I usually write about ELT Methodology and Second Language Acquisition. This time, though, I’ll take the liberty to share a personal experience that helped me remember why I am a teacher, and a proud one.
Last week was the Advanced Course Graduation Ceremony in my school, a very special occasion in which hundreds of students gather together, accompanied by their families, to celebrate the end of a long English-language-learning journey. Some of them started at a very young age, while others as adults, yet all reached the desired proficiency in English.
In my 26 years in the Institution, I have been to dozens of graduation ceremonies. Even so, each event is unique, and each one moves me in a different manner. The highlight of this last one was to be unexpectedly approached and hugged by two former students who, in very different ways, took me out of my comfort zone as a teacher and forced me to find creative strategies to help them succeed – coincidentally or not, both called Matheus (Mathew in English).
The first Matheus was my student still in the Teens course, about four or five years ago. Right in the beginning of the semester, I was advised by his former teacher that he would probably give me a lot of trouble because he spoke out of turn, arrived late, disturbed the class, and didn’t hand in assignments on time. I was also warned about his bad writing skills. Indeed, that’s how Matheus behaved in the beginning of the term. I remember him raising his hand or shouting out the answer to every question I asked, not allowing his peers to talk and sometimes even intimidating them; I remember the blank pages in his workbook every time I checked homework. And I remember his first three-line paragraph full of comma splices. Soon enough, though, I realized that beneath the surface lay a very sensitive boy who was actually full of energy and eager to learn; he just needed a well-balanced dose of attention, on the one hand, and limits, on the other.
I began by approaching him at break time every day and engaging in small talk about whatever I thought interested him. I also asked him why he was arriving late and if he could make a special effort to arrive on time next class; when he did, I thanked and praised him. During class, I made sure he had his chance to talk but I also made sure he gave his peers a chance. I clearly remember standing next to him and putting my hand on his shoulder, indicating that he should wait for his turn. To help him spend some of his excessive energy, I had him do small chores, such as erasing the board and handing out worksheets, for example. I also had him rewrite his paragraphs as many times as necessary until they were passable, showing Matheus that I wanted him to learn, not to get a failing grade. On the other hand, he received the negotiated penalties for handing in late work, also showing him that he wasn’t going to get any breaks. In order not to lose his trust, I told him I would call his mom about his homework and advised him to tell her in advance so I wouldn’t catch her by surprise. Making a few mistakes here and there but achieving good results most times, I managed to engage Matheus in productive work during the semester, at the same time that I also learned to be more tolerant and changed my concept of a “well-behaved student”.
The following semester, I had an intermediate group where there was another boy called Matheus who presented a whole new set of challenges. He was just the opposite. He didn’t want to talk in class; he wouldn’t even raise his head and look me or his classmates in the eye. This second Matheus was extremely shy and reluctant to speak and participate. He also lacked confidence in his English abilities. Unlike the other Matheus, he was happy when his classmates jumped in when he was about to speak. He just wanted to hide and remain unnoticed the whole semester. Like the other Matheus, though, he also had a lot of difficulty with writing and I remember staying with him after class or during the breaks explaining what he had to change in his text. I also remember a crucial moment towards the end of the term when he was running the risk of failing the course and I decided to give him remedial help. I scheduled a day and time outside his class schedule so he could redo some exercises with me. I wasn’t certain he would actually come, but he did, with a smile on his face for the first time, and did everything he was told. Sure enough, he passed the semester, achieving better than average results.
Years passed by and I didn’t think these two boys even remembered me. After all, they’d had so many other teachers after me. Besides, teenagers easily forget their teachers. But not only did they remember me, but they also took the initiative to come and hug me – the first Matheus – or say hello with a smile on his face – the second Matheus. Why? Because they knew I had cared for them when I was their teacher; they remembered my investment in them, my faith in their success.
Of course I haven’t always been successful with every challenging student I’ve had and I have certainly made a lot of mistakes, as all teachers and parents do. But these two success stories made my day and, once again, made the graduation ceremony special. I went back home with the most satisfying feeling of fulfillment, of personal satisfaction. I had made my mark. I had been memorable to these two students. Aren’t we teachers easy to please?