Best lessons from a year of teaching ‘the last and the least’
I was adviser and English teacher to the last section of the third year high school students in my first year at a public school. After the principal handed me the assignment, a colleague said I had better prepare myself and hoped I would not give up too soon.
Was I headed for trouble? I walked into the classroom with knees trembling and heart beating too fast. The quiet, properly seated students all had their eyes on me.
I introduced myself and told them of the things I liked—ice cream and books—and my hobbies, which were reading and writing. A student from the back row asked, “Sir, do you sing?” I replied, “Yes, but only in the bathroom.”
They chuckled. One boy laughed out loud then covered his mouth, apparently embarrassed.
They then introduced themselves—some in English but most in Filipino. They behaved well that day. I thought they were not as “slow” and troublesome as I had been warned.
But as the days went by, they became unruly and restless, breaking rules we had set ourselves. A few would roam around the classroom without permission. Others would talk and sing during class.
I’d tell them to sit down but they would not listen. I never reprimanded them although I was furious and cursed silently. I’d take a deep breath, clench my fists and silently walk out to the corridor then back. I was patient, kind and tolerant.
I’d smile every time I went to the faculty room, so everyone thought I was getting by so well.
Then all the pent-up emotions and disappointments got the better of me. I got sick and was absent for a week. I heard that my students, especially my advisory class, were worried and asked about me. They wanted to know if I was coming back to class.
I assumed they were kidding, just as they had fooled me into believing they were good. I regretted listening to my father, who convinced me to teach in a public school so I could serve the needy.
I thought about resigning. Through the night I weighed the pros and cons of my decision. I prayed, even bargained with God that if I got well before Monday, I’d stay.
When I returned to class, my students looked at me as I hurried into the room unsmiling. Although I sensed they were happy to see me, I kept an expressionless face.
I announced I was changing some of the rules. I asked each student if he/she was willing to follow the rules. I could see their discomfort. They were shaken at the sight of a totally different teacher from the one they had during the first days of class.
I spoke without anger or resentment, in low, polite but firm tone, making sure every one heard and understood. But before I entered the room I had trembled and prayed hard.
Then I spoke from the heart. I praised them for their impressive attitude on the first day we met. I told them how sad I was that they had become unruly. I quoted from “Kung Fu Panda”: In life, there is no accident. I told them that maybe our meeting was planned.
They kept quiet as I talked. No one walked around. Those who sat beside the windows to daydream moved to the middle rows. Some looked at the floor, others out the window or looked away when our eyes met.
All I wanted was to do was to correct some crooked ways and habits and speech. By doing that would I be hurting them? I knew they were listening. I walked out of the room as silently as I came in. The teacher who had her class after mine asked me in the faculty room why my advisory class was so quiet.
Soon after that day there were many changes in my students and in myself.
Students asked for permission to stand up or go to the rest room. They used bad words less often and apologized when they did. They learned to say sorry whenever they bullied or offended someone. They argued less and listened more.
At day’s end, their chairs were arranged, the trash can was emptied, the blackboard cleaned.
Before I knew it I learned to smile again though I was still a bit Hitler-like.
The students started confiding in me about their worries and joys, their mistakes, their dreams and ambitions. They even shared their love stories with me. We talked about their home life and their parents.
I made some adjustments in my teaching style and strategies so English could be more fun and less intimidating and scary. We talked about how English was used in books, advertisements, Facebook and text messaging. We looked at medicine labels and instruction. Could lack of understanding of the English language harm or even kill a patient?
We had fun translating Filipino words into English and vice versa—hatak, tulak, which was which for the push-pull signage at malls, restaurants and hospitals?
Over time, my students learned to write better sentences with correct punctuation. They no longer laughed when classmates tried to speak in English. It was amusing to see their eyes roll whenever a classmate made grammatical mistakes. One student started bringing a small dictionary, which he kept in his pocket.
I gave out certificates of recognition even for simple classroom activities and tests, posted the names of top students on the door and handed them medals, too. Soon my students were challenging each other to do better by the next quarter. I smiled at the healthy competition.
When we placed second in a contest, the class jumped for joy and bragged about their victory. I bought cupcakes and soft drinks to celebrate their victory.
On Teachers’ Day and my birthday, my students gave me simple gifts, from chocolate cupcakes to Post-it pads and messages on the blackboard. They made me feel I was the best teacher and adviser.
But for all these positive changes, there were also stories of failure. Some students quit school, transferred or ran away. As their adviser and teacher, I felt sad for them and hoped that someday they would rediscover the value of education.
Those who left and those who stayed—they all left me a lesson to live by and help me deal with future last sections with ease and mastery. For that I thank them.
I understand teachers have a hard time teaching the last-section kids. But if we only have a heart that never hardens and a touch that never hurts, we will discover that there is much we can learn from the ones we unjustly label as “last and least” and even unjustly belittle.
The writer teaches English and is the journalism coordinator at Barangka National High School.