Monday, June 29, 2009

So I'm teaching again.

I have pretty mixed emotions about it all, to be honest. First of all, I LEFT education because I was afraid I wouldn't be able to support my family. A lot of those fears still remain. It is so hard to put in my all, do my best, and quite frankly, be paid so little in exchange. It is hard to come to grips with the fact that my friends in college, many of whom looked up to me as the scholar and the brain, are making double or triple what I make. There are positives about working at ASU, and I do see some possibilities that I don't need to mention now, but all of my past college success stuff (magna what?) kinda haunts me.

And then there is Chieko Honda.

I thought about her this week as I was speaking to students. It was nice to remember her story. As I was speaking, I fell into that natural teacher cadence that I had forgotten I had (like riding a bike?) And more importantly, as I shared her story I remembered why I had developed that teacher cadence in the first place. (Side note: If I ever speak teacherese to you and you find it unnervingly irritating, feel free to slap me. Thank you.)

The English lesson of the week focused on several individuals that had overcome trials. I love teaching this lesson to ESL students for so many reasons. For one, ESL students face tons of adversity. They leave their countries and come at the prime of life, and they often sacrifice all kinds of comforts that most people who never leave a country take for granted. Take this comfort for example: the comfort of saying what you think. Trust me, if you learn a foreign language, then saying precisely what you think is not a luxury you get to have. Yours, au contraire, is the arduous task of being asked difficult academic questions and inevitably sounding five years old.

"What do you think about the American Dream in relation to international students?" I might ask.

Or how about, "Why should adversity also create a possibility for success?"

I like to push students with didactic, open-ended questions. And their answers? Give them an hour, and they'll compose complex thoughts that prove they have strong opinions and great cognitive skills. But ask them to produce on the spot and their answers get predictably juvenile.

"Adversity sometimes good."

"Adversity bad. I think, bad."

They tell me things are good. They tell me things are bad. And if you pay attention to the eyes, you'll see that it pisses them off to no end that this is all that they have. Can you relate? Imagine having all these complex and beautiful thoughts and being told to limit those thoughts to 2,000 words. Yeah, it'd suck.

"I think very good adversity, it make stronger the person because..." The student trails off at because, not because she has nothing to say, but limited resources with which to say it. Time and vocabulary run out like the proverbial hour glass. And then you end up looking dumb. At times like these I praise my students for their efforts, then glide along in my perfect English in an attempt to bail them out.

And so I began to share a story about a Japanese girl with several strikes against her. I met her while I was just a young teacher in Provo, Utah, and I liked her immediately. She was vivacious, thoughtful, and deeply introspective. Precisely the kind of student that couldn't give you an answer quickly only because the wheels were turning ever so carefully. She had long black hair with streaks of white, the only indication to me that she might be older. While I loved her energy and desire to learn, over the course of that first semester it became obvious to me that English learning was particularly challenging for her. She took the college English entrance exam, TOEFL (the one I'm in charge of preparing her for), and failed. I got worried. In my MA classes we had just discussed how some students simply never progress beyond a certain level of linguistic awareness. They just get stuck. We call it (it almost sounds like some sort of insult) "fossilization."

Predictably, 4 months later, she failed the test again. Another semester. Then a third time. By the fourth failure, I believed intervention would be necessary. English schools are often as expensive as universities, and I could see the sands of her hour glass slipping away. But instead of intervening, I decided to watch. She just seemed so determined. She paid her tuition, she studied, and she kept taking that stupid, stupid test.

Eight friggin times. That's right people. She took the test eight "holy-crap-who-does-that?" times. And she passed on the eighth. Tons of time. Tons of money. Tons of depression. But what a payoff. I remember being exultant when I was told. It was as if I had passed. I felt vindicated. "I told you so, people!" I felt like shouting, "I knew I could do it."

And it was then I questioned that fossilization ever HAD to happen. My one-person reasoning: If Chieko Honda can pass that stupid test, I'm going to just shut my mouth and consider the nature of possibility. That is what Chieko Honda represents to me, after all.

Possibility. It is a fantastic word. It is what I see in every student. It is what I believe. And where does that possibility lead?

In Chieko's case, quite a distance. She graduated from college, became a research assistant, and is now pursuing a graduate degree. It should be really tough. She has to take this ridiculously hard test you might have heard of: the GRE. It makes the TOEFL look like the festival of flowers and bunnies (ever been? its nice...)

So you think I should bet against her this time? I can't. I won't.

Because "can't" and "won't" just don't mean anything to her.


  1. Really, really great post Shane! Thanks for sharing your words of wisdom and reminding me to pause, think, and be grateful. I'm glad you are back doing something you so genuinly enjoy. Seems like a good thing.

    Also, I think it is fasinating that I only rarely ever click on your blog (cause you don't often post) and every time I have......poof, you have just posted something new. I love that!!

  2. I swear I checked your blog like a week ago and didn't see any of these new posts. Weird. This was a great story and I don't recall you ever telling it to me. Very cool.