Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Student Teacher

My apologies for a long silence. I have at last begun working in earnest, and so have much less energy at the end of the day for writing and thinking than I used to. Will try to get back into the habit of posting!

Teaching began with my ultimate nightmare. I had been waiting for weeks to hear from the Arts Department about when I would start teaching, so when walking home from my internship I got a call from the University asking me if I could meet in 20 minutes to discuss my class, I was delighted and went straight there. The professor in charge of my class greeted me with bright smile and said 'Hello! Your students are waiting!' I explained that I didn't know I was teaching today, so didn't have a lesson prepared and couldn't teach. He assured me that was ok, and that I should come teach anyway. So, during the three minute walk to my classroom I frantically made up some discussion questions, and bumbled through half an hour of awkward question and answer with my students, hoping the heat in the room masked my nervous sweating.

To their credit, my students seem to have thoroughly forgiven me for such a rough beginning. I teach three English classes now. Two with Arts student (Arts as in humanities, not fine arts), and one with Sciences students. I love teaching – to me it is a balance of play and performance. Being interesting enough to keep them engaged while I talk, but more importantly, to keep them talking. The more I teach, the more I realize it is the job of the teacher to ask questions, not provide answers. We play games. We write stories. We use new grammar concepts to imagine the distant future, or plan the ultimate Valentine's day date. My students are delightful. They are willing to play and take risks, and when they see me outside of class they greet me with huge smiles, and come up to talk.

While I have definitely improved my teaching since that first class, the sweating remains a constant. I sweat through my clothes in the first 5 minutes of the unairconditioned class. Even the students occasionally delicately dab at themselves with handkerchiefs, and you know if the Sri Lanks are sweating, it is hot indeed. On breaks, I shiver damply in the air conditioned teachers lounge. When I get back home, my dear partner Jonathan hugs me at arm's length and steers me directly into the shower.

I am learning a lot about Sri Lanka through my students. When I walk from the Arts Faculty to the Science Faculty it is like crossing into a different world – my students are vastly different in their levels of English and their cultural backgrounds. Somehow they even look different. I am in the slightly awkward position of teaching students who are uniformly my age or older – but in the arts faculty I feel like I am teaching children. I would peg most of my students as being in their mid teens, while in the Sciences I am keenly aware of my younger age. My arts class, as one might fear, is made up of 90% girls, while in my science class the gender ratio is reversed. I initially wondered if the difference in confidence between the classes came from Sri Lankan gender roles, but there is more to it than that. The few girls in the Sciences class move with a languid confidence that matches their male peers, and if forced to guess their age from afar I would do so with a lot more accuracy than I would for my girls in the Arts.

Through my students, I believe I am seeing class differentials in Sri Lanka. STEM subjects are taught in English here, so my Sciences students are quite proficient. They are looking for practice with a native speaker, and work related vocabulary to use in the job hunts they are about to embark on. My arts students on the other hand are taught in Sinhala, and, in the beginning anyway, would blush and look away in response to simple questions like how was their weekend. When I ask about their families they talk about farmer fathers and housewife mothers, and homes far away. They want to be teachers. My Sciences 'kids' (such as they are) grew up close to Colombo, if not within it, many of them I think speaking English with their families. They will be managers and engineers, and many will seek jobs or graduate education abroad. I wonder how possible it is for a bright rural kid with low English background to study Sciences at the University of Colombo. The subject alone is difficult enough, but to study it in a language you barely speak seems almost impossible. Many of the privileged Sri Lankans I met back in the US spoke of the days when English was a Lingua franca with great nostalgia. They told me you didn't know if someone was Sinhalese or Tamil back then – everyone spoke English. And perhaps it is true you couldn't know someone's ethnicity from language, but I think you did know their Class. And this distinction of class between the English speaking and the non-English speaking world in Sri Lanka I think holds true today.

(Some unrelated good news for anyone who hasn't heard. I was accepted into New York University's Master of Social Work program last week! I even got a decent scholarship, so I should be able to afford it with only somewhat crippling debt. I'm still waiting to hear from Columbia University, but I'm quite excited to know that I'll be living in New York next year!)  

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