We’re 28 days from leaving and have between one and three classes left with each group of students depending on the grade. Teaching new material is effectively done and now (at least in my classes) we’ll be reviewing, taking my final exam, and saying goodbye. It seems that just as I was getting the hang of “this teaching thing” the WKU teachers got here and now, after they leave on Wednesday (how has their month here already passed?!), the semester and year are officially concluding. We’re in the home stretch.
As I’ve been observing Haley’s classes and advising her as best I can on the “different beast” that is teaching English to Chinese students, I’ve come up with a list of things I’ve learned about teaching (in this specific environment) this year:
-Your class may not count, but you do:
My classes have not been worth a grade or had any “official” impact on the academic careers of my students, which has made engaging disinterested students even more difficult, but as the students realize I’ll be leaving in less than three weeks and that I will not be their teacher next year, there is no doubt that I, personally, matter to (most of) them. Just as relationships with the students have been really rewarding to me, I think the students have relished the personal attention Duncan and I strive to give to them. We interact with the students very differently than their Chinese teachers do (most characteristically by emphasizing positive interactions – whether it be creating a positive, shame-free, and fun learning environment or rewarding correct answers and good behaviour) and making ourselves accessible and welcoming to casual interaction has clearly been important to the students. They’ll miss us as much as we’ll miss them.
-You have to adapt your vocabulary to words and phrases the students have likely encountered or been taught before:
You have to bring yourself, your lesson, and your teaching to a level that is understandable, accessible, and relevant to them. For example, our students were taught “water-closet” or “W.C.” instead of “bathroom” and before I taught them that the American equivalent is “bathroom” or “restroom”, I had to acknowledge that they were correct and that I understood them. I taught them “Earth friendly” rather than “environmentally friendly” because they had already learned the word “Earth”. I have simplified my spoken English in the classroom to make them more able to understand what I’m saying without relying on a translator. My goal with this was to get them understanding and using as much English as possible independently rather than relying on a translator or losing their interest in my class because I was just speaking at them incoherently.
-No matter how ridiculous it feels, talk slowly:
I’m a fast talker with my English-speaking peers so slowing down my speech enough that non-native English speakers could have a chance at understanding me took quite a bit of adjustment. It wasn’t until I really started trying to communicate on my own in Chinese that I realized just how big of a difference it makes in whether or not I can understand and continue to communicate with people. I really appreciate it when people are patient and considerate enough to slow down their speech so I can catch the individual words and phrases in Chinese and so I have made a deliberate effort to do the same with my students learning English. In turn, they’ve even slowed down their Chinese enough to teach me new words and phrases.
-Become a mime:
One of the hardest things to get used to about teaching, other than speaking at (what feels like) a glacially slow pace, is learning to be exaggeratedly expressive. Often to help explain the rules of a game or a concept, I have been very literally demonstrative. Whether it’s just pointing or miming an action with your entire body, expressing yourself with more than just words is very helpful to students. This also took me a while to adjust to, but once I did, my students began understanding me and getting more out of my classes almost immediately.
-Get used to embarrassing yourself:
This applies to pretty much every aspect of living in China, especially if your language ability can’t be categorized as fluent, but it is especially true when teaching kids. Talking slowly and literally acting out everything in your lesson sometimes turns you into a comedic variety show, of sorts, in your classroom, but it’s worth the embarrassment and self-consciousness since it often is beneficial to your students’ learning. One of my lessons was on health words and this meant that for every “cough”, “sneeze”, “help”, “sick”, and “sleep”, I was essentially acting out a charades game by myself. Whereas this benefitted the older kids by their learning the English equivalent to a visual thing rather than to the Chinese translated word, the younger kids joined in on the acting and they learned the new English words through total-body engagement in the lesson. Now, if I asked my students what I’m doing with my hand over my mouth, they know I’m acting out “mask”. It’s weird; it takes some creativity; but it seems to work and makes class more fun.
-There is a ton of variety in your classes:
In all of my classes, I can expect and have found an enormous amount of variety in age, ability, patience, learning style, hygiene, interest in school, background, interest in extracurricular activities, willingness to speak in front of the class, willingness to speak just to me, comprehension, and speed of learning amongst many, many other factors. This is especially true in my older classes in which I have eighth graders who can barely count to twenty in English while their desk partner is having full conversations with me in English and wishing me to “have good dreams” at night when I go to sleep. This makes creating a lesson even more difficult (than it already is considering how infrequently I see the students). While some kids may want only to learn about hobbies and computer games, others want to learn about American culture, others need to be tutored in basics such as colors and numbers, and others could genuinely care less about your class or ever speaking English for that matter. Do I cater lessons to the advanced and interested students or do I cover basics but leave the advanced students bored? This is not a situation unique to ESL teachers in China, but it has presented me with some challenges that I wish I had been better prepared for.
I have also learned a lot about what I would do differently were I to teach these classes again. For one, I would focus more on teaching frameworks rather than vocabulary, at least at first. For example, I wish I’d spent more time teaching phrases like “I like ____”, “I feel ___”, “I want____”. In the long run, I think this would have been very useful for the students and, though what I taught the students certainly was still beneficial, frameworks would have been more universally applicable. I also wish that I had taught phonics from the very beginning. One of my biggest criticisms of how Chinese students learn English, at least from my experience at this school, is that they memorize how to say a new word but since they don’t have a firm grasp on phonics, they are unable to sound out new words they see or how to hypothesize how to spell words they recognize orally but not visually. I wish I had taken the time every time I taught a new word to sound out and focus on the phonics. Maybe that would even eliminate the frustrating “-a” added to the end of every word(-a).
Another thing I’ve come to see in a new light is technology in the classroom. When we first arrived at this school, we were frustrated (I was a little panicked) about our classrooms. We were told that we would have multi-media classrooms but lo and behold, when we entered our classrooms for the first time, we found a chalkboard, fifty desks, and about 3 pieces of chalk. Since I can’t even remember the last time I had a class in which the teacher only used a chalkboard, I was dumbfounded on how to teach a class without technology. In the US, teachers and education majors are increasingly expected to use technology such as Smart boards, PowerPoint presentations, and YouTube videos in their classrooms. And before this experience teaching in China, I was fully on board with all of that and more in the classroom – in an increasingly globalized and technological world, of course technology should be utilized. Though I still agree with this, I’ve become aware of a different angle – that maybe we’re too dependent on technology. By writing on the board and making my own flashcards, I’ve effectively taught 25 classes a week without a single electronic aid and now that I look back on it, I’m not sure how a Smart board would have taught the students any more vocabulary than I did without it. I was talking with the other teachers the other day and they mentioned another interesting aspect I hadn’t thought about before – patience. With technology in the classroom, lessons are sped up, students can switch focus (and get distracted) quickly, and, teachers can lose the attention of students even faster. But in our classrooms here, where students are accustomed to waiting the few extra seconds it takes to write a sentence on the chalkboard rather than it almost instantaneously flashing on the screen, students are required to have a little more patience, a little less entertainment, and a little more focus for a longer period of time. Perhaps, in the midst of our ADHD “epidemic”, we should try teaching without instantaneous gratification and flashy Powerpoints, and instead teach our kids, in the classroom, how to listen, how to wait, and how to be behaved and patient while they wait for a few quiet seconds.
To end this post (much longer than I originally intended when I sat down to write it), here are pictures of some of my classes from last week:
Thank you for reading and until next time,