Learning to Meddle

As I mention basically every post nowadays, I’ve been assistant teaching for a couple semesters, and it’s completely awesome.

I think I did a fine job in my first semester. The class was pretty small and pretty quiet, and everyone kept to themselves. I mostly worked with the same few students, though I did try to touch base with everyone each session. Sometime near the end of that semester, one of the students I helped all the time said something funny. When I smiled, she remarked that it was so nice to see me smile sometimes because I was always so serious. I really enjoyed that semester, and I was chagrined to find out that I was hiding it so well!

So this semester my number one goal was to come across as less grave and more friendly.

At first, this took the form of just making sure to smile even if I felt awkward.

And I’ll be honest, I was feeling very awkward about offering help. I mean, I’ve always been more than happy to help anyone who asks, but I figured that not everybody wanted my help. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted the assistant’s help when I was a student. And did it make sense to interrupt people’s trains of thought to see if they had any questions? I personally dislike being interrupted.

So I walked around remembering to smile, and helped out the few people who flagged me down.

But one thing I could do a lot as an assistant was observe. And as I observed this class, I realized that the students in this group were interacting with each other all the time, and that this was deeply connected to the very positive, energetic feel of the class. When I first described it to my husband, I exclaimed in disbelief, “They meddle with each other! And they like it!”

I realized that there was a significant divide between our cultures and expectations. And I figured that if they liked being meddled with, my respectful restraint probably came across instead as standoffish, even when I smiled.

The only way toward my goal was to join in the meddling.

This was definitely outside of my comfort zone. I’m kind of shy, and I fear being annoying. And it was extra unnerving to treat people in a way I was pretty sure I wouldn’t want to be treated. But I did it anyway.

It went so well.  It was an absolute joy.

The response was immediately 99% glowingly positive. I had to work a little bit on one person, but we got there in the end.

And I learned so much.

I learned to check that people understood the task’s instructions right away. (This is less obvious during class when I understand the teacher’s directions perfectly.)

I learned that talking face to face with one person or a very small group had much more impact than speaking from the front of the room.

I learned to go ahead and interrupt.

I learned to gently joke that if I did their writing for them, I’d be getting the grade.

I learned to have them remind me that they were next in line to work with me.

I relearned some basics for about the 600th time: to always start from what they know, to use examples, that they won’t remember what’s not written down, and to speak reasonably simply to reduce their cognitive burden.

I learned to help without leading. And I learned that leading is very distracting.

I learned to reach out in a way that I’d somehow missed before.

I’m grateful. And I’m looking forward to learning from my next class in the fall.


You’re reading Learning to Meddle, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

What I’m Up To, and What’s Next

Hello again! Just stopping by with another update.

Since we last spoke, I’ve had some great experiences in teaching ESL.

First, I did make it to one day of big TESOL in Baltimore early this Spring. Overall it was a good experience. The sessions I went to were good (if not game-changing), but the networking and re-connecting aspect of being there was completely fantastic.

Second, I taught a class that was new to me. I was more of a facilitator than a teacher, really. It was a Conversation Partners elective class in a full-time program for international students to improve their English. That deserves another post, which I hope to send your way soon!

Third, I’m currently in yet another ESL teaching position that’s new to me: assistant teacher. I waltz in for the last hour of class, help, and then leave. There is no prep. There is no stress. My only responsibility is to show up. This is not my long-term wish for my teaching career (is it weird that I miss the obsessive prepping?), but with the kids so young, it’s pretty much glorious for right now. I believe this gig warrants yet another post – I’ll get on that!

And fourth, a couple of the community colleges I’m affiliated with send out teaching articles as part of ongoing professional development. I think this is a great idea, though I wish there were a bit more dialog about them. I was thinking of posting some links and commentary here from time to time.

Yay Co-Teaching!

Despite three teachers calling in sick or out of town this week for today’s evening classes, I had full class coverage!  One coworker subbed, I subbed, and one class was covered by the co-teacher who wasn’t sick.  Perfect!

Army Air Corps Pilots by Smithsonian Institution on Flickr
Army Air Corps Pilots by Smithsonian Institution on Flickr

Setting up co-teachers is really, really nice for those sudden winter illnesses that happen.  Instead of having two hours to scramble for a sub, you just let the co-teacher know they’ll be flying solo that evening.  And in the event that they both come down with something, you can at least chalk it up to a decision made by fate and not your own poor planning.

Even though a solid handful of my teachers prefer teaching alone, I’m still working on them to either teach alternate weeks or have a “stunt double” who could come in for them, preferably even on short notice.

I’m just so pleased that we had enough teachers.  Even though it’s possible to combine levels if need be, it’s disruptive for the students.  Also, since it’s one answer to last-minute situations that arise, it’s rare to have enough time to write a fantastic multilevel lesson somehow relevant to both classes’ curricula.

So I think I should find a spare couple of hours to write a multi-level lesson or two to have on hand just in case.  And I think that I should keep at building up this co-teacher thing – I feel great about the quality it enabled us to give our students this evening.