El Enseñar

In Plenary, Practice on November 23, 2011 at 10:37 am

I don’t usually write about work. Oh there are plenty of stories, believe me, but I shy away from the mentioning of either names or any obviously identifying circumstances or specifics. I don’t want to cause offence – to inadvertently portray a place that is shared by others in any way that they might find disparaging or insulting. What I see there is almost certainly not what they see there, and it can be jarring to become privy to someone else’s version of your events, especially if unsolicited.

Particularly where there are children involved I could never be sure, were I to write about them in any kind of detail, that I wasn’t being exploitative in some way. Nor would I want to excite anyone to a level of curiousity about me or my opinions that I might find uncomfortable. I don’t know what my opinion is half the time; why would I want to field questions on it?

No, better not. The hours spent at it accrue though, to the point where ignoring it completely seems a little fake. The proverbial elephant in the classroom. It has been a major part of the experience this last year and a learning curve all of its own.

The fact is, teaching the children – particularly the younger ones – has been humbling; an impressive experience that I won’t be forgetting in a hurry.

Ah, you empathise, the privilege of feeding sponge-like young intellects!

The joy of sharing a beautiful language – a gateway to new expression for them!

The wonder of watching a face as it contorts in first-time understanding!

The satisfaction derived from the knowledge that somewhere, sometime, these now-little lives will blossom and flourish in ways that wouldn’t have been possible without me!

Eh, nope. None of the above.

It has been humbling because it is humbling, believe you me, to find oneself in a small room with fourteen nine year olds and to come to the grim realisation – slowly, tortuously (over the course of a year, say)- that they are in charge. I had been under the impression that it was meant to be me.

Spanish children are a particularly noisy lot. Some of them don’t seem to know what “not shouting” is.

“Please don’t shout”, I tell Carlos.

“Ok!”, he shouts back.

“Sit down Alfonso! Clara, number three please. No, what? Sorry I couldn’t hear you, what? Who is? Jose? Jose, why are you crying? Oh, well you shouldn’t swing on your chair. Is there blood? No? You’ll be fine. What? Who? David? David, why are you crying? No, no, Jose will be fine – look, he’s laughing now. Quiet everyone, please! Carlos! Stop shouting!”


It feels like being the subject of an experiment at times. Like I have been captured by some intelligence service and imprisoned in an echo chamber with fourteen noise generators. They want to see how far they can push me before I crack.

“Alfonso! Please sit down!”

“Right everybody. Books please. Week twelve. This is a…what? Yes, ok, quickly please. This is a list….yes Maria? Sure, yes, red or black? Fine, there you go. Ok, this is a listeni…Alfonso if I see you out of your chair one more time I am writing a note for your mother. Seriously. That’s it. Good. Ok, this is a listening excercise so you all have to be very…Diego, what are you doing? Didn’t I just tell Alfonso to sit down? What is? Why is your pen under Catalina’s chair? Well, quickly then we don’t have time for thi….good. Ok, you must listen carefully and be quiet because afterwa…Carlos!”


It’s not that they’re bad children. Only some of them are that. It’s just that they outnumber me, and they know it. They don’t see things the way I do. They don’t want to take turns talking. They don’t want to sit still. They don’t particularly want to learn English. At times I will sit back, when they are momentarily busy with an exercise say, and embrace my inability to influence them. I’ll entertain myself with conjecture about their futures. Business for that one. Medicine for her. Something involving shouting for him. IT for him, bless him. That one will never get a job. That one will have three. That one’s going to prison, and English won’t help him there.

Each hour the ages of my students increase and the noise levels abate. By seven o’clock I sometimes feel as though I am teaching English. It’s a very different proposition to find oneself in front of a well-mannered group of intelligent young people who have questions (on English!) and who will be keeping you on your toes, grammar-wise.

Today I ask them to debate, and the topic catches fire. They become animated and involved in quick-fire exchanges once the main points have been presented. There is real thought. There is humour. We would appear, if I’m not very much mistaken, to be having fun.

They have shifted up a cognitive gear – they are working in English, not on it, and I get to sit back a little – a near spectator – and watch as the language swoops and dips its way around the room like a swift, etching little swirls and flourishes around our heads and filling the air with its phosphorescent fonts. Inscribing itself on their minds.

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  1. really funny. I taught little kids in costa rica years ago, and learned from that experience, rich as it was, that I didn’t want to go into teaching in elementry schools. ever.

  2. I hear you! I used to be a primary school teacher in a past life in the UK. Definitely feeling outnumbered, definitely wondering why I was bothering…and then there were those really special moments where the kids came into their own. At times like this, I even allowed myself, ‘I taught them how to do this,’ moments. 🙂

    • I’m definitely not a natural when it come to the younger ones and the director knows not to even consider me for the toddlers; it’s all colouring pens and sparkle in there. My idea of a living hell…

  3. People write about climbing Mt. Everest or swimming with sharks, but I think teaching a class of children must be somehow even more challenging, even more brave. I’m terrified of having just one child to advise (my own someday)! Kudos (and a great read!)

    • It’s pretty tough at times and that surprised me, but although it can be very stressful in the moment I tend not to take the stress home with me as I have with other jobs in the past, so I like it for that.

  4. you are a good, good person! i couldn’t do what you do every day. your love & patience will surely show through!! bless you!!!

  5. A nice way to end a day dealing with shouting nine year olds — watching and listening to the older students interact. Must seem like a pleasure after dealing with the younger ones. I don’t think I could do it – I admire you for it! You’re right — when you’re outnumbered, they are in charge!

  6. Just think how much you are helping them develop – just think how much they are helping you develop! Home for a beer I reckon!

  7. I related to this post having taught English to children in S. Korea and Thailand. I had one group of boys that kept saying something to me in Korean which I didn’t understand so I just nodded my head to try to get them settled so that we could focus on English. I never understood why they found this so amusing until it came out that they were asking me questions like “Are you a prostitute?” to which I nodded my head not knowing what I was responding to. I think the teachers learn as much as the students do, especially when teaching in a foreign environment.

  8. Oh boy. This reads chillingly true. I used to dread it. But then, as you say, they get a bit older as you teach through the evening – and you can start to build up a rapport with them. But the nine year olds…. why the shouting? Why all the shouting??

  9. This is hilarious ! Loved reading this 🙂

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