Several people have asked “What is the teaching like?” It’s hilarious. It’s taxing. It’s fun. It’s frustrating. It’s perplexing. Let me go into a bit more detail.
Briant and I wake up, spend a few minutes getting dressed in semi-professional clothes and hustle down for the 7:15 breakfast in the school cafeteria. Breakfast is always a rushed affair, since our teaching begins at 7:40 AM. After a 15 minute breakfast, we’re in the Supply Room, where we grab any last-minute additions to our supply buckets and snag our Token Aprons before heading to the fourth floor. We hurry to arrange our rooms and get the Weather Chart, Star Chart, Calendar and Song Cup in place—by about this time I’m starting to get that anxious, about-to-be-on-stage kind of feeling, even though we’ve been doing this for two months now. Maybe it’s because each day is still a surprise around here.
The kids come roaring down the hall like a flash flood in a slot canyon. They used to come pouring into the Opening room (where we all meet to sing a song and talk about the date and weather before dividing into classes), where they’d immediately fall on the floor and start dog-piling each other, or rattling the chairs stacked on the desks, or chasing each other around—you get the picture. Madness. Lately we’ve taken to waiting for them in the hallway, where we physically have to stop the full-on run of a few of the children. We coax and correct the children until they’re all standing more or less calmly in their class lines before we lead them, one class at a time, into the Opening room. By this point there’s usually only a few minutes left of the 10-15 minute time allocated to Opening, which we spend singing a song (which most do with gusto, whether or not they know the words) and trying to keep the kids from chasing each other around the room.
In my time as an Education Outreach Presenter at the Living Planet Aquarium, I went into elementary schools and taught on a regular basis. I’d never seen children seem to act so crazy and out-of-hand! It’s interesting that the children behave this way during English Class, since their Chinese teachers seem quite strict and don’t appear to put up with anything short of complete attention and straight lines. Maybe it’s just wiggly kids that need an outlet somewhere in their 12 hour school-day…
Each of the four teachers in our group takes their ten children to their classroom. My classroom happens to be the Opening room, so I need to rearrange my desks every morning. It took a while (and a few stern lectures in the simplest English I could muster), but the kids in my first class know to stand in a line at the front of the room while I whip the desks into formation and arrange my teaching supplies. I seat them according to who is being good and have to try to remember who is currently a distraction to whom. Tim hit Marin during Opening, so make sure they’re not seated near each other. Never put Jenny anywhere near Jerry. Anna speaks up more when she sits next to Carly.
Things are getting better now, but in the beginning of the year, teaching was insane, depressing and frustrating all at once. Picture this: it’s the first day of school, and I don’t even know the names of the eleven kids in front of me. They’re only 6 or 7 years old and half my height. Some of them know some English from home, some have only taken a year of English classes like mine, and some hardly know a lick of English at all. “What’s your name?” I asked a little girl. She stared up at me, eyes wide with a mixture of confusion and fear, then began looking to her classmates with a helpless “Do you have any idea what’s going on?” kind of look. It was a full week before a Chinese teacher gave me a list of the children’s English names. It was another two days before she was able to help me tell each child his or her English name (since some of the kids didn’t even know enough English to recognize their own English names). Try telling a child to listen, or to stop wandering around the room when you can’t call them by name!
