Beginner’s Note

Beginner’s Note

It was Monday afternoon and I was mentally drained, my attention span falling behind me like dirt dust in the wind of a moving vehicle. I was introducing addition and subtraction word problems to my third graders, hoping they were retaining some of the English language in the process. I read from the workbook:

14,631 cases of dengue were reported in Sak’s hometown last year. This year the number has gone up by 11,482. How many cases of dengue have been reported this year?

“Well that’s morbid,” I thought, “Why wouldn’t they say the number of cases of dengue went down?” I wrote out the number sentence and demonstrated the correct way to solve the problem on the board. I left the actual solving to them, and I left my enthusiasm with the problem in which the monkeys plucked coconuts… they seemed happier to learn about monkeys. I stepped away from the chalkboard, feeling accomplished and ready for the day to end.

It was at this point when I walked over to my student’s desk and realized that he had a different answer than the one I worked out on my own. He pointed to my book and said, “No teacher, wrong! 6, no 5!” I looked at his work and noticed that I had incorrectly added 4 and 2 – a rookie mistake. Quickly and with a shameful smile, I transformed my 5 into a ridiculous box-shaped 6. I was thankful that I hadn’t written my answer on the chalkboard yet, and that the innocent 8 year old saved my dignity for the last 10 minutes of class.

It wasn’t until 3:00 pm when I had completely lured the children out of my classroom, and a feeling of inadequacy began to cloud my mind. I thought about how earlier that day, I was playing a review game of BINGO with my sixth graders and found out that half the class was better than me at four-digit multiplication and order of operations. I made a note to myself: work out problems before students sit in desks, not during class. I had to give them a “free space” due to my mistake. These kids are more likely to ask, “What does ‘circle the answer’ mean?’” rather than, “Is this correct?” I am less prepared to answer the latter, so most of the time it works out perfectly.

I was sweeping my classroom when a sudden wave of emotions took over, nothing new or surprising to me in Thailand. I slumped down into one of the small desks and started to pick the plastic wrapping from the corners (because they hadn’t thought to unwrap the new desks before the students sat in them). I thought to myself, “What the hell do I think i’m doing teaching algebra, when I still count on my fingers? I can’t even add 4 + 2 with complete confidence!”

I am a math teacher, and I still count with my fingers…

The feeling was eerily familiar, and suddenly I knew why.

As soon as I am outside of the boundaries of comfort, I begin to doubt my abilities. This applies to any time in my life when I began something new – a sport, a class, a major, a career, even something as simple as a hair cut – I always second-guessed myself in fear of failure. I can’t even count the amount of times I’ve quit and started something new with my fingers – because there aren’t enough fingers for that. When I graduated from high school, all I wanted to do was write. My problem was that I feared blank pages with no words, a bank account with no green, an empty heart with no story to tell – and that’s where I went wrong.

“Starting over” is a pretty frequent phrase in my vocabulary, as I encountered it not only on my own but also with my family. After each divorce, there was a tendency to begin again, despite the baggage that remained deep in our hearts. With each new house, we started over in the attempt to make it “home,” and I owe my mother the world for her endless efforts. When I moved away to school, I left with the intention of really starting my own life as if it hadn’t already begun. When I decided to quit my job and move to Thailand, I felt as if I was turning back the dials on the clock without actually traveling back through time – like I was cheating the system. But it was in these “starting over” times when I learned the most about myself, even if it wasn’t my decision to make in the first place. Without all of these “beginner” phases, I would have never learned. I would have never gathered the knowledge and pure, raw wisdom that has bended, twisted, and molded me into the person I am today.

On that same Monday, my friend Jessica and I were sitting on her back porch watching the beautiful Thai sunset, the first good one in weeks, discussing her feeling of inadequacy after having the amazing opportunity to teach a yoga class on the island of Koh Tao. The studio as a whole presented a different kind of yoga, a more intense, less meditative and spiritual asana than what she is used to teaching. Jessica has years of yoga teaching experience and several certifications, but her humbling nature led her to this conclusion: “I just like beginner yoga and I love being a beginner. No matter where I am in my practice, there’s always more to learn.”

Something in her statement and our conversation as a whole made me think long and hard about beginnings, the same ones I had fretted over my entire life, the same ones I am worried about now.

Looking back at all of my “beginnings,” I now realize that all of my attempts to better myself and all of the times I unwillingly started over were not failures, because I learned from them somehow. They were mere stepping-stones, and I am still climbing those steps today. It is only now I realize that the times I avoided trying were the actual failures. 

I am okay with defining myself as a beginner teacher, because as much as I am giving the gift of knowledge to these amazing students, I am learning from them even more. In the short month I have been in Sawi, my students have taught me patience, resilience, and a little bit more about love. I am at peace with the fact that they will correct my math, and I should be excited for them when they do. There’s something equivocally amazing about these kids that I haven’t quite pinpointed yet, but whatever that “something” is makes me want to teach them with everything I have in me. This feeling of inadequacy stems from my desire to be a better teacher, not an actual fear that I am incapable. I do not know if I will continue with a career in teaching after this year in Thailand, but I can tell you one thing for which I am certain:

I care enough to try my best, to be a curious beginner, and I think that’s enough for now.

My students teaching me a bit about love.

My students teaching me a bit about love.

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