Teaching High School is Hard

As a ‘kind of fun’ short term ‘filler’ in January, I picked up a 3 week gig teaching ESL English as a Second Language in a high school “immersion” program. That’s 4 teaching hours per day, every day of the week. The kids are high school level, and from Brazil.

No, not going to make a bucket of money. (It’s about 1/3 of my low rate per hour, and about 1/6 of my more typical rate, and only 1/2 day paid). The idea wasn’t to make a lot of money, but rather to make some “lunch money” during the typical dead time that happens from Christmas to a week or two after January 1.

I’ve taught a fair number of times, but always in an ‘industrial’ setting (classes to folks at HP, Amdahl, Apple and a few other companies) to adult learners; or at the Community College level, again to adult learners. The material was always very familiar (computer stuff) and the process was “stand up, tell them what has to be learned, explain it, quiz on it, explain more if needed, test on it”. Along with the usual reading and exercises / projects outside of class.

This has been far different. My major revelation is that teaching High School level is very hard.

My spouse, who has K-12 and learning disabilities / Special Ed credentials, is enjoying greatly my coming to her and saying “How do I …?” on various things. Like “How do I keep them on task?”…

The Program

This is an intensive immersion program in ESL. These are kids who’s folks have spent a bucket of money to have them in the USA for a month or so. An optional week in either California or New York for cultural immersion, along with 3 and a bit weeks in Orlando with nearly non-stop “activities”. Orlando Magic tickets one night. Trip to Tampa Bay for a Lighting NHL game. Close Magic Kingdom one night, then at 9 AM, in seats for grammar. So one of my questions was “how to keep them awake?”…

There’s likely enough time for enough sleep, IFF they didn’t stay up late talking about all the things they did that day. But how can you possibly get a couple of hundred High School age kids settled down that fast? So it is quite reasonable that, especially in the second week, many of them are starting to show some wear and short sleep.

Still, the program is effective. I’ve done, typically, two or three verb tenses and a chunk of vocabulary, along with a “cultural immersion” segment each week. The kids are actually speaking understandable English now, and it’s getting better.

They will certainly go home with the “experience of a lifetime” and a much better understanding of The USA and the culture of English speaking areas.

Some Downsides

Out of 10 students, I’ve now got 3 of them with some sort of sniffles or headache or just feeling a bit ill as of last Thursday. I, too, have managed to “get what they had” and only today have managed to ‘throw it off’ enough to feel more energetic. (Mostly a mild sore throat last weekend, then some occasional cough this week, along with a major energy deficit.)

It is quite typical for a new class to ‘pass around’ something. It is also quite typical for travelers to pick up new bugs. Here we have both. I expect most of it to be over by next Tuesday (when we next get together after the Monday MLK day off).

Having a load of “on the road” 14-15 year old kids (my class) to 17 ish (other classes) in the hallway in a new place, away from family and all their usual social order, has a high social load. Everything from folks finding a new persona in a new place, to folks finding new folks to date, to folks who know the one they are with taking a bit of break time to kiss near the snack line… Pretty much closely ‘mingled’ (but it turns out Brazilians are very ‘touchy feely’ folks anyway). I’m getting used to “high fives” and the occasional hug from students headed out of the classroom. (Takes some adjustment for a USA “mandatory sexual harassment class for all, over-indoctrinated ‘saying your hair is nice’ gets you canned” sort…) But I’m adjusting.

They tend to speak English VERY softly (Portuguese not so much ;-) and I’ve had to encourage them to get louder so I can hear the details of their pronunciation. That, or I sit close while they practice.

The Observations

It definitely takes a good hour before class to set up, organize, make sure the lesson plan is clear and I know what I’m going to do. It then takes a good hour after class to clean up, pack up, and plan for the next day. Those two hours are not paid. (Even the spouse has complained about this in public schools. It is the norm.) Not only is the pay ‘not so much’, but then you get to donate some time.

Kids can be very ‘brittle’ about what they like. Do the right thing for a cultural immersion, and they are alert, engaged, participating. Miss it by a little, they are checked-out and sometimes sleeping. The Teacher must bring the drive, awareness, and interest to the classroom, and must be ‘exactly on’ or risk losing them. Not so in a C.C. or J.C. (Community College or Junior College) where students are self motivated or gone. In this setting, that is not an option. Keeping things “lively” and on target takes a fair amount of stage craft and awareness.

