Saturday, February 17, 2018


I am in my seventh month of teaching and in two weeks I’ll get a third group of new students and begin a new trimester.  I’ve been chilly to the other teacher who teaches the same level that I do.  I email her during my first week of teaching for a little advice and get no response.  When we pass, I do the eyebrow raised ever so slightly, the most minimal gesture I can summon to acknowledge her presence.  Just because I hate the current testing protocol and make my own hours I manage, with a partner, to author a project-based evaluation system that’s coupled with a digital test.  My co-creator is a seasoned ESL teacher, and his experience, combined with my instincts, produces a nice little battery.  I learn, after the fact, that the district is shifting to a more portfolio-based instrument of evaluation, so our foresight makes us look pretty good. 

There is a meeting for ESL teachers to collaborate towards designing projects for their respective levels.  My working partner is a daytime teacher and he presents our projects and digitally formatted test at the a.m. meeting.  I receive an un-refusable offer to present at the evening meeting and demonstrate to the other teachers how the projects are designed.  There are about fifteen teachers.  I only know about half by name.  The assistant principal is effusive about our materials and if I were one of the other teachers, my indifference towards me would morph into animus.  I make a succinct demonstration and the other teachers are teamed up by levels, ostensibly inspired by my materials, to begin designing their own projects.

The teacher who doesn’t bother to answer my e-mail is the only other teacher at my level.  We are paid for meeting time, so manacled there, despite the project plans for our level being complete.  “What are we supposed to do?” she asks.  “Words with Friends?” I posit. We compare notes.  She teaches a morning class too. This is a nightmare multi-level class with many toddler toting students.  It’s bedlam.  She goes home for a couple of hours and then returns in traffic for an evening class.  I show her a couple of things I’ve done online and tell her about our field trip to the museum.  She sighs.  “I used to do things like that but now I can barely stand up.”  Adult teachers scramble to get assignments.  Many teach split shifts, early morning and then evening, often at distant schools.  I realize that a number of the people I think are snotty, are just beaten down and tired.  More than once, I have nearly plowed down a spacey colleague while backing out of the parking lot after class.  I email some links to materials that I’ve created to my exhausted colleague.  No response.  No surprise.

I put in about two hours of preparation for every hour that I teach.  If I did not have this planning time I would have to teach straight from a dull textbook with no supplemental materials.  And truly, I have no way of knowing if this is just as, or perhaps even more, effective than my own intricate choreography. The class always gives me mixed signals about how much is being accomplished.  Sometimes they catch on remarkably quickly, other times the sheepish smiles tell me that despite having drilled something for weeks, they’ve no clue. Maybe they’re learning less than their compatriots who are taught strictly by the book, but we have fun.

Two Chinese graduate students from USC are observing my class.  They are working towards Masters Degrees in teaching English as a Second Language.  They dress expensively, have fancy backpacks and tap away on new model Macs.   One night one shows up with a boyfriend.  I have given them the same information face-to-face, and via e-mails again and again.  I have difficulty understanding them when they speak.   Perhaps they truly don’t have a sense for how bad their English really is, but a Masters degree confers a proficiency that they’re far from attaining. My morning starts with a number of annoyances and I drive to work in a bad mood.  My first task is an e-mail the grad students, cc’ing their graduate advisor.  I remind them again of the school policies that they’ve ignored, and reiterate, the limitations my class has with regard to what they’re expected to accomplish.  There is nothing untrue and it is appropriate that their supervisor understand what I am unable to make them grasp.  My tone is friendly, and I express clearly that I wish to be of assistance.  I know however that my communication will be upsetting and embarrassing to them.  I admit that this raises my spirits immeasurably.

The TESOL students send apologetic, referring to me throughout as “dear Layne,” e-mails and return to class. They type away but when it comes time to play the cellphone quiz game, they load the app and log on.  Their final results are in the midrange, blown out of the water by Daniel the pothead, Araceli the cashier and Katy, who cooks at Burger King—all first-year English students.

When I complete my own TESOL certificate on-line, I find that the handful of Americans enrolled in the course intend to teach abroad.  The lion’s share are foreigners who aim to be language instructors in their home countries.  I don’t know what the ethnic composition is of the USC graduate program is.  I suspect it’s primarily foreign.  While, for the most part, the actual classroom teaching is immeasurably satisfying, teaching ESL in America is a lousy job.

I know that Valentine’s Day will be light attendance-wise and I spend all day pulling short funny films from Vimeo.  I make little lessons for each one. Write down and categorize all of the foods you see in “What’s Cookin’”  Describe all of the actions in the film “Touch,” using the present progressive tense. But, as more teachers seem to be using the Wi-Fi, it’s gotten very slow.  The films take too long to buffer so I move back to the uninspiring textbook.

The student council is raising funds by selling Valentine photos taken in front of a giant cardboard heart.  Plastic beaded roses with flashing lights are $3 or 2 for $5.  Octavio brings me one. For Natalie, he brings an elaborate arrangement of roses and hydrangea.  Octavio, of the amazing smile, is in my class the previous trimester.  His test scores are low and he asks to stay with me this semester.  His technology skills are excellent, so I am not that unhappy when he remains.  I just have to point to a student who’s having difficulty and he leaps up to help.  Last semester he is glued to another handsome boy.  The students move their chairs to let them sit together.  This semester, it’s Natalie.  Before the Christmas break, Natalie shows up to the party with her four-year-old son.  Octavio brings him a big racing toy.  I am asked to keep it overnight which I don’t mind doing but it’s never clear why.  On Valentine’s they ask if they can leave the arrangement overnight.  “But it will die,” I fret.  Natalie’s mother, Octavio explains doesn’t know about them yet.  I guess that the next day will be more opportune for smuggling in secret flowers. 

“You both have children!” I note in Spanish.  Octavio has a five-year-old daughter in Guatemala.  I am very adamant that they be careful.  “You don’t need any more children!” I admonish.  I add, “Yet.”  I can’t imagine a scenario where having another child would not make their lives far more difficult. But, Octavio is extraordinarily handsome and Natalie’s beatific and winsome.  Still, neither is ready for another child, no matter how beautiful.  They are surprised when I assertively nose into  their personal lives.  But, Octavio is alone here from Guatemala and Natalie’s sneaking around her mom.  Even though they both blush, I hope that the impertinent adult advice registers.

In addition to the plastic rose from Octavio, I receive some candy, cookies, cards and a fluffy teddy bear that luvs me.  Hilda gives me an Herbalife protein bar.  It has 12g of protein and only 70 calories. I eat it in the car on my way home.  It is gritty and coats my teeth, leaving a nasty taste in my mouth.  Still, there are Christmas gifts, an elaborate celebration of my birthday and Valentine’s remembrances.  I’ve only been teaching a year and unlike most of my colleagues, teach only a single class.  It’s a luxury to have the time and energy to pour my all into being worthy of these gifts.

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