As a high school teacher, I’m well-versed in the language of dramatic, anxious, hormone-fuelled teenagers. I’m good with a bitch-fight, a punch-on, overdue assignments, Autism, back-chatting, difficulties with mums and dads and I can do a scary teacher glare like nobody’s business.
So it’s safe to say, I was kind of apprehensive today, before taking a class of 6 and 7 year olds who are essentially at the preschool level of learning English as a second language. I was filling in for someone who could give anyone on Playschool a run for their money. I have seen this woman in action and she is a no-nonsense Mary Poppins-type.
Me on the other hand… I teach big kids. I dish out some sarcasm with my text response essay teaching. I like to humour my students with stories of what my cat did and they ask me things like, “why do my parents pressure me to go into medicine when really I want to be a feminist icon in the media?” I can answer questions like that in a balanced and intellectual-but-caring manner.
Six and seven year old ESL students, on the other hand, want a stamp for good work and they want it on their hands. They ask, “does Australia start with ‘o’?” They ask if they can watch the YouTube video of Hickory Dickory Dock again, and they get their alphabet muddled up. “W is near the end of the alphabet, <insert Hungarian name here>…” To get them to sit on the carpet with their legs crossed, apparently it’s the done thing to say, “criss cross apple sauce!” in a slightly Americanised teacher voice and they all sit there with their hands in the air repeating it back to me.
*raises one cynical eyebrow*
Revising the months of the year and the days of the week, I must admit, was cuteness personified. You can hear their Hungarian sounds spilling out as they try to master June and July and instead it comes out as Yooneh and Yooli. English is a particularly tricky language for those whose mother tongue is 99.9% phonetic.
To explain my name (which was written on the board) I had to say, “because English is a silly language, when you see ‘p’ and ‘h’ together, they make the ‘f’ sound. So my name is S-T-E-P-H but we should think of it as S-T-E-F.” I left the correct spelling on the board, because, well, the F irks me. So I got called Miss Step-h by a few adorable little mites.
The regular teacher of these kids has trained them so well that they actually broke out in song spontaneously during an exercise on the letter S.
“What’s the name of this letter?” I asked, holding up a large foam ‘S’.
“Ess,” they chorus.
“And what sound does it make?”
“Ss, ss, ss, ss, ss,” they hiss, like snakes.
“What are some words starting with S?” I ask. Hands shoot up.
Sandwiches! Silly! Sat! Sang! Sing! Soup! Sausages!
At the mention of sausages, they start singing and doing all the actions to “Five fat sausages, sizzling in a pan. One went pop! and the other went bang!” and so on, until they count down to zero and do some more cute actions and then applaud themselves and wriggle around like puppies.
My eyes went wide. Such reckless abandon, unbridled fun and innocence, singing as a group in class. I would love to hear some year 9s do this. *snort*
We read aloud, we watched Hickory Dickory Dock on YouTube (I wasn’t going to sing! Who are you kidding?!), we did join the dots, we coloured in (and then I realised they weren’t learning much English by colouring in the mouse who went up the clock, but hey, it was fun), we put the months of the year in order, we sang our ABCs and we did some CVC words. These, I learned, are Consonant Vowel Consonant words. M-A-T, C-A-T, S-I-T, L-O-G… you get the idea.
What occurred to me, during all this, is that teaching is teaching, regardless of the age of the kids or your background as a teacher. It’s not the subject matter that really matters (whilst that is really important, don’t get me wrong) but if you can’t relate to kids and build a relationship with them quick smart, then they’re not going to learn much. And if that means I have to sing nursery rhymes about Mother Goose, while I feel like Mother Goose with a hangover, then that’s what I’ll do. Because actually, it’s pretty fun.