Earlier this week, one of the English department supervisors said to me, “You look good. You look much better than you did before. Not so stressed.” You might think I’d be alarmed by how I appeared to her when I first came, but I was actually more surprised by her current assessment. “Really?” I said. “Well, at least I LOOK better.”
The fact is, it’s not an easy gig, teaching in a foreign culture. I know, I know, it sounds like never-ending culinary delights and cultural explorations, but before any of you start making arrangements to quit your jobs and follow suit, I would be remiss not to caution that, well, it has its challenges. Teaching in one’s own culture is not the easiest of jobs, and teaching in a foreign culture adds the complexity of different norms, expectations, methods, etc. While these types of differences are not new to me, with so many cultures represented in my ESL classes back home, the burden of conforming to the new culture now lies on me rather than the students.
The cultural norm that has been the biggest challenge here for me is that of classroom behavior. I’ve been teaching for over 25 years, and I feel I generally do well managing my classrooms. Here, I have far too often related to those hapless teachers portrayed in TV shows or movies. There are times when I’ve thought my classroom could be a “Can you spot the 8 things wrong in this picture?” exercise. In fairness to myself, I do see Turkish teachers struggling with some of the same issues, but regardless, the last couple of months have been a quest to figure out how to “do it right” here. Every now and then I feel that I have made a step forward, gaining ground, gaining respect, gaining control — and then I see if I can hold onto it. Getting angry with the students has had precious little effect, I’ve found. This is where an adjustment to the culture comes into play. On the whole, Turkish people are very social, communicative, and fun-loving, and believe me, you want them to like you. One of the things I’m learning, then, is to resort to humor rather than anger whenever possible.
So, when a paper airplane was launched at me last week and landed at my feet, I just stood there and stared at it wide-eyed until the offender burst out laughing and apologized. A few weeks ago, when I explained that I was going to start collecting any cell phones I saw during class, Buğra* complained very loudly that it was like being back in high school, so I turned to him and said, “Yeah, I know, right? I can’t believe it, either!” And when I asked once what had kept every student except one from doing the homework, Güven* said, “I couldn’t find my book in my room,” and I responded gravely, “Oh, my. I didn’t know you had such a situation to deal with. Did anyone else have this serious problem that Güven had, not being able to find his book in his room?” The students have their own quips, appalling though they may be: When I asked Cenk* to sit up and a minute later to read from the book, he said, “How I know what page? I am trying to sleep and you wake me up!”
With hi-jinks like these, I see a mediocre sitcom remake on the horizon.
*Names changed to protect the guilty