For the first six weeks, I taught arts and crafts. The teaching style of our program requires that all the kids have the same materials and that they perform the same action at the same time as the teacher, so they can repeat what the teacher says and have the context be correct (ie the teacher folds the paper and says “I am folding the paper.” The kids are folding the paper at the same time and say “I am folding the paper”. ) The sentence they say has no meaning unless they’re actually doing what they’re saying they’re doing. Within the first week, I learned that I can’t hand them any material at all without going through a “what do I do with this?” conversation. I’d bring out the paper and would begin, “When I get my paper, do I rip it? No! Do I throw it on the floor? No! Do I fold it? No! I put it on my desk, and I don’t touch it. Yes!” Until I implemented this little conversation, most of my classes were spent trying to reign the kids in during their paper-throwing sprees. I still have to remind them occasionally, but now my kids hear me begin my “what do we do with this?” lecture and they cut me off with an excited “Teacher! I pu’ it on my desk, an I don’ touch it!” They even put out their hands, as if to touch the paper, and snatch their hands away, just to show me they know what I’m saying. It’s funny how proud that makes me. Every time they grasp a new language concept and speak a little bit more, I’m able to get to know them a bit better. These days we understand each other enough for me to tease them. Yesterday I noticed that a student was missing. “Where is Alex?” I asked. Several of the students started pantomiming something happening to Alex’s leg–grabbing their leg and crying out in pain. Then one of them happened to say the name of another student. “Blue bit Alex?” I said in horror. The kids took a moment to process what I said, then laughed and tried to explain again. I love their personalities, even if they’re sometimes out of hand.
We’re supposed to have 20 minutes to teach each class, but the school didn’t factor in any time for rotating from one class to another, so it’s more like 15 minutes… The kids all know the sound of my alarm by now and will either groan a loud “Teacher no!” or cheerfully yell “Goo-bye Teacher Beeta!”—it all depends on how much they like me that day. I gather my dispersed materials (which sometimes includes prying them from the hands of stubborn children or digging into the desks of children who give me an innocent look and show me empty hands), throw them in my box, and head to the next class in the rotation.
Although we teach the same lesson to all four groups, we all consider our first group “our” class, and each group is different. Briant’s class can’t seem to stay in their chairs, and I no sooner get one child off their desk than I turn to find Dan kung-fu kicking in the back of the class-room. I don’t always do a lot of teaching in that class, and I think they kind of resent me for not entertaining them more. Colby’s class is easy to work with, although they’ll scream the modeled phrase at the top of their lungs. Many of them are also in the habit of screaming the modeled phrase, then screaming out their names—just in case I forgot to give them a ticket for saying the phrase. Nicole’s class is also easy to work with, but she has opinionated students. Just today I was using “warm-up dice” (kids roll it and then we do the lunges, or jumping jacks as the dice dictates). Elena refused to get out of her chair. “Elena,” I said, “Don’t you want a turn to roll it?” “No teacher.” She said, giving me her most bored face. Nicole’s class also has the kids who speak the most and the least English, which creates an interesting dynamic. It means I have Eric over here staring blankly at me as he repeats the question I ask (rather than answering it) and Zoe explaining in detail how I need to divide up the apple for everyone. My class is one of the most challenging. I have a few students who are blatantly disrespectful, mocking me when I give instructions and going limp when I try to walk them over to the “Chinese Chair” (which they sit in if they forget to speak English). In spite of that, I still feel a sense of pride in my students–they’re my kids! Overall, I’ve learned that teaching the kids is always chaotic, but that there are some things I can do to channel the chaos, to ride the unstoppable force of their craziness and energy like a surfer riding a wave. Sometimes it goes well, leaving me exhilarated and exultant. Sometimes I flop and that wave mercilessly pounds me into the sand.
After an hour and a half of teaching, we line the kids up outside—one boy line, one girl line. It’s more like herding cats. Then the Chinese teacher arrives, speaks sternly in Chinese, and the kids jump into line to follow her down the hall.
We return to our now-quiet classrooms, straighten the disheveled desks, push in the scattered chairs and sweep the cluttered floors. The Weather Chart, Star Charts, Calendar and Song Cup are stored in a desk. Our supply boxes are taken back to the supply room, where we swap stories about the children as we put away one lesson and prepare the lesson for the following day.
That’s our typical weekday in China.
Briant, Colby, Nicole and I are also charged with ELE (an acronym for which we have never received the definition), which means more lessons to more children—but given the length of this post, I’ll save the details of ELE for another day.