The relativity of “success”
Today marks the beginning of the end of my time as an English teacher in Sumatra, Indonesia. In my first grade classes I gave my final English assessment today. I also held my final advanced adult ESL class for the national teachers with whom I teach. I will still be at school on Monday for a farewell party with my students, but today I finished my lessons and calculated my final grades. And with these events came a very strong feeling of completion.
Helping today to feel more exciting, than sad, is the fact that I have very tangible evidence of the improvements that my students have made in the last 10 months. Across the board, my students have all achieved higher scores than during their first semester. More importantly though, my once quiet and unsure students are now confident chatter boxes, using English even in interactions with friends outside of class! Creativity with language and self-expression is through the roof, I’m even seeing students insert humor into their writing (it is often said that humor is the most difficult thing to understand as a non-native speaker of a language). And in the last two months I have seen a vast improvement in their understanding of sentence structure and in their handwriting.
As I look back on my time with my first graders, I can say that I now fully understand the idea of success being relative. This morning I nervously checked the semester assessment of one student who had been struggling but trying VERY hard. When he arrived in the middle of our first semester he spoke a little English but his comprehension, writing and reading were all at a junior kindergarten level.
During our second semester he has been working very hard and has always had an infectiously positive attitude toward his learning. As of this morning he was a mere 1% away from achieving the 65% he needed to have a passing grade for the written portion of his English grade (something he did not achieve first semester). I literally held my breath as I inserted his assessment score into my spreadsheet, praying that his score would be enough. My eyes welled up as the number in the “final grade” box popped up. He had passed! He had been successful.
For some, a 65% might feel like failure, but for this student, it will be a fantastic success and I am truly proud of the work that he has done. Below you will find one of my favorite clips about being a teacher. It’s from Def Poetry Slam and features a teacher-turned-slam-poet-turned-motivational-speaker named Taylor Mali. I love many of the statements he makes about “what a teacher makes” but one of my favorites is the following:
“I can make a C+ feel like a Congressional Medal of Honor and I can make an A- feel like a slap in the face. How dare you waste my time with anything less than your very best.”
It’s been my experience that every child, every learner, has different ways of being successful and as a teacher we must understand what these are while still expecting the best from our students…but always understanding that the “best” is not the same for everyone. So today, instead of dwelling on farewells, I am celebrating success. And I can’t help thinking, what an awesome way to finish my first full school year as a teacher.
What Teachers Make written and performed by Taylor Mali
(Note: he DOES use some strong language)