I spent the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college tutoring and teaching English in my hometown, Kaohsiung, Taiwan, like I had been doing since high school. I biked around the sweltering city from odd job to odd job, cobbling together a workday out of classes with children whose parents who would hire me based on word of mouth, rather than my in-progress degree. I worked on basic grammar with a squirrely seven-year-old, reading comprehension exercises with a bored ten year old, and even took over an acquaintance’s cram school classes while he went back to Canada on vacation for three weeks. He might not have told the school that I was still in college myself.
(A different summer, but another short term ESL job. A really cute group of kids at an English summer camp. Drawback: un-airconditioned, rural location that was un-bikeable. My long-suffering mother drove me there and back every day.)
At the cram school, I took on three classes – first graders and third graders daily, and middle schoolers twice a week. I quickly realized that my favorite class was the one of disruptive, giggly first graders, girls and boys who hadn’t quite learned how to sit still for 45 minutes and learn about parts of speech, whose energy rebelled against repeating “I play, you play, he plays, we play…” while play was exactly what they were being denied by being put in cram school over summer vacation. A classroom full of little wind-up toys was far preferable to the middle schoolers who had learned all too well how to sit, passively, for hours on end, as I performed before them, hoping for some degree of reaction above contempt.
Good teachers don’t play favorites, but even the best of us recognize that there are a few students whose presence make the classroom a better place to work in. That summer, my favorite little wind-up boy was the class troublemaker, English name: Tom. When he wasn’t making fun of long-suffering Bobby, he was drawing monsters in the margin of his workbook and using his excellent beginner English skills to tell me fantastical stories. On a particularly hard day when he was doing his best to make the girl next to him cry with frustration, I brought him over to my desk to have a talk. Tom’s enthusiasm was everything I didn’t want to squelch because I loved that about him – his monsters and stories revealed how curious and delightful he found the world, even in the English classroom. Tom was bored. Tom needed to be involved in something more than matching verbs to their subjects.
“Tom, I’m going to teach you a very big word because I need your help.” In careful block print, I wrote on the white board COOPERATE. “It means ‘working together.’ Can you say it? I need you to help me and cooperate with me so that everyone can get their work done. When you steal Mary’s eraser, she can’t finish her workbook and we can’t cooperate. In this classroom, we are cooperating to learn English. You can help me with this big word, right? Can you cooperate with me?” Tom solemnly nodded.
For the remaining weeks I substituted there, when Tom disrupted class, I’d remind him of our agreement. Did he remember the big word I taught him? “COOPERATE!!” Yes. Did he remember what that big word meant? “Work together!” Could he cooperate with me to make sure we all learned what his beloved, absent teacher had assigned us for that day? “Yes!”
College students are a far cry from first graders, but when I’m in the classroom now, I’m still reminded of Tom, who is probably getting ready for college now too. I hope he still has that curiosity. I am not in the classroom to perform for passive recipients of my knowledge. I’m up front writing big ideas on the whiteboard making my students my partners in the classroom. I ask for their cooperation to achieve the goals I set for the course. Fundamentally, no matter the content, my biggest goal for them is that they use their curiosity to find delight in the world and their ability to engage with it. Sometimes that involves first teaching them to rediscover what they lost in the transition from wind-up toy first graders to taciturn middle schoolers. To remember what’s fun about learning new things, like how Tom felt when he learned a big word that made the classroom into his community.