10 Lessons I Learned as a New Teacher

During Fall term, I had the opportunity to teach six classes simultaneously, my largest course load yet. As one can imagine, this gave me many chances to screw up!

Here are the lessons I learned this term:

1. Control your emotions. I had the most difficult teaching moment of my life a few weeks ago when a student said something in class that completely shocked me. I made the mistake of letting my emotions get the better of me. Next time, I will stay calm and either: 1) ask questions designed to encourage the student to think critically, or 2) move on. Teachable moments are great, but not all moments are teachable.

2. Seek the light in your students. Immediately after the aforementioned experience, I was tempted to view my students in a different way. However, a close friend advised me to “always seek the light” in your students. To me, this meant that, no matter their personal beliefs, I should always give my students the benefit of the doubt and treat them as individuals in their own right.

3. Manage class time effectively. Every moment of class time is precious. For me, it has been helpful not only to estimate in advance how long an activity will take but to also alter the time spent on each activity during class based on how students are responding. Is this too easy for them? Do they need more practice? Are they bored? It’s good to be mindful of these things.

4. Integrate writing into each lesson. I have been using composition books in all of my classes. However, I made the mistake of not using them enough. I did an average of 4-5 writing activities in each of my classes, when I should have done twice as many.  Next time, I will integrate timed free writing practice into each lesson. By giving students a time limit, I will ensure that their writing does not take up too much class time.

5. Be mindful of the learning objective. I like to give my students activities that allow them to be creative and have fun while using English. However, at times, I focused so much on creativity that I lost sight of the learning objective! Each activity should have a purpose. If this purpose is not aligned with the learning objectives of the course, then the activity should be scrapped.

6. Ask students about their learning styles. At one point during a class, I had a substitute teacher fill in for me while I was attending a wedding in the States. As soon as the substitute walked in, my students launched into a tirade about my teaching: I did not use worksheets like other teachers, nor did I put enough emphasis on learning new vocabulary. Further, some students complained that I did not write down the homework answers, grammar or new vocabulary words on the board. These complaints were a surprise to me, and I am lucky that the substitute teacher relayed them to me personally. On my first day back, I gave the students a short survey so they could tell me what they liked and didn’t like about the class. Fortunately, I was able to alter my teaching style to suit their needs. I could have avoided the complaints altogether if I had given them such an assessment earlier in the term.

7. Plan the entire term in advance. I needlessly rushed through the material near the end of term for several of my classes, not realizing that we actually had extra class time that I had not accounted for! I could have avoided this if I had properly annotated all hours of class time in my calendar.

8. Know when to be the teacher. In one instance, an entire class refused to take a quiz, telling me that they were not ready. I gave in and rescheduled the quiz. However, when the same thing happened again in the same class, I knew that I needed to respond differently. I called my teacher mentor and asked her what I should do. “Give them the answers,” she said. “What?!” I had never heard of such a thing. It seemed counterproductive. However, she explained that students in Morocco were accustomed to learning by memorization. She said that by reading the entire quiz to them out loud, giving them the answers, and then giving them a fresh copy of the quiz to complete at home, I would not only be exposing them to both listening and reading of the material that they needed to master, but I would regain control of the class. I did exactly as she said, and it worked.

9. Warm-ups are essential. There were several times this term when I felt that my class was dragging along. This was especially true for my Beginning Adult English class, which met on Fridays at 3:00pm, when my students were in a carb coma after their Friday couscous. For this class, I found that using strategically-placed warm ups (at the beginning of class and after the 15-minute break), games and communicative activities (especially those featuring movement) helped “wake up” my students and ensure that they were engaged in the lessons.

10. Expect the unexpected. It is no secret that lessons often do not go as planned. Therefore, it has been helpful to me to plan extra games in case we have additional class time and bring extra worksheets just in case students need more practice. Further, carrying blank slips of paper is a great idea, as they can be used by students to write and then practice orally what they have learned with their classmates.

I am grateful for these lessons learned, and I hope that they will be useful to you too!

The Most Difficult Teaching Moment of My Life

I had the most difficult teaching moment of my life on Tuesday. When I posed a warm-up question to the class: “If you could have dinner with any person in the world (alive or dead), who would it be?”, the first student I called on answered “Hitler.” When I brought up the 12 million people he murdered, another student said that “they deserved to die.” I was shocked and heartbroken to hear this. Moreover, I was disappointed that none of my students spoke out against what she had said.

Yet, there was a small hint of understanding – after class, one student insisted on erasing the board for me, a sign of respect. Another student invited me to a scholarship presentation ceremony that his NGO (Association Mohammed VI) was running. I later found out that he intended to honor me as a surprise by having me award one student with a merit scholarship!

Today, when I saw the class again, I proceeded with the lesson as my normal, cheery self. After class, three students told me that I was their “favorite teacher,” and one even apologized for what that student had said during the previous class. Another student offered to drive me home.

Though there is darkness in the world, I remain inspired and invigorated by the kindness of the people I meet. I remain focused on becoming a strong teacher and giving 110% to my students!


