Days Like These

As I’m nearing the end of my stay in Colombia, a lot of my time lately has been spent feeling a lump in my throat. My heart sinks when I look out the bus window and see the beautiful landscapes and mountains in the distance, when I’m laughing with my friends and realize we only have a few more weeks together before I move to a different continent, or when my students tell me “Teacher, no te vayas!” Even as I write this, I’m trying to hold back the tears.

But there are days – not even days, more like hours – when leaving seems a lot easier. Those hours are usually from 10-12 on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday when I teach my Multimedia Production group. I started working with this class after semana santa. They were brand new, just beginning their studies at SENA, which means most of them are 17. We started out with about 30 students, or apprentices as they’re called at SENA, and every few days someone would approach me at the beginning of class and inform me that they were a new student, until we reached 36.

The classroom, which had started out being a little small for 30 students became ridiculously small for 36. The fact that there are only 4 tiny tables to use as desks helps free up a little space but makes it necessary for most students to sit cross-legged and use their knee as a desk whenever they have to take notes or do a writing activity. “A teacher should always be moving around the classroom,” they say. It’s easier said than done in this case, because I end up zigzagging my way through a maze of squished-together chairs, trying to squeeze in between shoulders and hop over feet, and I do my best to get to the back of the room without bumping into 10 students along the way.

And then there’s the heat. Armenia’s been having some hot spells lately, and the branch of SENA that I work in is lacking in ventilation. “Welcome to the sauna, teacher!” the security guard has joked when unlocking my classroom for me. We have an oscillating fan and a tiny air conditioner (which blows the cool air at the students, while the hot air comes blowing out the opposite end right towards my desk). The apprentices, who are required to wear uniforms of dark blue slacks and long-sleeve button-down blouses most days, and are packed in the classroom shoulder-to-shoulde,r unsurprisingly find it difficult to stay engaged. I don’t want to teach in that horrible classroom any more than they want to learn there, and I find it difficult to not get irritable and frustrated as I’m sweating through my instructor lab coat.

All of the students are great people on an individual basis, but as a group they drive me to drink. Colombian classrooms in general are more noisy than American classrooms. If you’re in a college class in the U.S. and there are 35 students, you can expect near silence when the professor is explaining something. Maybe some quiet whispers, but nothing more. At SENA, if you encounter near silence in a room of 35 apprentices, you should check for a gas leak. It just doesn’t happen. Neither does partial silence for the most part. With this class, and with the class of 36 I had last year, I just keep pushing through the lesson, doing my best to keep the room from descending into complete chaos, and hope that at least some of the students are getting some kind of educational value out of what we’re doing. I tell a student to take their headphones out, and 5 minutes later, they’re back in their ears again, I tell one group of students to stop talking and pay attention, and meanwhile 3 more loud side conversations have sprung up, I give the class a talk about respect and listening while myself and others are talking, I stress the value of the education they’re getting, I remind them that they’re adults now, that this isn’t high school, they’re training to enter the workforce and this kind of behavior isn’t going to help them get a job or keep one. They sit quietly for a few minutes, looking ashamed and promising to get their act together, and within half an hour, they’ve completely forgotten ever having had the conversation and it’s back to their old ways.

I leave the classroom feeling like I’ve just fought a two-hour battle and lost. It’s hard to feel like a confident teacher when this experience is repeated 4 times a week. Certain things help me hang in there, like hearing from fellow teachers who are having the same problems in their classrooms or going to my afternoon Digital Animation class of 17 students who are always engaged in the lesson, ready to participate, and even do the disciplining for me by yelling at each other to quiet down and “pay attention to Teacher” when the noise level starts to get too high. While listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath on audiobook the other day, there was a chapter about ideal classroom sizes, and when they said something to the effect of “a class of 30 students is difficult for any teacher to manage,” I felt a little better knowing that it wasn’t just me.

In Bogota, we had various training workshops. One of them was about discipline, another was about teaching with a lack of resources, another was managing large classrooms, and another was teaching multi-level groups (since SENA has obnoxiously decided that students who enter in a certain area of study should be grouped together from the beginning and will take ALL classes together, even if that means that students who speak fluent English are in the same class as students who have never taken an English class before). A more accurate theme for orientation should have been “How to keep your sanity and avoid throat-punching your students one by one while teaching gigantic multi-level groups of teenagers who are incapable of shutting their mouths for more than 2 seconds in tiny, boiling rooms with very few resources.” Because why should we sugarcoat it?

I commented to my roommate yesterday that one of the therapeutic effects of going to Conversation Club every week is that a lot of my Multimedia Production students go, too (because I bribed them with the reward of getting out of doing an oral exam if they go 3 times), and seeing them outside of the classroom reminds me that they are not evil human beings at all, but are actually a lot of fun. In the same way, the ones that attend have the opportunity to see that I’m not always the giant bitch that I have to be during class. I’ve joked that if someone from my Multimedia Production class ever sat in on my Digital Animation class, they would wonder who kidnapped me and replaced me with a nicer, more fun clone. I’m a completely different person with that class, because it’s not the constant struggle to keep them under control. Instead, we can do fun activities without worrying about things getting out of hand. Sometimes I even let things get out of hand just because my Digital Animation class tends to break out into arguments about topics that I find really interesting, so I just sit back and listen – like when they were discussing military service in Colombia or when we were learning vocabulary for professions, and an intense discussion broke out at the mention of park rangers (apparently a much more heated topic in Colombia). I can let things like that happen with them, because I know that all I have to do is raise my hand and say “Let’s get back to work” and the conversation will immediately die down and everyone will be ready to move on.

If only that were the case with every class at SENA, but unfortunately it’s not. And so I count down the days until I can walk out of that classroom for the last time, and hopefully I will have at least a few shreds of sanity remaining when I do.

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