Some things don’t change

Shreya Prabhu Jindal

As I race through the first months of my seventh year as a middle school English teacher (and why does every academic year seem to zoom by so quickly?), I am finally beginning to feel like I know what I’m doing. When I think about how long it took to feel this way, I am often grateful that I didn’t know how hard it was going to be, or I would have probably run screaming during those first, crazy years. Even now, there are lessons that don’t go well and days when I want to tear my hair out, as I suspect there always will be. However, on most days, I enjoy my job and love my kids. I certainly can’t imagine doing anything else!

In the past six years, I have been lucky enough to teach in a wide variety of cultural contexts. I started out my career teaching in a CBSE school in Delhi, and since then have also taught at local and international schools in the U.S., China and most recently, Mexico. When I post about my experiences on Facebook, people always react with amazement and admiration, as if my lifestyle of constant movement and travel is very cool. To some extent, I can understand why it seems that way. I know that I am hard to keep track of because of how often my phone number changes. There are days when I see the bright, intricately futuristic skyline of Shanghai or the tall, craggy mountains of Monterrey that I am reminded of how lucky I am to be having these experiences.

And yet, my life is not half as exciting as most people seem to think it is. I still get up at 6:30 am every morning and spend most of my days interacting with kids who have not even hit their teen years. I still sit through endless meetings, spend hours formatting documents, and even longer hours wincing at atrocious grammar and spelling mistakes while grading papers. I talk about kids with other teachers in the staffroom, hang out with teachers on the weekend, and spend inordinate amounts of time decorating bulletin boards and planning seating charts. These things have been a constant at every school I have taught, regardless of country or location. So I sometimes feel like a fraud, because in all the important ways, my life is exactly the same as it has always been since that first year of teaching.

Of course, every country and every school’s student population is different, which has kept things endlessly interesting. At the risk of perpetuating stereotypes, there are some fundamental cultural differences which make teaching in every country a unique experience. This became particularly evident to me recently when I graded my Mexican students’ short stories.

After reading hundreds of short stories by various kids over the years, it takes a lot to surprise me, but I was struck by the sheer amount of dialogue and conversation in their writing. My most frequently used comment on their assignments was, “You need to add narration and explain what is happening in your story. Everything cannot be dialogue!”

In China, where I had been teaching for the two years before this, it was the exact opposite. I had to spend time and effort teaching students to add dialogue to their stories and cut down on long stretches of narration. It was the same with my Indian students – in fact, until I taught in Mexico, I was beginning to think that writing good dialogue was one of those things that all middle school students struggled with. But Mexican students are known for being warm, social and chatty, so it should not have surprised me that writing dialogue was an evident strength in almost all of their stories.

This entire incident strikes me as a funny illustration of the cultural difference between China and Mexico. In my school in Shanghai, the entire focus – even for middle school, which is generally less academically stressful than high school – was on grades, academic rigor and how to get those As. I even had the bizarre experience of a few students accusing me of not assigning them enough homework, probably for the first and last time in my teaching career.

In Mexico, on the other hand, the entire student culture is focused on being with one’s friends and building strong relationships with teachers. If students are able to have fun, talk to their friends while they work, and know that their teachers love them, they thrive. They love singing and dancing, and I have learned that the fastest way to win their hearts is by singing songs about pronouns, figures of speech and other English related things. I have also learned (the hard way) that complete silence in a Mexican classroom is rarer than unicorns and should be treated as a precious gift when it occurs.

Ultimately, though, these differences, however marked and profound they may seem, are superficial ones. My experience has shown me that kids will always be kids, whether Indian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Mexican or American. My Asian students in Shanghai loved the chance to play games and have fun in class, just like my Indian students did and my Mexican students do. My Asian students might not have spontaneously broken out in song and dance on a regular basis, but they still loved to move around and talk to their friends, as I suspect most kids do.

In every class I have ever taught, regardless of country or culture, some things will never change. Middle school students still cry at the drop of a hat. They still fall out with their friends dramatically over the smallest of issues. There will always be the mean girls who exclude the other girls, and there will always be that one student who cannot stop talking even if I put him with the quietest, calmest student in the room. And even in the most talkative of classes, there will always be one or two kids who will never, ever raise their hands or say a word in class, no matter how hard I try to encourage them to answer my questions. In the end, I find it comforting to know that despite the life of change and transition that I have chosen, some things will always stay the same.

The author is a novelist and an English teacher. She currently works and lives in Monterrey, Mexico. She can be reached at [email protected].

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