I saw ants wandering the crevasses of the sidewalk on this warm afternoon and realized that my journey here has come full circle. The trees that had lost their leaves, shivered and bloomed have again regained their strength to grow. In the day’s heat, my memories skip around from my first steps into Homeplus through blurry midnight taxi rides. But what I remember most are the students that I teach – the quirky, cute, struggling, hard-working and spirited bunch that I brightly say “Hi!” to every day, between every class. They have made up a large part of my life here, and although Korea has given me so much, these kids have undoubtedly given me the most.
I didn’t always think I’d be cut out to teach. When I first considered teaching (rather, tutoring) I was a college sophomore whose primary concern was earning extra money. I came across the position to be an English tutor through a bit of a conversation that I caught as I waited for the bus. I slapped together an application that same night, using an essay that I wrote as a high school junior. A quick interview later, I was handed a manual and a schedule; I got the job. The confidence I had in my own writing got me through the door easily, but I wasn’t prepared for the feeling of sitting across from my peers with their hands at their temples, staring blankly at the paper in front of them. In those 90 minutes, I wasn’t working for my own sake, but for theirs. In the first few sessions I tutored, as I unwrinkled papers crushed by their frustration, I knew that I wasn’t going to waste any time convincing them of my abilities; I needed to convince them of theirs. Smoothing out the page, I would draw a breath, smile, and say, “Let’s look at the first sentence.”
I had to become a tutor.
That being said, I spent the first week of my job floundering a bit. I threw my students worksheets, corrected their papers excessively, and fumbled with the content of the pieces they had to read. But continuous experience helped, and through the dedication I had to getting my students to pass, I learned by leading. After a few short weeks, tutoring hardly felt like a job anymore. I bounced ideas off students, asked them thought-provoking questions, and helped them structure some truly great pieces of writing. They surprised me so much that sometimes I wondered why they were even doing poorly in the first place.
After devoting the rest of college to tutoring every free chance I got, earning money didn’t bring me through the door. What I truly came to love was meeting someone so caught up in their own self-defeat that they didn’t see their own potential, and I would be the one to show them it. When my students brought their grades up from not passing (NP) to a B+, they thanked me again and again. To this, I would pick up their papers and remind them that I didn’t write it, they did. For 90 minutes once a week, all I did was stir their minds until they found what they were looking for. That’s all tutoring was, and four years and countless students later, my task never got more difficult than that.
For tutoring or teaching, you have to begin with your own confidence to get through, and sometimes you even have to trick yourself. When I started teaching in Korea, I told myself that I had all the experience I needed being a tutor, and my assured sense of self did the rest of the work. In truth, I had never stood in front of a class to teach for 45 minutes at a time. Furthermore, even as recent as junior year of college, when I gave presentations I could feel my heartbeat through my voice. But I didn’t linger on these things. The kids didn’t get some blubbering nervous fool when I stood in front of my first class; they deserved a great teacher, and I was resolved to be that. I stood at the front of the class and I was confident, clear-voiced and a little quirky. I made mistakes but I made light of them. The kids were engaged for the whole lesson, enjoying it. I surprised myself so much that afterwards I wondered how I got magical teaching powers so suddenly. How did it happen?
The truth is that I acted the part until I became it.
At this stage, I feel like my transformation into a teacher is complete. One of the important things I’ve learned is how to let loose and make a fool of myself. I pantomime, dance around, praise emphatically and give every class 110% until I’m so spent that I barely have the energy to do much else other than pass out. I relish any opportunity to laugh along with my students during a lesson. I find myself referring to my students as “my kids” when I tell anyone about them, and I find myself telling all those lame, corny teacher jokes. I didn’t think I’d fall into this job so well, but even through the challenges I find myself coming back, smiling, ready to begin the next lesson.
(From our comics lesson. I swear I didn’t teach them this…)
As all things go, however, time and again I’ve met a fair amount of bumps in the road. On some days the challenges test how much I can endure. A few of my second grade classes this semester get unruly regularly, and it’s hard to get them to concentrate. Some sleep in the corner, some throw pencilcases around. I surely sympathize with the feeling, stuck in a class that you don’t understand, allowing your attention to wane. But for the few kids that are at the front, answering every question, I know that despite the mayhem I have to do right by them. So I use my “New York” and my smile fades into a hard look that epitomizes Jack Nicholson’s “You talkin’ to me?!”, because nothing is scarier than getting a teacher that smiles all the time to clench her jaw, suppressing latent rage. It’s worked well so far. :)
But, as you are well aware, channeling Jack Nicholson four times a week is quite physically and psychologically taxing, so last Friday I was prepared to do a gazelle leap out of school and into the weekend. While I was shutting off my computer, a few of my former students showed up in the teacher’s office. They had graduated middle school last semester were now attending high school. I was so purely happy to see them that I started talking to them way faster than they could understand (or any human being could). One of my former students told me he had gotten into a foreign language high school where he is studying English. As the rest of the group said their goodbyes and left, he hung back to look me in the eyes and say, “Thank you, Natasha Teacher.” Nearly died from the feels.
Thinking back to my days as a tutor, the gratitude that people have shown me makes me believe that maybe, other than notes in the margins and grammar advice, I gave them a bit more: I gave each of them my unshakable faith that they would succeed, and they did. Some of my favorite teachers over the years had done the same for me. It’s a quiet gift of inner strength that I am humbled to give.
When I used to sit cross-legged in the closet of a tutor’s lounge at my college, catching a breather between shifts, I would scoff at a sign above the door: “Saving the World…One Sentence at a Time.”
Thousands of miles away, years later, I get it.
These few months of teaching have made my world a little more beautiful.