I just “retired” after a quarter century of part-time teaching, mostly at the university level. That’s in quotes because it was not an option with any severance pay or benefits, but it’s time to move on.
When I was a student, someone suggested I might become a teacher someday. My answer? “I don’t have the patience!”
It was not my plan to become a teacher, but that’s where a job opened up; then finishing my M.A. in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) opened up other doors. There was more of a demand in that area than in that of descriptive linguistics, where I had taken initial Master’s courses.
My experiences are of course not universal to all teachers because I speak as one who worked part-time, in Mexico, mostly in universities and mainly teaching English as a Foreign Language. Let me begin with some of the woes, getting them out of the way before I speak of a few blessings.
Homework… for Teachers Too
To make a twist on an old saying: The 9-to-5-ers work sun to sun, but a teacher’s work is never done! Whether part- or full-time, most of us arrive home to plan classes, check homework, design tests, and work on grades. This makes it very tricky to plan family time or leisure time, as the unpredictable often comes up, as well. Without interviewing my husband and kids, I’m sure they were often frustrated by this fact of life.
Teaching the Unmotivated
It is a delight to teach those who want to learn, which may happen most with those preschoolers who are like sponges, lapping it up. At times I’ve taught in language institutes where students have specific reasons and motivations for learning English: to pass an exam, to apply for a job, to travel. At colleges, in contrast, most kids are there simply because it’s a required subject. The fact that it’s a requirement for graduation is a type of motivation, but often that goal seems quite far off. Many see little relation of the topic to their majors.
Added to this is the lack of attention that has become rampant with the prevalence of cell phones, much as they are usually “forbidden” except for specific activities. Controlling their use is still a challenge at the college level.
At the same time, the apparent lack of motivation or interest can be seen as a challenge to teachers, to seek out ways to connect with students and what interests them.
Of course, some of my readers may teach courses where the majority of those in their classes are keen on the subject- lucky you! “Hands-on” activities would be an exception too, I’d expect.
Limited by the Syllabus
The syllabus for English courses tends to include the four skills of language (Writing, Reading, Speaking and Listening) as well as grammar structures and vocabulary. Exams tend to be based on the topics and structures covered in the textbook, so teachers often don’t dare to stray far from what’s required and what will be tested. I was often afraid to add other activities and get behind on what I “had to” cover. Could I finish the book? Was there anything I dared to skip over?
Probably both teachers and students would agree that what they least like about school is grades. On the one hand, for teachers, there’s working out the formulas, percentages, spreadsheets, what have you. One decimal point missing and you panic before you figure out what’s wrong!
On the other hand are the results. “Oh dear, Marcela’s got a borderline grade, and her scholarship depends on a good average.” “What do I do? Francisco’s tried so hard, but he’s not going to make it!” Then there’s those who beg for “just another point” (or more), who think I can give them extra work to help their grade, who cry as they tell me their parents will kill them, who follow me around, hoping to wear down my resistance.
Loving the Topic
Ideally, we teach what we love, although this isn’t always a given. As I’ve written in another blog post, I love language. Even English, with its spelling quirks and tricky modals, is interesting as well as challenging. Sometimes I’ll find myself telling students why that unpronounced “gh” shows up in words like “light”: it used to be pronounced in Old English! It is even fascinating to me when I learn something about my own language, like a rule I didn’t know existed, much as I have always applied it “by ear” as native speakers do.
Above I mentioned often feeling overwhelmed by covering textbook material and syllabus requirements. However, it’s always fun to think of something new, or find material that will help a topic come alive, and throw in a little creativity. That certainly is an antidote for unmotivated pupils! Creating games and quizzes on apps has been another fun, educational activity.
Once a class included a chapter related to children; I hunted down a few kids’ books that were still around my house and had students reading them and commenting in class. They had a great time! The girl who had The Velveteen Rabbit, the longest book of all, couldn’t put it down till she finished.
Working with Youth
As a rule, my work has been with college students, in the transition between their teens and professional life. Being with them has helped keep me young, as I identify with their frustrations, their victories, and their dreams. They represent a great variety of majors. They are truly developing into unique individuals, and I’ve had rugby players, kids in national chess championships, a girl who does aerial dancing, another who’s spent a semester in Japan… They can be a fascinating bunch.
One “small world” experience occurred once when I was waiting with my son for a bus in the freezing cold outside the Montreal airport. The young man next to us asked where we were from, then after a bit identified me. Hadn’t I been his teacher years ago? At that time, he admitted, learning English wasn’t a priority. Now that he was working on a PhD at McGill, he realized that it had definitely been important!
Once in a while, there are special perks: students bringing cake on Teacher’s Day, a young woman giving me a scarf she’d knitted, encouraging comments on the anonymous evaluations I usually dreaded. Sometimes we sang Christmas carols accompanied by my autoharp at the end of fall semester. A couple of times I wrote a special poem for my class, one being for the group that lived through a scary earthquake with me on the fifth floor.
At the end of many a semester, as I grumbled about grading, my husband would joke, “Maybe you need to find another job!” Yet I hung in there for 25 years and am glad for all that I learned and the many wonderful people I met.