Gah! I hate being two-faced.
I used to think little kids are cute: their big melty eyes, their cherubic cheeks, and their awkward movements as they learn to master their little bodies. Do you know how tricky a jumping jack can be? Watch a four-year-old doing jumping jacks. Oh. My. God. You’ll die from the cuteness radiating from their flapping arms and out-of-sync legs hopping in, out, in, out. You don’t want to correct them because it’s just too CUTE.
But if you are their taekwondo teacher, that’s your job: teaching them correct technique. And THAT is my problem. I have a dark secret that would mortify the parents of my students… I hate teaching children, especially little children. Which is why I’ve stopped, save for some assisting and subbing. For a few years I regularly helped run four classes a week. Some days went swimmingly. Some kids never give their teachers a moment of grief, and when they’re the only ones that show up for class, I daresay I actually enjoy investing my time and two cents in tomorrow’s generation. They are focused and excited to learn whatever you throw their way. They laugh, ask questions, and bubble enthusiasm in all the right moments. On those days, I pat myself on the back and think very highly of my teaching skills. Hah. The illusion of accomplishment.
Because teaching is actually only half of teaching. The other half is maintaining order. That’s the part I loathe. As in many other traditional schools, many of the classes in our small martial arts dojang are taught by black belt (or brown belt) volunteers. For the most part it’s a good system, as one of the ways you hone your craft is by imparting the knowledge you have gathered thus far in your training. You break down every technique, analyze, and share the important bits of information your students need to focus on. The system works well with adult classes where everyone is mature enough not to fall down on purpose or dance around their spots during warm ups. Children are not adults.
Ahhh Manhattan… island of money and no backyards, where kids are enrolled into programs as they are being born. After being plagued by requests from parents, our venerable grandmaster began the first children’s classes. That was a decade ago. The school has cobbled together a challenging program. There is a head teacher who runs it. Everyone else is a volunteer. Some volunteers are better-suited to the task than others. ALL of us learn how to teach children “on the job.” Thus our “system” of maintaining discipline is still evolving through trial and error.
How many ways can a child disrupt warm-ups? Let us count the ways: taking their sweet time getting into uniform when already late, fidgeting during meditation, yapping about after school snacks and how hungry they are, wandering over to their neighbor, grabbing their neighbor, flopping onto the mat when they’re supposed to stand, standing still when they’re supposed to move, complaining, cheating at an exercise, deciding they need to roll up their pant legs in the middle of an exercise, facing the wrong direction, perpetuating a giggling fit, making smart-alecky comments, asking stupid questions, asking for a drink of water, and asking to go to the bathroom.
And that’s just warm-ups. Then we move on to ways children disrupt the rest of the session: running around you in circles, standing on the pipes when they’re standing in line, punching/kicking/hugging/climbing/knocking down the punching bag when they’re supposed to line up, yapping to each other (again) when the teacher is giving instructions, playing the tough-guy (jackass) in interactive fighting techniques thus endangering their partner, running through forms and techniques with half-assed effort, stampeding to the water fountain with overzealous effort, admiring themselves in the mirror (and leaving grease marks all over the glass, which I have to clean later).
At our dojang we teachers are too laid back and too dang friendly and jocular with our students to maintain any serious kind of order. Our disciplinary efforts are inconsistent, but at least existent. We use positive reinforcement, praising where praise is due and praising for the simple act of paying attention. If the class hasn’t been a complete disaster, the kids are rewarded with a couple rounds of Fireball, a game in which the instructors get to hurl a gray, half-deflated ball at the knees and feet of unarmed children—I don’t understand why the kids find such glee in playing this permutation of dodgeball, which as a kid I always found to be a form of torture. Punishment for little kids involves being told to sit down for a minute, with older kids I take pleasure in demanding pushups and squat thrusts. If they really act up we ask them if they want to get changed and go home.
My biggest peeve is to put out 110% teacher radiance and gusto, only to have a kid give back 75% effort and the attention of a flea. In any other area of life I will walk away from that kind of 110/75 dynamic. Then again, I ultimately AM walking away by trying to quit teaching. I wish I liked the job, but annoyance has finally overridden any sense of reward. I am so flattered when I am told I am good at it, and when a student brought me a bag of homemade muffins I was so honored. But when the grandmaster asked if I would take over the head teacher’s job of overseeing the children’s program (head teacher was having major surgery), I almost quit taekwondo just so I could avoid the guilt from refusing the position.
I hate my duplicity. People who have only observed me working on the mat—versus hearing me gripe—believe that I teach “from a place of love.” One parent remarked that I’m the only instructor who smiles while sparring with the kids (I swear my smile is not an evil grin). But I often find myself chatting with a beautiful 4 year old boy with golden curls and golden smile, and then 5 steps into the changing room I am moaning that I despise kids. It’s not the kids that I hate, it’s teaching the squiggly squirmy gaggle of them that I resent.
The other day, a five year old finished my class with a full-blown tantrum on the floor. It’s a long story. She’s got issues. In any case, that is how I would end up if I had continued to teach: flailing on the ground screeching angrily to myself. I do not want to make children listen and pay attention if they don’t want to. Praise be to school teachers, who do this work 6-7 hours a day on a daily basis. I marvel at their eyes in the back of their heads and stores of patience like a bottomless bowl. The magic order they work on a mob of kindergarteners is worthy of awe.
But I am not a teacher. I am only human, and I want to go back to thinking children are cute. As the school year has launched I am all too aware that a good teacher is a special kind of wonderful. Thank you, teachers everywhere!