Reflections on my teaching practice
During my first year as a teacher, I experienced my first informal educational moment with a student. I was not yet an International Baccalaureate (IB) Spanish teacher but I was helping a few IB students after class. They wanted to review poems, theory, and strategies to deal successfully with the oral examination. In the IB Diploma Programme, any Language A1 course has an oral assessment equivalent to 15% of their final mark. I knew pretty well the format and the challenges of this particular assessment because of my own experience as an IB student. The test itself is not hard: the student receives one random poem or prose fragment already studied in class. They have twenty minutes to read, analyze, and organize their presentation. Immediately after the prep time, the student sits down with the teacher and delivers a fifteen minute oral presentation. The presentation is recorded, and the teacher can guide or help the student with questions. The assessment is not difficult; however, the format terrifies many students.
As I was saying, I was helping a few of the IB students a few weeks prior to this test. Even though they had mock tests and they had practiced quite a bit, they felt anxious as the test date was approaching. One afternoon, while I was marking some papers in my classroom, one of those students knocked at my door. She was heading to her oral test, and she wanted me to wish her luck. I remember clearly that I said, “I can wish you success, but with all you know, you don’t need luck!”. She left my class fully confident.
IB and student suffering
Not long after, while I was packing and getting ready to go home, the same student rushed into my classroom quite upset. As soon as I asked what it was, she burst into tears. Even though I was not formally her teacher, I felt responsible for her distress. I asked her what was wrong, and she mumbled and sobbed while telling me how she felt really confident about the assessment, and how happy she was when she realized the poem she got was exactly the one that she studied and liked the most. She kept crying deeply when she told me how organized her presentation was, how she had every idea planned and justified. Suddenly, anger replaced her sadness, and she made a long pause. Then she just said: “And when I sat down in front of that mic, I just went blank”. Then, she resumed her suffering.
I felt mortified. Even though this student was not in any of my classes, we had bonded through extracurricular activities. We discovered we had common interests, like short stories, movies, and video games. She found in me an adult who acknowledged her interests and passions, and I connected with a student who reminded me of myself: a sensitive kid in a world that demands toughness. And even though we did not have a formalized teacher/student relationship, I realized that at that moment I needed to be her teacher, not a friend or her family. I realized that by confronting me with her sadness and disappointment, she was looking to me not only for comfort; she was also trying to make sense of the world after that particular experience.
I was not sure how to handle an eighteen-year-old girl crying in my classroom at 5pm. I only reacted when she composed herself, saying: “Sorry for the intrusion, sir. I’m so embarrassed, I’ve never cried in front of a teacher before.” I asked her, “So, where do you usually cry after an experience like this?” She explained that she always cried alone.
I told her the story of my own experience as an IB student. I was the best student in Spanish, and everybody knew I wanted to study literature the following year, so the expectation on me was high. I told her how I epically failed the same oral test, and how that led me to be obsessed with public speaking for the next few years of my life. I shared with her a personal story of failure. In retrospect, I wanted to show her that her own suffering was shared by others. Afterwards, I let her talk more about her test and, finally, she stopped crying. When she was leaving, she told me, “Sorry sir, I’m sure I can do better than that”. Her words shocked me, and I just answered, “I am the one who is sorry, for not being able to help you realize that one test won’t make me think less or more about you”.
New year, new challenges, new suffering
During the next year, I was a full-fledged IB teacher, in the same classroom with the microphone, recording one of my new students. I remember clearly how much I hated that test as a teacher. I understood how the students feared the oral exam, but I am not sure if they realized that for them, it was but one horrible experience, while for me, it was twenty terrifying experiences every year.
During my fourth year as an IB teacher, I witnessed a student shake and stutter during that test. He was a good student, intelligent, creative, and passionate about literature. However, he lacked the self-confidence and performative personality that a test like this requires. I was expecting a poor performance from him, not because of his qualities, but because of the logistics of the assessment: microphones, recording machines, lots of pressure. However, I never expected the experience to be that uncomfortable. He was clearly losing it, and there was nothing I could do because of the conditions of the test. Those were the fifteen longest minutes of my professional life. In the end, he apologized and left quickly, before I could say anything. It was clear to me that he felt deeply embarrassed and humiliated. I knew he respected me a lot, and it was clear that he realized my reaction to the awkwardness of his presentation. He left without looking at my face, and I felt ashamed of my inability to help.
Both students eventually did well in their IB examinations. Both are now studying at prestigious universities. Both contact me from time to time, asking for advice or simply to say hello. During the graduation ceremony of the first student, she approached me to say farewell. She thanked me profoundly and gave me a present. She said, “I heard you hate gifts, but here”. It was a beautiful book about a graphic novel that I loved and that I recommended to her. I said that it was not necessary, that I was not even one of her teachers, the ones who spent the last two years supporting her with the IB burdens. She just said, “This is a thank you gift, not because of lessons or classes, just because you let me cry in front of you without making me feel uncomfortable, and because of that I didn’t feel bad about myself anymore, so thank you”. I still carry the book around, because it reminds me of the importance of making myself responsible for the suffering of others.