Nine-tenths of education is encouragement.
This year I taught ninth grade English at Yap High School. It has proven to be very different than teaching tenth grade. The change to teaching ninth grade came this last summer when a fellow teacher and friend of mine asked if he could teach tenth grade this year, allowing him to follow his then ninth graders to the next grade. I saw no problem with this. My friend is a trained teacher, and I was sure he could tackle tenth grade a little more gracefully than I.
The change in grades also came with a perk for me: a much nicer classroom. My new classroom (number 12) is just up a small hill from my previous room. Being perched on top of this slope allows access to the very desirable breeze. This provides a much cooler room. It’s amazing how much being hot and uncomfortable affects both learning and teaching. I rarely had to battle with the afternoon classes about it being too hot to do anything other than put their heads on their desks or sprawl out on the tile floor and to rest. I was able to focus easily and was also able to venture away from my beloved fan for longer stretches, and help students individually instead of summoning them to my desk so that I could be cooler and have clearer thoughts.
Room 12 has linoleum tile floors in a lovely shade of dark green and has 30 matching desks with attached chairs, the same style I sat in during my own high school years. The year began with clean white walls and desks that were, and are still shockingly, graffiti free. I had a bulletin board in the back of the room and two cabinets where the textbooks and other supplies were housed. At the beginning of the year one of these cabinets was able to be locked, but somehow a student managed to break the locking mechanism sometime during second quarter. I am sure they were disappointed when they got it open and found grammar work books, a stack of large white paper, and all the books that came with the room that I had chosen not to use. I had larger white boards that came in handy numerous times while lecturing.
Not only was the classroom different, but man-o-man, were the kids different. It is amazing what a difference a year makes in maturity and knowledge! I remember saying the first week of school, “They are so tiny!” There was also a lot more drama, being that this was their first year in high school. Just as in the States, there are many middle schools that feed students into the high school. Coming to the high school is the first time many of these kids have met, and this often causes conflict. There seems to be more crying, more fights, more turf wars, more rebellion, and more hormones!
The average age of the students was 14-15, but I did have a few older “retained” students who are trying ninth grade for the second, third, and even fourth time. Being the only public high school on Yap, if a student registers they have to enroll them. This includes students who year after year cannot or will not follow the rules and are expelled for a variety of reasons - the most common being fighting, general misbehavior,drugs and alcohol violations, and attendance issues. On Yap students are only required (by law) to attend school until they are 15, so I don’t always understand why these students who clearly don’t want to be at school keep coming back every year, only to be expelled for their actions. It becomes difficult as the age gap between the student and teachers is decreased at the same time that their attitude and desire for learning decreases. These students tried my patience daily, and I was glad when most of them were finally gone for the year, only to likely return again next year where this dance will continue.
This increase in drama has allowed me to stretch my counseling muscles here and there. At the beginning of the year I informed all my students that I was a mental health counselor in the States, and that if they ever need someone to talk to, I was there for them. I worked hard to cultivate meaningful relationships with as many students as possible. I gained their trust, and treated them well. It is amazing how they responded positively to this. It is not usual to express feelings in Yapese culture, especially to an outsider. But this year there were many kids that just needed someone to talk to about “stuff”! I had pep-talks with many who needed a little extra encouragement. I listened to break-up stories, and guided them towards academics and away from bad influences. I held them accountable for their actions. Because of this I felt much more connected to my students this year. I just cared more. This made me a better teacher.
This year I implemented a daily journal in my class. As a warm-up each day the students came to my class and grabbed their journal and responded for ten minutes (if I was lucky) to the topic I provided on the board. These topics ranged from fun to serious. I asked them what super power they would choose, but also the saddest moment in their lives. Occasionally I would use a topic just because I was curious what their answer would be. I ask questions like “who works harder boys or girls”. I also was given a great journal prompt from the same teacher friend that switched classes with me. It basically said, “If a visitor came to Yap and straight from the airport came to Yap High School, and then returned to the airport and left the island, what would they think about Yap?” The answers to this questions provided some interesting discussions in my classes about the way students carry themselves and the way they treat the school grounds and how this reflects on Yap. Because I wanted them to be honest in their journals, they always had the choice to write at the top of the entry “Do not read”. I did respect this, allowing them to be true to themselves and their feelings. I gave my students a safe place to appropriately express and explore themselves. This too allowed me to feel more connected with them, I knew so much more about my students after reading their journals. I understood where they came from and where they are now. This proved to be invaluable when lesson planning. I knew their interests and I knew which way to approach lessons to ensure the best reception.
