I think I know what I’m doing

And that is a dangerous thought.  For the first time ever in my brief and not-so-illustrious teaching career, I actually think I have an idea what I’m doing and what I’m trying to achieve.  In the past (Israel, Korea) I basically winged it.  I think it showed in the results.  Of course, being with younger kids wasn’t good for me no matter how much I liked them.  And I am very different than the usual teachers they get.  I can’t emphasize very different enough.

I think about what I’m doing, and what I can do to make it more interesting.  I know what I want to achieve.  I won’t improve everyone in the classes English.  My goals are small but I believe achievable.  I want everyone to improve a bit.  If you’re at a level 1 (for arguments sake), I’d like to help bring you to level 3.  If you’re at level 5, I’d like to help bring you to level 7.  Every student is different so they aren’t starting at the same place so I can’t expect them to finish at the same place.  Some don’t care so I can’t really try and beat it into them.  I should just ignore them and concentrate on those that care.  And I have enough of those to keep me busy.

I don’t teach grammar.  I don’t teach reading.  I don’t teach reading comprehension.  I don’t teach vocabulary.  And I don’t try and teach those things.  I figure regardless of what the school thinks, that I’m here to help the students speak a little better.  I’m here to give them confidence.  I believe that by getting them to speak, they will start to speak better and enlarge their vocabulary.  It’s wonderful to see a student’s brain gears turning as they search for a word so they can tell me what they think.  I don’t accept “I don’t speak English”.  I tell them to use the words they know and explain it to me that way.  Sometimes when they finish I repeat their thoughts in proper English and verify with them that was what they said.  So it’s their ideas spoken properly.

I had one boy who was trying to explain something to me and he was stuck on a word.  He told me to wait a minute while he looked it up in his dictionary.  No problem.  He found the word and used it in the sentence he was saying.  I think there is more chance of him remembering that word than if he is memorizing words for a Chinese English teacher who tells them all (or their textbook tells them) what all the English words are in Chinese.

This isn’t a book language; it’s a spoken language.  The more they speak, the better they’ll get.  That’s what I’m betting on.  Now considering that I can’t speak another language I’m pretty sure of myself.  But this has to be the way.  I also need to get them to speak with less of an accent so that a Western person can understand them.  That’s not so easy.  I’ve offered sending them an MP3 of me reading something for them to listen to, and then they can record themselves speaking the same thing and then listen to that.  Then they can compare.  Only one student has written me to take me up on this offer and he thinks it’s a big help.  If these kids were a little more mature, they’d take advantage of these small things.  I have one student who has a good vocabulary but his accent is deadly.  Can I tell him his accent sucks?  I tell the students that Western people will ignore them if they speak with too thick of an accent.  But I can’t force them.

I tell the students that they are the boss.  I tell them the school pays me and might think it’s my boss, but the school isn’t my boss.  I’m there to do what the student’s want that they think will help them.  I think they’re starting to believe me.  I’ve basically tossed out the horrendous textbooks I was given and am doing my own curriculum consisting of many jokes and other treats.  I try to keep the class loose and funny and in a good mood.  I can get lots of laughs because a lot of my humour is physical and a lot doesn’t use many words.  I am the Entertainer.  I should write a song along those lines.

So on Wednesday I started with my “new curriculum”.  I have the students speak to the class on some topic I’ve devised for part of the class.  Then I wrote a question on the board for us to discuss.  “Can money buy love”?  I know, it’s a simple one but we have to start small.  A few were anxious to speak (this is my good class in the way that they try), and some who were trying to speak were terrible at speaking but working very hard to express their thoughts.  I was on such a high after that class.

For a laugh I tore a small piece of paper and wrote 1 million on it with a dollar sign.  I told them it was $1 million dollars.  Then when an unsuspecting girl would tell me that money couldn’t buy love I’d tell them that I was giving them a gift of $1 million with no strings attached.  Once they took the paper I would fall to my knees and ask them if they love me now.  It went over so well and the whole class understood.  It was great.

Then I had another class and I went from a high to a low.  This class is a little noisy.  I just got tired of being a policeman with my head constantly swiveling around looking for talkers.  I just gathered by books and told them I was leaving.  I told them they were rude and ignorant and had no manners.  I told them that I had heard that the Chinese were very polite people but obviously that was a lie.  I asked them if they spoke when they had a Chinese teacher and they told me they did when the teacher wasn’t talking which was an obvious lie.  Now not all the kids are bad.  We’re talking about maybe 10 out of 40 but that can ruin a class.  And it’s not just talking when I’m talking, but talking when other students who want to learn are talking.  That’s unforgiveable to me.  So bid them adieu and exited.

