The Lion Who Escaped from the Zoo

Every day, I come home and share with Jesse the charming things my students said. For example . . .

Fourth grade boy: “My house has a bedroom, a living room, a chicken . . . I mean kitchen . . .”

Kindergarten girl while tugging on my sleeve: “Ma HAPPY BIRTHDAY!” (Ma is “today” in Hungarian.  She was communicating that “Today is my birthday.”)

Kindergarten boy on entering the classroom: “Biscuits!”

How awesome is it that a student loves a word so much and is so excited about learning English that he just starts spewing vocabulary as soon as he comes into the classroom?

The kindergartners also love to chant “One, two, cha, cha, CHA!”  I should get video footage of them doing the cha cha slide.

Unfortunately, my students frequently say some not-so-charming things.  At the end of the day, I play these over and over in my head, and try to think how I can better respond to such situations in the future.

For example, one kindergarten boy always tells another boy that his picture is “csunya,” or ugly.  The boy he insults is honestly a little crayon challenged, but he’s doing the best he can.  With our limited common vocabulary, all I can do is say, “That’s not nice!  The picture is nagyon szép (very beautiful)!”

I am most troubled by the comments my high school students make.  I know that teenagers are genetically programmed to say and do inappropriate things, and that my role as teacher is to provide consequences when this happens.  I have to create a safe learning environment.  Some days this is really hard.

For example, last week a student was reading a story aloud and said, “The lion killed all the gypsies and became a national hero.”

My introvert instincts kicked in.  I was shocked and horrified, but I couldn’t immediately respond.  I needed time to think.  I needed peace and quiet, not a room full of squirmy adolescents.  I wish I had a remote control so that I could push a button and pause my students.  That hasn’t been invented yet, so we moved on with the lesson.

I left the classroom feeling horrible and frustrated with myself for not addressing the comment.

Later that day, when my tenth graders made fun of the homeless, gypsies, drug users, victims of sexual assault, as well as another student, I stopped class and addressed their choice of subjects.  This was a story about a lion that escaped from the zoo, for goodness sake.

I gave them a lecture about choosing different topics for humor.  I pointed out that homeless people died in the recent cold spell, gypsies are poor and have hard lives, and drug users suffer and die because of their addictions, etc.  None of those are things to laugh about.  I wish we’d had time for a dialogue instead of a lecture.  At least I communicated that they’d crossed a line.  Some of them rolled their eyes, of course, but hopefully next time they will choose their words more carefully.

(If I were a doctor, I would research why the onset of puberty causes teenage eyeballs to come loose.  I’m surprised they don’t fall out and roll all over the classroom floor.)

Teaching is a roller coaster.  I left that lesson feeling very low.  I am just here to teach English conversation, but showing compassion to other’s is an important life skill.  It’s also very hard to teach.  Some would say impossible.

I draw inspiration from one of my own teachers, a sociology-anthropology professor I had in college.  She exuded passion, calm, and kindness.  She challenged us to reflect on our beliefs and our worldview.  We not only examined our ideas, but we adjusted them.  I would like to help my students do the same.

Yesterday, my lesson with the tenth graders went well.  I passed out coloring pages (including scenes from Cinderella, Spider Man, Ninja Turtles, and Sponge Bob Square Pants).  Partner A had to describe the picture to Partner B, who drew the picture.

Not only does this group have a surplus of hyperactive boys, but in the past few months three of them started dating girls who are also in the class.  This is mildly nauseating to witness, and causes them to get distracted during the lesson.

Luckily, “Zsolt’s” girlfriend was absent yesterday.  Zsolt is about six foot tall and spends a lot of time weight lifting.  He also spends a lot of time putting gel in his hair every morning so that it stands up at the perfect angle.  He is a good English speaker but is rarely engaged in my lesson.

This is what I overheard as he worked with “Patrik”:

“There is a pig in the lower middle part of the paper.”  He beckoned me over.  “What is this?  I don’t know how to say this in English.”

“Fence,” I told him.

“There is a fence around the house. . .”

Meanwhile, Patrik laboriously sketched the pig, the fence, and the wolf in the lower right corner of the page.  They worked intently for fifteen minutes, barely glancing at their buddies behind them (who were off task) except to ask them how to say something in English.

At the end of the lesson, I asked the students when they might encounter terms such as “lower right” and “upper middle” in real life.  They thought for a second, and then said:

  • At the dentist’s office when the dentist is telling his assistant which tooth to remove
  • At an art gallery
  • In a math lesson
  • When talking about a map

One week ended on a low, and the next week ended on a high.

After a good lesson, I feel as great as if I just ran five miles.  On days when I get that feeling, I know that I am in the right profession.


Filed under Language, Teaching

6 responses to “The Lion Who Escaped from the Zoo

  1. Madhu

    You are doing great work Scarlett, don’t lose heart 🙂

  2. Cindy

    As a fellow educator, i can so relate to your ups and downs, at least in relation to how a lesson seems to go over. I had to laugh at your comment, and wondered how this would translate into Hungarian:
    (If I were a doctor, I would research why the onset of puberty causes teenage eyeballs to come loose. I’m surprised they don’t fall out and roll all over the classroom floor.) BaHahahahaha! Keep your chin up and thanks always for sharing. Hugs across the ocean.

  3. Galev

    Maybe you could incorporate J.K. Rowling’s commencement speech at Harvard to one of your lessons with that problematic class. The second part of it, she talks about why it is important to empathize with people in worse circumstances. She is a celebrated British youth author, so I think it would be both appropriate and interesting. And it is available in video and text as well.

    But that’s just an idea that popped into my head.

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