New Destination; New Mission
In Paris I learn that I have been accepted as a volunteer to teach English for a couple of weeks in Thailand. I am thrilled for the opportunity. Not only will it be a new experience with challenges to overcome, but it represents a small way for me to pay forward some of the love I’ve been shown during my trip.
China Southern carries me from Paris to Bangkok over 16 hours. When I arrive at noon local time, there is a driver waiting for me at the gate, and he’s holding a sign with my name on it. It’s a welcome change from my usual crash-and-burn strategy of figuring things out on the fly. This time I have a destination. A mission.
I am greeted at the house by three other volunteers. The foundation we have volunteered for represents a handful of schools, and I learn that I will join Sim on her last few days and take over for her when she leaves. Aware of how unprepared I am, I’m grateful to have a partner on my first day.
I haven’t slept in two days so I spend the afternoon napping. In the evening we visit Khao San Road and experience the late night excitement of one of Bangkok’s famous spots. I’m not altogether present. I’ve still got more sleep to catch up on, and tomorrow’s lesson plan is on my mind.
I’m nervous. Sim and I have been discussing some ideas over a bowl of rice, and now it’s time to go. I walk with Sim to the school, and as we approach I notice a gap widening between us. I'm slowing down, falling behind. Fear and doubt begin to grow, and my body reacts. I don't want to do this. I don't know the first thing about teaching.
Who am I to think I can educate children?
There's a tacit agreement between Sim and I that I'll be leading part of the main lesson. Ever sense I arrived I've been talking about teaching. Constantly brainstorming and coming up with ideas. She and the other volunteers interpret my obsession with confidence. Or passion. It's neither. They don't realize that each new idea is my way of responding to fear.
What if I bore the children? More game ideas.
What if my lesson plan doesn't take as long as I think it will? Variations; expansions; more games.
What if ...
We walk through the school gate. I have to confront the urge to run away. My legs don't want to move but I force them up a flight of stairs.
My relationship with fear has significantly changed over the past year. In the past I hid from it. Now I feel drawn to it, whether I like it or not. It has become the North Star that guides my decisions. I can't help but follow it, because on the other side is rebirth. The death of fear.
I’ve become addicted to not recognizing myself in the mirror.
A month ago I was on the coast of Morocco visiting a beach with friends. The ocean terrifies me. Any body of water in which you can’t see the bottom terrifies me. I don’t want to be floating in anything that gives my imagination free reign to envision what could be lurching underneath, waiting to pull me under. We were the only ones on the beach. As the towels were being laid out on the sand, I surveyed a rocky pier in the distant water running parallel to the coast. Suddenly, uninvited and unwelcome, a thought announces itself in my head. It’s almost audible, and feels foreign.
What if you swam out to that pier?
As soon as those words flashed through my mind I knew I was in trouble. My throat constricted. I felt my heartbeat quicken. I told myself there was no point. Didn’t matter. The fear had me, and I could not decide what would be worse: getting in the water – the unknown – or trying to relax while the distant rocks mocked me. Walking away feeling like a failure, knowing I would never get the chance to prove those rocks otherwise.
I turned to Hajar: I’m thinking about swimming out there.
Do it then.
That’s not what she was supposed to say. Now I would have no excuse. I approached the waves. I walked until the water came up to my waist. I looked back one last time to see if anyone was going to stop me. They weren't even watching me. I dove in.
As I swam I wrestled with my imagination. It would say: what if there are sharks underneath you, tempted by the tantalizing motion of your flailing arms and legs? My response: Go away. I’m not looking down. Leave me alone. As I began to cramp it became more difficult to fend off these mental images, but the closer I came to my objective, the larger my confidence grew.
Then something incredible happened. After half an hour I got close enough to realize that there was no pier. I was on a collision course with a coral reef.
I had never seen a coral reef before. As I climbed out of the water I quickly discovered how excruciatingly painful it can be walking, hopping, and balancing barefoot on the narrow and jagged edges. But I didn’t care. I was surrounded by beauty. I looked around me and saw life in myriad variation. A wave came crashing into the rocks, momentarily drowning the entire reef. I nearly fell into a pocket lined with hundreds of spiked creatures undoubtedly dangerous to the touch. I only laughed.
I had faced the unknown and was reaping the rewards.
Death of fear. Rebirth.
Presently, Sim and I are walking down a hallway. As we approach the classroom I shake loose from a child who has been climbing my arm. I think back to that water.
That was nothing.
This is real fear.
