It is 7:18am when it finally happens to me. I’ve been warned by Emmy and other friends who have taken the CELTA course that there comes a point in the program where every student breaks. Some begin screaming, throwing things, or sobbing uncontrollably as the pressure of the tasks becomes 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 stress of input sessions, lesson planning, teaching practices, and writing assignments for almost two weeks. Nick tells me that this course feels as intense as graduate school, which of course, I have no experience with. But this is the most difficult education or training that I’ve been through.
On Tuesday evening, I taught the class using the materials I put together for the topic assigned to me. I felt during the lesson that I caught my stride, and that it was going fairly well, despite my inner nervousness which I kept hidden. But after the lesson was over, I realized that I had neglected to ask 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 Barry, this week’s instructor, and my classmates 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 during our input session that he heard I had done an excellent job of teaching my lesson the night before. This gave me a boost of confidence in myself.
However, at last night’s (Thursday) teaching assignment, I found myself woefully unprepared for the lesson. I had struggled all day to concentrate on writing my lesson plan and to collect the materials that I would need to use in the classroom. I was distracted and made little progress as the deadline loomed. 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. In the past, when I was giving religious instruction to the church members, I would have been able to easily bullshit my way through a presentation that I hadn’t properly prepared for. After all, I had grown up knowing the doctrines and was able to draw on familiar phraseology and could usually create a quick analogy if needed.
But even though I possess a better-than-average command of the English language, I am less familiar with the actual rules and explanations that are needed to do a proper job of teaching, especially in front of an instructor and a group of peers who will be taking notes.
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 had no 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.” Or, “This lesson is 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 neglected 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.
Then I 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 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 a little more than an hour before.
I went to bed in a funk, and I now wake up in the same state. I know that I have a self-evaluation to write, and all I can think to do is to be completely raw and honest in it. In the section asking what are my key achievements in the first half of the course, I write that I have accomplished “fooling people into thinking that I actually belong here.”
My thoughts are now that this is a waste of my time, that I will never accomplish this endeavor, that I’m not cut out for it. I feel that all of my friends who have told me in the past that I will make a great teacher, that I will do well, really don’t know me like they think. They don’t know the scared quitter that lives inside of me.
I start 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 back in the States messages me to ask how I am doing, and she tells me that I will be fine, that I just have to stick it out, that this is my dream job. Which sets off my tears again, because this is my one shot at having the ability to support myself in my plans to travel the world. I cannot go back to Chicago, back to the existence that I am trying to escape.
I open Spotify on my phone and select Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” to inspire me.* It seems to help me through my paperwork. I finish the self-effacing evaluation and pull out a blank one. This one is filled out with a more positive view of my teaching practice. After showering and donning shorts and a t-shirt, I drop off both evaluations onto the proper desk in the office the five course instructors share.
At breakfast, I am quieter than normal, but put up a brave face and laugh when necessary to avoid anyone questioning me about what might be wrong this morning.
I walk into my feedback session as if I am heading to the gallows. I am supposed to give constructive criticism to the two classmates who taught before me last night, and I manage to say a few things that I remember, because I hadn’t really written much down. When it comes time to have my lesson dissected, I am shocked to hear that my classmates thought my lesson went well.
Barry, who bears a passing resemblance to the evil Montgomery Burns from The Simpsons animated television show, obviously has the first copy of my self-evaluation in his lap. He remarks that he thinks I am being too hard on myself. He says that the decisive action I took in cutting short the quiz in order to teach what I had missed was actually a positive. He then makes a point of mentioning that I show a real interest in the welfare of the students. Moreover, he gives me a passing score. He’s definitely not Monty Burns.
Later, during a private review of my achievements during the first half of the course, Barry tells me that I am “to standard”, meaning that I am where I should be at this point. I’m passing the course so far. He doesn’t return my first required written assignment for resubmission, meaning I somehow did well enough on the initial attempt. I walk out of that meeting in stunned disbelief. The cloud that has been following me around in the morning dissipates into the bright sunlight on this beautiful day in Thailand.
This evening, after observing Barry teach grammar points to the new group of students with whom we will be working for the next two weeks, our “old” pupils from the first half of the course take us out to an outside bar/cafe not far from the school. Sitting under the stars at a long table with our students/friends, we laugh as we attempt communication with each other in a mixture of Thai, English, Chinese, and hand gestures.
The group toasts each other with glasses continuously refilled with Singha beer and ice cubes. We share communal plates of chicken, pork, and seafood, vegetables, French fries with ketchup and mayonnaise, and even try some bugs, which leads to some disgusted reactions and more hilarity.
One of our students, Max, has taken over the bar’s sound system, playing music from his phone, and we eventually get up and dance a bit, not feeling the least bit foolish as we butcher the moves to “Gangnam Style”. It is a perfect few hours spent with good people, some of whom I may never forget. And somewhere during all of it, I realize 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?