The Culture of Your Class Remains the Same
Over winter break, I had the privilege of teaching in Beijing, China. I was working for a company called Delight and Diligence Center and students attended an academic camp, taking a single course from 9am to 4pm for 7 straight days. I was teaching an Academic Writing course with the end goal being that students would write a developed essay analyzing the book The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells. It was a pretty intense course as these were 5th and 6th graders, they had to read the entire book in five days, and English was not their primary language. Needless to say, this was going to be a challenge, but then again it was a challenge program.
When I came into the Beijing airport, nearly everything was in a form of writing of which I did not recognize. Then I was taken to a hotel where no one at the front desk understood me. And when I had my first meal, there was a lot I could not fully recognize and thus was not necessarily comfortable consuming. To say I was out of my comfort zone was a serious understatement, but the second I stepped foot in my empty classroom, I instantly felt at ease. The desks looked familiar; the board was at the front of the room where I was used to it, and there were posters on the walls inspiring learning. Even though I was several thousands of miles from my school, it was like I was in the next room over. I could not control the unfamiliar environment around me, but this was an environment I could control.
The next day was my first with the class, 18 Chinese students with varying abilities. Some of them spoke and wrote English better than my students back in the states. Others were difficult to understand and could only write in very basic sentences. Out of the 18 students, it was split pretty evenly between boys and girls, and much like middle schoolers in the US, the girls sat at tables together while the boys only sat with one another. 7 of these boys I would come to learn all came from the same school and knew one another. This meant I was not going to have the awkward unfamiliarity that kept students quiet and focused the first couple of days. These students were coming into the room, pushing one another, teasing each other, and not able to keep their hands to themselves. My classroom management skills were going to be put to the test these 7 days.
I have been in administration for the past five years, meaning that I have not had my own classroom. Sure, I work with students from various buildings in my district in enrichment clubs, but they are not as formal as most classes, and much like a grandparent, I showed the kids all sorts of shiny things, got them riled up, and then left them with their parents (in this case their regular classroom teachers). I got to be that grandparent that got to say yes all of the time instead of the parent who was forced to say no more often than not. Being back in a full-fledged classroom, even for 7 days, was going to be like using muscles in your body that you used to use all the time but have not engaged in years; I knew I was going to be sore at the end of the day.
I recall when I was a regular classroom teacher, that first week of school being very exhausting. I had used the summer to recharge my battery and had gotten quite adept at doing nothing and just relaxing. That first week back, having to stand on your feet for the majority of the day, engage with students, and otherwise not having a moment to yourself, I would go home and take long naps in order to survive. After the first day of class in China, combined with the 14-hour flight and the 13 hour time difference, I went back to my room barely able to move my arms. This was around 5:00 in the afternoon, and I laid in my bed, telling myself I would rest for a moment before figuring out what to do for dinner that evening. Next thing I knew, I opened my eyes and it was 3 am. My body had made a decision that my brain had been unable to do for itself.
The very next day I was still tired, I had developed some flu-like symptoms, and my students were definitely testing me, seeing exactly what they could get away with. Because of my frame of mind, my first instinct was to sternly discipline and to make sure I wasn’t taking my eyes off them for more than a minute or so. This, of course, is an even more exhausting way to teach. By the end of day 3, I was not sure I was going to be able to make it through the week, both physically or mentally. I slowly over the course of the next couple of days reverted back to my own style of classroom management I used for years, having private conversations with students instead of calling them out, subtly managing their seating choices so that those children who were combustible with one another could not light the spark, and engaging students in the learning so that they focused on that rather than using idle hands to do the devil’s work. Days 4-7 went so much better, and I felt like students were learning rather than me teaching them.
It takes a good 5 to 7 years to develop classroom culture techniques that are both effective and align with your philosophies of teaching. Your first reaction when you start teaching is to start yelling and demanding students listen to you. Then you learn to calm down and manage the classroom in a more organic manner that both you and the students are comfortable with. That is the culture of your classroom. What I really learned that week teaching in Beijing is that no matter who the kids are, no matter how long you have been out of practice, and no matter how tired or sick you are, you have to create a culture where kids can be kids while at the same time giving them cause to want to engage in the learning. The culture is created by yourself and your students and does not have to reflect the culture outside of the classroom. Classroom culture is universal.