A couple of weeks ago, I began working as a primary school teaching assistant in a private school in Amman. It’s early August, so as of now, I haven’t actually assisted in any teaching. However, the school carries out a month-long orientation before every semester. They go over just about everything an employee needs to know; how our contracts work, how many minutes we’re allowed to be late in the morning, how to dress appropriately for our respective positions (no denim unless you’re an art teacher, no sweats unless you teach P.E). Those sessions are more mechanical and procedural.
And then there are sessions about teaching – these are given by the actual educators in the school, the middle-aged women who pass around faqqous in the teacher’s lounge and call me ‘mama’ out of habit, for they almost all have children my age. I’ll admit, in the first few days, I felt lost.
And the feeling is only intensifying.
Teaching, apparently, is hard. It’s not about delivering a piece of information; the principal of the school gave a long speech on the first day of orientation, saying how teachers are not sources of information – especially not in 2020. Teachers are facilitators. They ‘show you where to look without telling you what to see’. On a more personal level, teachers build personalities and plant healthy habits and ways of thinking in those squishy, malleable minds of kids.
I sat in a session about classroom management with a primary school teacher who had such professionalism that it was palpable in the air. She asked each of us – the other teachers attending the session – to each say an attribute that we felt exemplified a teacher. We went around the room, one by one. Kind. Encouraging. Calm. ‘Energetic,’ I said, for my favorite teachers were always the ones who had me sitting up a little straighter in my seat. But the last person in the group said something that kind of summarized all of those terms. She said, ‘Mother.’
‘Or father,’ the teacher giving the session added.
And though I had some sort of idea about the degree of a teacher’s role before that session, I realized then how delicate of a procedure it really is – we are co-parenting these kids. The experiences they have now, in school, will affect them for the rest of their lives, whether they are aware of it or not. This is when they build their conceptions about others and, more importantly, about themselves, conceptions that will take a lifetime to unravel and replace should they turn out to be harmful.
The teacher said, ‘Tell a child they will grow up to an artist or a pilot or a prime minister, and they grow up believing they can.’ I began recalling all the times my own teachers’ words affected me. I remember my English teacher in 8th grade praising a poem I wrote about the plight of Palestinian children. She submitted it to the school newspaper, I’ll never forget that. Similarly, I remember how an art teacher in 9th grade wrinkled her nose at the way I was drawing a cat. She didn’t think it was right – she didn’t like it. It’s a moment that lasted just a second but still sticks in my mind to this day.
Clearly, I underestimated this job. Every day I go to work, the intellectual gap between me and the experienced teachers grows, and I realize with every orientation session that in the months to come, I will be doing far more learning than teaching.
I plan to keep documenting the experience, so stay tuned.
See you soon.