Monday, September 17, 2012

Reflections: Teaching Abroad, the Chicago Teacher’s Strike and The Need to Fly

I've been following the Chicago Teacher's Strike to some degree. I see merits on both sides of the argument. From let the young, qualified and unemployed teachers have a chance if you don't want the job (an argument that is hard for me to downplay as a young teacher with so many friends who cannot obtain teaching jobs); to the clear erosion of teacher's rights and what is in fact, best for the students within America's schools – the points the strike is trying to make the general public more aware of.

Anyone that says the Chicago teachers are being selfish and not thinking of the kids; just be glad you have a job! - have clearly not read the entire list of arguments or bothered to look past teacher's asking for a raise (which, as some of the lowest paid professionals out there is backlash from the economic downturn, but also ridiculous).

The litany of ways education, and thus teachers and students, are being pulled in every direction in the US is ridiculous. The teacher burnout rate for new teachers is at an all time high. Mentor teachers confide they would not want to enter the profession for the first time now - again and again. They will us younger teachers strength and perseverance. But that alone will not keep teachers. Even the most stubborn, the most determined among us have our limits.

I’ve learned that my post-graduation path, while not my original plan, has been a great blessing and a learning curve I never expected to undertake. I cannot even imagine the person I would be if I had followed my ‘path’ to teaching art in the US before ever teaching abroad – perhaps I would have become stuck, or comfortable there and never left. Which is an incredibly frightening thought as I sit here with my culture shock, cognitive dissonance and inability to ever fully portray life in Thailand to those back home – and really love all of that, bumps and all. I’m honestly more terrified of what my life would look like without these perspectives than any challenges I currently face abroad.

And I have to confess what many people already knew: I’m not sure I would want to come back and teach in the states, the way things are going. And I am quite passionate about teaching, I’m fascinated by the culture here and Asia is full of job opportunities for teaching so…

I struggle with many of the same things the Chicago Public Teachers face. Lack of supplies, things not being ready before the first day of school. 40C classrooms (that’s 104F, folks…) The air conditioner was fixed, but they still sputter out in the April and May hot season (and I’m spoiled, rural schools don’t have AC). I have less labour protections as an expat in Thailand than a teacher in the states; at least that is if you can get hired as a full-time teacher there. I have to deal with Immigration. Every single one of my students is English as a Second Language. Special Ed is generally not done here (as in, often just not spoken about) – the systems that are in place are so completely different from the Individualized Education Plans in the states (though we sometimes use that terminology) it makes my head spin. I’m lucky that I personally have small class sizes – whereas 35, 40 or 50 (even 60) students are par for the course in most Thai schools. No, it’s no way to teach.

Despite it all – I get to go to work and have a student hand me their drawing of zombie Neil Armstrong flying a rocket. I’m slowly culling Doraemon, Mickey Mouse and other cartoon copycats from my student’s sketchbooks and fostering the use of their imagination and drawing from the world around them. I’m clearing 5 years of art room detritus little by little, asking my students to think beyond copying, pasting and regurgitating. And I’m slowly winning my students over. At the end of last term, just a couple of months from when I began, students were actually being told to put their art sketchbooks away during other lessons. Since I’ve instituted the choice based sketchbook assignment, some students run up to me to show me their homework before it is due. And while I’m experiencing a bit of a paperwork bog; I remind myself of the Zombie Neil Armstrongs, the student that runs up to explain the elaborate details behind their drawing – the reason I’m doing any of this in the first place.

I’m reminded of my former English students – that tell me on Ajarn Jenny’s facebook they want me back. I’m reminded that even when I’m most frustrated, most out of sorts – more than anything I want the best for my students. Sometimes I push too hard, but not from any corporate agenda; for my students to think and question for themselves. The dangerous kind of teaching – the real kind, not just the cookie cutter variety.

Teacher’s aren’t walking out on students because they are greedy. Teachers are walking out because the ‘reform’ occurring in America is stamping out those joyous moments in favor of a greater paperwork burden that is of no benefit to students (and the list goes on, if you care to do your ehem, homework on why teachers are pushing back against the ‘reforms’)– and it’s simply demoralizing. Nevermind any of the economics, the accountability – surely everyone can understand that when morale is down, everything suffers – including the results. The enemy’s morale is down. (Not just an insinuation that teacher’s are the new ‘enemy,’ name that book reference). I will not explain the list of teacher grievances here. That could be it’s own blog; and those blogs exist, by people that keep a closer eye on things than I.

