Photos / Reflections / Teaching

Back to School!

Apologies for the delayed post. I’ve been meaning to update you all for a while, but the past three weeks have been something of a whirlwind! Having a demanding full-time job has proven to be exactly what you might expect – that is, demanding and full-time.

After returning from my fabulous holiday around Turkey, I returned to Istanbul with a little over a week to kill before starting work. Coming back from a holiday where it seemed I was always doing something, I found it difficult to sit in my apartment for very long, so I spent the days out and about, visiting fancy shopping malls, eating at trendy street-side cafes, and seeing $4 movies at the nearby cinema. It was a great, relaxing week, and I had plenty of time to get back in sync with Istanbul before starting work at the end of August.

Work, as you might have guessed, is still at Small Hands, an English preschool in Istanbul’s upscale Etiler district. I helped with their summer school program during the month of July, and I was excited to get back and see all the teachers I’d missed over the past month. Teachers returned almost two weeks before the start of the school year, so we had several days of orientation and prep time to adjust and get ready, including an excruciatingly idiotic first-aid seminar and nerve-wracking parent/teacher conferences (the latter of which actually went quite well).

The preparation period was more stressful than I’d anticipated, probably because I was expected to do a lot of things I’d never done before and had never even thought about. For example, I was essentially given a barren classroom as my own, and it was my job to organize and decorate it from the ground up. What color chairs did I want? Where did I want the bulletin boards? Where did I want the white board? What did I want the classroom name to be? Did I want the pet turtles here or there? What would my birthday board look like? What should I have in my cupboards? How should I arrange the furniture? Did I want this play set? These toys? Those toys? The room was mine, the options were endless, and the choices were all mine to make. It ended up being a pretty cool thing, and my classroom looks great now, but going in clueless and inexperienced had me in over my head for a while.

Our start-of-the-year teachers' kit full of fresh supplies.

Our start-of-the-year teachers’ kit full of fresh supplies.

The start of the decorating process. I'd work for hours and feel like nothing was getting done.

The start of the decorating process. I’d work for hours and feel like nothing was getting done. I thought it would never end!

Thankfully, there are a lot of returning teachers who were able to offer advice and answer questions, plus some pretty thorough guides to tell us what we had to have done by the time the students arrived. It was a lot of work, but it’s really nice now to have my own space and the liberty to have it look and function the way I want. The appearance of the room has been in flux as I figure out the best places for things, but so far it’s looking good and working well!

As far as teaching, things are a little different now than they were during the summer, in ways that are good and bad, but overall I’m still finding the work enjoyable, and certain challenges always keep me on my toes. There’s certainly more planning involved than there was during summer school, for example. Detailed lesson plans are due every week and are sent to parents, so there’s added pressure for everything to look and sound impressive. My kids, also, are super smart and know the school well, so they’re always asking for new things to do. And what kind of teacher am I if I can’t deliver?

My kids, by the way, are 5 and 6 years old (the oldest group in the school), which essentially makes me a kindergarten teacher. There are 12 kids total in my class, which is the maximum size for one teacher to handle. It definitely makes for a full and busy room, but most of them know each other and are friends, plus they’re all able to reasonably care for themselves, so aside from talking through petty tiffs, classroom management is relatively easy. There are two boys who are proving pretty challenging, though, so I’ll have to find a way to get closer to them somehow.

Worthy of note is that half of my kids are Japanese, and there are a lot of others in the other classes too, which is likely because there’s a Japanese primary school a few minutes away. Small Hands also has an afternoon Japanese program, so it’s a convenient option for families wanting to adjust their children to the Japanese system. In the morning, these kids attend the English class, and then move to the Japanese class in the afternoon. It makes for an interesting school dynamic. The other half of my class is mostly Turkish, with an American and a Dutch in the mix. You might say the Red Stars are a sort of melting pot, but the ingredients kind of separate according to native language. The Japanese kids, for example, aren’t as good at English or Turkish as the others, so they kind of stick together, and the other kids follow suit. I try to have English spoken as much as possible, but it’s difficult when some of them know so little. Others know an impressive amount and are at the same level as any kid their age from an English-speaking country. They’re often helpful with translating, and are fun to talk to.

The school year officially began last Wednesday, so my kids and I have been together for only a week and a half at this point. Still, I can already tell that things are going well. Many of them run to hug me in the morning, and they like to cuddle with me and talk my ear off. I’m fortunate to like all of them, too. They can be hell-raisers for sure, but at least they have redeeming qualities that make it easy (sometimes) to forgive them. Their energy is exhausting, but it’s enjoyable, and it always makes the day go by quickly.

