Of Lexis and Love…..

I find my mind being filled, right now, with a myriad of thoughts on teaching. A part of it nudges me on mechanicality concerns – What are your aims? Which of your activities are going to help you achieve your aims? How can you reduce TTT? How can you increase STT? Some, functional language, perhaps? Oh ..yea, possibly. But the class it too big! How can you manage your class? And so the monkey chatters on. I’m suspecting this to be the fresh-out-of-CELTA part. The CELTA is, after all, what it is – a professional certificate on the mechanics of teaching. But what lies beneath the mechanics is the act of humanizing language teaching, which extends within and beyond the classroom. Humanizing, I’d say, is a way of lending a personal touch to your lesson. It is the act of moving beyond “playing” the template role of a teacher to being yourself, in your element. It is laughing together, at each other and with each other. And most of all, it is about taking risks, sharing your inner lives (Courage to teach – Parker Palmer) and listening to the inner lives of your students. Teaching is so humbling, really. When you think you’ve got it right there (you think), it laughs back at you cheekily, pats you on shoulder, opens up a completely unexpected package, leaves you in daze, winks and moves on. And there you are, back to square one. Exactly how I felt last week. Let me share a little something that happened a week ago.

I had my first class with a group of fresh young minds doing their degree in psychology. I loved them and they, in return, loved me. It was a wonderful start and I was sure the semester was going to be brilliant. As class went on, I caught a learner looking intently at me. I looked at her quizzically, questioning “yes? Is there something you’d like to say?” with my eyes. She blurted out “I’ve seen you before”. I laughed and said “I’ve got a pretty common face, it was probably someone else”. That did not deter her. She continued staring at me.

Just as class ended, most of the learners gradually trailed out of the classroom, some staying back for a bit of after class chatter but eventually leaving. From the corner of my eyes, though, I thought I saw someone waiting. And there she was, the same Chinese learner. We looked at each other, and she blurted out “Ms, I need to talk to you. Do you have some time for me?” . Do you have some time for me, wasn’t exactly, the issue. The issue was the fact that I was feeling a little nervous myself. It was, after all, the first class. And I wondered what she had to say / complain about (#thepessimisticme).

So we sat down together in an empty classroom. Looked at one another. Moment of silence. I broke it saying “Yes dear, what would you like to talk about”. She looked at me intently again, and blurted out “Ms, please don’t be worried I’m not going to complain about anything. I want to talk to you because I really like your teaching style, it is very western (I later found out she was taking extra English classes at the British Council, and I gathered that she must’ve made some connection there)” . And listen, did I do, for she had a story to tell.

“I just need to talk to you and want you listen to me. I have very bad experience learning English. When I was young I couldn’t speak a word of English. My mother didn’t speak English, my father didn’t speak English. We only spoke Chinese at home. When I go to school, I could never answer properly in English class. Each time that happen, my teacher pinched me so hard on my waist. It was so painful and I almost cried. At one point I had so many red marks around my waist I eventually stopped trying to speak at all. There was too much fear in me, and it went on until my secondary school, until I came to university. I am now trying very hard to improve my awareness of English but I know my English is very poor. Do you know, teacher, I had to take my uni entrance exam here for 6 times before I could get in? That is how bad my English is. Now I want to try hard in class. Sometimes I just cannot open my mouth. When I do, the red marks on my waist come as photos in my mind. Then I feel my tongue gets stuck and I can’t speak. But I want to try. I want to try hard in class. Sometimes I can’t seem to focus at home to learn English as well. My other modules are difficult too.”

And then she held my hands. And said “thank you for listening”.

At this point, I was, honestly, too stunned, unable to react, reaching out frantically in my mind for something to say. All I managed to blurt out was “the fact that you got through the 7th time shows what a survivor you are. Just participate and be active in all classroom activities and you’ll be fine. If no one speaks in your group, you speak, you be the leader, and you make them speak. I’m here right with you”. 

She smiled, squeezed my hands, and said “I will, Ms. I will. Thank you for your time, you really made my day”. And we parted ways. Gosh, it was a tough moment. I wonder if she noticed the crack in my voice as I spoke. I wonder if she saw the stunned look on my face. I wonder if she felt how touched and honored I felt to be trusted with such a private, yet painful experience. That day taught me a great lesson as a teacher. It taught me how much teaching isn’t only about what’s going on when you teach, but what’s going on in the hearts and minds of students and teachers. Teaching is about the background story. It’s about connections that extend beyond the mind and goes right into the heart. It’s nothing about lexis and all about love.

I still wonder what I did to have made her day….But that smile, oh, that was priceless.Truly.

(and this post, by the way, is a dedication to Josette for encouraging me to put this out into the world. A true Josette moment).