My long term plans are uncertain. I have many different possibilities, and as a general rule I like to keep my cards close to my chest. I don’t even know how to play poker but you get the idea. But having been abroad for nearly two years – I see so many more possibilities than I ever saw in 24 years living in Indiana. And as the pinch continues, I’m not sure why, besides my incredible craving for a proper sandwich, I’d come back to such bleak economic conditions, and more importantly – respect black holes. Yes, my family and friends are in the United States. Sure, supposedly the healthcare situation is better (but we ain’t outta the woods yet).

I’m sorry guys; you knew I had to fly. Even those that preferred I not go – deep down, you knew. It was on the back burner for some time, not even a possibility at other junctions – but I was always meant to go.

It took some time for me to come to terms with my talent for teaching, not the least of which because the way teachers are treated has been degrading for years (and you know, I was supposed to be an auto mechanic! Er…doctor). But if you’re truly a gifted educator, or painter, or runner, or whatever – you can’t NOT follow that passion without running your soul dry. Yeah yeah, double negative. Creative license yo!

All I can say is that I care about my students. I care about getting them to think outside the box – in ways that are never represented on a multiple choice, or any kind of state exam (art is rarely represented – perhaps in 2 US states the last time I checked?) And even then – the ways I teach my students to think cannot be bubbled in. They are not simply essays. They are visual incarnations, new connections and the fodder of misfits. You can’t make Steve Jobs with a Gao Kao style of education. So for all the hype about China, China, China is beating us! (Don’t get me wrong I’m fascinated by China, but not in the alarmist way so many in American education seem to be). I roll my eyes. Beating us at what? Stripping the creative thought from education, the very thing that once made American education great?

Sometimes my students ask me, “Teacher is it ok? Teacher, is it nice?” I try to turn the question around and get them to consider whether they like it; what their opinion of their own work is – to consider that my view as the teacher is not the ultimate authority, but their own perspective and happiness is far more important than whether I tell them it is ‘nice.’ (Though trying to explain this to Year 5 students nearly resulted in tears when I asked them to question what is ‘nice’ and I did not simply say yes that is nice.)

My Thai students (and Indian students, etc.) are so creative. The model of education in Thailand certainly has it’s own issues. But when people ask me why I’m in Thailand – it’s not just the beaches, the art, culture, food or climate. It’s certainly not the dating prospects.

It is the respect I receive as a teacher, and the ability to perform the job I studied for 5 years to pursue. And frankly, following my passion is more important than helping propel the nation of my birth forward – especially when it’s going the wrong way. Politics aside – US teachers have just had it. And the Chicago Teacher’s strike is just a tiny sliver of how teachers; even the best and least political – really feel these days. My own public education did a great job – I see no reason I should not help educate the students of a nation other than my own – even exclusively. Call me a cynic, a pessimist, a traitor, selfish or an idealist – I am all of them. I would never be where I am today without the great leadership of my own schoolteachers. I can only hope that someday my students say the same of me.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Cat Spy Headquarters

There is a family of cats that lives in the roof above my classroom. I guess no one has read them the section of the student handbook that expressly forbids stray animals at school (unless they are science laboratory experiments and kept in the classroom…)
But really, I think the mama cat and her litter of two have the right idea.

They make the school a better place in several ways.
They keep the mouse/rat population down.
They provide entertainment during assembly by wrestling with each other and attacking mama cat’s tail on the rooftop.
They provide creative inspiration – one of my students has informed me that the cabinet under the stairs is cat spy headquarters.
They don’t ask questions.
They don’t tell lies.
When there are unexplained bumping noises coming from my ceiling I can think to myself, oh that’s just the cats.

The cat family doesn’t bother to take the school handbook too seriously, get bent out of shape over deadlines or perpetually rescheduled meetings.
When mama cat is annoyed, she just hisses at you – end of discussion.