Here’s the daily structure:

8:30 Teachers arrive to prep for the day.

9:00 Students begin to arrive. Teachers monitor the garden (playground) while the children play.

9:30 Music plays to signal that it’s time to go inside. Children hang up their backpacks, change into inside shoes, and go into their classroom for Circle Time. Teachers, of course, monitor and assist where necessary. Circle Time consists of songs and usually a book, though I’ve incorporated a Feelings Chart, Weather Chart, and Calendar discussion into most days.

10:00 Snack time, with fruit and water.

10:15 Group and/or individual activities can start. My class is large enough that I can’t handle all of them doing the activities at the same time, so I’ve divided the class into two groups. One will play in the room while the others do the craft, and then after 15-20 minutes we switch.

11:00 After the children help clean the room, we head outside for some more time in the garden. Again, teachers monitor and often have their hands full. Children find the most absurd and physics-defying ways to hurt themselves.

11:30 We return inside for another activity session. This period is only half an hour, and given the time that it takes to settle and tidy up, it’s not really worthwhile to set up and teach another craft during this time. I usually allow free play in the room, or let children finish a craft they couldn’t complete earlier, or will read a book, or play a game of some sort.

12:00 Lunch time. Food is brought to the classroom, and children and their teacher(s) eat together. My kids are thankfully old enough to serve and feed themselves (albeit sometimes messily), so I set up a buffet-style line on the counter and call them up in small groups.

12:30 After cleaning up from lunch, the children go out for another garden session. This is when the morning program ends, so the half-day children will return home, and the students in the afternoon Japanese class will move to that room. This also signals the start of my precious half-hour break, during which I can catch my breath and prepare for the afternoon session.

1:00 The children return and go either to afternoon English or Japanese class. Since half of my students are Japanese, my class shrinks substantially for the later part of the day. This period is meant to be designed around a specific book, so activities are based on lessons and themes from whatever it is we’re reading that week. This is the longest block of time in the day, so it’s really important to have things planned, or at least be really good at improvising if your planning falls through.

2:45 Snack time, with something sweet and buttery and fatty and awful for my hips, usually, and milk and water.

3:00 A final garden time, with monitoring.

3:30 Children leave to go home. Teachers are expected to stay for another half hour to organize their rooms and prepare for the next day.

4:00 Teachers are free to go! One more day down!

So, it’s essentially a 9-5 gig. But of the 7.5 hours we’re expected to be on campus, 1.5 hours are spent in the garden, 1 hour is spent eating, and 1.5 hours are spent prepping, which leaves only 3.5 hours that we have to spend actively engaging and teaching the kids. Don’t get me wrong – it’s certainly a long day, and I’m certainly working hard for all 7.5 hours, but the math makes it all seem much less exhausting. Plus, the highly structured day makes it go by fast.

Overall, I’m pretty satisfied with where I’ve found myself. I never expected working with children to be something that I continuously return to, but I like my work environment, I like my coworkers, and I like my commute. My kids are smart and competent, I’m encouraged to create a curriculum that I find enjoyable and appropriate, and the school has the materials and resources required to support that. I like that my kids have fun. I like that they like me and like coming to school. I like that they inspire me to try harder for them, and that they’re teaching me how to be better at this. (I have tons of photos of them actually smiling and looking at me, but as I’m technically not allowed to post photos of them publicly, I picked out some where their faces are mostly hidden. I just really wanted to show you some of the activities we’ve done!)

Obviously it’s not all roses. But I don’t find myself leaving at the end of the day and wondering, “What was the point of that? And what in hell am I doing here?” And I can safely say that’s a first.

I’ll be back soon with some posts on some neat places in Istanbul, including a great burger place and some gorgeous malls. In the meantime, Roo and I have some lesson planning to do, so all my love!

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3 thoughts on “Back to School!

  1. Wonderful post, Sara. I’m so glad that you are enjoying your work environment and finding your time with the children worthwhile. I know they are better off for having you in their lives, and your time together will stay with many of them far beyond these years. Just think of your early childhood schooling and how fondly you recall some of your teachers. The gift of yourself that you give to them daily will always remain a special part of their development and world perspective. We are very proud of you and your many talents which lend themselves so well to this experience. And you’re learning, too! Love, Dad

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