Playing Teacher

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There’s what “playing teacher” used to look like.

I guess now I’ve been a real “teacher” for two years: first of French high schoolers, then of some rambunctious bilingual kindergarteners. Although those experiences were entirely different, one thing remained the same: I feel like a teacher who still thinks she’s a student.

This week, my head teacher left for a teacher training in California, and I was the head teacher for three days. I was nervous about it, having never been responsible for the learning of a class of kindergarteners. I shouldn’t have been; everything was prepared for me, and the only real work of a teacher I had to do was being present, engaged, and organized enough to lead the class through the days and hope they learned something.

Turns out, being present, engaged, and organized takes a lot out of me. It’s hard to describe teacher fatigue. I’ve tried in other posts, but the only real way to empathize is to be there. The little expectant faces, the way they all scream “ANNE! ANNE! ANNE!” at me until I acknowledge them, even if I’m talking to someone else…the way they bring me cookies and watch me until I eat them, the way they glow when I praise their work, the joy I feel when I see them mastering something new, and the patience it takes to explain something five times and five different ways, all while being pulled and tugged and poked and otherwise distracted…it really is a job in its own category.

In high school it was obviously not the same — they stayed at their desks, they didn’t yell out in class…they didn’t talk much at all. Responding in English class was probably social suicide. But there were similar moments of inspiration and learning — when I decided to teach them about country music and they all started singing along, for example… when I taught them philosophy and I saw the scrunchy puzzled face turn into a comprehending smile.

Regardless of the context, I still feel like I’m playing teacher. I’m too young, I’m too inexperienced, I haven’t encountered enough situations to know how to handle them all, I don’t have enough education, I don’t have any natural authority: all of these are things I’ve thought to myself in the past two years, over and over again.

I realized, this week, that teaching isn’t really about any of those things. It helps to have experience, which comes with age and encountering situations, and it helps to have education and natural authority. But most of being a teacher is about being present, engaged, and organized enough to  lead a class through a day, or a period, and hope that they’ve learned something.

I just found this perfect quote:

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I want to become an educator, and the only way to learn how is by playing at it. Sometimes, I’ll get things right.

Playing Teacher

On Kindergarten

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How I feel at school is analogous to how I feel in life. I’m a barely-adult. Sometimes I feel like I’m underemployed; my immense skills and talents gained from world traveling and an education from a prestigious university are wasting away, unused [in a fit of eyeroll-worthy pretention].

Other times, I end up sobbing in Mommy’s backyard, locked out and overflowing with self-pity, and life is just so hard. Those are the moments I want to be a kindergartener, not teach them.

I’d die to have someone pick the seeds out of my orange slices. I want someone else to receive an e-mail saying I need to bring a potato and a leek to school tomorrow, to put those vegetables in my backpack without letting me know I had that responsibility. I’d love to ask an all-knowing all-powerful adult to validate my drama, and to make my friends apologize for hurting my feelings. I’d happily burst into tears and jump into some strong person’s arms when I’m tired, or frustrated, or I just can’t go on.

I want it to be okay that I’m young, and I’m learning, but I can’t do what the older kids can do yet. I want someone wise to remind me of that undeniable truth: that we are always learning and never perfect, and if you’re perfect what’s there to learn?   

But something happens when you’re in the repeat-childhood that is your 20s — you get to be “independent.” I became my own wise adult. Not only that, but I get to be the wise adult for my little almost-students, who are totally dependent. I have a wise adult voice, a wise adult air of confidence. My wise adult self makes sure they wash their hands with soap and teaches them it’s L M N O P and not ello-meno-pee so maybe they can read someday. 

But inside I know the truth: I am not a wise adult. Sometimes I can’t remember to bring my own potato and leek, and I can’t find the words to validate my own drama or make my friends apologize to me for hurting my feelings. All that feels like my fault and my shortcoming, because now it’s my responsibility.

Maybe the illusion that barely-adulthood is shattering is that wise adults “know what they’re doing.” Maybe they’re all just doing what they can, and that’s either enough…or not, sometimes. 

Or the true illusion is independence. Maybe I am only slogging through “becoming wise” because I know there are people behind me who would tie my shoes and help me zip my coat, if my fingers were numb or I didn’t know how.

Maybe we’re all still kindergarteners, inside, and we still need each other. 

On Kindergarten

Chatting with Children

I used to think that the most interesting minds were adult ones. More experiences + more language = more valuable things to say, right?

I was wrong.

