Saturday, November 15, 2014

Reflections on my first quarter teaching in Turkey

Günaydın (Turkish for "good morning"). It's Saturday morning here in Talas, Turkey.

What I really wanted to write about this morning was a reflection on my first quarter of teaching English in Turkey and how the reality does and doesn't match up with my training.

First of all, classroom management was my most unexpected challenge. I remember wondering why one professor spent so much time on in in our practicum class. Now I know. Wrangling a bunch of 18-year-olds who share a common first language, and who are experiencing the freedom of university for the first time---is a lot harder than it sounds.

My groups of students last quarter were energetic and chatty, which is normally a good thing in the language classroom. However, when the chattiness continues while I'm giving directions or after I have turned off the lights to signal that it's time to finish the activity, I get a little frustrated. Pile this on day after day, even after seating arrangements, warnings, and every technique I could think of, and the result is a major breakdown in the middle of a meeting with my colleagues. I'm not sure I've ever cried at work before, especially not out of frustration, and I hope that it never happens again. My colleagues tried to warn me about the students, but I thought they were just being pessimistic. Nope. Turns out that students can be downright disrespectful and seemingly impossible to teach.

I was a very good student in my master's degree, so I know I paid attention during the classroom management discussions, but in a program focused on current research on language acquisition, some of these daily teacher things didn't surface as among the most critical information. A former yoga teacher once advised me that teachers are never fully prepared, you just have to get in front of the class and deal with it. I think this advice holds for me. In every new context, you can never be prepared for the students or the curriculum. It's a matter of getting in the classroom and dealing with what happens.

On the flip side, let me tell you about the last day of teaching one class that I had particular trouble with. For the last hour, I had planned a review game. however, when I came to the classroom, more than half of the students were gone, and the only people left were the sweetest female students who had shown me respect all semester. They bought coffee and cake for everyone and we sat in the classroom together, as human beings, discussing Turkey and my experiences so far. It was an incredible moment for me as a worn-down teacher---who at times during the first quarter questioned my ability and desire to be an educator---to once again feel the human connection that I love about teaching. My students used English (and I used a little Turkish) to talk and laugh about our differences and our similarities. Make-up and the head scarf were fun conversation, and we took a handful of selfies together. At some point, I realized that they were using vocabulary that we had learned in class, and I was beaming with pride. The language teacher's dream is to have students apply what they learn in a boring textbook to a context that they really care about.
C11 selfie--about half the class isn't pictured here.

Coffee and cake with the ladies of C10

Ladies of C10

Many of my Turkish colleagues, and I'm sure many of my colleagues in general, avoid getting to know students. Not because they don't like students, but because personal connection undermines authority. Instead, they maintain emotional distance and focus on the material. Their classrooms are what I imagine the military to be. Completely dominated by the teacher, orderly, and fear-driven. I'm painting a grim picture, but I know that traditional teaching follows this pattern. The teacher is the ultimate authority, and students never question it. This is also a leadership style that was common in the past, and remains in many parts of the world today.

My teaching style, though, doesn't run on fear. It runs on respect and genuine interest in student success. For better or worse, I make every effort to treat my students with respect as autonomous adults (I can hear some colleagues saying, "that's your first mistake") who deserve the best lesson I can give because they will go on to use English in their majors or in their careers.

For most of my, albeit short, teaching career, I have generally had success with this approach. I think students appreciate my approachability and my interest in their success outside of my classroom. However, the first quarter of teaching here basically took most of my teaching philosophy, ripped it in half and buried it in my bottom desk drawer under waded up tissues of my snot and tears. "Prepare them for the test, check their homework, threaten them with visits to the administration, and get the heck out of there" became my survival mantra.

On Monday, I will have three new classes. One general pre-intermediate class, and two sections of intermediate listening and speaking. I am really excited for the listening and speaking classes because they are students came into the program with higher proficiency (usually accompanied by better work ethic, in this context, anyway). The pre-intermediates will take more patience from me, as they are the graduates of the classes I taught last quarter. They are finding their way through a year of manditory English en route to their private university classes in Engineering or law (only some students will take university classes in English. Others will study in Turkish). Inshallah (God willing, or "hopefully") my students will respond more to my efforts to create an atmosphere of mutual respect. I'd like to pull my tattered teaching philosophy back out, dust it off and continue the success I've enjoyed in other contexts.

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