A guest blog post by Ebonee Johnson, Fall 2015 Rome student. Below, Ebonee shares her internship experience teaching art history and English to high school students in Italy.
After any person finds out that I am an English major, there is always one question that follows, every time, without fail. “So, are you planning on being a teacher?” I usually answer with, “You know there are other things to do with an English degree, right?” And in response to their quizzical look in regards to my apparent disdain for teaching, I usually reply with, “Because. I don’t really like kids all that much.” I’ve never really had the patience and will to deal with children. Even while watching my nephews, I tend to insist that their parents hang around, just in case. So when the opportunity to teach English at Luciano Manara High School arose, I knew that I had to jump at it. The very thought of it made me a tad nervous and uncomfortable, and so, in an effort to embody the “step outside your box” attitude that brought me to Rome in the first place, I dove in head first.
The first couple of weeks, I remained relatively comfortable, yet shaky within my personal realm. I went to Manara, smiled at the children, read to them in English, and left. The students, to their credit, were welcoming yet standoffish concurrently; they never hesitated to smile back, most of the time with slight vacancy as I asked, “Questions? Domande?,” after reading a text. Professoressa Testa, the art history teacher whose zeal and dedication to her craft and students had brought us there, quickly began to infer that she wanted and expected more of us; though I couldn’t quite figure out exactly what that something was. I wanted to improve, but I didn’t know how to make that happen.
Then, one day after class, several girls immediately surrounded Cayla (my fellow colleague) and I, and overwhelmed us with their excitement. They were about 15 years old, and they spoke and understood English better than the other students. We spoke of the Italian school system in comparison to the American one. They told us about the student demonstrations and occupations of the school that take place at least once a school year. “We’re always having money troubles. They take all the money from the art schools and give it to the science ones.” They told us how grateful they were that we had come, because they passionately wanted to learn and speak more English. Cayla and I left the classroom with huge smiles on our faces that day, though I do believe mine was a bit different from the one I had been sporting earlier in the semester. I was smitten.
The improvements that I wanted to implement seemed to start happening more organically, and I noticed a change in the students as well. I started to realize that their feelings toward me weren’t of coldness or distance, but of trepidation. They were trying to learn a new language, and were afraid of looking and sounding stupid. I would be inhuman if I couldn’t relate to that. I had been asking my Italian professor for various phrases to utilize while in the classroom since the beginning of the semester, but I started to ask him how to say things like, “Don’t be afraid,” and, ”Always try,” in Italian. One day I said to my students, “Non parlo Italiano, ma provo. Ma sempre provo.”* Little by little, they began to open up. After reading a text, there were fewer puzzled stares and more raised hands. And whenever the students seemed to be stumped, I tried my best to empower them and get more innovative, rather than simply providing the answers. I broke down sentences and told them to analyze the context clues, and even resorted to chalkboard drawings, much to my chagrin, as I’ve never been a gifted artist. They snickered at my embarrassment, and I found myself genuinely happy that they might actually be learning something.
The moment I realized that smiling at the students wasn’t enough, that I needed to genuinely connect with them and open myself up to them so that they might reciprocate, was the moment I truly began teaching. It was the moment that I actually understood that, though children can make me lose my patience, they’re really just confused, scared and flawed little people. And adults are just confused, scared and flawed bigger people, so we have something in common. This past semester, however, I was delighted to help them walk through life with a bit more confidence. I’m still not certain that I will pursue a career in teaching, but I definitely know that any future conversations about me majoring in English will take on a whole new narrative.