The antidote to a frustrating day with the class is to also have lots of positive moments. (Unless the day ends badly, from which one can never recover. Never.) Overall, it’s mathematically neutral…but spiritually, I think the positive interactions lift the soul more than the momentary frustrations bring it down.

At lunchtime, I walk around and sit at each table for a few minutes. Upon my arrival at a table, all goes quiet…I’m scrutinized by searching child eyes. Did we do something wrong? Does someone need food opened? Is it time to clean up? Why is she here? 

When it’s decided that I’m not a threat, I become the center of attention. “Why are you looking at us?” “Were you ever a baby?” “Can you open this?” “Do you have kids?” “How old are you?” “Do you have a cat?” “When is it recess time?” (Because, yes, maybe, no, 23, yes, soon)

Someone kicks a chair, and I exclaim, “Apologize to Madame Chaise! She doesn’t like being kicked.” The room dissolves into giggles. “Why are you being so silly, Anne?” says the child.

“I know I’m a little bit sick, Anne…I have a lot of bless-yous.”

“Anne, he called my food gross!” “Apologize to her food please! You hurt its feelings.” [cue giggles]

“Anne!! Anne!! I can’t find my water bottle!” “It’s under your arm, silly!” [giggles]

I may not be convincing you that my time in the classroom is so interesting by means of these mundane little snippets. But, what I am quickly learning is that there is nothing mundane about kids. The mundane is not even mundane. The garbage truck is the biggest event of the afternoon. The fire drill once a month is traumatic. Creating 6 identical plastic egg characters is the funnest thing they’ve done all day. Cutting paper in zig-zags is summiting Mt. Everest.

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They are full of joy and imagination. I probably won’t ever forget the first self-portrait lesson, where one little guy looked up at me with a face of pure glee, held out his drawing, and whispered “I love it!”

Do you remember when you couldn’t read or write? I can’t. For all I know, I popped out with perfect handwriting, able to read all of Nancy Drew in a week. It’s fascinating to go back to K, where they learn the alphabet, and how to count to 20, and see how I learned it. And we don’t just teach that…we teach behavior. Respect. Listening. Self-regulation. Self-discipline. Self-expression. All of the fundamental parts of a person are there for the cultivating.

It just kills me when people don’t think of children as people. They are all of us…uncensored. Talk to them, you’ll see.

Chatting with Children

Working it Out

“If a doctor, lawyer, or dentist had 40 people in his office at one time, all of whom had different needs, and some of whom didn’t want to be there and were causing trouble, and the doctor, lawyer, or dentist, without assistance, had to treat them all with professional excellence for nine months, then he might have some conception of the classroom teacher’s job.” – Donald D. Quinn

I’ve only taught my “patients” for 12 days, and I already feel the truth of this quote. Teachers have always been superheroes for me, given my mom’s legacy, and they are perhaps even more so now. I would be honored to become one of them.

For now, thank goodness I’m only an assistant. I get to do some fun low-key English and French teaching, hang out with the children all day, butter and jam some baguettes, and clean/organize/wrangle. If I added planning, preparing materials, communicating with parents, and meetings on top of that…I’d be my mother! And I am definitively not ready for that yet.

The best way to learn is to do, though! And I have been doing all I can find to do.

Anyway, the added complication of the classroom is also one of my favorite things about it: diversity! We had parent info night last night: out of nineteen children, there were parents from at least 8 different countries, who speak ~7 different languages. And that was only one of the 7 classrooms at our level! It felt like I was abroad again, in that expat group I love so well, except these parents ex-patted to the U.S.A.

Basically, I want their lives.

But, envy aside, I was inspired. I was standing at the front of the room helping explain some of the rhythms of the classroom to the parents and I realized how much I already care about their kids. There’s a whole lot of teamwork going into their upbringing: parents, teachers, and teaching assistants. And I am soo happy to be on their team.

And it also made me think about my own future, and how I think my destiny is to leave the country again. Grad school 2017, here I come!

Working it Out

In the Big City | In the Big World

I moved. I’m currently writing this from a basement room, now mine, in a house in Wallingford — one of Seattle’s coolest neighborhoods. In my biased opinion, that is. I’ve gotten to know most of the Seattle neighborhoods pretty well, both from summer adventures to visit friends and from recent explorations of my new home. I definitely can’t find my way between them without my trusty Google Maps app, but I’m getting there! Here’s my new nest, for the next year or so:

IMG_5058I have a new job, as a Kindergarten assistant in a dual-language school. I swear I’m more immersed in French there than I was in France. The school day is all in French except for an hour or two of English, and my whole team of teachers has French as their first language. I think I found my perfect next-step job. It’s keeping my language skills up (lots of new vocab…). It’s also really overwhelming me, in a good way, as I learn how to wrangle 5 year olds in a foreign language for 8 hours at a time — Not. Easy.