Not having homework or a language lab with tapes is an added challenge. I provide the interactive exercise, not a tape. It’s all live all the time.

After 6 hours of nearly non-stop prep, on stage, and standing up / running around, I’m more tired than after 10 hours in an office chair at a computer. Teaching is hard work. Teaching High School is harder work.

I can still learn. Nice to know. In just the first full week, I changed my style and approach, learned a few new methods and tricks, picked up several ‘new ideas’ from other teachers, and implemented them. Many thanks to my spouse and to the other folks in the program who’ve done this a few times (and to some of the other newbies like me who shared things that worked, and that they had the same issues as I had.) It was also a relief to find out that even the experienced teachers had the same things happening in class. Especially the kids who just fall asleep. “It wasn’t me!”.

One thing that was a ‘big hit’ was that I brought in the Chromebox and had it playing a Pony League (their age) baseball game while I made hot-dogs and chips. They had to learn some baseball words, listen to “Take Me Out To The Ball Game”, taste Cracker Jack, and ask in English for a hot-dog on a bun with condiments by name. (Mustard, Ketchup, Relish, etc.) Yes, I had to pay for the dogs, buns, soda, etc. Brought in my own hot plate and pot. But we “went to a baseball game” without ever leaving the class.

One thing that didn’t work was Spanish in America as cultural touchstone. Any Spanish things caused a slump of attention. I asked the program director. He thinks it is due to the constant pressure of Spanish all around Brazil. They get tired of being pushed toward Spanish and push it away in response. So next week I’m going to do a cultural segment on Portuguese in the USA. (Katy Perry and Tom Hanks, along with John Philip Souza for starters). These kids don’t think of themselves as Hispanic, but as Brazilian Portuguese. At least for cultural touchstones. OK, I learned again…

It is the most enjoyable job I’ve ever had while being a big challenge and way underpaid. More on that below.

In Conclusion

I’m about 1/2 way through. I’ve not had nearly as much “free time” as I expected for a 4 hour a day job, and it has impacted my posting time (though I’m catching up a bit today with some of what I was thinking about, but not typing ;-) and job search time. I don’t regret a minute of it, though.

At the end of one day, I stepped out of the class as students were leaving and came back in to find “We love you, Mike” on the board along with a heart. How can you put a price on that? In my entire career to date, I’ve never ever had anyone come even close to that level of positive feedback. Sure, a lot of ‘good job’ and ‘thanks, that made it clear’ and sometimes a few ‘you did the impossible and got it done’. But never such an emotional ‘hit’ of reward. I made them learn, and like it. That day, I made learning fun. (Grammar not so much ;-)

In the midst of all the strife, violence, and frankly, just plain crap in the world, I made a bunch of folks better people and we all had fun doing it.

Given that, who cares if I get my next job a couple of weeks later, or if I have to hit the IRA for the house payment next month (I’m at the ‘take it out’ no penalty age anyway). Or even if I have to spend an hour reminding myself just what is the difference between the simple past, past progressive, and past progressive perfect… or finding that’s the same as the past perfect continuous. Who cares if I have to drop a couple of bucks on ‘stuff’ to make the cultural immersion segment that much more fun.

Beats the pants off the slander and malicious attacks one gets for defending truth and advancing understanding in the face of all the Global Warming Propaganda Machine. Besides, I at least get a small bit of pay for teaching, where the climate stuff is pretty much pro bono.

It is a strong drug to be actually appreciated for doing something to make someone’s life a bit better and happier, and to help them progress in ability and understanding.

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About E.M.Smith

A technical managerial sort interested in things from Stonehenge to computer science. My present "hot buttons' are the mythology of Climate Change and ancient metrology; but things change...
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10 Responses to Teaching High School is Hard

  1. Grammar is somewhat difficult, and granpaw isn’t that hot either. Knowing all the correct grammar terms for a language I grew up speaking and reading has never seemed to be that necessary so I never learned it. The problem is in other languages where someone says “this is a subjunctive case” and I really need examples to work out in what situation I’d use it.

    I wouldn’t thus be particularly good at teaching English. Teaching is hard work if you want the result of the students actually learning stuff and enjoying it enough to want to learn more.

