January 20, 2017

Chiang Mai, Thailand

It was 7:18am when it finally happened to me. I had been warned by other friends who have taken or taught the CELTA program that there comes a point in the program for every student where they break. Some begin screaming, throwing things, or sobbing uncontrollably as the pressure of the tasks become too much. Many have the feeling of helplessness, that they just cannot continue, that they may as well just leave, because there’s no way that they will make it through.

I’ve been dealing with the pressure of classes, teaching practices, and writing assignments for almost two weeks. On Tuesday evening, I taught the class using the materials provided for me. I felt during the lesson that I caught my stride, and that it was going fairly well, despite my nervousness which I kept hidden. But after the lesson was over, I realized that I hadn’t asked them any follow-up questions to see if they had absorbed the material. I beat myself up about it overnight, then went to the feedback session on Wednesday morning, fully expecting my instructor and the classmates in my group to point that out. But that didn’t happen. In fact, later in the day, one of the other instructors mentioned in front of the larger group that he heard I had done an excellent job of teaching my lesson the night before. This made me feel good, and gave me a boost.

However, on last night’s teaching assignment, I found myself completely unprepared for the lesson. I had been struggling all day to concentrate on writing my lesson plan and collecting the materials that I would need to use in the classroom. I was distracted and not making much progress, with the deadline looming. I was supposed to have filled out a grammar analysis sheet for the lesson, which was on the use of comparatives and superlatives (e.g. good, better, best; fast, faster, fastest) but I ran out of time. So, I went into the class armed with only part of the knowledge that would be needed to do a concise explanation of the rules of grammar.  After a moderately long period where I used the whiteboard to show the concepts, I gave the students a quiz. And while I was crouching down to their level at the desks to monitor their progress and provide assistance as necessary, I discovered that they did not have any idea what they were doing. It dawned on me that I had completely forgotten to explain to them that when using comparatives between two objects, that we use the words “as” and “than”.  As in, “Bob is not as good a teacher as the last one.” “This lesson was worse than any other we’ve ever had.”

Fortunately, I didn’t allow the rising panic to freeze me in my tracks. I made the quick decision to tell the students to put down their pens, and I admitted to them that I had forgotten to give them a key piece of information. I spent the next few minutes at the board free-styling an explanation with examples of how to use the language. I then let them work in pairs to finish the exercise, and did a shortened version of the review that I had planned. I had to jettison the last activity that I had prepared for them, because I was now out of time to do anything else but to thank the students for coming and telling them that it had been our honor to teach them for the past two weeks.

I don’t remember tasting my dinner after that. I joined a group of my classmates who walked down the road to a place we refer to as the “hay bale bar”, which is pretty much a group of hay bales lined up against a long table facing out on a rice paddy. Local beers were purchased from a small, tin-roofed store across the street from the “bar”, and I sat with my friends, trying to forget the dismal lesson that I had just finished teaching. I went to bed in a funk, and woke up in the same state. I knew that I had a self-evaluation to write, and all I could think to do was to be completely raw and honest in it. In the section asking what were my key achievements in the first half of the course, I wrote that I had accomplished “fooling people into thinking that I actually belonged here.” And I started to think that this was a waste of my time, that I never would accomplish this, that I wasn’t cut out for it. I felt that all of my friends who had told me in the past that I would make a great teacher, that I would do well, really didn’t know me like they thought. They didn’t know the scared quitter that lived inside of me. And I started to cry. Not loud sobs, just quiet tears running down my face and tickling my cheeks on their way to the floor. One of my friends messaged me to ask how I was doing, and she told me that I would be fine, that I just had to endure, that this was my dream job. Which set off my tears again, because this is my one shot at having the ability to support myself as I travel the world. I cannot go back to Chicago, back to the existence that I am trying to escape. I turned on Spotify and chose Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” to inspire me.* It seemed to help me through my paperwork.

I walked into my feedback session like I was heading to the gallows. I was supposed to give constructive criticism to the two classmates who taught before me the last night, and I managed to say a few things that I remembered, because I hadn’t really written much down. When it came time to have my lesson dissected, I was stunned to hear that my classmates thought my lesson went well. My instructor, who had the copy of my self-evaluation in his lap, said that he thought I was being too hard on myself. He said that the decisive action I took in cutting short the quiz in order to teach what I had missed was actually a positive. He made a point of mentioning that I showed a real interest in the welfare of the students. And he gave me a passing score. Later, during my private review of my achievements during the first half of the course, he said that I was to standard, meaning that I was where I should be at this point. He didn’t return my first required written assignment for resubmission, meaning I somehow passed on the initial attempt. I walked out of that meeting in disbelief. The cloud that had been following me around in the morning dissipated, and the sun came out.

This evening, after we sat through the class watching the instructor teach grammar points to the new group of students whom we will be with for the next two weeks, our “old” pupils from the first half of the course took us out to an outside bar/cafe not far from the school. We sat under the stars at a long table with our student/friends, laughing as we spoke to each other in a mixture of Thai, English, and Chinese. We toasted each other with continuously-refilled glasses of Singha beer with ice cubes. We shared communal plates of chicken, seafood with vegetables, French fries with ketchup and mayonnaise, and even tried some bugs, which led to some hilarity. Our Thai friend, Max had taken over the bar’s sound system, playing music from his phone, and we eventually got up and danced a bit, not feeling the least bit foolish as we butchered the moves to “Gangnam Style”.  It was a perfect few hours spent with good people, some of whom I may never forget. And I somewhere during all of that, I realized that this is exactly where I belong.


                    Look, if you had, one shot, or one opportunity                                         
               To seize everything you ever wanted. In one moment                                   
                        Would you capture it, or just let it slip?                                               

 Eminem, (2002)

1,551 thoughts on “Breakdown”

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