I come home sweaty and exhausted, with paint all over my fingers. It’s only been three days! But it is incredibly rewarding. The cute outweighs the mess. And part of my job is making a door look like a minion.

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The end of summer was really sudden, and it really feels over. For me, the end of summer has always been marked by the start of school, and this year it was no different! Une bonne rentrée, indeed.

My sister left for Italy. It’s her turn to travel the world, and I could not be more excited for her. I keep trying to convince her to start a photo blog, but I have to be content with her instagram photo updates, for now…Seeing her off filled me with nostalgia. I vividly remember my plane flight toward Paris, now almost three years ago, and how the subsequent semester changed my life. I hope it will do the same for her. Ciao, Clairenstein!

I get the question a lot: Do I miss France? Yes and no. I miss all the people I was close with, both the teachers and students of the lycée/collège in Somain and my fellow English teachers in Val. That international expat community, which insta-forms when you spend time in another country, is unlike any community I’ve encountered at home. There’s an unmatchable open spirit and joie de vivre. The world seems so big.

But losing the community, for now, doesn’t mean I have to lose the spirit of it.

Now, I’m coming full circle. I am training li’l tots to be in the Big World — to range leurs affaires (clean up after themselves) and to be sage (to be wise, in all the ways). To be cognitively and linguistically flexible, to be helpful, patient, kind, and empathetic, are, to me, the requirements of the diverse community we live in. It has returned me to my child roots. I cling to a consistent routine, I clean up after myself, and after two days of school all I needed was a hug from mama. While being in a new position has shaken my confidence, I think I do fit here. I love playing a minimal, but important, part in the development of little global citizens, and it’s exciting to help them learn and grow.

But for real, the children…they are adorable! (ah-door-ableuh)

In the Big City | In the Big World

Being a Teaching “Assistant”

I’ve now been in France as a TAPIFer long enough to have drawn some conclusions about being in France as a TAPIFer — namely, about being an “assistant,” and what that really means!

My school experience, first of all, has been about as excellent as I could have hoped. I know full well that not all assistants are as lucky; some are placed in schools which are unused and/or hostile to the idea of having an assistant. Mine was very welcoming, and my teacher reference is kind, helpful, and communicates well with me in regards to my responsibilities. Score 1 for my lycée!

So, instead of speaking about my school exclusively, I’ll explore the question:

What does it mean to be an assistant?

It means that you don’t control your fate, firstly and foremostly. It’s hard (/impossible?) to get your dream schedule, your dream classes, your dream location, etc. This is actually even true for French teachers; they get placed wherever they’re needed and not necessarily where they want. Accepting subjection to an alien system is part of living and working abroad, so just know that it will be alien and perhaps it will be easier to accept!

Almost everything stems from that first point: you don’t get control over how you’re set up, but you also don’t get control over your daily life. I would say that an average of two of my classes are cancelled each week, sometimes with no communication of that fact to me. This usually results in me working fewer hours, and spending more time sitting around in the staff room at school. This isn’t always a bad thing — I think that because I’m hanging around a lot in my time off, I’ve been able to get to know more of the teachers and been developing stronger relationships with them due to my ubiquity. I have had to learn how to “go with the flow” and make the most of the time I unexpectedly have to read for pleasure, plan for classes, etc.

It’s hard to plan for classes. First of all, they aren’t my classes, which means that often I will have a lesson plan or subject given to me to prepare, with specific instructions from the teacher. This was really helpful when I was first starting out, because I didn’t know the classes or their capabilities in English at all. Now that I’m getting an inkling as to their preferences, levels, etc., I’m starting to crave more freedom. It’s hard to teach something that I didn’t choose, because sometimes it doesn’t mesh with my style or interests as well as something might if I had planned it all. Here’s a picture of a worksheet I made up for my junior high class this week (I enjoyed it because I got to prove my freehand map-drawing abilities and also I got to be creative!).

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In case it’s not clear, it’s a map to fill in as a geography exercise and a list of stereotypes and/or recognizable monuments to match to some of the major cities that I labeled on the map. I’m hoping it will be entertaining enough to captivate and educate my 13/14 year olds.

