It’s been too long, I know. But when the choices are constantly go exploring or blog, it’s hard to prioritize sitting at a computer. I plan to follow up very shortly with a second post that will include many more updates, pictures, and adventures. But for now, I want to write a small story with big ideas. I don’t think I can sufficiently express how different it is to teach here, but this anecdote is my attempt.
Two Saturdays ago, we had school. There was a holiday and then an extra day off, giving us a four day weekend. But for some reason probably having to do with hard work or integrity or something crazy, you don’t just get a free day off here. It appears that collectively, everyone in the country just agreed to make up that lost day and go to work on a Saturday. Inconceivable in the US. Inconsequential here. And though I was dreading it at first, it ended up being a really fun day filled with planting bean seeds, spelling bee practice, and a monthly assembly. As a teacher, assemblies aren’t exactly my favorite thing. Typically, the principal does something cringey, the kids get all riled up, and the disruption throws off your entire day. Those with good reading comprehension, however, will remember that I said it’s different here.
It started when I was told the assembly would be in the first floor hallway. I asked my director why not the library, to which she responded with a very confused, “Well I’m not sure, I don’t think we’ve ever even though about using the library.” I was feeling pretty good about the suggestion until another coworker chimed in saying that kids sitting in rows felt too militaristic. We’re supposed to be a family, after all. Okay, so hallway it is. I was, perhaps, smugly intrigued to see how we were going to cram 100+ kids and teachers into a skinny hallway and have it go well. Get over yourself sometimes, Evan.
When I brought my class down, the scene was one of successfully controlled chaos. Kids were chatting happily, teachers were milling about, and a walk down the hall was a minefield of tiny ankles and oblivious 4-year olds. Our fearless (and I don’t use that term flippantly) de-facto principal, Teacher Brittany, led things off by spending 5 minutes getting the kids to sit silently, going over rules and announcements, and sharing a powerpoint about school pride. FALSE. She spent the first 5 minutes running around with her microphone and saying hi to kids, playing a song, getting everyone to dance, and making it clear how genuinely happy she was, her mask failing to hide her smile. Next came a spelling song led by Teacher Colin. He bounced around chanting this catchy rhyme while one student from each class was in charge of spelling a word, followed by the whole school repeating the spelling. (Spelling bees are big here.) Teacher Evan the all-star forgot to write down what word was assigned to him but luckily, Miki the actual all-star had no problem spelling “put, P-U-T, put” (to which we all responded “goooooood job!”).
Next it was time for each teacher to announce their student of the month. A common practice at many schools yes, but here, instead of calling students up on stage to stand in a row and take a picture, each teacher ranted about their pick in the most teachery tones and cadences you could imagine. Such high-pitched energy was impossible this monotoned man-child to emulate. I was however, saved for last because my student of the month, Parker, was the one Teacher Brittany was most excited about. Apparently he’s had a lot of problems in the past and the fact that he has been doing so well in my class brought tears to her eyes. The funniest part was that his mom, another teacher at the school, was not buying it. We thought she would be thrilled to find out her son was doing so well. Instead, she responded with a scoff and “I don’t know why he got picked.” Upon further consideration, I can’t decide if this is funny or sad. As for Parker, he is the easiest “difficult” student I’ve ever had. People were warning me about him before I even got to school. I laughed at them when I met him. He’s a literal angel. Maybe he just needed a change of scenery as much as I did.
Last on the agenda was Halloween song practice where kids, teachers, and admin all danced around. I have to admit, I wasn’t super into it at first, but when I saw how much fun the kids were having, I couldn’t help but join in. It’s kind of a banger, to be honest. You know what’s crazy? They celebrate holidays here! Halloween, Christmas, Chinese New Year, Valentine’s Day, and even birthdays. (And they let the kids bring cake, not just pencils and veggie trays!) I believe it was during my third training session in quarantine when Brittany said she might make me be Santa. I told her my only disappointment was that she didn’t ask me sooner so I could have brought my own Santa suit from home.
You know what else is crazy about this place? They let kids sit on their laps. They hug kids. They say “I love you.” I’ll be honest, some of this is still a bit uncomfortable for me. As a male elementary teacher I have been conditioned to not touch kids beyond high-fives and side-hugs. Never be alone with a kid in your classroom. No special notes, cards, or gifts for individual students. Show minimal affection, just to be careful. I remember my first week in my last district receiving several strongarm attempts to join the union, “just cuz, as a guy, you never know, ya know?” I understand the issues, of course, and I’ve always been very careful to do the “right” things. But how sad is it that the right thing for a teacher to do is to keep their distance rather than showering kids with love and affection? It’s different here. On one of my student’s birthdays, Teacher Brittany walked her down the street to the Family Mart to buy a treat of her choice! Can you imagine how quickly she’d be on the five o’clock news if she had done this in the states? Like I said, being conditioned a certain way for the past 15 years (undergrad training included), some of these things are still out of my comfort zone. I can’t say I totally agree with asking kids to sit on your lap while you read and calling them “baby,” but I’m settling in to hopefully a nice balance of affection and authority.
When Cornel says “we’re a family,” it’s not an exaggeration. Some of these kids go to Chinese school at 7:30am, come to Cornel in the afternoon, and then even go to yet another school until 9:00pm! For many students, we are their family. While it’s easy for me to say that this is way too much time in school for 7-17 year-olds, it’s not my job to judge. This is just what they do. It’s my job to be the teacher, parent, coach, therapist, mentor, friend, disciplinarian, and extended family that these kids need for the time they’re with me. Every teacher in every country in the world will tell you that these are their roles on a daily basis. This always has been and always will be true for as long as schools exist. The difference is that in the US, at best, you fall short of being any of these things fully. At worst, you can get in trouble for trying to be the wrong thing for the wrong kid at the wrong time. Here, you are encouraged to be whatever you need to be for your kids. You are lauded when you succeed and supported when you fail.
Well, I’ve officially gone over 1000 words, so I hope that means that a picture has been painted. To review: hugs, holidays, happiness.