Reflections / Teaching / Turkey

Back to School!

Whenever I hear the phrase “back to school” I always think of Billy Madison and that ridiculous little song he sings while waiting for the bus.

Anyway! Apologies for the lack of posting. I’ve been a busy bee of late, and it’s much easier to spend my downtime catching up on Mad Men or reading or standing in front of my fan and complaining about the humidity.

As you may have read or heard, I’m spending the month of July helping to run a summer school program at Small Hands, the preschool where I’ll be working in September. While not my first experience teaching, and certainly not my first experience working with children, the time so far has been much different than anything I’ve done in the past, thankfully in ways that are mostly positive.

The summer school classroom.

One corner of the summer school classroom, with the garden outside.

Perhaps what makes Small Hands the most unique is that I’ve finally found myself with employment that I don’t absolutely dread. Having worked in a law office, an English school, a pottery studio, a travel agency, and a portrait studio, you might say that my employment history has seen some variety, but one consistency my jobs have shared is being pretty damn frustrating and awful. Anyone who knows me or to whom I’ve ranted and raged about my former positions knows how significant it is that I can wake up on a Monday morning and feel remotely okay about the week ahead.

The job, of course, is not perfect, but it’s certainly been a much more positive experience than I expected to have here, or anywhere, for that matter. There are some frustrations, which I’ll outline shortly, but there are plenty of good things to tip the scales, and I’m excited to see what the regular school year brings.

To give you a few more details, essentially Small Hands is a small daycare with about seven classrooms. From what I’ve gathered, it seems that the starting age is 2, with kids up to 5 years old. During the year, the students are divided amongst the classrooms according to age, so skills, interests, and stages of development are matched as best as possible. There are also no more than 10 students to a teacher, which allows us to create lesson plans that are effective and entertaining for everyone, and we can tailor everything to a small group.

For summer school, it’s a little different. Between two teachers (myself and Kelly, the teacher I’m working with) there are about 24 mixed-age students every day sharing one classroom. This makes the program a challenge because we have more students than we should, there is not one age for which we can create activities and lesson plans, and, unless we split the group somehow, all those children in one space is like stuffing a hive of bees into a sardine can. Kelly and I have managed to come up with some methods for dividing the children so we can spread out a little bit, and even though it’s technically not something we’re supposed to do, it really does help make the day feel more organized and enjoyable.

We made mini pizzas one day. Corn is a common topping here, and I must say, it works surprisingly well.

We made mini pizzas one day. Corn is a common topping here, and I must say, it works surprisingly well.

But despite our best efforts to adjust the schedule so the day is better for all involved, there remain certain unavoidable frustrations:

Management. Like death, dealing with higher-ups must be an inescapable, universal problem. There always seems to be some absurd disconnect between those working in the field and those who tell them what to do from the comfort of an office situated in a world where they assume every circumstance is an ideal one and that you can do 50 things at once. The case at Small Hands is no different, and much of what we did at the start was met with objection or “better” ways to do it, which often was impossible given the reality of the situation. Thankfully, Management went on vacation after the first week, so Kelly and I have been mercifully left without much of a hovering presence. We’ll see how things go once the school year starts.

Certain children. Like Voldemort, these are those who must not be named, and it often requires every ounce of composure to not just chuck them into the inflatable paddling pool and let them fend for themselves. There are two who cry all day; one who constantly bites and hits other children; one who never, ever listens to anything I say; and one who wears the same blank expression whether he’s terribly sad or having a blast or spilling bowls of soup or accidentally falling into the inflatable paddling pool while fully clothed (this actually happened, and, Lord help me, I laughed so hard). They are a challenge.

Disorganization and general chaos. Like Cambodia, if it’s the most inefficient way, it’s the chosen way. It could also be that, given the way the program is put together, there’s really no good way to go about rearranging things so they function more smoothly and sensibly. We have 24 mixed-age children to monitor, entertain, and work with, and the number of times they are all well-behaved and want to do the same thing is 0 (zip, zero, zilch, nada, never). Often there’s too much time or too little time for certain activities, or too much space or too little space for the children to move around in. If we set up additional activities for the kids, or open up other areas for them to play in, that’s one more place we need to add to our radar, and there’s often too much going on to properly monitor everyone. Help from the assistants is inconsistent, and I often find myself having to be in three places at once. We’re finding ways to make it less hectic, but there remains no good way, and that’s frustrating.

There are, however, plenty of awesome things too:

Fellow teachers. Kelly, the teacher I’m working with for the summer, is truly wonderful. She has experience and is good at what she does, and in observing her I’ve been able to learn a lot and become much more comfortable. Most of the other teachers have left for the summer, but I’ve met them all, and a few are still hanging around the school for administration purposes, and I really, really like them. They’re all young women fluent in English, and most of them have been in Istanbul for a while, and I’m excited to work with them and get to know them better. The assistants, also, are very helpful and friendly, and I often wonder what we’d do without them. Overall it’s a great staff, and I’m happy to be a part of it. I’ve never worked with people my age whose company I enjoy, so it’s a refreshing change.

Certain children. Some of the kids I really adore. Many of the older ones know English, so I can talk to them and interact with them in more rewarding ways. One is exceptionally precocious; one is beautiful and kind and always cheerful; one gets very, very excited about things and tells me all about them, except she speaks in Turkish, and when I tell her, “Come now, you know I don’t speak Turkish!” she just says, “Mm-hm!” and keeps talking. As far as kids go, they’re pretty damn cute.

Food. Teachers eat with the children. Snack time and lunch time are usually shitstorms, and it’s the time of the day I dread most. The food, however, when I actually have a moment to eat it, is delicious. Other teachers complain that it makes them feel ill, and the food is often very heavy and rich, but my stomach seems to handle all of it just fine, even when I eat more than I probably should. Most everything is made from scratch, too. It’s really nice to have lunch provided, and even nicer that the food is good.

Environment. Part of what I loved so much about Small Hands when I was interviewing there was the location of the school. It’s in a much quieter area of the city than where I live, and the school itself is enclosed by high trees and lots of foliage. Being around the nature is nice, and it helps keeps the area cool during what is becoming a pretty oppressive summer. The building is cheerful, too, and overall it’s just an enjoyable place to be.

In short, the summer gig has been a challenging experience, but it makes me excited for the upcoming school year. I’ve got two weeks of work left and then I’ll have all of August off. I’m thinking about doing some traveling around Turkey, but there are a lot of places I want to see, so picking and choosing will be difficult. I haven’t left Istanbul since being here, though, so I’m really excited to see some other places and experience Turkish culture outside of this giant city. Also, I need a nice tan, and there’s a beach or two I have my eye on.

I’ll keep you all updated with my plans and close with a photo of the French toast I made for dinner on Friday. In the meantime, all my love!

Celebrating the weekend and my discovery of Turkish cinnamon. I'll probably have to make this at least a weekly thing.

Celebrating the weekend and my discovery of Turkish cinnamon. I’ll probably have to make this at least a weekly thing.


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