Saturday, April 30, 2011

Mixed-Culture Teaching (Part 4)

So given the fairly unorthodox way I came to the teaching profession, what did my teaching career look like? How long did I teach, and did I actually teach kindergarten as planned?

The answer isn’t a simpler yes, or no, or a number. I did teach kindergarten, the two years in the States and four years at the mission school in South America. I loved it. Teaching in a mission school has some interesting twists—such as having behavior problems with a five-year-old in morning class and then playing volley ball next to his father at 5:00. Parent-teacher conferences were interesting. That first year I went to Linda’s class for a conference on my first-grader’s progress, and she came to me for one on her kindergartener’s. That happened several times over the years with different students and different fellow teachers.

I faced a couple of cultural adjustments I didn’t expect and have never forgotten. I still remember my shock when the principal came into my classroom to remove the American flag. Yes, he acknowledged, we were mostly Americans, but we were guests in a foreign country. Someone had realized it was not appropriate to fly the American flag in our classrooms—and I soon understood that.

Another shock that lingers is when parents of one of my five-year-olds objected to a Halloween song I was teaching the kids. I don’t remember the song now, but it was a very common one, undoubtedly about spirits or something spooky. The parents objected because out in the jungle village where they worked to translate the Bible, evil spirits and spooky things were not make-believe. I complied, but it took a bit longer before I fully understood. I’ve come a long way in my feelings about Halloween since then, and I have a completely different perspective now.

Even mission schools within the same organization can come to different conclusions about school matters. Though we were both in the tropics, our school did not have all the same practices as our counterpart two countries over. While they allowed students to come to class in bare feet (often standard attire in the tropics), our school decreed that they wear shoes. I have fond memories of those rubbery sandal-type shoes we bought locally down there. In rainy season one could hardly arrive anywhere without muddy feet—so we would just turn on an outdoor faucet, stick one foot after the other under it, and continue on our way with clean feet and shoes.

The atmosphere and relationships at a mission center are usually informal and close. Children become much more attached to adults than they would in their home country and often use the terms “Aunt” and “Uncle” with first names. In the school referred to above, students were allowed to use those same appellations with first names for their teachers, but those setting policy in the early days of our school felt it would be important for discipline and lines of authority for students to use titles of address, like Mr. or Mrs., when in school. (Outside of school, of course, they could use any term they wanted.)

This became especially interesting when a teacher had her own child in her class. This happened a couple of times in third and fourth grades, and yes, the eight or nine year old referred to his or her mother as Mrs. Whatever. A side story on this in my next installment. What happened when my son ended up in my class?

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