Monday, February 05, 2007

My Last Week as a Kindergarten Teacher

Today, Monday, is the first day of my last week teaching at Antigua Art American Kindergarten. The school itself has nothing to do with the Spanish language, and it is only four or five years old, so I don't know why the name includes the word "antigua." Neither do they specialize in art. I am the only Ameircan teacher they've ever had--in fact, they've only had two other foreign teachers, an English woman who worked there for less than a year before she killed herself, and a Namibian woman who is, thankfully, still alive. The curriculum, as far as I can tell (only being there an hour and a half each day) is not American, nor even particularly Western. There is one new student who was born in the US and speaks English. Your guess is as good as mine as to where they came up with that name for their school.

I've been teaching there for a year and a half, and it has been a good experience for the most part. All the same, I'll be glad to have my mornings free--well, free is not quite the case, as I will have morning classes at NCTU starting in a couple of weeks. That is the main reason why I'm leaving the kindergarten, but to be honest, I've been feeling really burned out on working with children for about the last four years of my four-and-a-half-year teaching career.

Teaching kindergarten can be really fun, and it can be rewarding as well. You get to see kids develop from crying, slobbering, monstrous little babies (I've had students as young as 18 months--don't ask me what kind of sadistic parents put their kid in an all day kindergarten at that age), to less-crying, slobbering-not-so-much, monstrous little... monsters!

Here's the problem, and it is the same problem I've encountered in every teaching job I've had (other than the adult classes): some of the kids are wonderful, motivated, respectful, polite, funny, and smart; others are little bastards who make it their mission in life to disrupt everything the teacher tries to do. I know, I know: mom and dad don't give them enough attention at home, or grandma and grandpa spoil them, or they come from a broken home, or blah blah blah. That stuff is sad, and someone--probably these kids' real teachers or school administrators--ought to address the problem. For my part, all I expect is my thirty or forty minutes without major disturbances, which is a luxury I rarely enjoy.

Even with four-year-olds, who you wouldn't think have had the time to develop the deviousness it takes to actually be "bad," sometimes scare me with the obvious choices they make to behave in a counterproductive way. With them, the mental machinations are a little bit more apparent; you can actually see them looking for an opportunity to be naughty and then leap at it when it arises. Sometimes it is almost cute.

I emphasize "almost," because it really isn't cute. In Taiwanese society, however, they have the concept of the 小鬼, or "little ghost," in which small children are expected to be naughty and are allowed to behave in what Westerners might consider to be an antisocial manner. The idea is similar to the "boys will be boys" attitude. It is thought to be cute, but unfortunately it isn't, especially since it seems to be extended throughout childhood, adolescence, and even adulthood for some people (mostly male, though growing gender equality is spreading the joy to older females as well).

A funny thing is that I consider myself to be a relatively fun teacher. I play the guitar and sing goofy songs, make jokes and funny faces, play games, juggle, and generally clown around. I'll do anything for a laugh, much like I do in all of my social interactions. Despite this, I've often been branded as "too strict" by the Taiwanese teachers. This is often because, though I like to have a fun class, it has to be a somewhat orderly kind of fun in which the message of the lesson is not completely obscured. For example, I once dragged a kid out of class because he was chasing another kid around the room with a pair of scissors in his hand and murder in his eye. Later I found out that my preventing homicide led the homeroom teacher to complain about me as being too strict.

Basically, I want the kids to participate in the "fun" and not disrupt it. A lot of kids, however, have become expert at sizing up any activity, finding a weakness in it, and exploiting that weakness in order to bring the activity to a screeching halt. Imagine going to play golf, and one of your group screams every time another player tees off, or smacks the ball into the woods on purpose every time it is his turn. In order to be successful, any game or group activity depends on the implicit agreement of the participants to behave within certain parameters. Kids know this, and those who seek to get "special attention," either from classmates or from the teacher, realize that the easiest and fastest way to get that attention is to sabotage the proceedings.

There are ways that good teachers can deal with troublemakers, and even turn the tables on them, or, better yet, channel their disruptive energy in productive ways. I've never claimed to be a good teacher (well, I've never claimed it while sober), but I have learned some of those methods in order to survive. My problem--and I realize that it is my problem--is that I don't feel like I should have to take such measures. Kids should learn to behave from their parents, and if they misbehave in school their parents should be told and the parents should discipline them. If the behavior continues, they should be kicked out of school or put into special classes designed to deal with kids who have problems.

Unfortunately, parents are more often the cause of the problem, rather than a solution. Kids are simultaneously spoiled--given everything they want and allowed any behavior they choose to participate in--and neglected--popped in front of the TV or video game while mom and dad go off to work and/or socialize. In Taiwan, it is often the grandparents who raise the children, and these grandparents often have neither the energy nor the inclination to act as disciplinarians. So the rotten behavior becomes the problem of the teachers, whose hands are effectively tied in terms of how much discipline they can mete out.

Wow. I started out to write a quick note about how I'm feeling a little pre-nostalgic for my kindergarten job, and I got off on another rant. Now, about fourteen hours after I started, I find that it is time to go to bed. I still have some stuff to add about student discipline and my view of the problems with it, so I'll try to keep up the thread in my next post.

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