I was so proud of my students yesterday I thought I might burst. As my regular reader knows, I have had some wobbles with teaching. Essentially I want every day to be a fun factory in class, but the reality is that there are quieter more reflective and challenging sessions too. Sometimes blank faces stare back at me, and I know I’ve misjudged something, we fumble through and find another way, whilst I suffer existential angst, paranoia and an overwhelmning sense of inadequacy not just as a TEFL teacher, but as a human being for having initially got things so awry. Well, yesterday, it went well, they were even more awesome than usual. Here’s why:
Well, firstly, they have to be congratulated for their competitive instincts if not for their actual paper-plane building skills. So the context was this. I was doing a session around ‘celebrities’ and the first part is looking at famous Cambodian athletes, notably a marathoner and silver medallist Hem Bunting (none of them had heard of him either). This involved introducing quite a bit of new vocabulary. I wanted to liven things up a bit, as it finished on a rather dry note last Friday. Not terrible, just hard for them. I wanted something tangentially relevant as far as possible, a contest with first, second and third placings (to mirror gold, silver and bronze) but not too death-defying in an enclosed space. Well, if I say so myself, I had a genius idea. The genius idea was to get them all to make paper aeroplanes and then the context was to fly them as close as possible to a designated spot, indicated by one of those desk-top/ hotel reception type bells. I demonstrated first, my plane just double backed and landed behind me so that set a suitably low bar for my students to feel very comfortable having a go themselves. Gawd it was hilarious. I thought I’d die laughing. They minded so much about how it went. In the first group one halted proceedings because I had the fan going and this would clearly mess up the trajectory of every paper missile! In the second group as I awarded my medals (paper cut out in medal shape and coloured in with yellow pencil) the recipients punched the air and subsequently posted on Facebook about their triumphs. I couldn’t have been more pleased with them and for them if they’d been given actual bars of gold, silver and bronze bullion as their prizes.
The second thing that made me proud and pleased, was when I was doing my usual ‘how are you today? How was your weekend?’ intro, one said to me ‘you are always happy!’ This observation was spoiled slightly by my initially failing utterly to comprehend what he was getting at! ‘You are always smiling‘ he clarified and reiterated. I was really chuffed. Is that how they perceive me? It is true, that I always put on a smile at the start of class, it is one of my rules when traveling to present a smile and an outward warmth to anyone or everyone I see. It is a great way to break the ice, diffuse tension and project apology in the event of inter-cultural misunderstanding – smiles really are a universal language. The thing is, often my smile is external only, initially at least. I’m faking it to make it. I put on my smile, and brazen it out, even though at the start of my sessions I’m often consumed with apprehension about how the lesson might work out or whether I’m about to be found out as just fumbling my way through ‘imposter syndrome‘ at its most obvious level. (Except without the ‘high achievers’ epithet). Well who knew it has worked! My smile might start out fixed, but it becomes quite genuine as i relax into it, and I have successfully projected to my students a sweet and sunny always smiling disposition! Wow. That’s completely brilliant. I’d far rather be thought of as always smiling and happy than known as the doubt-laden pessimist consumed by bitter cynicism that I really am. The irony that such a realisation that my scheming duplicity has been so effective put a genuine beam on my face is not entirely lost on me. I do love my students how could I not.
Thirdly, I loved them for trying to guess how long a marathon is. I have really struggled to run in Phnom Penh. It’s impossible with the roads as they are, traffic, pollution, heat 91% humidity today according to the BBC weather forecast. I have struggled even to run 5km on a treadmill. Feeble indeed. Well, as we were talking about a marathon runner, I got them to guess how far a marathon actually is. ‘1km’ ventured the first student, ‘no@, said another, ‘it is a really long way – 2km!‘, further guesses followed: 3km; 5km; 10km and then an outlandish 20km! Other students gasped at such an unlikely distance. Who in the world could possibly run that far? When I put the actual distance up 26 miles or 42 km, they were in absolute incredulous awe. See, I told you running was hard here. My students know this as an absolute truth here. Running in Cambodia – hard as. Trust me.
However, I save the best til last. My second group had a new joiner in the class today. I had been warned he would come as he has transferred from another class as he has changed his job and his new working pattern means he cannot continue with the previous group. Consequently on Friday I briefed my students about needing to introduce themselves to the newcomer and we had a practise. Well, they absolutely excelled themselves. The new student is fortunately quite confident and has pretty good English, so was able to introduce himself pretty well. Then after I’d introduced myself and welcomed him with over the top handshakes and warm greetings, I handed him over to the mercy of his peers. I thought I’d burst with pride. They were awesome. They all gave their names, and where they were from and things we’d been through but also included new information such as ‘and I like pomegranates’ a nod to previous session on tropical fruits. Even better, the new student interacted appropriately. ‘Pomegranates, I don’t know what they are?‘ and my students showed him on the dollar posters I’d bought for that session and that are still on display in the room! Some said they were single and he said ‘me too‘. One said she was training to be a nurse (because she actually is, not because it was the only thing she knew how to say) and he said he was too, and they asked about which university they had both studied at! I was so impressed, they were having proper all English communication, using vocabulary and sentences we have worked on and it was working. I shared this with a fellow volunteer later. He laughed saying it sounded like the sort of angst and subsequent relief you might have if hosting a dinner party for two different sets of friends, when you are nervous they might not get on. Then the occasion comes round, and everyone gets on like a house on fire and you feel life is perfect. WEll so it was for me. I felt that they had all made such progress, gelled as a group, and life, for that moment in time at least, was fine and dandy.