The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts. ~C.S. Lewis
My first semester as a Fulbright ETA is quickly winding down, and of course, I have musings to share with you.
I give up. I made it 50 minutes out of 60, good enough. I slumped down in the chair at the head of the extensive conference table, “Okay, I’m going to let you guys go early. You keep talking in Azerbaijani and I don’t know what to do with you. You can leave and I’ll see you next week.”
I couldn’t sense much reaction from my students as they continued chatting and packed their things. One student lingered a bit and said, “Teacher, I was sleeping.”
No, you were playing on your phone, I wanted to retort. But I channeled my patient teacher side, “Ah, you feel sleepy today?” He confirmed and I asked why. “I was up late [half-mumbled word] my computer.” “You were fixing your computer, repairing it?” “No, putting it together.” “Oh! I see, you were building a computer. That’s very impressive!” I was honestly impressed, and his project reminded me that my freshman honors university students are very bright, and can be very motivated. It gave me hope.
Ugh, but the way they acted…I just don’t understand – why would you take the time to show up and then not try?
Then they took it a step further and many of them stopped showing up. How am I supposed to interpret that? Do they hate me? Am I the most boring person alive and they can’t stand me? Dear Lord, did I offend someone and they told their group mates and then they told their parents? They haven’t given me the chance to ask for feedback so how can I learn how to fix this?
I painfully learned the lesson that I, in the role of a teacher, cannot instil motivation in my students (I know that many people disagree with me). Additionally, I shouldn’t dwell on those who cease coming. Instead of constantly reflecting on those students, my concentration and efforts should be devoted to those who are the most consistent and show the most effort. I’ve always favored the philosophy of “quality over quantity,” and students are no different.
This semester I taught 5 student conversation clubs/classes. To keep it simple for myself, I have the same or very similar lesson plans for all of them. One week I chose to highlight this year’s Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai from Pakistan. (If you don’t know who she is, get to researching her – she’s truly a special young women.) This covered several topics relevant to my teenage students’ lives: current events, youth, world peace, universal education….so many things!
In the end, some groups were more receptive to the topic than others (as to be expected), but I noticed a trend in every class when I rounded everyone together from the activity to conclude with a large group discussion. When I asked questions such as, “What does ‘peace’ mean to you?”, “Is it important to think about peace? Why/why not?” “Can humanity achieve peace in the world?”, the ambiance became hesitant and conversation stalled.
Every class, my breath hitched; oh, I suck I suck I suck I suck I suck I suck…and I nervously bit my lip, wary to ask my question, “Is this hard to talk about because you don’t know how to describe it in English, or because you don’t think about things like this?”
Every class, several voices piped up, “We don’t think about this.”
I was SO relieved. No, my material isn’t too easy or too difficult; no, my topic isn’t boring everyone out of their minds. They’re challenged by this subject. Some of my best teachers and professors were the ones who stumped me – who challenged me to conceptualize the world and my life differently. It’s my job to assist what is there, not tailor to my preferences or paradigms. As C.S. Lewis suggests, I’m there to irrigate encouragement by introducing new things. I’m nowhere near as fantastic as my educators, but if my attempts make my students think differently, even at least for a short time, then I feel I’ve done my job.
To Every Student I Had This Semester
So fate has introduced us to each other.
Through you, I experimented with classroom management and class topics, experienced the group dynamics and camaraderie that play a significant role in Azerbaijani university culture, and have felt some of the most extreme ups and downs thus far in my life.
If you attended just one class, or faithfully joined me every week; if I co-taught as a guest, or was a permanent fixture in your schedule, be assured that you taught me many lessons.
Every group I worked with asked that loaded question: “Why Azerbaijan? Why are you here?” I always answered along the lines of, “I fell in love with Turkey, and it led me to Azerbaijan. But I want to experience what makes Azerbaijan different, what Azerbaijani culture is and where it is headed.”
Everything I observed and experienced during class time with you has contributed to my growing fascination of this place.
I’m fortunate to act as a link between my culture and yours. Know that my impressions of you impact the portrayal I paint of Azerbaijan to my culture. The growing awareness and respect I sense from home should encourage you, and I hope I’ve been a good representative of the United States to you.
Until next time…. (: