The students’ favorite game at the school at Sapa O’Chau is called “guns.” My initial horror at this spectacle has cooled a bit since my first day, so I’m glad I waited to write about it. I still really hate it, but I’m trying to think about it in the larger context of pedagogy. Trying, I said, trying. Here’s how the game works: Students form a circle and make two-finger guns; the teacher stands in the center and fires at a single student. Either he says one word and is seeking the antonym, or he says a letter of the alphabet and is asking for the sound it makes. Up, down, P, puh, and so on (and on and on). The student who is fired upon has to duck and the two on either side of her fire their guns on each other as they answer. You can be dead either for not ducking fast enough or by getting shot by the other student if you are too slow to answer or answer incorrectly (teacher makes head exploding gesture and sound). My fellow volunteer teachers are in their twenties and thirties, and the oldest student in the room is probably twenty-eight, so none of them have any recollection of war in this country. But, I do, and I am damn sure not about to aim finger guns at any Vietnamese person, even if it has pedagogical value. The peace I am trying to get to with this game is that I won’t say anything about it, but I refuse to play. But I’m not sure whether it’s just the game I object to or the way the lead teacher, P, did it.
If I know one thing from 30 years of teaching – and today I’m not at all sure I even know one thing – is that you teach the way you teach; you can watch another teacher at her best and say to yourself, I need to be that good, but you can’t say, I need to be like her. P is a cult of personality teacher; he is the center of attention, the great white male god of literacy, and demands absolute obedience and compliance with his rules. I don’t want to be this kind of teacher, and I worry that it may be what’s required here. I get more worried about what’s driving P’s cargo cult pedagogy when I learn that he has a local H’mong girlfriend who barely speaks English. Maybe I just am a crazy judgmental old woman, but I do not understand this. Was she a student? How are other students supposed to regard her now? How can he not only maintain, but flaunt his authority under those circumstances. How can he look into a room full of students and see potential lovers? What do they talk about? Does he teach her everything?
I also wonder how he can sustain the level of energy that his version of teaching requires. It’s not that I’m jealous of it, exactly, but I am suspicious of it. This may be something like the way it feels for career teachers to have an impossible perky Teach-for-America volunteer come into their school for a limited time, utterly convinced of her ability to change the world one child and one elite liberal arts degree at a time. It may be that I’m lazy and old, but I think of real teaching as a sustained and mutually respectful engagement. But, to be fair, this kind of teaching is different, and he’s been at it much longer than I have. They love him, and it seems to work. Su loves him too with his great white Dead Poets’ Society standing-on-a-chair routines, but it’s not me. When I was a new teacher, I also wanted to be loved and worshiped, but I never cared – and do not care about – obedience like that. I also used to think I would just naturally be loved and worshiped; I never thought I had to inspire or cultivate those things. I was wrong of course. Both because being loved and worshiped has nothing to do with good teaching and because they did not naturally love me.
There’s a lot less shouting with P gone this week, on holiday in Bangkok with his girlfriend, but that doesn’t mean that other peoples’ pedagogies aren’t something to be negotiated, which I am definitely not used to. Where I work, I teach my way and my colleagues teach their ways, and there is almost never and meeting of the twains. This experience at Sapa O’Chau gives me a glimpse of how complex a personal and professional interaction collaborative teaching is. Today I got scolded by J, who has taken over the lead teaching role in P’s absence. She is every inch the school-teacher, and also probably much better at her job than I am, but, man, as we used to say in 6th grade, she is strict. And, apparently missing the human gene for humor. And possibly, also, good sense. When class convenes in the mornings and afternoons, there is a song and an interminable calling of the roll. She, like P. insists on absolute silence and demand that students put pens down. She wants me to take the pens away from students who are writing when they should be listening to the roll, but I won’t do it. Is this not a literacy project? I will never take a pen out of the hand of a young person denied formal schooling straining after the magic of writing. When she allows them to pick-up their pens again, it is to write down all the words to Old MacDonald or the Hokey-Pokey, because, really, it’s very important to know how to spell ee-i-ee-i-o, apparently, and to be absolutely silent when you do so. I’m probably wrong again, and there is a pedagogical purpose to this, but I can’t see it.
The afternoon session today began a little raggedy because it had just started to rain and people were straggling in and contending with raincoats and umbrellas. The room is impossibly crowded and stuffy and hot, and – oh, dear god, no, are those coals in the fireplace that I have to stand in front of to teach? Is it possible to drown in your own sweat? Will I actually make a puddle on the floor? I’m a little prickly about all of this, and try to have a quick chat with my two assistant teachers, one of whom is on her first day, about the afternoon’s lesson plan, when I suddenly realize that J is standing there with the roster in her hand, giving me that unmistakable fake-smile teacher-glare that says, “when you’re finished talking with your neighbor, the rest of us can resume this very important business of roll-calling and transcribing Old MacDonald lyrics.” “Oh, sorry,” I blurt, and she actually says, “we’ll wait.” Part of me wanted to take her at her word and just keep talking, but instead I swore under my breath and went outside in the rain, fuming like a 6th grader. I regrouped, and the lesson went well, but the students are clearly both tired and fidgety, and by the day’s closing convocation, Miss J has met her match with students shrieking and poking at each other and running around like crazy. It’s the end of the day, and I would have just told them “good job” and sent them home. But, no: She insists they form the circle the exact way she wants it and demands complete silence for that silly game of guns. She doesn’t get it, however, and an ominous rumble persists, like the temblors that portend an earthquake. Sure enough, all hell breaks loose, and children are running for the door. Then she calls on me to go “watch” the door. In all seriousness, I ask her what does she mean by that? Make sure no one gets hurt in the crush? No, she means bar the door and prevent students from leaving, this despite the fact that the punishment for talking is always having to go outside, via the door. Maybe I should challenge them to a recitation of Old Macdonald before they can leave. Seriously, we all have to wait while she stands in the middle of the room with her hands in the air until everyone shuts up, which takes about 30 seconds short of head-exploding intolerable. Then all she says is “see you tomorrow.” For real? I don’t have children of my own, and I don’t usually work with children, but even I could catch the vibe in the room, and knew that imposing that kind of order without compromise was an exercise in control and not pedagogy. But, again, I’m probably wrong. I’m sure she’s pissed at me. Having written this and vented, I pledge just to keep my mouth shut tomorrow and do my job the best way I know how.
And, if I know a second thing about teaching after all these years, it’s that literacy learning at any level is messy and noisy and non-linear and, at its best, always deeply social. It needs talk.