After a few days Sim continued on to Singapore and I took over the classes on my own. The experience was inspiring and I learned a great deal. It also gave me reason to think about education in general. Before continuing with my personal experience, allow me a minute on the soapbox to share some of those thoughts.
Education is a topic that is quick to generate passionate and heated debate. It will probably always be controversial. But too often the conversation is focused on the wrong things.
Money. Politics. Curriculum. Tests. Teachers.
These things no doubt play a role in the quality of schooling, but they don’t get to the core of addressing the limits to the quality of education. Not even close. There are at least three fundamental issues with the conversation about education:
1. The scope is too narrow
The idea that education is confined to what goes on in a classroom is a gross distortion of reality. Life is education. Every moment we live and interact with the world is education. Focusing the conversation of education around the classroom is bad for us. It's bad for children. It's what causes children to give up reading, because the only time they're encouraged to open a book is when they're pressured for deadlines or performance in a high-stress environment. It's what turns "having fun" and "building something" into "homework" and “projects.”
In the same vein, placing the burden of education on the shoulders of teachers is bad for us. It’s too easy to say “we need quality teachers." Not so easy to define what a quality teacher is or should be.
And a child has many teachers in her life. Her:
- Aunts and Uncles
- Classmates and friends
- Favorite actors, TV characters, sports icons
- Coaches and mentors
- School janitor
When we limit the role of teacher to the person who leads her classroom, we are tacitly implying that everyone else is off the hook. We should extend the burden (the joy) of education beyond the classroom teacher. We put too much pressure on them. Extend it to everyone. It's true that education occurs in the classroom, but it doesn't stop there. It continues when the student goes home. When she picks up a basketball, a piano, or a video game controller. Every moment is an opportunity for growth, new ideas, creativity, and exploration. We are all responsible for those interactions.
2. We don’t recognize that the classroom is flawed
To emphasize the above point, education will always be incomplete in a classroom. It's fundamentally limited. Every child is unique, and every child has needs that differ from the next. Half the room is introverted, the other half extroverted. A third are auditory, or visual, or kinesthetic learners. Some kids don't seem to understand a thing you say, then they go home and think, and they come back solid. Other kids are just the opposite.
But classrooms demand conformity.
That's why the kid who hates to sit still gets prescribed pills. Because he's not conforming. He's too difficult. Then he'll be told at his university's commencement speech that the key to success is in differentiating himself. In standing out.
But this just brings us back to the first point. We're placing too much emphasis on the classroom, not enough on what goes on outside it. Classrooms are not designed to optimize learning; they're designed to optimize cost.
If the kid doesn't pay attention in class, because she can't or doesn’t want to, then maybe that is okay. Let's see what she is interested in.
Which leads to the final point.
3. What we teach does not matter as much as how we teach
In the conversation about test scores, curriculum, and teachers, we have lost sight of what actually matters.
What is the purpose of school in the first place? Most people will agree that the purpose of school is to prepare students for the world that lies ahead. Is it doing that? Is the “world” comprised of lectures, tests, grammar, arithmetic, and arbitrary dates like 1492?
The world is a sandbox. It’s an open-ended adventure of infinite possibilities, infinite change, and infinite opportunities. In such a world like that, the student who is best prepared is the student who has learned how to think. How to solve problems. Ask questions. Build new things.
Fundamentally, the student who is best prepared is the student who has learned how to teach himself.
If we can internalize the first point, that life is education, then we realize that education continues long after graduation. The classroom teacher no longer exists after graduation, but the need for quality education has only increased. If the student has not learned at this point how to educate himself, he will find himself drifting to sea with no direction, no paddle, and a weak set of swimming legs.
And it wasn’t his fifth grade teacher that failed him. It was all of us.
Of course, easier said than done. How do you teach students to teach themselves? Like every problem in the world, the first step is simply awareness. If we recognize the goal, the opportunities will begin presenting themselves.
But specifically, students will learn how to teach themselves if they pursue their interests, and are guided along the way to ask the right questions. If a child fails a math test, it’s probably not because she has trouble understanding it. She doesn’t understand it because she’s not interested. If basketball is more interesting to her than math, then maybe she should focus more on basketball. Maybe we can combine the two.
Because the goal is not in the details, the goal is learning itself.
A child who learns how to read a book on basketball, extract lessons, expand her perspective, and execute from a new position has simultaneously learned how to read a book on anything.
And if we show her that learning math is important to learning basketball, it no longer needs to be forced. She'll motivate herself.
Don't suppress the fire, stoke it.
