My mother used to make fun of our last name when my parents were still married. She claimed it was a derivative of “Schultheis”, only she’d pronounce it “Schul-theis”, emphasizing the ‘Schul’ or ‘school’ part. It certainly seemed fitting: pretty much everyone in my dad’s family was somehow associated with school or university. My grandfather used to be a teacher, then the principal of the school my father went to. Dad’s eldest brother was a professor at the local university, the middle brother a teacher in Switzerland. My dad himself had planned on attending uni for teaching, except I came along, and plans, well, changed.
As a kid, I always thought being a teacher seemed kind of boring. And a lot of work. In other words, not a job for me. If I couldn’t marry Prince Edward and be a princess, I’d be the singer in a rock band, and if that didn’t work out, there was always the option of becoming an adventurer in Australia. Naturally, I married a man who considered teaching as a career after retiring from the military… *cough, cough*
Many people seem to feel nostalgic about their time in high school. I look back upon mine with fear and loathing. After I was held back a grade, what remained of my less-than-stellar scholastic career comprised some of the shittiest years of my life. You can imagine my surprise when I, for lack of a better idea, enrolled in college in the US and actually started to enjoy learning! Decades passed, education happened, professional development occurred, but nobody ever mentioned the T-word again.
Until the husband decided to consider a degree in TESOL. He even did some observation and student teaching, from which he quickly gathered that, on second thought, this was not really the right path for him. But somewhere along the lines, the acronym TEFL kept popping up like a cartoon speech bubble in my head. I have always enjoyed language learning. English was my favorite subject in school. And if you do it right, you won’t be stuck teaching a bunch of kids. Right?
It turned out that a friend of mine had gone the TEFL path and very much enjoyed it. I had also become aware that an unreasonable percentage of my Facebook friends were in education, as teachers, principals, deans, tutors. It was beginning to look like a setup!
It took some soul searching and some serious consideration of pros and cons, but finally I signed up for an online TEFL course. Living in the vast wasteland of, well, anything as we do, of course there were no classroom courses available in my area, and being unemployed (or less than optimally employed) didn’t allow for the financial folly of spending a few weeks in a more educationally aware place like, let’s say, the Big Windy. Again, surprisingly, I enjoyed the course. So much so that I decided to add on a specialized certificate in Teaching Young Learners. And while I’m on the topic, why not tack on Teaching Business English? Oh, there’s a sale, let’s pick up Preparing for the IELTS. And what the heck, might as well get an idea about Teaching English Online…
I see that superior smile you’re cracking: sure, sure, that’s a lot of pretty papers, but that doesn’t make you a teacher. No, you’re right, teaching makes you a teacher. When I signed up for the TEFL course, it did not include a practicum like other courses do. And even the one that did basically said “arrange for your practicum, and we’ll give you extra credit for it.” Instead, I started to look into what types of jobs were available. When I stumbled over postings for ESL School Assistants, I knew I was on the right track. Within a short period, I had interviews lined up at the elementary, middle, and high school level. The principal of the elementary school never called me back (which is, by the way, unprofessional and bad manners – always call back, even if you decide to hire someone else!). The AP of the high school was really nice and seemed to really like me, and just as importantly, the guidance counselor sitting in with us also really liked me. They were so enthusiastic, they offered me the job that afternoon. I was so elated, I accepted. The interview with the middle school never happened.
On my first day, I got to shadow one of the other school assistants. After my five hours there, I was sure I had made a mistake. These kids were loud! They didn’t know the difference between active and passive voice in tenth grade! They didn’t work! They were unmanageable!! The school assistant’s job seemed to primarily involve yelling at people to be quiet, giving them talks in the hallway, or cajoling them into doing something resembling school work. I went home, shell-shocked. When I told the husband, he said “well, it’s an inner city school. You could just quit.” I went back the next day and decided to visit my own classes instead of doing another tag-along. And then, I stayed.
In the beginning, it was indeed a lot of yelling. Amazingly, teenagers are ill prepared and quite unwilling to stay welded to their seats and pay attention quietly for seven hours a day. The classes were huge, having close to thirty kids in the classroom was the norm. Most kids spoke Spanish as their first language. A great number spoke Karen. A few spoke Arabic. No allowances seemed to made for those ELLs, everyone was taught the same content with the same material. The ELLs had English class before everything else, and naively, I assumed that meant they were being prepared for the academic skills they needed to succeed in school. When in Government class I asked my kids what was meant by “the right to bear arms”, they flapped their appendages. They really didn’t know! At this point I realized that yelling and talking-to would not do with these kids, most of whom really wanted to do better scholastically. I would have to assume the role of tutor and, you guessed it, teacher.
This summer, I hope to attend a four-week CELTA course back home and afterwards, get a job as an actual English teacher overseas. Now ask yourself: have I always had the propensity to teach? Is there a teaching gene? Or was it enough to fall in love with the process and possibilities of learning at college? My mother, by the way, decided to switch gears and go into senior care after my parents divorced. As she advanced in her profession, she did a long-term stint as an educator for the next generation of care-givers. Her husband, who used to be her professor, now runs the care facility where she works. “Schul-theis” indeed.