Spots of Time

August 07, 2004

Goodbye Teacher

"Hello Teacher." Every student greeted me this way, every day. They almost never used my name (which was kind of hard for many of them to remember and pronounce). When I asked, "How are you today?" they always said, in unison, "I am fine...and, how are you?" Sometimes, I would forget procedure and ask the question slightly differently. Like, "So, how are you guys doing?" And, there would be blank stares and confused expressions - until I rephrased my question to the standard formula they were use to hearing.

After I finished my five week teaching contract, I was torn about my departure. On the one hand, I was keen to move on to my next adventure. On the other hand, I decided I actually enjoyed teaching, and would miss some of the kids. Because this was my first teaching experience, I'm not sure how much of it what I experienced was teaching in general, and how much of it was teaching in China. To me, at least for now, they will be one and the same.

And, that is important because perhaps teaching will be something I will do again in the future - either temporarily, or as an actual career path. I'm still not sure. One of the reasons I wanted to come to China was to teach - to have the chance to see if I would like what I was doing - if I had what it takes to be a teacher. And, I guess I am still not sure.

Teaching is HARD WORK. It is long hours, it is low pay, and it can be quite stressful. They say the only career path that makes more decisions every day is an air traffic controller - and one can imagine the kind of stress they are under! In some countries, especially the US, teachers are not given nearly the respect they deserve - which makes many avoid that path, even if they would make excellent teachers. Those who chose Education in college are labeled as....well, the catch phrases abound. My favorite is: "If you can do, you do - if you can't, you teach." I never held these same views, mostly because I had always considered teaching as an option and also because I had some really amazing teachers during my own school days.

The novelty of my presence in my school did make me more of a celebrity than I would be if I were a teacher in the US. Frequent request were made for my signature (my autograph!), or for a picture of me. The last few days of school, many kids came to me with camera in hand, asking shyly if they could take a picture with me. One little girl, whose English name was "Michelle" said, "Excuse me teacher, would it be ok if I took your arm when we took the picture?" I was so touched and put my arm around her shoulder while we posed.

Two little girls, Helen and Susan (all the kids had English names) both gave me pictures of them - and both wrote, "Please don't forget me!" Others brought me little gifts - from stickers to Chinese tchotckes to decorations for a mobile phone. One little girl, who had given me a banana earlier in class, waved goodbye to me and said, "Love my banana!"

I'll never forget the little boy (Jack) who asked me, quite seriously, why my eyes weren't blue. I had to struggle to keep a straight face when I told him that in America, everyone has different color eyes - from dark brown like his, to light blue to green and all colors in between. It was clear that was news to him. I realized that because 99% of these kids had never been out of the country, I WAS America to them. I asked them once if they thought all people in American looked like me. They all nodded quite seriously. When I tried to explain to them that there were all types of people in America - black, white, Latino, Asian - they just stared, trying to understand but just not getting it.

One personal regret was my lack of education about teaching. Without proper credentials I was frequently unsure if I was doing a good job. There were many times when I disagreed with the teaching methods of the headmistress, but without any professional teacher training of my own, I wasn't if they were actually bad teaching practices, or just contrary to what I had developed as my "teaching style."

Sure, there are things I will not miss. For example, chalk dust. I'm sure I have inhaled more than the FDA approved amounts. And, my black travel clothing, while ideal for not showing dirt, made me look like I had a fine layer of dandruff on everything I owned - no wonder teachers wear lighter colors! Another thing was my class size - it was almost always too big. Occasionally, I would have about 28-30 students, which was totally manageable. But, frequently, my class size would be approaching 50 students - just getting them quiet was a chore!

The language barrier came to play in all aspects of my teaching, and I realize if I taught in the US this would not be as big a factor. While the kids were mostly all respectful, toward the end it was clear many figured out that my statement about speaking "a little" Chinese was far exaggerated - and would take advantage by cracking jokes and misbehaving. But, this was not exclusive to the students. On more than on occasion I was sure I was the topic of dinner conversation among the teachers. My life was not my own. If I went to lunch or shopping with a teacher, everyone knew by the time I turned up to teach. Usually this was ok - but there were times when the gossip did get on my nerves.

One thing I am not sure is common to schools today or common to schools in China is the issue of cheating. In my classes, there was CONSTANT cheating. I'm out of the loop for school children these days, but I was SHOCKED at how much the kids cheated - even when I specifically said what was against the rules (dictionaries, translation calculators, whispering). Inevitably, even though I had said no to all of these things, kids would secretly pull them out of their desks during competitions. More often than not, when I noticed and said, "No cheating!" they would sheepishly oblige, wait until I had turned my back, and then pull it out again! I constantly alternated between being strict with them and turning a blind eye. It was clear to me this was a problem long before I arrived, and would continue to be a problem long after I left, which made me feel rather helpless to change things.

Personally, I think the cheating stems from the huge amount of pressure these kids are under to perform in school. Even though this is a private English language school, the pressures to do well still exists. The headmistress, sensitive to the pressure the kids are under, was always telling me to play more games and encourage the children by giving them easy questions they would know the answer to. Of course, this was me looking at her in the most benevolent light. A shrewd businesswoman, I'm sure as much of her reasoning stemmed from the desire to keep the kids happy so their parents would continue to pay tuition for her school.

One thing I found especially peculiar about teaching in China was that the teacher, not the student was to blame if the student did not do well. And, the teacher would also be praised if the student did do well. One day, an 8-year-old girl, the daughter of one of the teachers, sat in on my class while we were playing a game. She joined one team, and while the older kids balked at having a youngster on their team, she represented them at the board for one round of board races. Incredibly, while the other kids were looking left and right to see who had the right answer to copy, she quickly scribbled down 5 correct answers, the most of any of the kids. That evening, while the teachers were eating dinner, I told them about the little brain child who had sat in on my class - "What a smart little girl!" I said. Her mother was not there but her teacher was - and quickly made her presence known. "She is MY student," she said quite proudly. It was as though credit for the girl's success was due to the teacher. Worse was when, a few minutes later, she began to sing an American children's song, hoping to get the child to sing it and show again how smart she was. The little girl was shy and just kept eating, and I was embarrassed by the teacher, who, to me, looked like she was trying to make the girl perform on command.

While I believe that a good teacher can help a student progress, I also believe more that a good student can excel despite a poor teacher - and more than a poor student with a good teacher. There is a Chinese proverb that says, "A teacher opens the door - the students walk through on their own." True words. in my humble opinion. The ultimate desire to learn must come from the kid - and some kids have it more than others.

Looking back, I will miss being called "Teacher." It felt really good. I'm not sure if the feeling stemmed from finally having a professional identification title - other than "freelance philosopher" - or if it had to do with feeling comfortable in my role as an educator - however temporary it might have been. I'm not sure. But, somehow I feel sure this won't be my only experience teaching, though the future in this respects is still a bit blurry.