    I’m not surprised you both enjoyed it and have made a hit with the students. It’s also a little slice of eternal life in that you’ll be remembered by them for a lifetime. People do remember their good teachers (and spectacularly lousy ones) and it always seems to be a fairly small number of the teachers we’ve had.

    The pay isn’t that good though.

  2. p.g.sharrow says:

    @EMSmith; I see you are enjoying your learning experience. ;-) Sometimes you receive as much as you give. These students are finding your intellect as compelling as the rest of us have. Being able to walk in your wife’s moccasin tracks for a time is good for both of you.

    I spent 4 years in the Navy, A very valuable experience. The pay was much less then poor, so, I would never do it again for the pay. I guess one should be glad to have other options. pg

  3. omanuel says:

    Congratulations, Mike, on your new teaching career.

    I was never a very good lecturer, but I accidentally learned that students pay closer attention to the unexpected than to the expected.

    Try leaving out some small word, like “not” from your normal lecture and you may also notice that interest in the subject increases as you correct the “error.”

    Again, congratulation on discovering rewards beyond financial.

  4. Power Grab says:


  5. Chuck L says:

    My daughter teaches Pre-K through 1st Grade regular and Special Ed in an urban school and is currently teaching a Pre-K class of 5 autistic students. She works 12 hour days and spends her own money for those kids (we help – for those of you charitably inclined check out DonorsChoose.org, a crowd-funding site for teachers). She loves her students and I marvel at the hard work and dedication of her and her fellow teachers.

  6. LG says:

    In our family, English was our third language. Luckily there, out of the 2 TV channels in country, one was in English. In what would be 9th grade here, our American educated teacher of English said: .”Make sure to watch Sesame Street every day. It’ll help a lot.”
    It did so to the point where a couple years later, 6 weeks into in my first semester in college, I was not only thinking in English, I was also dreaming in English.

  7. omanuel says:

    We are all students and teachers of life. Gail Combs is one of the best:


  8. p.g.sharrow says:

    When Humans get old they are supposed to become teachers.

    Not worth a damn for much else! Lol :-) pg

  9. E.M.Smith says:


    Then I guess I’m not fully old yet, as I’m still good for lots of things ;-)


    Yes, Gail is tireless and “a force” that’s for sure. Love her style…

    @Another Ian:

    I hope it is ‘grinding to a halt’; but fear that it is more like a reptile that can lose limbs and tails and grow them back, go long times without oxygen, hibernate if needed, lives a very long time, and who’s bite can be poison even after it is dead… Time will tell. (Nice link, though! ;-)


    I had a heck of time transitioning from Spanish to French. It was late in life (college) and I had been in formal Spanish classes for 6 years, spending a lot of my ‘home time’ in a friend’s Spanish speaking home for over a dozen. So I caught onto the written form of French, and the spoken form, fairly quickly, but it was a full month before I could open my mouth and not have Spanish leak through the French. I eventually spent an evening in a light trance state “banishing” Spanish. Then after a day or so of “nothing wants to come out”, the French came.

    Then it took another decade or two before I could “un-banish” Spanish and get it back again… And now it gets bits of French sprinkled into it ;-)


    And yes, I have bits of Spanish and French that leak into my spoken English… but that’s trendy these days, especially in Spanglish places like California and parts of Florida ;-) and French bits in literary English were pretty much mandatory for a while…

    I also had one class each in German (easy… until you get to conjugations and der de das…) and Russian (never got fast with the alphabet. I can “puzzle it out”, but had no idea I was that brittle on script. Later tried self-taught Greek. Vocabulary is very easy for much of it (like, oh, photography…) but again ran into the alphabet issue. “Puzzle it out” doesn’t lead to fast reads… It seems that I sight read large text clusters and the idea of going back to learning new letters is just sooo pre-Kindergarden… the brain fights it. (“You want me to do WHAT again? I did that 20 years ago!” – or, now, over 1/2 century ago…)

    I can read Portuguese (with the help of a dictionary for things that don’t cognate to Spanish, French, or Latin roots), but the spoken form still escapes me. (Not the least of which is that my increasing deafness means I’m “error correcting” a lot more and, well, that doesn’t work on a new language as you can’t predict as much). It has a very different sound profile from what I’d expect. Then there was that time I was on a European work trip and spent the entire travel time over doing a ‘quick load’ on travel Italian. Enough to ‘get by’, and useful, but very limited.

