Written up on the train about some of my teaching experience in Beijing. It’ll be interesting to see how much my thoughts and feelings change by the end of the year:
Teaching is an exercise in manipulation. You need to be at least one step ahead of your students at all times, and preferably more. You also need to be something of a hard ass, especially for the first few months. Because if you start out by letting your fifty plus students walk all over you, they’ll continue to do it for the entire year and you’ll never gain their respect. I’ll have a bit more trouble as it is, anyway, because I am a woman and not as physically intimidating as I like to believe. Chinese students respond better to large white men; however, they’re also terrified of their Chinese teachers, so I can threaten them with calling for their head teacher.
Teaching is incredibly interesting, as in it absorbs me, it holds my attention. Even if I’m exhausted and worried about the strength of my lesson plan, as soon as I’m up there in front of the students I know that the next fifty minutes belongs to all of us equally, that their claim on me is quite staggering. I say something and wait for the students’ reactions. I see what I say that makes them understand my directions, and I see what language I use that confuses them. I note their frustration with my inconsistencies and try to correct myself. I see that when I pair my smartest student, David, with my worst student, Angel, Angel learns more, sits up, and participates instead of keeping his head down for the entire class period. But then I notice that after two days of this, David is frustrated and unhappy and I miss his friendly smile and happy “Good morning, Teacher!” So I switch up the pairs again so he’s being challenged. Variety is good.
I don’t forget to keep myself amused. The kids thrive on competition, and one of my favorite games is to make them do a tongue twister race. Given the Chinese difficulty in acquiring the English “l” sound, I gave them this doozy during our two-day Christmas unit: “Eleven little elves licked eleven little lollipops.” The resulting debacle as fifteen Chinese students said, “Rereven rittle erves ricked ereven rittle rorripops” as fast as they could was hilarious. When I said it first to model it for them, they stared at me as if I had sprouted wings. Speaking English clearly and quickly wows them, because they still have so far to go. But some of them had an amazing command of the language. So much more impressive than my Chinese! They don’t realize how bright they are; the very smart ones kick themselves for the mistakes they make, not realizing how impressive it is that they know so much already.
Chinese ESL students also have a lot of trouble with the “v” sound, so Valentine sounds like “Walentine,” and for the life of me I couldn’t understand David when he was trying to say the word “suddenly” during our lesson on adverbs. I swear he was saying “sandly” or “sadly.” The more I learn about Chinese, the more I understand where their mistakes are coming from: either they make mistakes that result from the inconsistencies in the English language (of which there are, of course, plenty: for example, the verb “to go” conjugates to the past tense as “went.” Um, what, English? What?), or they make mistakes that are consistent with Chinese language rules but not English (for example, in Chinese there are no articles and the gender pronouns are pronounced the same, so Chinese ESL students often say “he” when they should say “she” and vice versa, and leave out “the,” “a,” and “an”).
One of the greatest difficulties in my Shenzhen classrooms will be first assessing and then addressing my students’ different levels of English language acquisition. Even in Beijing, with seventeen students, it was hard. One of the girls was eight years old, while everyone else was twelve or thirteen, except for Angel, who was fifteen years old and could barely understand a word I said. In a class of students between the ages of eight and fifteen, naturally I could not address everyone’s needs in every day’s lessons, especially because I am still inept and inexperienced. I also have the completely natural desire to make everyone like me, but I know that won’t be the case. I’ve been to high school! I remember!