Becoming more like Alfie

Yesterday my boss told me that she got a call from the mother of one of my students – words that will strike fear into the heart of any teacher in Korea. Mothers are terrifying. They rule the school. They rule you. Parents pay obscene amounts of money to send their children to private English schools like ours, and the school’s primary concern is doing whatever it takes to keep their regular fee payments coming.

And so mothers are in control. They can decide that you’re giving their child too much homework (or not enough); they can complain bitterly about the lack of progress their child is making; they can demand that their child be changed to another class, or even removed from the school; they can insist that you give their child more individual (read: constant) attention; they can easily get you fired for inadvertently making their child cry. When your boss says “I got a call from X’s mother”, you hold your breath in anticipation of the worst.

I got a call from Alfie’s mother, said Jennifer over lunch. Oh crap, I thought, staring enviously at the drowned shrimp in my soup. Alfie was, last year, the bane of our existence – famous amongst the teachers as the strangest little boy in the school. Throughout his year in a 6-year-old class, he seemed perfectly happy to drift along in his own little bubble, somehow managing to not pick up a single word of English. Seriously, not even “hello”. He wasn’t a troublemaker – never disruptive or cheeky, he’d simply doodle happily or grin to himself, always cheerful, never listening. If you ignored him, he didn’t notice. If you shouted at him, he was completely unaffected. If you tried to get him on side by praising him, he didn’t react. “An odd child” was how we usually described him. You couldn’t get him to join in or do his work even if you spent the entire lesson focussing solely on him – and unlike the kids who are simply disruptive, he was as disinterested in the fun activities like songs, games, colouring, and dancing as he was in reading and writing. Thankfully I only had him once a week, for Musical, and after a few efforts to get him to participate, I tended to just leave him be – he was quite happy to ignore us and be ignored, and he didn’t hold the others back.

But now he’s a 7-year-old, and he’s in one of my main classes. I see him every day, usually more than once, and teach him reading, writing, speaking, listening, art, and Musical.

And I’m determined. I’m not going to have someone say of any student of mine: “Who was his/her English teacher? Looks like she’s in the wrong job!”. It will not do for a member of my class to not learn any English. That just is not an option. I informed him of this during the first week of term, although I’m fairly certain that he didn’t understand a word I was saying. And I have made him participate. I don’t get cross with him, I don’t raise my voice, I don’t single him out in front of the class – but I’ve studied him as carefully as I’ve ever studied any academic subject, I’ve attempted to befriend him, and I’ve been coaxing him towards English as you’d coax a suspicious cat out from behind the sofa.

Of course, he’s still miles behind all the others, and he still has his mute days, and although I get very excited when he joins in and gets something right, the news that his mother had called my boss was not exactly music to my ears. Why is my son not yet fluent in English? Why is his handwriting twice the size of his classmates’, and full of mistakes? Why don’t you fire that teacher and get a decent one?

Jennifer smiled at me, the sort of smile she saves for when I volunteer to stay late to give a catch-up lesson for a new pupil, or for when I stagger out of my seventh class of the day and march resolutely to my eighth.

She said Alfie came home yesterday and said “Mum, I’m so hungry!”. She is very excited – he has not spoken English to her before.

I almost did a little victory lap around the kitchen. It might sound silly, but it’s little moments like that, right there, that make me certain that this is the career for me. A child telling his mother he’s hungry. So simple – but more rewarding than any bonus in the world.

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