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Back to School Part One: Getting Schooled

Posted by on March 3, 2012

Through all the honks and beeps of chaotic street traffic, past all the beautiful landscapes, the tranquility of forty-five elderly folks performing tai chi in the city square each Saturday morning, or heck, the oddity of seeing alligators for sale at the market, it was easy to forget about the most involved aspect of my stay: teaching English. That was the job that allowed me to come to China, after all. Funny how that wee “detail” kinda got lost in the whole mix. But it was no accident.

Truth be told, I didn’t want to think too much about it—nor did I think too much of it. I mean, tons of others have gone abroad to teach—so, whoop-dee-doo, right? And how hard could it be? Especially to a bunch of Chinese kids who, in my mind, were going to be little soldier students. Thus, leading up to my departure, and despite all the encouragement I received, I was a little sheepish about admitting my job. I would tell others, “That’s right, I’m going abroad to write . . . oh yeah, and teach.”

Silly Brandon.

It was maybe one whole whopping hour into my first day of training, and I realized I had underestimated three things about teaching: 1) the difficulty of doing it well, 2) how important a job it is, and 3) how rewarding this experience would be.

At that point, our middle-aged, clean cut Iranian-born education supervisor, Navid, was giving the low down on the school and our jobs as teachers. And it began to sink in, very quickly, that in a couple days, I’d have fifteen sets of eyes staring back at me. Imagine that: fifteen little Chinese kids looking up at you, or even worse, not looking at you because they’re bored or messing around with one another. What if they get out of line? What’s to compel them to listen to me? How long does fifty minutes in the classroom feel like anyway? Then some kids are louder or smarter or learn a different way than others. And I would be teaching five different classes—five combinations of all these factors. Oh yeah, then there would be all their names!

What’s more, up until then, I had thought that my job would be to simply, well, teach. Navid used the analogy that the teacher is an urn full of water and said it is their job to fill all the little urns. “Here we go”, I thought. I liked this analogy—clear, simple. Problem was, he was using this dated idea to contrast how far we’ve come in our understanding of education since the ancient Greeks used this very analogy! Hmmm, seems like my ignorance had me behind the times just a titch—like a few thousand years.

Socrates, the urn filler

Navid went on to promote another idea of education: that inside each student is a pearl. Some are easy to find, easy to shine. Some are more difficult. Our job as teachers is to discover this pearl inside each child and learn how to make it shine. This is what it is to teach, a discovery process, an interaction—and doing so to motivate, educate, and help another person grow. Boy, what an experience he was describing! And the character and expressive skills you develop as you teach are extraordinary for their variety and applicability: creativity, patience, vocal skills, presence, body language, confidence.

Suddenly, I was excited—a complete one-eighty from where I started.

Mr. Holland, pearl shiner

The Greek illustration was powerful for another reason. For it revealed that education is something that’s been studied for a long, long time. Indeed, what could be more important than how knowledge and wisdom get passed down? And specific to my assignment, I would be helping children open up their lives by learning another language—a gift that multiplies an individual’s experience in life unlike any other.

I realized what a lucky opportunity I had before me. And I was excited at the prospect of using these skills to affect the lives of many more, for many years to come.

Of course it was great to be movitated, but now how would I react to that roomful of kids? 

Outside the branch I taught at each weekend.

That first day of class started at 9 AM with my six year olds. One by one their mom, dad, or grandma took them by the hand and walked them inside the classroom. Most were shy. I had each come over to my chair near the front white board and write their English names on the board—their cute little hands holding the marker like a pencil and curling their t’s, j’s and i’s just like their primary school teachers taught them. Most didn’t have an English name, though, so I got to spend that first day naming them and introducing myself.

This was that first class

I did so by having them come up to the front and look at the map. I showed them Minnesota and motioned an arc mimicking the airplane route I had taken just a week or two prior. They thought that was kind of cool. But moments later, it got much harder. I had to settle them down and try to get them to listen—darn near impossible. (Well, impossible for Mr. Rookie here.) As soon as I’d approach one group to quiet them another couple would start chatting across the room. I was losing the proverbial game of whack-a-mole. And it wasn’t just chatter; they were moving about. One kid in particular, that little bugger in the white, yellow, and brown shirt above, would squirm in his desk and beat on his desk, and when I wasn’t looking he would get out of his chair, run to the white board, and start scribbling. He’d always have to sit by the door, which was fine, except he would constantly flip the lock or open the door. I’d talk to him and that would invite the other kids to become active.

When in the midst of all that, what do you do? Yell? I’d try that from time to time. Sometimes it just came out of me. And one father would tell me in those early days that I have to be tougher, because his quiet daughter wasn’t able to learn. Other teachers told me to make an example of that difficult boy, or go the other way and involve him more in the lessons. So I once made him my right hand little man and let him write on the board all the new words that day. That didn’t work too well, either.

One day his mother caught wind to what he was doing when as cracked the door open. She barged in, grabbed him by the arm and scolded him in the class, finger in face. I was like, “Okay, cool. Maybe that’ll help.” It did.

For a little bit.

But as the Saturday went on, the classes got older and typically better. And on my first weekend teaching I decided to shrug off any of that annoying weight called “lesson plans”. We’ll get to that later, I thought, and taught whatever came to mind. Just like my role as an uncle, I could “play” with these kids, give them back to their parents, and say “see ya.” But soon this fantasy was gone, remembering that I had a job to do. This was good for the obvious reason of them learning, but also because I was apparently a little too care free. So much so, I took the teaching assistants by surprise. (TPR, like many English teaching centers, have local bi-lingual teaching assistants—TAs—sit in the classrooms to help interpret for beginning English students.) One of these TAs apparently contacted Navid who turned around and called me to ask if I had been drinking before class. Initially insulted, I think I can now look back and realize that there may have been better ways to try to teach the word “throw” than by picking up a chair and pretending to use it as a football.

Now that got the kids’ attention!

There was a lot of learning going on those first days in the classrooms. And I think I was on the receiving end of most of it. This article showcases one example of many I’d have my year in China where I’d learn a lot not about just travel or China, but more general topics: education, poverty, government. It’s amazing the insight you have into these everyday issues when you reset your surroundings.

If you prefer the more experiential pieces, though, as oppose to these reflective ones, no worries. Next week I share with you an abundance of pics (and video) of my semester in the classrooms–adults, too.

Until then, enjoy your week and, say, what not go teach someone something?  :)




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