms to make me ignore complaints from others. One of the advantages of formal

education is the exposition of different teaching styles and techniques, not the homogenization

of all into one. There are many different styles effective in their own right, and to each his own.

Student life is very rigidly structured. If I am teaching eight periods of English a week to one

class, they can all rightfully expect that the first three periods will be Class Reader, the next two

Writing, two of Grammar, and the final one Anthology. They all possess the same pacing chart

as me, keeping them informed as to what book, subjects, and ideas they are studying down to

the individual page breakdown of each for every period within the week.

The structure of the system fosters an organized environment that can be replicated almost

anywhere, but it is seldom patterned. Ideas are often introduced and rarely built upon

thereafter. Students are tested so frequently and intensively on topics that it seems hard to

believe that any average eleven to fourteen year old can truly thrive intellectually in such an

environment. People are always chasing tests and retests, and it is always of utmost

importance that teachers stay firmly on time with their pacing chart.

The maintenance door to the roof was open, so why not snap a shot
The maintenance door to the roof was open, so why not snap a shot

The rigidity of the system extends to other facets as well. Discipline is awkward and

hypertensive, with potential offenses as trivial as moving out of a seat or not sitting fully upright.

Each offense, trivial or substantial, is cataloged by a number and kept on a sheet. These

offenses are all known as infractions. When one of my students breaks one of these rules, it is

my duty to keep a tab of all “misbehavings” so that students can be disciplined properly. I stick

only to the realistic ones- or at least as I see it. If a student is constantly disruptive,

disrespectful, continually failing to follow instructions, yes they will receive an infraction.

Otherwise… most likely not. I assign infractions, but I am in no way part of the actual disciplining

of the student. That responsibility lies with another individual on campus, whose sole job is to

monitor the students and their performance within the classroom. I dislike it. I think it creates a

disconnect between student and teacher. I think it inhibits my ability to get to know a student

and why some acting out is habitual or not. Even as a substitute teacher in America, whereby

my job description appearances are irregular, I enjoyed and prided myself on being able to build

rapport with students that I frequently had; both good and bad. If they acted out, I wanted to

know why. I didn’t like handing out detentions or referrals. More often than not I would kick a kid

out of class and wait for a moment when the class was self sustaining on an exercise to walk

out and chew the kid out or see what was wrong. I do not have that option here.

The system I work under now sometimes leave me feeling castrated, having to use a discipline

system that is overly complicated for the students and minimizes my ability to do a part of the

job a I see fit. I am certainly not the most experienced teacher, but I know what traits I believe

make an effective one; motivating, building rapport, classroom management. These are all

minimized to varying extents within this system as opportunities to motivate are reduced,

chances to build rapport are slim, and the ability to properly discipline students is replaced.

I still do my best to keep students engaged. I want them to look at me, wide-eyed and curious,

and I try to be equal parts actor, encyclopedia, and authority so that their focus is on me and

what I’m trying to share with them. And for the average student, it works. I’m always aiming for

the middle in order to move the most forward. Too fast and I lose all but the brightest, too slow

and I cater more often than not to those with less desire to advance. It’s a hard balance but I try

my best. Like anywhere, I have every type of student imaginable.

I have a student, personable but lazy. The kid more likely to talk to his neighbor than raise a

hand to contribute or answer a question. Friendly but unfocused, who is still honest enough to

admit a six out of fifteen on a self- graded vocabulary quiz is a deserved grade. I have a

student, hyper- studious and polite. Interested in everything. When I took a moment to explain

General Hannibal’s military brilliance at the Battle of Cannae in 216 BCE he sat in wonder,

hanging on to my every word, reminding me how interested I was in the same things at his age.

I have a student, the archetypal perfect student. Almost flawless in her answers, and has one

eye, always, on the pacing chart. She, more than any other student, feels personally

responsible for her education and shows so much maturity in how she demands that that the

curriculum be properly followed.

I have a student, talkative, disruptive, and yet also improving. In the first week at Sarwaran

there was no other student who came close to the total number of infractions I gave him, but

even small instances of positive reinforcement do him wonders. He tries his hardest now to

focus, even if he falters from time to time. And although he falters, I appreciate how much

he’s improved in just forty days.

I have a student, whose work ethic is unlike anyone else’s, as is his energy and desire

to participate. His hand is ready and raised every time for every question, and he seems to

hold his breath until I call on him. When he’s wrong, he simply puts his head down and reworks

his thoughts and answers until he is correct.

I have a student, a lovely girl but incapable of understanding any phrasing of the idea “do

not talk”. She’s since stolen the infraction crown.

Everyone of them is remarkably different. Some kids come from poor local families, some

kids have parents that have amassed fortunes in Erbil’s monstrous boom over the last

decade. Some kids have nothing but positive unconditional support, some kids get beaten for

infractions or incomplete homework. Some kids have told me they want their parents job as an

Engineer or a Doctor, and I know I have kids whose parents are on the front line of the Kurdish

Peshmerga, fighting ISIS right now. It’s an amazing collection of students, an interesting

situation, and regardless of the moments that I love or hate it has been a tremendous learning

experience so far.

Peshmerga soldiers rolling past our van on their way to the front lines
Peshmerga soldiers rolling past our van on their way to the front lines

One thought on “My Students and Me

  1. Reading your blog feels adventurous enough…almost like being there. You are such a good teacher; never mind the experience, it’s the heart that matters.
    Take care of yourself – looking forward to see you here. Voli Te Tvoja Omama.

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