Teaching woes

Grades are in. My students did horribly and I am taking it personally. This is despite the fact that fellow teachers and my supervisor are telling me not to. This is despite the fact that I graded other exams that showed other classes did not fare much better. Yet, overall, those classes DID fare better. I am left feeling a little discouraged and doubting my abilities to teach English.

Mind you, I know I am a good teacher; I just don’t think I am a good English teacher. I have no idea how to teach listening skills, get students to review vocabulary, get them to read and understand articles in a language completely foreign to them. I talk to a teacher who I admire and tell her things I want to try next semester. She looks at me with a combination of concern and pity and says she’s tried all of those things before and they just don’t work (yet I know her students did better than mine, so she’s doing something right). We get them when it’s too late, she continues: they are taking their last or second to last course in English out of three years in college in addition to what they got in high school. These students simply can’t learn, she tells me in an effort to make me feel better.

In a way, her words do make me feel better. They also go against everything I believe about teaching: To me, you need to believe that every student is reachable in order to teach. Giving up on someone is not an option. Every student deserves a chance. Thing is, I have already seen firstand that many students here abuse this mentality; cheating is rampant. Dishonesty is often prioritized over trying. Case in point: the exams here are standardized across the seven-college system where I work. Apparently, a student in one of the other campuses leaked “information” about the topic of the exam essay – all it takes is a cousin from one college to text to another and the rumor mill spreads. Thing is, this information proved to be false – the essay was about a different, but related, topic. Nevertheless, half of my class wrote about this incorrect topic. So did large percentages of other classes, but mine was the highest at this location. All the campuses were impacted and a flurry of emails among those in charge debated on what to do. In the end it was decided: Those students that wrote about the incorrect topic failed the essay portion of the exam.

So I can dismiss the abysmal essay scores on something other than my incompetence. However, my students also tanked the other portions of the exam, scoring, for example, three out of twenty on the listening portion; five out of twenty in language knowledge – and that was a score from a student who I know studied. These scores were pretty typical from the performance of the class as a whole; sure most did a little better and some even did a lot better. But for the most part, the scores out of twenty for each section were in the single digits. Did I steer my students wrong? Were they doomed to fail? Would a different teacher have gotten better results from them?

I know I didn’t get them to work hard enough. I was too busy settling in, getting used to the system here and getting used to teaching English, to push. Yet still, I can’t believe these results. As I grade the exams, I scribble down all sort of ideas for next semester; now that I know what the exam looks like, I come up with things I should do in class to prepare them for passing. Maybe some will work, or maybe none will. But I know it’s almost mathematically impossible for students to do worse.

Then again, these students know what’s on the exam. They have taken at least two or three exams with this exact same format before. There are no surprises here. Only disappointment and incredulousness from me. Add to that fading hope – it’s not gone, but it’s barely there. I know it will come back as the shock of today fades, but right now I am not feeling my best.

I turn to my notebook and look at some examples of answers I took from the exams I was grading. Students needed to be able to spell “poly unsaturated fatty acids” in response to a listening question. I admit, this is a very difficult phrase, especially when you consider that these students are writing in a new alphabet, and from left to right instead of right to left as they are accustomed. Nevertheless, they have been studying at the college level for two-three years already and also studied English in secondary school. Here are some answers:

  • Poly unifed facitat acents
  • Protocol universed falting assets
  • Holy ansuration vely assume

For real. This is what I am experiencing over here. Again, I am not sure if this makes me feel better or worse.

I am left with the question: What do I do now? I know part of the answer is to try to change my teaching methods a bit. I don’t want the other part of the answer to be lower my expectations, but I fear this might have to be the case. Any words of wisdom from teachers out there are welcome. Any words of moral support from anyone are also appreciated.


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