The photo on the left is from the worst lesson I ever taught. It may actually be the single most mortifying hour I’ve ever spent in front of a live audience and, as luck would have it, photographic evidence exists. It’s been almost four years since this picture was taken and today is the first time I’ve been able to look at it and not cringe. Almost.
I was on a month-long teaching exchange with IREX’s Teachers for Global Classrooms program. I had spent the previous week visiting classrooms around Indonesia and absorbing as much as I could about the history, culture and educational system in a place so different from where I taught high school in Colorado. A veteran of over a decade working with students, I thought I was prepared to deliver an engaging, hands-on lesson that would highlight all the 21st-century skills that were revolutionizing American schools. It didn’t go quite according to plan. By the time class was over, students were confused with the hot mess of instruction and activities I’d laid out. I was a sweaty bag of self-reproach, happy to pack my bags and head back home to a room full of students who would get my jokes. I tried not to think about it for the next four years.
Cross-cultural exchanges are messy, awkward things. The trouble is, they are an essential part of one’s personal growth. Frighteningly, they also help contribute to one’s professional development.
Back home in America, I’ve been able to avoid the awkward. Careful planning and years of experience sticking to what’s familiar cuts down on interactions that are inelegant and ungainly. With age, too, comes a sense that you can quickly respond and adapt to encounters in a given situation. Why, then, subject yourself to scenarios that leave you speechless, clumsy and longing for the familiar?
“There is no growth without productive struggle.”
This was an actual quote in my philosophy of teaching statement I had to submit as part of my job application when I first started with my school district. I believed (and still admonish) that students needed to be challenged in ways that made them have to work hard to puzzle out solutions as a part of “owning” their own learning. This means that they themselves are puzzled, confused and clumsy at first as they work towards mastery on a project or concept. This makes the eventual success authentic and the reward intrinsic. This makes a lifelong learner.
The longer I teach, the more I realize that I am the actual student.
As irony would have it, I found myself again in front of a classroom of foreign students. This time, it was on home turf as a volunteer teaching citizenship classes to the local refugee community here in Colorado. Familiar with the content, familiar with the surroundings, it was easy for me to interact and engage with the lessons and with the learners. It was not so easy for them. Awkward exchanges and moments of silence where both parties tried desperately not to offend the other were commonplace. Social and academic failures happened repeatedly. Adults who were used to holding a position of respect within their community came back each week to squeeze into tiny desks and humiliate themselves in front of others. It was the best lesson I’ve been taught in almost four years.
Eventually, you become comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Invited back to family gatherings and celebrations in which I was the only “other” meant long stretches where I had absolutely no idea what was going on. Halfway through a long, pantomimed, explanation, the realization that it was best to just let this one go came easier. Not knowing where to sit or what to say or whether you’ve just insulted someone was uncomfortable. It also made a shared joke that much funnier.
To the students in that Biology class in Cimahi, Indonesia….I’m sorry.
I wasted an hour of your time undermining what you already knew about taxonomy and the organization of living things. You, on the other hand, gave me an opportunity to be uncomfortable and live to tell about it. It has challenged me to expose myself to awkward. In doing so, I am continuously humbled. I am continuously learning. I am continuously curious.
Next month I head to India as part of a five-month teacher exchange program with Fulbright’s Distinguish Awards in Teaching. I have no doubt that things will be very awkward. I hope that no one has a camera.