What I Learned About Headscarves

After leaving the hammam (bathhouse), the matron put a scarf over my wet hair so I wouldn’t catch a cold. In the west, headscarves have a strong religious and political connotation. However, in Morocco, they are ubiquitous and serve many purposes: from shielding a lady from a sandstorm to adding a cute accessory to finish off an outfit.

While walking home with my scarf on, I ran into my neighbors, the bakery ladies, who see me almost everyday. Even though I never wear a scarf, they recognized me instantly. I was worried I would have to explain myself, but they didn’t comment on the scarf at all. I gathered it wasn’t such a big deal after all: scarf or no scarf, I’m still me.

What I Learned From Witnessing a Muslim Animal Sacrifice

“Teacher? How do we say-” Unable to use English words, my student slid her finger across her throat to mimic a killing motion. I responded promptly by writing the phrase “slaughter the sheep” on the board. I had done so countless times for students in the three Beginning English classes I taught in Oujda, Morocco between June and September.

I had started teaching during Ramadan, the holy month which culminates in Eid al Fitr, or small Eid. Now, the summer season was reaching a spiritual crescendo: big Eid was upon us.

“There will be no class from Monday to Wednesday. Happy Eid al Adha!” I said this to my students as the bell rang. Throughout the summer, my students, in their holiday-themed drawings, essays and presentations, had explained to me what occurs on Eid al Adha. Each family purchases, slaughters, cooks and eats an entire sheep. This of course was unheard of in South Florida, where I come from. However, I came here with the objective of learning and adapting to another culture, so my mind was open.

I dismissed my students on Wednesday night, excited for what was to come. I had been invited to my neighbor’s house the following day for the Eid celebrations. She told me to meet her early at 10:00am, which I gathered meant that I was to witness the sacrifice firsthand.

That morning, I arrived promptly at 10:00 am outside my neighbor’s bakery, where I thought we had agreed to meet. However, there was no one there to meet me. Had there been a misunderstanding? Probably. After all, my command of Moroccan Arabic was disjointed at best. In place of the words I didn’t know, I mimed or used other words to awkwardly describe what I wanted to say. I used the phrase “Ma afhamsh” (Moroccan Arabic for “I do not understand”) quite often.

I waited for 20 minutes. After that, I decided to give her a call. But there was no credit on my phone! Beginning to feel anxious, I walked along the road, looking for someone who could lend me their phone to make a call. Thankfully, I found Mohammed, my teenage neighbor, whose father owned a convenience store I shopped at regularly. Mohammed kindly allowed me to put credit on my phone, even though the store was closed – and he didn’t even let me pay for it! Then, he led me into the garage, where I found his entire family.

They were delighted to see me. The mother of the house, Fatiha, kissed me warmly on both cheeks, as did the 8-year-old daughter, Kouthar. It was almost as if they had been expecting me. But of course, they weren’t. It must have been the excitement of the holiday, the tradition of welcoming guests to share the meat of the sacrifice, or just plain old Moroccan hospitality. Whatever it was, I was grateful to have a home to spend the holiday.

I sat on a stool as I was instructed and began to survey my surroundings. Omar, the father, was busy removing the organs from the sheep’s carcass, which was hanging by its feet from a hook on the wall. The head had already been severed, a bloodied stump in its place. The skin and hide lay in a pile on the street, soon to be picked up by a street cart that existed for that sole purpose. There was a portable grill on the floor, which the kids were filling with coal to prepare for cooking.

I didn’t know how I would react to such a sight. However, I can report that my most prominent impression of the scene was one of peace. As mother and children watched their father toil over the sheep’s carcass, there was an air of overwhelming joy and reverence in the room. Everyone seemed proud to share this experience with me. It was almost like Christmas morning – except instead of opening presents under a tree, they slaughtered a sheep!

Later during the meal, one of the four children, Kouthar, showed me pictures on her phone that she had taken when the sheep was alive. In the pictures, she stood with the sheep, hugging it and caressing its fur, as if it were a beloved pet. Yet as she showed me its photos, she munched happily on small pieces of its liver and heart!

This seemed incongruent. Perhaps she was not emotionally attached to the animal, as we were to our pets in the west. Or was she? Was eating the animal just another way to connect with it, in the most intimate yet carnal of ways?
The purpose of the Eid sacrifice is to commemorate Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Ishmael. At the last moment, God intervened, telling him to spare his son and sacrifice an animal instead. The animal sacrifice symbolized Abraham’s devotion to the one and only God, and perhaps also the preeminence of humans over animals.

Kouthar was clearly aware of the sheep’s place in the circle of life. She was aware of its connectedness to her family – that through its death, she and her family could thrive. I wonder, do western, non-rural children know that the meat they are eating was once a living being with a heart and soul? Do they accept that through its sacrifice, we thrive? Do they understand that one day we too will perish, and our remains will nourish other living things?

By growing up with the Eid al Adha sacrifice, kids learn a valuable lesson about our connectedness to the natural world. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt for western kids to take a step outside their homes and classrooms and experience something like an Eid al Adha sacrifice. Could they come away from it scarred? Maybe. But they might learn something.