Learning, living and loss

I’ve been thinking about this post for a while.

I’ve been trying to work out the connection between thoughts that have been floating around in my mind, sometimes coming up to the surface for closer examination and sometimes sinking back down to the depths until something stirs them up again.

Today I had a conversation with a friend about how hard it can be to weave together many strands of thought into one coherent piece, and he said, “Just say it like that.  Like you just told me.”  So I’m going to give it a go.

This year has been tough for me, not least of all because I lost my two remaining grandparents within a few months of each other.  Without getting too personal, suffice it to say that we were close and the pain of their absence is still felt every day.

Death and life are intertwined, of course.  Even just on a practical everyday level, trying to continue my normal (working) life in the wake of these significant deaths meant finding a way to deal with very private loss in a very public way.

As teachers, we often find ourselves centre-stage.  So it’s hard to keep our heads down and just quietly get on with our work when in other spheres of life we’re having a difficult time.  Working closely with other people all day every day, establishing and maintaining rapport, really listening to them, identifying and addressing their needs, tracking their progress, giving them personal feedback, helping them feel happy and comfortable in an unfamiliar environment–in short, developing strong personal connections with people in sensitive conditions–is hard, and particularly poignant when you yourself are experiencing extreme emotional upheaval.

Somewhere in the complexity of mourning, I began thinking about the conditions of teachers like me, in a place like London, where busy language schools typically take students on by ‘continuous enrolment’.  For those who don’t know, this means that new students can start any Monday they choose and finish any Friday they choose, their course lasting as many weeks as they are prepared to pay for.  As a result, class composition is unstable and unpredictable.

The upshot of this system is that teachers have no reliable way of knowing who they’ll be teaching from one week to the next.  Students arrive; teachers get to know them; hopefully everybody learns something; students leave.  Every week.  Ad infinitum.

My recent melancholia has increased my awareness of the darker side of these circumstances.  To wit, every single week, I experience loss.  I forge close, caring relationships with the people I find in my classroom–and then they go.  I rarely hear from them again.

Of course, there is a silver lining to this cloud: for one thing, the job is never dull with so many interesting people crossing my path every day.  I effectively get to travel the world vicariously by having so many cultures visit me instead of vice versa.  Nevertheless, this constant state of flux is undeniably draining.

The fact is, teachers working in a continuous enrolment context are doing something as a matter of course which is remarkable and yet sad, and as I’ve come to appreciate this more profoundly this year, I’ve begun to realise how often it’s overlooked.

Teachers who greet new students every Monday, engage them on a very personal level, take a genuine interest in their needs and goals, then wave goodbye to them on Friday, ready to usher in the next wave a couple of days later–these teachers are amazingly resilient.  Their capacity to care, to motivate, to guide, to coach, to support, is stretched every week potentially to the point of exhaustion, and yet they keep turning up on Monday to start afresh.

I’ve been very touched this past year by the sympathetic responses I’ve had from people who heard I’d lost my grandparents; and of course when we ‘lose’ students, the pain is not as great, the memories not as emotive, the bonds broken less strong to start with.

But how often do we stop to reflect on these other, smaller, more frequent losses that so many of us experience every week?  To consider the effects these have on the teachers who sustain them?  To appreciate and applaud their tenacity?  To encourage sufficient breaks for rest and recuperation?

On that note, I’m now on holiday until 2015…

'Going it alone' by Ian James for #eltpics

‘Going it alone’ by Ian James for #eltpics

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About Laura Patsko

Senior ELT Research Manager for a major publisher. Alter egos: English language teacher, language learner, teacher trainer, linguist. Not necessarily in that order.

4 comments

  1. Laura, that is exactly how I felt when I was in Newcastle, but never managed to express it quite so well. I always really pleased when you got students who stayed more than a few weeks, long enough for you to build up a real bond with them, although that often made their leaving even harder. This is one of the reasons I like facebook – it makes the break/loss feel slightly less final. In the case of the real loss of my grandad, facebook regularly reminds me of him, which can sometimes be a good thing, and sometimes bad. As we both face this first Christmas without such important people, I’m thinking of you and sending you a huge hug.
    Lots of love,
    Sandy

    • Hi Sandy, sorry for the slow reply! I hope your Christmas was OK and you enjoyed some quality time with the family who are still with you – always good to mourn our losses then focus on the living. 🙂
      Here’s to a happier 2015!
      Laura

  2. Katy Simpson

    I know exactly what you’re saying. In many ways I enjoyed burying myself in the classroom during difficult periods, but it takes so much out of you that there’s little energy left for your own healing. I thought the point about continuous enrolment was an excellent one. Sadly my current school is even worse as it’s effectively a ‘drop in’ system for adult classes, with students signing up for class up to 10 minutes before it starts! They pay for a set number of classes and then they can choose the day / time / teacher, mixing and matching as much as they like. Although you do see the same faces on and off, you never know when, and the class dynamic isn’t the same as a regular course because you never have exactly the same people. It’s like continuous enrolment every class, and makes me realise that although it was tiring to be so invested in students previously, that connection was also what made this job so special.

    • Wow, I hadn’t realised that! New students every day?! Crazy. I understand why language schools don’t want to turn paying customers away, but there is a limit to what language development can really be achieved when there’s no means of managing progression and continuity. I don’t know how you cope with that system – I thought weekly continuous enrolment was bad enough!

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