    I’ve been self-teaching Latin, too, but way too slowly. I’d like to read some old dusty things in the original. Was able to “puzzle out” some of the Vulgate. But the language is a bit ‘intricate’ and varies over time. Not sure I’ll ever get good at it.

    Along the way I’ve “dabbled” in a half dozen more, often with very limited results. Japanese for food, one trip to Japan (as with Italian above), and Karate terms. Still can’t read any of their scripts… Some of the synthetic languages that are close to Romance base are readable as is. Puttered in Swedish while working for Ericsson once. Got to where I could figure out office memos ;-) Now basically buried in the dust of ages…

    Then I’ve “learned about” another dozen or so. Had a Linguistics class at University and liked it. Have a wonderful book (somewhere…) that has a title like “The 50 most important languages” and details how each one is structured, works, and is derived. Read most of it. Just love it. So I ‘know about’ things like Czech vs Slovak and the number of letters needed for some Polynesian languages ( as low as 13 and even 9 for some…)

    In short: I’m a language junkie. Just am.

    But now I can’t expect to learn many (any?) new ones. Not due to any age or flexibility issues. Just due to being spread too thin and hearing too poorly.

    There comes a time where it would take all day just to keep the ones already experienced “up to date and in shape”. Where the rate of loss is too high to overcome ‘part time’. So German has faded. Russian was hardly there to begin with, but attempts to read the front chapters of my old Russian text were, er, dismal… And my most recent attempt to ‘fast load’ Portuguese for this class was OK for written, but I can no longer pick out enough of the sounds to clearly map to the right words. (It didn’t help that I caught a ‘head cold’ from the kids and that my ‘good ear’ is now very stuffed up… not picking up sibilants at all right now, and fricatives are dodgy too. Luckily I’m not supposed to be using Portuguese anyway. For pronunciation drills I just get very close to the student, kneeling near their desk, and I can tell if the English is right. Having a bit of lip reading and watching tongue position helps too ;-) But probably why the head cold arrived last week…

    But I’m rambling…

    To your point: Yes, it’s an interesting moment when you ‘shift’ fully to the other language. I’ve done it a couple of times in my life. The most dramatic was with French. For “French 2” (of 3 that covered ALL of the language) I took a ‘summer session’. UC was on a quarter system. 10 weeks. We would cover about 1000 required vocabulary, and 500 added, plus several verb tenses in one session. Turns out that in the Summer Session, that was cut to 6 weeks. One of which was for finals… So in 5 weeks I had 1500 words, and about 7 or 8 verb tenses (French has 7 for past tense alone…) In regular sessions it was one hour of class and 3 of “lab” per day. We were doing 2 of class and 5 or 6 of lab, plus homework. 6 Unit class (full load is 18) but in 1/2 the time. Essentially, given that I was living alone then and work was largely filing in the back room, full immersion.

    But about week 4… I was doing “billing jackets” and a clerk came to the Patient Accounting window to ask for a particular patient jacket (folder). I remember looking at them, they were standing there squawk something or other; and me thinking “Je ne le comprends pas. Que veut-il?” and asking would they like help… in French… then taking a couple of cycles to remember English …. and realizing that for an unknown period of time I’d not used English (no TV at home then, and no radio in the car).

    But now, decades later, even French is “rusty”. It takes me a while to shift into it. But I’ve got a couple of nice novels in French, and a Spanish cookbook that I like. I find that, now, reading them is more fun.

    What of the future? I’d set out to find that language most suited to “Keeping a tidy mind” and found that it was whatever was your native language. ALL languages are full of quirks, oddities, and shortcomings. You already know most of them for your first language… and that is what matters. So I’m letting myself be more persistently at home in English, and not worrying so much about others. Just keeping enough Spanish and French to function in places where I find it useful. I do still have a hope of learning Latin sufficiently to read ‘interesting stuff’, but that’s now a “slow boat” project. Not expecting to learn to hear and speak any new languages due to the hearing issues. I’ve also decided that the orthography “issue” isn’t worth fighting, so no new character sets for me either. Those doors are closing / closed now. Though I do find that with just a sentence or two I’m back to thinking in French… a nice feeling. That, and there are some French singers I really like…


    Just a footnote that I let the kids pick some music once day, and this is the search they did. I’m just preserving it here so that I can close some links and open pages in the browser..


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