But it will take all of us. The teacher can’t do it on her own.
Personal Experiences Teaching
My time in front of a classroom was short and atypical. Rather than one consistent group of children, I taught eight different groups ranging from 3yrs old to 13yrs old. Class sizes ranged from 8 to 20 kids.
I had to learn very quickly how to prepare and adapt to uncertainty and a myriad of variables like:
- Class size
- Time of day
- Energy level
There was no formal curriculum for me to take over. Because each class was at a different level, I would show up and within the first couple of minutes have to get a feel for how much the students knew, how willing they were to tackle a challenge, what teaching style would appeal to them the most, etc.
Once you've identified as many variables as you can, you go through a mental list of the ideas you've assembled, pick the ones that seem to be the best fit, and go with it. As you execute, you continue to monitor the variables and your plan's effectiveness, make adjustments, and plan the next move.
I learned how to adapt the same material for different situations. Class is acting rowdy? Turn the material into a competitive game. Material is too easy? Add complexity and stress their comprehension. Class is bored? Increase participation; bring students upfront and get them to engage with their peers.
After the class, I would be asking myself what went right, and what went wrong. How could I have presented things better? How could I have made better adjustments?
Ultimately, the more ideas you can come up with before a class the better prepared you will be. It became clear very quickly that it's not possible to plan the details. Activities that I thought would be an absolute killer might bomb in the first five minutes. Or simple tasks that I planned to use to kill five minutes might evolve into the main event. So it became important to have more "tools in the toolbox" so to speak. Not to plan for the details, but be prepared for different situations.
"Instead of planning for every possible scenario, why not make a plan that's adaptable?" - Jocko Willink, former Navy SEAL Commander
Operating as an introvert
I'm a quintessential introvert by nature. That doesn't mean I don't like interacting with people or public speaking (I love it). For me it means that the more stimulating an environment is, the more my brain goes into overdrive trying to process all the inputs. Analyze, reflect, self-monitor, extrapolate, react. It's draining.
Leading a classroom of raucous children for two hours is about the most draining environment I can imagine. "Networking" events come in close second.
I quickly learned that if I depleted too much energy in the first hour, my performance would suffer in the second class.
Some of the best performers in the world have internalized the power of interval training. Of being able to switch from "off" to "on" in an instant. Waitzkin talks about this in The Art of Learning. I'm not at that level yet. Not even close. I learned that if I simply walked into class, weary headed, and with the intention of bursting spontaneously into engaging and improvisational instruction it wouldn't work. It wouldn't be genuine, and ingenuity always finds a way to leak somehow.
A "winding up" period is necessary for me. Half an hour before go time I walk to the local 7-11, grab a coffee and stroll to the school, going over the lesson plan in my head. Playing it out. Walking (leisurely) is good for you. It gets the blood moving in the right direction. Activates the mind.
Once at school, 10 minutes early, I sit on a concrete bench in the yard. Depending on the time, kids are either transitioning between classes, coming from lunch, just starting the day, or coming off the high of the gladiator style free-for-all of recess. They swarm past me and around me. I dish out high fives. Two kids are climbing my arm. A girl runs up to me, stomps her feet, crunches her nose, and with clinched fists yells "I .. am ... ANGRYYY!!" I taught her that a few days ago. I also taught her how to be happy but that's not quite as exciting.
In the center of the chaos I'm getting acclimated to the energy. The external infiltrates the internal. Becomes fuel. I check the time. Go time.
When it's on, its on.
Sometimes you can teach the wrong thing before the right thing
Concepts build on themselves. Sometimes metaphors and simplifications are useful introductions to a concept even if they are fundamentally wrong. Consider this image:
During a body parts lesson, the students were catching on so I introduced Left and Right. If I ask the students to identity the boy's "left hand," they will technically be wrong if they point the to hand on the left side of the board. But I'll take it. As long as they have the basic idea and can identify their own left hand. Once that much is internalized, adjusting for another person's perspective is a small leap to make.
I also taught a class vocabulary for different moods. We answered the question "how are you?" with "I am ... happy/sad/angry/etc." I would have preferred "I feel ... " but you can build more off of "I am," and again it's not a big leap to differentiate the two once there is a foundation.
Get to the core of understanding
When Richard Feynman was a child, a boy once pointed to a bird and asked him what it was. Feynman said he had no idea what it was. The boy said "your father doesn't teach you anything! It's a brown-throated thrush."
