Monday, March 21, 2011

reflections on my first week

I began this new job at YB with such a high level of trepidation that it bordered on clinical anxiety. Working there constituted my first real steps back out into the human world since Mom's passing; my previous gig at ETS at least afforded me the introvert's luxury of working at home. Now, instead, I drive to two different sites according to what day it is, and sit across a desk from two to three sets of one to three bright-eyed young people. After my disastrous training session, in which I failed to manage my teaching time correctly (two other trainees were marvelous; I felt like the stupid one in the group), I was seriously considering calling it quits, even to the point of fantasizing about how nice it would be to crash the car somewhere-- not suicidally, but just to have an excuse for not making it to work. This fear translated into all the bellyaching you've seen here on the blog, as well as the private whining I've inflicted on my brothers and certain friends.

After six days of teaching, I can say that I've calmed down and have reached a point where I've put most of my worries behind me. Dealing with the students has proved, in fact, to be the least of the challenges I've faced: the kids are generally very good, and even the unmotivated grade schoolers haven't been that difficult to deal with. All you need to do is play upon their fear that you're a powder keg of potential anger, and they'll respect your authority. Don't smile too much, stay on task, never reward their silly behavior by laughing at it, always reward their on-task behaviors and achievements, and you'll be fine.

The biggest challenge has been learning how to keep proper records of every session, and after a week of doing this, I still can't say that I've mastered the skill. I do, however, think I've improved a great deal from my first day on the job, and I'm slowly but surely beginning to learn about the library of material that YB uses for its modular lessons. Like EC, one of the hagwons I used to work at, YB's corporate philosophy aims to make the experience of teaching and learning so streamlined that teachers should simply walk in, quickly plug in their plans for the day, then walk out at the end of the day with nothing more to do. There's a certain appeal to this, I suppose; not having to worry about anything when you finish is indeed a load off one's shoulders. At the same time, however, the daily format forces one to compress a bunch of duties that should take time and deliberation into just a few minutes at the beginning and a few minutes at the end.

I don't want to say too much about the students I've encountered except to note that most of them are very good at being on task. I feel sorry whenever I drop the ball and leave one of them hanging, e.g., when they've finished a worksheet and are waiting either to review or to move on while I confer with other students. At this point, I've taught a range of students spanning first grade to twelfth grade, and have generally proven equal to the task even when the topic is math (up to algebra). Student motivation tends to vary; most are here because their parents want them to study more, so they generally lack intrinsic drive. One wispy little fourth-grader even asked me to provide her with more homework than I had because, as she whispered, "my mom will yell at me if I don't have enough to do."

YB's policy is such that parents and teachers don't interact; all interaction is mediated through the front office. I'm not sure how I feel about that. On the rare occasions that a student would complain about my class in Korea, I disliked learning about the complaint from a third party. On the other hand, Korean culture tends to view almost all negotiation situations as requiring third-party intervention, so it's not surprising that YB, co-founded by a Korean, would function along similar lines. I suppose the advantage of having the office as intermediary is that parents (and possibly even teachers) can't plunge themselves into confrontations that could easily spin out of control. For YB, this would translate into loss of business as well as a tarnished reputation, which would entail further loss of business. Still, I'm more a fan of directly addressing complaints and concerns; third-party mediation has always struck me as a mite yellow-bellied.*

Over the course of the past week, I had a few eighth-graders and high-schoolers say that they thoroughly enjoyed their time with me, which came as a relief. One TOEFL student complimented me, which was also a relief because he seemed rather tense for the entire two-hour session. One girl said that our French lesson was the best such lesson she'd ever had. One high school senior said he was learning more in our session than he ever did in class-- though I should note that this guy was intellectually ready to be sitting in a college classroom and digesting heady topics.

I was glad to discover that I wouldn't always be teaching nine students every single day. In fact, I don't think I had a single day, during my first week, in which I taught a full complement of students (3 sets of 3, with 4 sets of 3 on Saturday). On Monday and Tuesday, I had six students each day, and taught only two sessions on Tuesday. On Wednesday, if I remember correctly, I had four or five students. On Thursday, I had five students. On Friday, I taught only two classes, and one class had only one student (the French student mentioned above). On Saturday, I was scheduled to teach only three out of four possible sessions, so I ended early, at around 3:15PM, on what could have been a 9-to-5 day. The office provided us with pizza at lunchtime, which was nice.

Colleagues and staffers have all been, without fail, very understanding and encouraging. They're all good folks, and they all seem to care about teaching. I don't feel I've quite entered the circle of trust yet, but that may simply be my own insecurities talking. The point, though, is that adapting to life at YB hasn't been the nightmare I had thought it would be, so all my kicking and screaming was for nothing. The job isn't as undoable as it originally appeared, and while I'm still not a fan of the corporate elements of YB's pedagogical approach, I think it's a good, solid, decent job.

This doesn't mean that I plan to remain here forever, though. More on that later, as I talk about my plans for the next year or two.

*To be fair, I should note that US schools can use intermediaries, too. Back when I was a high school French and English teacher at a Catholic school in the early 1990s, I usually found out about problems with my students (or rather, with my students' parents) through the main office. But even in such cases, I always ended up speaking with parents eventually.


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