Apparently I was trying too hard.

So, remember my special needs class, the one that was driving me nuts when I first got here?

Well, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they’re now my favourite class, but other than a small incident involving me getting punched by an over-excited 8-year-old the other week, things with them are pretty good.

Apparently, according to their Korean teacher, the problem was that I was trying to teach them English. That’s just not going to work, she explained sadly. I don’t think she was advising that I tried teaching them Japanese or something instead, so I battled on regardless, until one particularly stressful session led to me actually banging my head repeatedly and despairingly on the board, to a chorus of giggles from students who mistakenly thought I was trying to be funny.

At that point, I  stopped trying to teach them English. Instead of explaining a concept and getting them to answer questions using that concept, I just wrote up the answers and got them to copy them into their books, with a focus on good spelling and handwriting. Instead of asking them questions about a text, I simply got them to take turns reading the text aloud, over and over again, until they were familiar with most of the words.

And a remarkable thing has happened. The atmosphere in the classroom has completely changed, and we have fun together – lots of silly actions and goofing around from me, lots of giggles from them. And because they no longer see me as a heartless, confusing dictator, they want to include me in their jokes and conversations – so they make huge efforts to try to find enough English words to explain to me what’s going on in the corridor or in the playground. Their enthusiasm for their work has gone from non-existent to excited and eager – because previously, they didn’t understand what they were meant to be doing, and now it’s simple things like “read this sentence out loud” or write this answer in your book”.

But the most amazing thing of all is that by stopping all attempts to teach them English, I inadvertently stumbled upon the ideal method for teaching them English: just be their friend. I spend a lot of the class just trying to talk with them about what’s going on in their lives. When they’re playing games in the corridor between classes, I join them on the floor to ask how a new toy works, or jump out from behind a door to make them all scream and run away laughing. Then they have to figure out how to tell me about their latest toy or ask me to come and play tag with them, and they know that if they use even a word or two of English, I’ll do it.

And what has happened? A frickin’ miracle, that’s what’s happened. OK, so these kids are never going to be able to speak English. But as we repeat and repeat and repeat the reading and writing practice, things seem to be sticking with them. I’ll be about to write the answer to number 5 on the board, only to realise that a few of the children have already caught on to the pattern and just continued with the rest of the questions, answering them by themselves. I’ll tentatively make a word recognition test (spelling is too advanced!) into a game by putting on a gameshow host voice and talking into my whiteboard eraser, and discover to my astonishment that they can actually connect about half the words from the text to the meanings I give them, now that they’re motivated enough to try. I’ll pick a random word from the book and find ways to use it about a million times during one class, and be delighted when one child uses it in the right context next time he sees me in the corridor.

One little boy, without a doubt the slowest and strangest child in the class (I really do feel that he should be at a special school), has taken a real shine to me – which is kind of ironic since he’s pretty much the only one in the class who really is making no progress, thanks to spending most of his time staring out from whatever goes on in his own little world. Apparently undaunted by the fact that we can’t communicate, he now comes to my classroom every day despite the fact that I only teach his class once a week. He flings himself up on to my knee, clings to me in the corridor, and refuses to let go of me when I try to deliver him to his next class. He seems content just to sit on my lap and cuddle me in silence as I sit at my desk drinking my pre-afternoon classes coffee and making lesson plans, while all the other children run around like mad things in the corridors.

What are you saying about me? I called out to a couple of his classmates today, when I heard them chattering in the corridor – the usual indecipherable string of Korean words punctuated every so often with “Hayley Teacha”. (I think this used to be mostly insults and death threats, but now that they like me I’m no longer afraid to ask. )

Toto (really), one of the better speakers, poked his head around the door. Eric… Hayley teacha… likee.

Eric likes Hayley teacher, I corrected him. Well, good. Toto doesn’t like Hayley teacher?! I pulled a sad face.

Toto shook his head. Eric LIKEE Hayley teacha!

Andrew’s head popped round the door. Likee likee I love you! he said, before the two of them ran off giggling.

C’mon, didn’t you ever have a crush on a teacher? asked Alex, amused, as I pondered whether this was creepy. We looked at Eric, who was sitting rigidly upright, motionless and staring, on my knee, as we talked over his head in the knowledge that he understood not one word. I shrugged. Not like this!! Ah well, it’s nice to be loved, I suppose.

Alex choked on his mirth. Couldn’t you just get a cat or something?!

Hmmm…

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6 thoughts on “Apparently I was trying too hard.

  1. As the mother of a kid with Asperger’s, I can tell you that for a special needs kid, finding a safe person in a world that doesn’t make sense and doesn’t “get” you can be like a lifeboat to a drowning person. Don’t underestimate the value of your role – if only to give him hope and comfort and sense of connection with the world – these are things that will stay with him whether or not he ever learns English.

    Sounds like you are a wonderful teacher!

  2. Gosh Hayley – you do sound like an awesome teachah. But it is sad to think that you wouldn’t be allowed to cuddle a needy child in this rotten country. Anyway – keep on keeping on – I’m loving your blog so much.

  3. Ruth – well, I never thought of it as an important role until you said that! I figured I was pretty much useless to him since we can’t talk to each other on even the most basic level, and also I have no idea how to work with special needs kids. But I suppose maybe it helps him to know he can just sit in silence with me. I certainly don’t mind the cuddles. :)
    Nelly – Aw, thanks. And yes, it really took me quite a while to stop feeling uneasy or nervous when children hugged me, kissed me, or ended up in a room alone with me. I was very aware that back home I’d be sued and put on a predators list or something. Now that I’m used to the absence of ridiculous laws, I’m really liking (and seeing the benefits of) the fact that teachers can show physical affection to pupils. It’s much more natural and comfortable, and it makes the school feel like a warm, safe, happy environment.

  4. Jane says:

    How nice, that despite the language barrier, he knew he was safe with you. Keep listening to your heart, even if you do get a cat. ;)

  5. I am playing catch-up because of a streaming cold. Eyes, nose and ears running so not in form for much reading. This post has made me feel better. The ‘GOOD’ vibes are reaching out across the interweb! You are doing a wonderful job just keep at it!

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