Students of life



Lessons in the classroom can often be a two-way process.

“MIKE check!”
“ONE TWO, ONE TWO!”

I borrowed that from my team leader, who uses that to get the attention of his students. I find it fun to use, and I suspect my students find it fun to respond to.

I've just entered the classroom for my poetry workshop, the seventh session in five months. The government-funded program has been designed to encourage better English-speaking skills amongst the participants, who are mostly Chinese-educated secondary school students.

It has been challenging, considering how incredibly shy and soft-spoken most of my students are, and that the program schedule has been sporadic. Sometimes I don't see my students for a month, but I make the best out of whatever time I get with them. Little by little, I have seen them come out of their shells.

“Today, we are going to play something called Do You Want To Know A Secret.” I announce as the first activity. “Take out your notebooks, and reveal something you've never told anyone before. Don't write your name. When you're done, tear it out of your book, fold it twice, and put it into this basket.”

A lot of them are very anxious, and start twittering to one another. It's a large risk that I have not yet taken with them. But I have only 2 more classes with them after this one, and I've decided that they are ready.

The fourteen young teenagers gingerly put pen to paper. The basket is passed around, shaken up, and passed back to me.

“Now, each of you will take one piece of paper out and read it to everyone else. Whatever is said will stay in this room.”

I saw some faces drain completely of blood.

One by one, they come up to the front and read a secret. Some of them are not very revealing, and some of them are just jokes. But the occasional dark, real secret hushes the students.

As we move on from one activity to another, Xiao Han comes up to me at some point. He's the dominant personality in my class, wisecracking and verging on audacious, the one who keeps me on my feet.

“Teacher Davina, can I talk a bit more to everyone later? I want to talk more about today's poem.”

I had made my students write three misconceptions about themselves.

“As long as we have time before class ends, of course.”

I make sure there is. I'm curious to know what he has to say.

Ten minutes before I excuse my students, I sit them down on the floor in a circle, and allow Xiao Han to speak.

“I want to say that people think that I am quite a strict prefect. But actually, I like to have fun, and I like to sing a lot too. My best friend knows this. Also, people think that I am happy all the time, but actually, my grandmother died a few years ago. It made me very depressed. I couldn't focus on anything at school. So I had to repeat my year. After that, I made sure I studied. I studied so, so hard. And then I got 5 As. I just want to say life can be very hard sometimes. So it is important to work hard. And always do your best.”

Xiao Han ends with a shrug.

As the applause for him dies down, I try to gather my thoughts. It is difficult, when feeling overwhelmed gets in the way.

“This is exactly what I hope out of all of you. Here is my secret: I'm not here to teach you about speaking better English. I'm here to teach you to be honest and open to each other, and most importantly, to yourselves. Only then can you build the confidence to speak better English."

I bite my bottom lip.

“I have another secret. The other teachers in this program tell me how great their classes are doing. It has made me think, “Am I doing anything wrong? What are they doing that I am not? Am I not being a good enough teacher?” But what Xiao Han just said has finally given me a sign that I'm on the right track with you. And it means a lot."

Most of my students keep their eyes fixated on the floor the while I am speaking, but at this point, Some of them shoot me a glance. They are too shy to smile, but I can see it in their eyes ... especially Xiao Han. Today, he has kept me on my toes in a very unexpected way.

“This might be the only time we will meet in our lives," I conclude. "I'm learning from you as much as you are learning from me. So let's learn as much as we can from each other, okay?”

My students nod intently. Class is over, and we all rise from the floor. There is a subdued brightness in the room, one I have never previously felt in our time together. I sense it as we put our hands together for an end-of-class team chant, even as I wish the kids goodbye one by one. And it tells me that the final hours we'll have left together after today will be awesome.

> The views expressed are entirely the writer's own.

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