Live and Learn

I made my student Thanh cry. I've made a lot of mistakes in my teaching practice, but that moment still hurts, and it's one I share with my students regularly.

It was my second year of teaching at a middle school in Oakland, and we had 2 new students from Vietnam, Thanh and Mei. It was hard for them because there were no other Vietnamese students in the school, and everything about the language and the culture was brand new. But they were hard-working and determined and they learned English quickly. I remember that year they were like my shadow, popping in to my room during passing period, coming to class early, staying after school to help me arrange books, file papers, create new bulletin boards

One day after school I was talking to Thanh, asking her a question. It wasn't anything particularly important, but I remember exactly where we were standing, her in front of me, just at waist level, the afternoon sun pouring in through the big windows. I was asking her a question and I couldn't hear her reply, as she was looking down at the floor. I asked her again and she replied, a bit louder, still looking down. So I said, "Thanh, look at  me. I'm asking you a question." When she looked up she had tears streaming down her cheeks. It wasn't the question that was making her cry, it was that in her culture children never look adults in the eye. So she was feeling conflicted about how to show me respect as the teacher. She was physically experiencing culture shock. Looking me directly at such a close distance, from her perspective, was inappropriate. I figured out my mistake pretty quickly and I think maybe even I started to cry a little. Luckily, children are very forgiving. By the next day we were back in harmony. And I really learned something.

 Selfie with my global mix of students, caroling in December. Photo by me.

Selfie with my global mix of students, caroling in December. Photo by me.

Those first few years teaching were a steep learning curve. There were so many different cultures I was learning about; classroom culture, faculty lounge culture, inner city Oakland culture, and the Cambodian, Mexican, Philippino and Vietnamese cultures of my students' families. The environment where I. teach now, at a community college in San Francisco, is quite different, and my students are adults, from 18 to 88, navigating life in a new city, some alone, some with an American spouse, some with American kids, some with American grandkids. Some work in nail salons and restaurant kitchens, others own a bakery, and others practice medicine or engineering. What they have in common is the exploration of a new language and a new culture and the mystery of how things are done away from home. I share my story of Thanh and how we can easily offend or confuse one another by our expectations of what is polite or respectful. We spend a lot of class time talking about their experiences, their joys and their occasional sorrows. I love when they bring in questions about American behavior, and we try to unpack what is rude and what is polite across cultures.

The most important thing I have learned from my students is that language learners are very observant. And so I try to be as consistently encouraging as possible, smiling, laughing, giving high fives, moving gently through the room. And I now observe a lot more about what's comfortable for them, in how they sit, how they write, how they interact with one another, how they ask me questions. I'm pretty sure I make a new mistake each day. But Thanh was the last student I ever made cry.

 Selfie with my student Ksenia on Halloween last year.

Selfie with my student Ksenia on Halloween last year.

(By the way, Thanh went on to graduate high school with honors and study at UC Berkeley.)

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