~ By Gael
It has been one month since I began teaching English to students in grades one through five in the afternoon at the Villas del Carmen public primary school in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. While there have undoubtedly been ups and downs in it – days where I came back completely drained from a day which didn’t go as expected – it has, on the whole, been a positive and enriching month.
It goes without saying that the first week of teaching was challenging – getting familiar with the curriculum and materials, getting to know the kids and their teachers (and them getting to know me; and for the kids themselves to ‘feel me out’) and adapting to the realities met in each of the classrooms – the levels of the students, their behaviour, their response to various activities and their response to classroom management and discipline techniques. It was my first time teaching children – my only prior teaching experience had been in a university, working with adults (although some of these adults sometimes behaved like children!) – so it was clearly a new environment for me, one made perhaps even more challenging by the fact that these children are from a different culture than mine and educated in a system rather different than the one I recall from elementary school.
As the weeks have gone by, I have gotten familiar with the kids and I have adapted to the realities I encountered in each of their classrooms. Some of the groups, particularly in grade one, continue to be difficult to control (particularly for an entire 50 minute period) and they invariably drain your energy even on the best of days. As is to be expected, some of the lessons do not go as planned, and it is often necessary to improvise solutions to unexpected problems which arose during the lesson. It is especially disappointing when a lesson you planned out and were excited to try fell flat on its face. Working with children in grades one and two requires a high level of energy, motivation and attention – you can’t leave them with a task and call it quits. Working with students in the higher grades – in my case, grades three through five – can be more fun and rewarding, as the students tend to recall more information and many will be able to pay attention for the full length of the class.
Increasingly, as I head home from work after a full day at school, I feel as if I accomplished something or, at the very least, I can think back to something which happened during the day and smile about that. I have a grade one class (1C) which is exhausting to work with, because many of them have trouble sitting down or paying attention, but at the end of the class they (as in almost every student, boy or girl, all 30-odd of them) invariably rush up to me and hug me (almost dragging me down or knocking down desks in the process!). I have seen that group eight times thus far, and I think they’ve ‘hugged me’ six or seven classes – even on days where I got frustrated with their misbehaviour. In every case, their hugs compensate for their misbehaviour. I have another grade one class (1D) which has produced at least two dozen little drawings for me – I’m not sure what to make of the fact that they drew rather than paid attention to the lesson, but it’s always fun to look at their drawings once I get home. Yet another one of my grade one class (1B), which drove me crazy during my first period on my first day at work last month, has settled down and while they’re still a bit shy, they’re increasingly fun to work with. My ‘best’ grade one group (1E) is always fun to be with – not only are they more avid participants than some of their peers in the other groups, they also have mastered some of the material faster. It feels great when you see students remembering words or phrases they learned in previous classes.
There has been no shortage of ‘cute’ or ‘adorable’ moments from the kids, particularly the younger ones. I like to walk around the schoolyard during recess time – when I’m not too tired and I don’t need to crash on a chair to recharge my batteries – because the kids will come up, wave at you or greet you. It’s cute when a swarm of little boys and girls rush up to you screaming el maestro de inglés! (the English teacher!) or “teacher!” Last week, while walking around the schoolyard, a bunch of kids asked me to help them with a little “tree house” (on the ground, not in a tree) they were building with branches and leaves. As others saw that the English teacher was helping out, more came to participate. At the end, I snapped a quick selfie with them. A few weeks ago, a grade one girl handed me an ‘envelope’ (all sealed up) which contained a little note reading (in Spanish) I like/love you dear teacher – definitely heartwarming!
Playing games with kids is a sure-proof way to get them engaged – and it doesn’t even need to be a particularly complex game. With grades one and two, just picking students to show you objects of different colours in their classroom is tremendously exciting for them, with almost everybody eager to participate (even if they don’t know what’s going on!) and almost everybody wanting to go again. With the older grades, they are very competitive and they celebrate getting a point for their team just like a professional soccer player celebrates scoring a goal in the World Cup. In grade four, just last week, I was wrapping up a class with a game of Pictionary which captivated the attention of several of the students. Unfortunately, the bell rang and I started packing my stuff up – but a group of students insisted on continuing the game, to the point where I stayed behind for at least ten minutes to continue Pictionary with the remaining students.