Of Lettuce, My Ancestors and Stress-free Students

, Of Lettuce, My Ancestors and Stress-free Students

“Why do the vegetables we plant attract insects?”

When Cun came to my kindergarten class, my teaching assistant said he hit me. I did not pay heed to this until he settled in, and from time to time would punch one or two of his classmates as if it’s his natural reflex. I’m not writing this because I’ve figured out how to stop him from hitting random persons without reason, I am still at a loss to be honest.

When I started teaching, my first best instinct in classroom management was knowing that screaming at kids to “be quiet!” wouldn’t work. It still holds true until now, and I would constantly remind my teaching assistants to not yell the rules in class because it’s a lost cause. It was a good place to start with, but kids are complex and making noise is not their sole preoccupation let alone hitting someone else.

Bao always comes to class with a big smile, she always brightens everyone. One day she was morose and would just refuse to participate. It made me really worried, but I eventually learned she wanted to pee. Right after she came from the toilet she turned as my usual flower girl beaming at everyone with her infectious smile.

Few summers ago, I joined an organic farming training class. My farming teacher said that when plants get stressed, they release abscisic acid, a stress hormone that attracts harmful insects. Our farming course was focused in providing a stress-free environment for our plants so they would grow healthily.

Huy used to curse in my Primary class. He speaks English very well, but it also meant he could answer me with “I don’t care”. He doesn’t now, and whenever he says something disagreeable he would catch himself before I do and would say “I’m sorry, teacher”. It’s because I’ve limited his stress stimuli. Whenever I see him upset I would ask him, “Are you comfortable in your seat? Would you like to transfer?” Sometimes I would also ask him to go for a short walk to the toilet. It helps for him to breathe his stuff out, it makes him process his emotions.

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“A healthy plant has a healthy root system.”

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I dreaded the first three months with my Secondary class. It’s true they don’t make noise neither do they hit each other or run around and wreak havoc. But they were zombies, and the more they stare at me with their empty gaze and unmoving limbs, I felt mocked and disrespected. But how come I felt so little when they weren’t even saying anything disrespectful?

It took some time for me to realize that I was seeing my teenager self in them. I was as they are now, probably more vile. In high school, I only got to be the leader when it was time for us to break the rule. My teachers hated me, of course. But I loved that role, it made me feel seen.

I was also caught unprepared to face what made me the difficult teenager that I was. There was my angry father, who used corporal punishment to discipline us. Name it: slippers, belt, sticks, and even a stone – whatever he can grab, let alone hurtful words. I would constantly leave our house and live with any of my favourite relatives – good lord how they saved me for giving me a space where I felt safe. I always owe being raised in a tight-knit village for me to turn out OK.

After a few months of working out my teaching strategies and confronting and making peace with my younger self, my Secondary class are now more engaged. They’ve grown more open to me as I’ve become more accepting of my deviant teenager self. But there is Dan, the one who constantly checks his phone in class, keeps his bag on his front and puts his hand in so he could solve his Rubik’s cube puzzle supposedly in secret. I know better to not raise my voice on him because like my teenager self, he loves provoking authorities. Like Dan, there is Hung who would half finish his worksheet or just draw when I ask them to write something.

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With Dan and Hung, I learned that I have my own limits in turning my students around. And that as a teacher I can only do so much because there is a deeper pain my rewards and consequences can’t fix.

“There is a movement called regenerative agriculture. It is giving back health to the soil. If we want a healthy plant, we must first have a healthy soil.”

I never hated my father, I just couldn’t – maybe because I knew his intention was to make me upright. He just didn’t know a better way to do it. Although I did not turn up an adult who is bitter of her father, I certainly couldn’t talk at length with him. If I don’t drop his call which is often, we would have a very short talk and I would answer in short phrases. I couldn’t be touchy feely with him either.

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To accept my teenager self, I not only had to learn to understand my father, but his father too. I heard from my uncles, my father’s brothers, that their father was also physical when he punishes them. Does this proclivity go up our ancestral lineage? Apparently, it could be so. Long ago, our community used to be involved in tribal wars. In David Lancy’s Anthropology of Childhood, he said that children born in a warrior society are expected to be tough and enduring thus are more prone to physical punishment. My ancestors’ time had long passed but my grandfather and his son carried this propensity to be stern and unyielding to their children.

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A few days ago, one of my students approached me and asked what I think about LGBTQ. I asked her why. Her response – her father doesn’t want her hanging out with her LGBTQ friends. I scheduled a chat for us but she couldn’t make it. If she came over I would’ve asked her what her grandparents’ society was like and how Vietnam was a hundred years ago. It is not to condone her father’s unhealthy view of the LGBTQ community but for her to understand that it doesn’t suffice to point a finger. Like me she needs to look deeper into her history and evaluate the values of her society.

From time to time, I would hear a voice in my head – my farming teacher, Sir Pat. I haven’t yet turned the organic farmer I should be after finishing his course, but the farming system I learned from him certainly helps me in my classroom management. In the course of two months that I studied with him, I’ve grown nutrient-dense lettuce plants. All because my team and I took care not only through watering them, giving them just enough sunlight, fertilizing them – but mostly in making sure that the soil is well-analysed so we could balance it to be a healthy foundation where our plants could anchor their roots from.

No stress makes a happy plant. But in life, it can’t be avoided and there’s no such thing as stress-free classroom, we can only manage it. As a teacher though, I certainly am trying to limit the stress stimuli of my students. It all started with me understanding the plant, then its roots, finally its soil.

By Dumay Solinggay

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