One of the privileges and challenges of being assistants is that we aren’t full-fledged teachers. We are sometimes neglected or forgotten because of this, and sometimes we are given more than we can handle because many of us have never really been trained. But, this is also a privileged position. As a teacher, there are grades to give. There is a certain amount of relatively specific curriculum to get across. There are parents to contend with. There are more hours to work. As assistants, we’re basically given the best part of teaching : the inspiration part. Yes, it’s incredibly difficult to “inspire” a room full of jaded high school seniors to suddenly want to work really hard and learn more english. I have to count my little successes : the one student that comes up to me after class with loads of questions, the ones that I manage to engage for the first time with a new activity, the ones who are patiently and quietly watching me as I try to explain something difficult in class, and then the light turns on.

At the end of the day, if I have managed to make one student think that there’s a whole wide world out there that maybe they’ll want to explore one day, then I have done my inspirational duty.

The other thing I’ve learned is that it’s hard to constantly work to be satisfied with small moments of success. I am very often frustrated and exasperated, to the point where I’ve begun to think teaching high school in France is not going to be my thing forever. But I’ve resolved to learn as much as I can from it while it’s still my job, because I definitely won’t be here forever!

I miss my cozy liberal arts university classrooms, where learning was the common goal and everyone was engaged and invested. It’s an intellectual community like that that lights my mind on fire. Maybe (definitely) one day, I will return. Until then, I will cheesily conclude that the world is my classroom! It’s true, though.

Being a Teaching “Assistant”

In the In-Between

I met with a professor from one of the local universities the other day, and he articulated something that I’ve been thinking about ever since.

We were talking about language teaching. When teaching your native language to non-native speakers, you are constantly being asked to explain why your language is constructed the way it is. To you, your language is constructed instinctively — you have a linguistic feeling that helps you choose which words to use when and in which order, and that’s why it’s so different to learn language in school than to learn it at the beginning of life. Explaining why that feeling exists to people who don’t already have it is one of the biggest challenges in language teaching.

But, this teacher put it so brilliantly — when you’re forced to explain it, you begin to examine your own language from a distanced perspective: you see it not as your community of native speakers sees it (because they never have to examine the linguistic systems that they’ve always employed), but as a community of non-native speakers understands it.

This distance, he argued, means that instead of speaking the way you have always spoken (out of instinct), you are more intentional about the way you speak. In other words, you start to form your very own language, which is not wholly determined by the cultural and linguistic community that surrounded you from birth.

I find this to be linguistically true (I’m picking up both British-isms and French-isms already in the way I talk, which people at home might find bizarre), but I’ve also been thinking about it as true of the Self.

When I went on study abroad, I envisioned myself as a living organism being plucked from its natural habitat and plopped in the middle of one that’s entirely new.  Everything that my identity depended upon in my Whittie, Walla Wallan, Washingtonian, Redmondite communities (what I studied, who my friends were, my extracurriculars and leadership positions and what people knew of or assumed about my personality) no longer applied. I could reinvent myself if I wanted, because I became the only one responsible for inventing myself and articulating me to others.

It was an incredibly scary step into the dark, to alienate myself from my safe, warm, and loving linguistic and cultural community. Just like I maybe am becoming estranged from Instinctive English, I became estranged from my old self. And I’ve done it again.

In Paris, my identity was somewhere between Tourist and Inhabitant, and it was my distance from both, being in-between, that helped me figure out where my niche lay in my life there. Now I’m sort of in one of life’s in-between spaces. I’m in between my educational career and my future as an adult in the working world. And there is no more congruous space to occupy, in this place in my life, than (once again) a linguistic and cultural in-between. I’m an American living in France, and I’m being forced to think about American-ness and French-ness, English and French, and who I’ve been and who I’ll be, all at once. I’m uncomfortable in almost all the roles — in one, and the other, and the in-between — but it’s when I’m uncomfortable all the time that I find I have the most to think about.

And I find that when I’m not in a community that I naturally know how to fit into, I begin to understand myself in new ways. Being distant from what I’ve always known gives me that same distanced perspective on myself that I have on my language.

Part of growing up is gaining a sense of identity, I think. Communities, both cultural and linguistic, give their members that identity, and mine has been profoundly shaped by where I’ve come from. But, where I am now is making me think about who I want to be next as only the destabilizing new identity of “foreigner” to a rich new community can.

And thus, as we’re all shaped by our language, finding my autonomy in my language is helping me find my autonomy in my identity. I’m growing into an Anne of my own intentional creation. And I will continue growing in this way, forever. So I guess it’s best I learn how to do it, right now. And how to never let it stop!

In the In-Between