Another expat teacher friend of mine hit it on the head when he said “Teaching is fifty percent prison guard and fifty percent stand-up comedy.” Everyday it was a challenge to engage my students in the lesson, and to get them to do what I asked, even if it was to stop talking while I was, one of my biggest problems. I was very animated when I was talking to the class, trying with all my might to make the topic interesting and relatable. It was difficult to keep their attention when there are so many other things they would rather be doing other than listening to me talk about the history of poetry, the writing process, or vocabulary. But I did my best, with what I had.
One exciting thing about school starting in August here is that for the first time ever in my life I had school on my birthday this year. The bad news- it was my thirtieth birthday, and it was the very first day of school! A few of my students from last year amazingly remembered my birthday and brought me nuwnuws. I did not tell my new students it was my birthday. I didn’t want to make the first day of school about me, or make them feel bad for not knowing and not bringing me a nuwnuw.
Everyday my students made me laugh and cringe. I regularly heard from many of them that my class was their favorite. I believed them. I taught them something everyday. I treated them with respect and kindness. I pushed them to stretch their creativity. I nurtured them. Not every teacher does this, not just here, but anywhere.
Of course there are the rough patches. On two occasions this year I had to have the counselor and vice principal come talk with one of my classes about respecting me. At one point, this one class was so out of control that I stormed out of the class ten minutes early. I didn’t always get the respect I feel I deserve, and have earned. I am still an outsider woman after all. They are still teenagers after all. They push, and sometimes it is too hard.
Teaching in high school is like reliving it for yourself. Every insecurity you had then comes raging back to haunt you. I saw myself in so many of these kids. I saw my friends, and my adversaries. I tried to have an open mind and sort out my “stuff” from their “stuff”. Needless to say we have all grown a little since August.
But one day in March they pushed too hard. I had been really struggling with my classes and keeping all of us, including myself, motivated until the end of the school year in May. It was a regular Tuesday, the week after Yap Day Break, similar to Spring Break in the States. The kids weren’t listening, they weren’t there to learn and I left that day feeling completely wiped out. During the previous week I had done some real soul searching about what exactly I was trying to accomplish while working at the high school. I wanted to teach them. I wanted to help them grow. But after a few too many days of feeling they wanted none of this from me, I had to ask myself what I was still doing there.
Honestly, I could barely answer the question, other than sticking it out for the handful of kids that were still trying their best. I was coming home from work everyday angry and exhausted. I was making only a few dollars an hour and working well past the forty hours a week I was paid. For what? To be disrespected and ignored by most of my students. I made the tough decision that I needed to leave my job. It was a very hard decision, but one that needed to be made.
I felt horrible for the students that were invested in learning, but I knew that I had nothing left to give them, and in turn it was taking a huge toll on me. I had to take care of myself, so I quit. I agreed to finish out the week and used the time to have the kids clean the classroom, which no longer was as nice as it was at the beginning of the year.
I told the kids that I was leaving and was pretty honest about why. I talked about how one treats others affects the other, how I wanted to help them, but was getting the message that the majority of them didn’t want my help. I told them that I was tired and that I treated them with nothing but respect and fairness, but did not get the same treatment in return. So I packed up my stuff, left the few lesson plans that I had prepared ahead of time in my desk, and turned in my keys.
I definitely was sad to leave, as I had really enjoyed the majority of my time working at the high school, especially the staff and the kids that were focused and motivated. I am not a teacher by training. And now I can cross that career off the list of possible ones to pursue with a graduate degree.
I learned so much from my time at Yap High School, not only about Yap, but also about myself. I will forever remember the experiences I had there. But as the saying goes, “put on your own oxygen mask before helping someone else with theirs”.