This is not necessarily a post about Donostia but it is about a huge part of my everyday life here so I suppose it’s about time to post about my students.
“I couldn’t leave without saying goodbye to my Irish mother,” said a 20 year old to me as he left my school in Dublin last year. I was 23 at the time. The hysterical laughter of my colleague echoed from the staff room.
This is my life. I collect students and their problems and their ups-and-downs and I take on everything they’re going through and I’m interested in their lives and their stories and I enjoy it. It’s one of the reasons why I love my job. It’s one of the reasons why I’m frequently drained of energy. It’s one of the reasons why I’m doing this years after I was supposed to “figure out what I’m doing with the rest of my life.” Not gonna lie guys, I think this is it.
I have always been the counselor. It’s a role I’m accustomed to and generally it’s where I’m known to perform best. It is what I hope makes me good at my job and so I’ve accepted the responsibilities that come with it. When I started teaching, I noticed that for once in my life, this aspect of my personality was bringing me up rather than down. Instead of dwelling on the sadness of the problems of others, I could offer some constructive advice and see rewarding results. However it did also lead to people crying on me.
Evidently I experienced some relatively minor incidents in Dublin as I only had fully-grown adults under my wing but now as I mark almost five months in the Basque Country working with its young adults and kids, I’ve begun to realise that I’ve fallen into the trap of letting this lot in. It was Parent’s Day on Friday and I had one translator who remarked upon how I was quite emotional about my students and I had this moment of confusion about whether they meant the remark in a positive or negative way. I find it hard to comprehend how anyone could spend intense time with anyone a few times per week and not be somewhat concerned about their welfare after listening to what they say in class or what they’ve written in their compositions. I think that this particular person was not trying to patronize me but it has brought to my mind the attitude that does exist among some teachers that you should distance yourself from students and not get involved. Getting involved is genetic and possibly my middle name and I’ve grown to accept that when faced with this type of mindset, I will usually crush right through it in one violent force of empathy.
I see the teens and kids I meet here as little reflections of the future and honestly what I’m seeing isn’t great. I see creative, gifted kids who are bursting with promise and on medication for hyperactivity. I see supremely mature and together teenagers who are surprised when they laugh in class, ask me if new expressions are useful for the C.A.E. and miss lesson after lesson because of crippling, mysterious “headaches.” I’ve experienced one extremely bubbly and happy fifteen year old let slip during a speaking assessment that her friend had “fallen” off something high and died a few years ago. And all of this worries me.
What I’ve seen of the educational system in Spain is far from impressive. There are the smart kids who are trying to carve their path to university. but it is a path that doesn’t end with “here’s everything you’re looking for” but a giant “what next?” and they are not prepared to face that. I see depression, anxiety and headaches that could continue until someone can’t take it anymore. I see pill after pill being swallowed to stifle something pervasive that lurks under all of this and finally I just have to say..what is the point? What is the point of killing yourself slowly with stress and anxiety to be the best?
I met one parent Friday and my concerns were slightly mistranslated and she reacted to what she thought was an attack on her son’s attendance but what was actually some concern on my part about how his health was and what I could do to alleviate the pressure he’s under. I don’t think it even crossed her mind that I wouldn’t be piling more pressure on. I met others who explained that there were 26 students in their child’s English class in school and I wondered whether the teacher even had time to say hello in English class never mind getting the kids to speak or listen to them, hear what they’re saying.
Sometimes I look at myself in the mirror before a parent comes to speak to me and I wonder what they see when they see me. Someone who’s too young, with eyeliner smudged under her eyes, breaking out from stress and wearing a frayed jacket. I wonder if it shows on my face that I go to sleep to late after watching crappy T.V. , binge drink on the weekends and have a secret love of Justin Bieber’s “new stuff.” I have a pirate telescope sitting on my desk for Christ’s sake, what position am I in to offer any guidance whatsoever? Then I think about the best teachers I ever had in school and how the number one thing that inspired me about them was that they listened and got excited for me or told me what I was best at.
I have to say that my parents have been the source of my frustration on more than one occasion but in no way have they ever made me feel that I needed to prove that I was better than any one else like some do to their children here. On no day during my final year of school did they refuse me a “Mental Health Day.” Under no circumstances would they have forked out for extra lessons in any subject unless I asked for them.
I think there should only be one question asked of someone when they get their exam results.
“Did you do your best?”
There are many reasons not to offer yourself as someone who is approachable. However the reasons to do so are far stronger. It’s quite possible that if you listen to these students or read between the lines, you will hear or read something that they have never said to anyone else. Something significant. In Dublin, myself and colleagues frequently listened to stories about exam stress, war-torn countries, homesickness, illness, pregnancy, miscarriages and coming out. I always wonder who would have listened to these stories if we hadn’t been there in a position of trust. Secondly, while admittedly, there are some stubborn characters in my classes, in general my students are the ones that help me shake a bad day or distract me from something that I can’t get off my mind with their comments, ridiculous speaking errors or stupid questions (Yes. They exist).
“Can I make the question- is Johnny Depp deep?”
“Can we sing to relax instead of practising for the FCE orals?”
” I think people can drive as dangerously drunk or smoked.”
If I can offer them something in return for my amusement I’m happy to do so. No I’m not rich yet and I’ll probably never be rich when in this exact position, but I’ve survived and I’m happy and relatively healthy. I’d like to think that’s what my students will prioritize in the future but I have my doubts.