Kinya, 9th grade

My school occupies the back half of a grammar school, the basement and third floors only. The teachers at the grammar school lock their nice warm bathroom on the third floor, so we dash down to the unheated basement every time we need to use the bathroom. Coming down the stairs yesterday, I was stopped by Kinya, a 9th grader I haven’t seen in my class for at least a month.
“Госпожа, why am I failing your class?”
“Because you never come to class. I haven’t seen you in over a month.”
“But, can’t you give me a 3 [the equivalent of a D, the lowest possible passing grade]?”
“How can I give you a 3 if you don’t do anything, if you never even come to class?”
“I come to class!”
“No, you don’t.”
“A few classes I’ve missed, but-”
“No, you’ve only come to a few classes. Listen, I almost never give homework. All you have to do is come to class and participate, and you don’t do that. That’s why you’re failing.”
“Well, sometimes I just don’t come to school!”
“And why?”
“Because it bores me.”

This conversation was going nowhere and I needed to use the bathroom. I left Kinya on the stairwell. Her classmate, Biserka was with her. As I came back up the stairs, Kinya entreated me with different tactic.

“Ms. D___! I didn’t mean that English class was boring! I meant that other classes were boring!”
“It doesn’t make a difference what’s boring. I don’t have any problem with you thinking English class is boring. If you don’t come to class, you will fail.”
Biserka was sitting on the stairs, laughing at Kinya’s desperation and her predicament. As I passed her I asked,
“What’s so funny Biserka? You’re failing too.”

How did I feel leaving them there? The vice director overheard us, and gave me a “You sure showed them!” little smirk as we passed on the stairs. And for a moment I was pleased that I could verbally smite teenagers на български, and tried to fool myself into thinking I’d just taught these girls an important lesson about consequences.

But I reached the top of the stairs deflated, because the truth is that Kinya is right. School is boring. And not in the character-building way that it should be, but in a maddening, wall-hitting way. Teachers write cryptic exercises on the board and students listlessly copy them into notebooks, with no explanation, synthesis or discussion, their notes never to be studied or even glanced at ever again. Every so often the teacher demands to see the inside of the notebooks, and the kids who bother to bring them open them up to reveal pages and pages of this copywork, each student’s notebook identical. When I ask students to produce English words or sentences on their own, without copying them from the board, they write a pseudo-phonetic gobbledygook of Latin and Cyrillic letters, still unable to distinguish individual English words after illegedly studying the language for eight years.
The end of my first term as a teacher approaches and I face the possibility of failing at least a third of my students. Some of them are merely names on the attendance roster, people I have never seen before, who may be married or enrolled in another school. Like Kinya, many of them seem bewildered by what I expect from them, which is nothing more than attendance, punctuality and a good attitude. Others, like Biserka, have no idea they even are failing and don’t seem to care in any case. On one hand, I glibly pass out 2’s, telling myself that high schoolers have plenty of personal responsibility, and it’s up to them to pass or fail a class.
But I’m haunted by the other meaning of the verb “to fail,” because to fail a student means not just to write them a failing grade, but to fail as a teacher to engage them.


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10 responses to “Kinya, 9th grade

  1. Brian

    When it comes to teaching in Bulgaria (for most of us anyway), real failure only occurs when we stop trying. Everything else just reveals our character. Hang in there and keep experimenting. I’m sure the kids who want to learn English are thankful for your presence. Those who aren’t interested in learning English can still learn from the example you set even if you “teach” them nothing.

  2. The truth I was awaiting to hear you wrote in your final words. Circumstance is huge, but ultimately it’s how committed can a teacher be and to what lengths does that commitment reach?
    You are a good, considerate and thoughtful person, Huelo, and I’m sure you are working at all of this with great strength. Don’t get discouraged! Love you.

  3. Martyn Dunn

    I just today heard on NPR about two collages in New Orleans. One had a Graduation rate of 22 percent the other had a rate of 5 percent. You will help the 40 % to move on. Its the top 10% not the top 100%. Hang in there.

  4. Obama said in his speech the other night that “If you want to serve your country become a teacher”. I taught a few things and it is hard. It’s a life long learning curve I guess. It sounds like you are doing so great though in difficult situations- maybe you can mix teaching some knitting while teaching them english.

  5. ayshe

    No, you do not fail as a teacher, don’t blame yourself.
    I don’t think the reason for their failing is that the school is boring, school was boring at times for me, too. And in my brother’s and sister’s school time it was even more dull – there was all that propaganda, and stupid stuff to memorize like what Lenin (Stalin, Brejnev..) said when etc…
    They are spoiled, these kids, they are left on their own and all they care about is clothes, phones, cars. Keep writing ‘2’s. : )

  6. Nice post, I totally get the school is boring thing. I wish I could bring my teachers to schools in the states so they could understand. School culture has so much to do with learning. I just try to focus on the little things at my school as the overall picture is nothing I can change in two years with no governmental power. How’ve you been doing?

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