I spent seven years teaching English at university in Korea to freshmen, as monocultural a setting as you are ever likely to meet. In all that time, I taught seven non-Koreans (a Japanese girl, a Chinese girl and a class of five Saudis who had all received scholarships to study business in Korea, despite the fact that they knew no Korean or the default, rarely used, back-up, English. Hence they had a year of intensive English and Korean classes. Great guys, Muslim all, wrestling with the temptation of alcohol and pork in a land swimming with the stuff. I think they lost the fight.) So, when I made the decision to come back to teach high school science (science being what I majored in, and what I’m interested in, among other things), I was a little concerned with how I was going to cope with (a) human beings going through puberty, and (b) managing a class full of such diversity.
Now, I love diversity, I love the multicultural nature of Auckland in general, but that doesn’t mean that stereotypes don’t become established about certain cultures, ethnicities, nationalities, genders, and none more so than in schools. Asians work hard but don’t mix well. Boys are turned off by the feminine nature of English. Indian girls are quiet and hardworking. Maori students are more likely to disrupt the class. Girls hold a grudge against the teacher for a long time and can be difficult to “win back” if you upset them in class. History teachers are more likely to be right wing than geography teachers (on the other hand, maybe we should stick to students for the time being). I pictured something approaching a Terry Gilliam animated skit on my first day in front of a high school class, weird things happening everywhere, an amorphous mass of discontent students in their own little words, hanging off the rafters. In particular, I was worried how I would relate to young Maori or Pacific Island students, seeing as I’m a typical white guy (another stereotype!) without much in common with them, or so I assumed.
But you know what? People are people, and kids are kids, and while you may in fact have a class of rafter swingers, it is often the case that you can’t really identify any correlation between behavior and nominal stereotyped group. As an example, here is a short list of the students who gave the most trouble over my two placements:
– An Indian girl with the most sour attitude imaginable to any type of work.
– An emo white boy with attention issues.
– A tall, spiky haired softballer with a chronic inability to stop whatever stupid comment he had formulated in his mind from exiting through his mouth
– A half-Maori boy who was a talkative disrupter with his friends around (but remarkably quiet and pleasant when they were absent)
– A white girl with strict religious parents, the only student to directly challenge me in class in a whiny, self-satisfied manner, but who also turned around to take quite an interest in the class after I made the conscious effort not to hold a single outburst against her (that is the tough thing about being a teacher, is knowing when to give a demonstration of your power. Some kids just have a bad day – that’s no excuse for them to have a go at their teacher, of course, but some degree of pragmatism is important on our part. On the other hand, some kids willfully push you, trying to establish boundaries for what is acceptable in class that favour them and remove the influence of the teacher, and you absolutely cannot let this slide, as that is what happens to the class, a slow downhill slide into anarchy).
Now, the descriptions above are how I would describe them if I were watching them act petulantly in my class, but they were also good for some laughs as well. It’s just a matter of managing 30 individual relationships in 50 minutes while trying to teach valuable (mostly) information and sticking to the scheme, while keeping the entire class engrossing and fun. And then you do this 4 times a day, 5 days a week.
Sounds easy, doesn’t it?