Feynman: "But it was the opposite. He had already taught me: 'See that bird?' he says. 'It’s a Spencer’s warbler.' (I knew he didn’t know the real name.) 'Well, in Italian, it’s a Chutto Lapittida. In Portuguese, it’s a Bom da Peida. In Chinese, it’s a Chung-long-tah, and in Japanese, it’s a Katano Tekeda. You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You’ll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird. So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing—that’s what counts.' (I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.)"
I remember one class of young'uns in which I started the class reviewing the alphabet. We sang the song. They shouted out the letters as I wrote them on the board. They were solid. Bored even. Then I drew a cat on the board and asked them to help me spell it. We sounded it out, but it was difficult. I went back to the alphabet. I brought a student up front and asked her to point to the letter G. She guessed and pointed at the letter X. I asked a different student with the same results.
I felt dumb for not realizing sooner. We needed to approach it from a different angle. Demonstrate what we were actually trying to do. Teach for understanding.
Back to the drawing board.
Don't give up
I walk through the school doors on a Tuesday afternoon. As I pass the administrative offices I look through the window and see my students' regular instructor. She is collapsed on a chair while three of her laughing colleagues giver her an over-the-top massage. I don't think anything of it at the time, but later I'll realize I missed an omen. As I climb the steps, I have no idea I'm about to be swallowed whole.
When I reach the class I am introduced to Catty. A Bangkok native, she's always wanted to volunteer in a school. Today's her first time and she's going to help me out for the next two hours. Great, I could always use some help.
Catty introduces herself to the students and then we begin. I've taught this class before, and I jump right into my lesson plan. Right away I realize things are not going well. The energy in this room is reaching boiling point and I'm losing them. Fast.
I start calling on volunteers to get some engagement. But it backfires. For every one student I call on, three capitalize on the diverted attention and goof off. Catty tries calling on a few kids. But they don't know her. They don't respond. The class quickly descends into chaos.
Where is the regular teacher? Normally she's in the room with me. She commands order when things get out of hand. She translates when I can't get my instructions across. I recall the scene I saw when I walked in the front doors earlier and I realize. She's abandoned ship. We're on our own.
The kids are absolutely out of control, and every option I have feels like it will only make things worse. If I do nothing, they will continue to run around and I will lose power. If I try shouting, and they do not listen, they'll have exposed my bluff and I will lose power. If I try acting playful it will come across as desperate. I will lose power.
I turn to Catty: we're throwing the lesson plan out the window. Find a small group and try to engage them. Play a game. I'll do the same. If we only teach one child it's better than none. She nods, and we spread out.
I find a quiet kid and sit next to him. All around us the walls are on fire, but we ignore it and take turns writing X's and O's. Every other tic-tac-toe game we substitute the X and the O for different letters of the alphabet. Three G's in a row. Win.
The first class adjourns. Second hour. Hell all over again. I feel so defeated after this two hour experience that I'm debating with myself whether or not to show up the next day and face the same two classes.
When I am teaching a class (or doing anything really), I'm constantly evaluating myself. Am I leading effectively? Am I engaging enough? Is the class bored? Is there anyone I'm neglecting? How should my style be adapted? It's easy to see how an unsuccessful day can feel like a colossal failure. How easy it is to take it personally. I wonder if I could stand before the same class and hope to command any respect. But there's nothing personal about kids who have a lot of energy. They're just doing what kids do. I don't blame them. If they were not paying attention to me, that was my fault. It means I didn't have enough tools in the toolbox. A good teacher should have enough tools to adapt to different dynamics.
I decide that I'm not going to give up. I won't skip the next day. Whatever happens, I'm going back into the ring. I go home and think of ways to improve. I watch YouTube videos of ESL classrooms, and come up with more ideas. Different ways to teach a lesson plan the next day.
When I show up the next day, it's a whole different dynamic. I don't even recognize these kids. They're calm, respectful, and attentive. As if the day before never happened. I teach, they laugh. They engage, and I leave feeling confident again.
But I don't fool myself into thinking I had suddenly become a better teacher. The students chose to be attentive today, not me. They were in the mood for it, and I had the tools to teach an eager class. Which is good. But I still need to improve my ability to address a rowdy classroom. I need to think more about how to handle kids who are out of control. Expand the toolbox.
There is something that I should be proud of though. One success that I own completely. I showed up. I chose not to give up. And in the long run, that's the only success that really matters.
"What you feel doesn’t matter in the end; it’s what you do that makes you brave." - Andre Agassi, former No. 1 Tennis Pro
Cover photo: Being interviewed for channel 7 news.