Redefining Success

Many of us have heard and agree with the Mother Teresa quote about “God is not looking for success, He is looking for faithfulness.” It’s a good thing, too. Teaching English has presented us with challenges that we never dreamed we would face.

Working with our students has led us both to reevaluate what we do and what we can expect. How can one determine if there is free forward movement ( a term from horseback riding: one can only work with an animal who is not resisting the action of moving ahead)?

From what we can tell, the students have been formed to believe that school has little to do with learning, acquiring knowledge or any intellectual satisfaction. It has something to do with getting through the minimal hoops of a midterm and final exam, and then moving to the next level to start the game over again. The students themselves are some of the most agreeable people I have ever met. And they have their share of intelligence. However, the majority studied in schools with few books, fewer resources, and with highly unqualified teachers.

From the evidence we see, coming late means nothing, not coming at all means nothing and copying your neighbors’ work is simply cooperation. Our weekly quizzes over the vocabulary, lessons, and homework were a total mystery to the students. No teacher had ever tracked their learning before, and it was all quite novel. They have made much progress in completing their homework, but the quiz remains not a record of what you have learned, but a paper that must have something on it, period. If it is my friend’s work or idea, so be it. Just hand something in and hope for the best.

David and I repeatedly told the students that the midterm would be taken from the homework and quizzes. If those were studied, all would be well. In the end, most of my students failed the exam. We’ve discovered that they have no idea about how to study, practice, or learn the material. One simply comes to the exam and takes it. The grading scale for “D” descends to as low as 31%! You can guess your way through a test and still pass. (Can you imagine a surgeon cutting you open who knew 31% of the procedure and 31% of your anatomy?)

There is some evidence of progress. They are better about attendance, coming on time, homework, vocabulary translations, and participating in class. (This, by the way, is not to be confused with learning English!) That progress comes at a cost to my pride, I am afraid. I COULD NOT believe they would simply ignore all expectations about work at home, and I COULD NOT believe they could wander in 30, 40, or 50 minutes late and think nothing of it. I lost my temper repeatedly and I am sure they did not understand a word of what I said, but they knew I was MAD. I ran after a student who walked out to answer his cell phone right after I said no one could answer their phones. I WAS CRAZY. The whole scene was so beyond my experience. Aspects of my character that I had thought were gracefully mellowing along with my body have turned up with the force of youthful vitality.

However, I was also very demonstrative when they answered a question in English. Many, if not most, refused to open their mouths in the first weeks. Eventually, they learned that I would not let them say nothing and when they did finally say something it would be greeted with “HURRAY!” The class has more than once broken into applause for the student who first breaks his personal sound barrier. I am sure this outlandish Italian-American is the first teacher to express such a range of emotions in the classroom. They may not learn English, but at least they are being entertained some of the time. [posted by Rory]

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