Jun 19, 2012

Luzhou school days

One whole year!

The basketball court

I’ll be honest: When we embarked on this crazy scheme, teaching was a means to an end. The job would take no more than 20 hours a week, and enable us a comfortable living with plenty of time off. Neither of us was sure that we’d like teaching, but we were psyched about embarking on a new life in China. If we had to put in time at a job we didn’t really enjoy … well, that wouldn’t be that different from what we had been doing in New York. In fact, the work would be easier and there would be a lot less of it.

A lovely bonus, however, was that we had a complete blast! We said goodbye to our students last week, but we’re already talking about how glad we are that we’ll get to see them again in the fall. (In case I didn’t officially say, we’ve agreed to teach another year.)

Real teaching is a difficult job and professionals who are good at it are worth their weight in gold. What we do is important and educational, but it’s not Real Teaching. It’s more fun-time language practice/cultural exchange. If everything goes well, class feels like hanging out with a really cool bunch of kids.

So how does it go well? Basically, it’s up to us to decide. Our bosses gave us the textbooks and said, “Do what you think is best.” Our contract forbids proselyting for any specific government or religion, but other than that, our only mandate is that we speak English with the kids. In the beginning, this was terrifying. During my first very class - senior 1, class 24 - Angie, one of my students, had to reassure me: “Don’t be nervous!”

But it was really hard. All I had at my disposal was a PowerPoint presentation that Peter and I had inexpertly thrown together the night before, with no idea of the students’ level of English comprehension or what to do to get them to engage with the language. Staring down 50 students with this as my only weapon was quite a challenge. It got worse when I used the same presentation with my junior students – who, no one had informed me, only had three weeks of English instruction. Literally, all that happened for that 40 minutes was an exchanged of alarmed and befuddled looks.

Day 2 went more smoothly than day 1, but the first few weeks were really tough. In addition to us not knowing what we were doing, the students were awed in to silence (or sometimes scared out of their minds) just by our presence. For many of our kids, Peter and I were the first and second foreigner they had ever met, and they were mortified to open their mouths in front of us. I’m not exaggerating when I say that some of our shyer students would literally try to hide from us - behind books, their hands, whatever. And each of us made students cry just by asking them to speak. (Not many, but more than one.)

Over time, however, we got used to them and they got used to us. And then the fun really started.

Kids in the courtyard

The most memorable students are the ones who very quickly stepped out of the pack to introduce themselves. There was Angie, whom I mentioned above, a girl who greeted me every week and demanded, “Do you remember my name?” until I actually did. Jay impressed Peter with his curiosity about the English language, needing desperately to know the word for a man who dressed up in women’s clothing. Jessi, one of my students, stood out early as both a talent and a jokester when she answered a question about her vacation by saying she went to Mars. “Did you enjoy the cuisine there?” “No. It was all rocks!”

Just as individual characters started to emerge, whole classes eventually started taking on distinct personalities. One day, the students of junior 1, class 2 decided that everyone wanted a turn to speak in class, and from then on they were basically falling out of their seats volunteering to read. In my senior 1, class 6, towards the end of the year they started “oohing” and “aahing,” first, whenever a boy chose a girl that he had a crush on (the students aren’t allowed to date, but love was definitely in full bloom this spring) and after that, whenever anyone chose anyone. In another class - junior 1, class 6 - the word “yellow” turned into Pee-Wee’s secret word. They went nuts every time it came up. The only explanation I ever got went like this: “Why do you guys like the word yellow?” “Because yellow is cool!” “Why?” “Because, YELLOW IS INTERESTING!”

There’s a 3-year age gap between the juniors and seniors, and I loved teaching both for very different reasons. The seniors were better at English, and we could have more sophisticated discussions. I loved the times when they would come up to me after class with pressing questions that ranged from “Did you hear about Whitney Houston? Very sad!” to “Let me tell you something about my hometown” to (after a lesson on earthquakes) “Natural disasters are very scary, but I am more worried about how humans can treat other humans so badly sometimes.” It was so exciting, and I felt so privileged to listen to the kids articulate these very thoughtful ideas in their second language.

The juniors, however, had the boundless enthusiasm of 12-year-olds who know that they’ll have to behave like grown-ups one day, but not yet. They would ask the “inappropriate” questions that the older children were too polite to ask, and a lot of the girls even sneaked up behind me and pulled on my curls. Once they decided not to be shy, they were all in. Which meant that classes were a lot rowdier, because jumping around and being silly is really fun, but my theory was that as long as we were doing it in English it was OK. To put it simply: The juniors adored me, and I adored them, and we just had a crazy good time together.

Fun on track and field

It wasn’t always a big love-fest, however. Peter and I each had two classes that were pretty difficult to control. They’d talk in Chinese or play games while class was going on, and they moaned and whinged when they were asked to speak English. We had no power to give detention or anything, so the poorer-behaved students quickly figured out there was little consequence to goofing off in our class - though I did throw a kid out once; he hung out in the bathroom until one of his Chinese teachers asked him what he was up to - and then he was really in trouble for getting thrown out of foreign teacher’s class.

The big surprise with these classes was that when we said goodbye, those students seemed genuinely sad to see us go. I think we each took it a little personally, but their misbehavior stemmed from the fact that they’re not that crazy about learning English. They liked us just fine.

Despite the (very few) rough patches, Peter and I both feel like we really accomplished something with our students this year. Vocabulary was learned, pronunciation was polished, grammar was developed, confidence was built. But the connection we made was deeper than that. “America is a mystery to me,” one of my students told me early on. She was one of many kids dying to consume every scrap of Americana we had to offer. So we worked hard to make sure our lessons were about more than just language. We covered American experiences, tastes, touchstones and even a bit of history - anything that would expand their knowledge of the U.S. beyond Michael Jackson, the NBA and “Big Bang Theory.” It was a lot to take in, and some of it went over their heads. But when it connected, it was really exciting.

It seems unbelievably cheesy to say that they taught us as much as we taught them, but we really did learn a lot this year. The school and its people wholeheartedly welcomed us into this community, and everyone, students and teachers alike, generously shared their lives and culture. From this vantage point, it seems startling that we ever expected teaching to be just a pay check.

And, man, the vacation time is sweet!

Enjoy our first all-original video production from Whoop Wu Studios.