I can’t believe I’m saying it, but I have less than a month left in my first semester as an English teacher. You can already feel the end of the year approaching by the increase in celebrations and cancelled classes. As I look back on the past four months, here are some of my favorite stories.
How… are… you?
For one of my very first classes, I recruited a friend to have an extremely simple conversation with me on video. We stuck to phrases the students had already learned (e.g. What’s your name?) and spoke so slowly we had to stifle laughs. In fact, I nearly didn’t played the video for fear the students would be insulted by how slowly we spoke. But play the video I did — and I was shocked when they screamed in horror at how FAST we spoke! It was good for me to realize early on how intimidating English, or any language for that matter, can be to new learners.
State of confusion
Also early on in the semester, I gave a presentation about myself and my country to all my classes. At one point, I asked if they could name any states in the U.S. I expected to hear at least New York or California among my older students, but instead I got answers more along the lines of Spain, Peru and Miami. Another learning moment for me: The U.S. is not the center of everyone’s universe like we sometimes think is! (Although I’m sure if you spoke to a Colombian older than 11, they’d have a bit more luck naming states.)
I try to speak mostly English in class, but I often resort to Spanish when I want to be 100 percent sure the students understand me, such as when I’m disciplining or explaining games. Despite this, my kindergarteners haven’t quite grasped the fact that I have a fairly high level of Spanish. They only understand that I’m still learning Spanish, and they’ve decided to make themselves my instructors. They often take me by the hand and say, “Repeat after me,” followed by basic Spanish words, broken down syllable by syllable — “Ho-la” or “A-di-os.” When I say it correctly, they cheer and bring me around to the Colombian teachers so I can demonstrate my new vocabulary. They are so cute congratulating me on a job well done, we all just play along. My own free tutors!
Today’s lesson: My lovely lady lumps
Students are forever asking me to translate English song lyrics for them, which often proves tricky. But probably one of the most awkward requests I’ve received was, “Teacher, what does ‘my humps’ mean?” I can only assume he was referring to the Black Eyed Peas song in which Fergie refers to her curves as her humps and her lovely lady lumps. I actually don’t remember how I responded to this particular inquiry, but I suspect it was along the lines of, “She’s using a metaphor for her, um, well… O.K. class, who’s ready for the next activity?!”
Snow days… without the snow
In the U.S., school is almost never cancelled. We have strict laws about the number of hours to be spent in class, so we rely on the substitute teacher system and include extra days in our school calendars to make up for any weather cancellations. Things in Colombia are a bit different. If a professor is sick, his or her students get the day off. If the teachers union schedules a meeting, no school! On Halloween, I had only four students show up to one class. And I’ve had individual
classes cancelled for everything from dance performances to an interactive teeth-brushing lesson! The emphasis here is more on adapting as necessary than on rigid uniformity, so I am learning to stay flexible and enjoy the fun of it all! After all, that’s what Colombia is all about.
Kids say the darnedest things
I often ask classes to repeat after me to work on pronunciation. For example, I start each class asking my students to say the date after me. Unfortunately, they haven’t all caught on to when they should stop repeating. Walk into my classroom and you’ll often hear 40 students in unison: “Friday, October 29. Very good. O.K., next… No, no, no. You can stop repeating now!” I really need to think of a signal to end the exercises. Until then, they’ll be learning how to say, “Desk. Chair. Board. What was next? Hahaha. O.K., notebook.”