I think they were shocked.  I walked to the office to tell Wang Jing what I did and while on my way my phone rang.  It was one of the students asking where I was, telling me she was sorry, and asking me to come back.  Now why are the ones who are 100% innocent of any wrongdoing the ones to apologize?  I felt bad for her since I adore her (as does Shujie) and I’ve told her that if her parents ever throw her out that Shujie and I are adopting her.

Wang Jing had left for the day so I phoned her and told her what I had done.  I feel very bad when I lay these things on her doorstep but I won’t get angry and I won’t be a kindergarten teacher.  I explained to Wang Jing that the job said “College Teacher” and not “Kindergarten Teacher”, and that Kindergarten teachers are paid much more than college teachers (really).  She asked me who was with the class now and I told her that no one was and I didn’t care and I wasn’t going back.  She said she would talk to their head teacher on Thursday and either she or the head teacher would address the class before it began on Thursday.  I told her I would allow that and give it a shot.

On Thursday Wang Jing came to class and spoke for about 10 minutes.  She told them (in Chinese) that it wasn’t easy to hire a responsible foreign teacher (such as myself) and it was important that we respect each other.  She also told them that they just had one more chance to make it work with me.  It’s so ridiculous since the majority is good and is interested in getting better.  It’s ridiculous that a small minority can ruin a class.  I get to leave after this year and if no one gets better, my life goes on.  But for these kids, this is their only chance to get better.  They shouldn’t blow it or make it impossible for those that care.

One student (one of the good ones) got up and said the students were just asking each other to explain what I had said since they didn’t all understand me.  I told Wang Jing that was a lie since I always tell them to ask me if they don’t understand.  I am always saying, “do you understand” and if no one says no, that means they understand.  And besides, if a student is speaking to the class in English, why are they asking their friends what I said?  I said nothing.

Wang Jing confirmed with me that anyone can ask me as many times as necessary to explain something and I told her yes.  I figure if one person is asking there are probably 8 or more who don’t understand.  I have no problem explaining things.  My rule of thumb is I try 3 times to explain in English changing my words each time.  If I fail after 3 times, I’ll either look it up in Chinese or get someone who understands to explain it.  I’m pretty good at getting the point across in less than 3 tries.

So Wang Jing left and I tried again.  It was a very good class and I’m just going to forget the past and move forward.  If it happens again, I’ll leave again until the noisy ones are permanently removed from the class or I’m transferred.  I’m not asking for the best English speakers to be in my classes, I’m just asking for those who are willing to make an effort.  There are 12,000 students here and 1 foreign English teacher so I figure even though it’s just me; it’s a privilege for these students to have me.  How the school utilizes me isn’t the best way (in my opinion), but I’ll work with what I have.  And I really do work hard.  Much harder than I would have thought.

I had many students (good and bad) who didn’t do their homework assignment for Wednesday and I had given them 1 week to do it.  I told them to email it to me since 1 student had told me the school charges them for printing out something on paper that belongs to the school.  He suggested email and I agreed.  The school also charges the students for using a computer belonging to the school (not all students have their own computers) and that pisses me off.  It isn’t a lot but that’s not the point.  It’s wrong.  I told the students that if they wanted I would pay for their computer use if they asked me.

Some of the reasons I got for not having their homework was the popular, “I forgot”.  Among my other favourites was “I didn’t have your email address” to which I would reply that everyone else did so they could have asked.  A couple said they didn’t know how to use email and a couple said they didn’t have email accounts.  I mean, really lame stuff.  Some said they sent it and I would say “when” and they would say about ½ hour ago.  I told them it was due by 8AM so I was not accepting it.  I told them all that if it wasn’t done when it was supposed to be, they got zero.  And that 3 zeros meant I terminate you from my class.  I also told them to not send me anything because I wasn’t accepting it.

I got many emails that day with people’s homework.  Shujie said it was a sign of respect and I said it was a sign of sucking up.  I said the mature students bit the bullet and won’t screw up again.  I did get some emails without homework apologizing.  I’d like to quote two as they were written.  One just weirded me out and the other was very touching.

This is the one that weirded me out:

“HELLO teacher .I ‘m Fay I am sorry now send e-mail to you!Although you are about sixty years old people but you looks young!You very interesing and lovely”

This is the one that touched me:

“hi teacher im mandy ,i feel guilty and embarrass about you  .i hope that you can forgive me , as far as i am concerned you are a lovely teacher ,although we commit an error ,however you always,  smile on us . thank you for your forbear . next time i will never forget what you arrange the  homework.goodnight my teacher . see you tomorrow ! “

It can be an interesting life at times.

Yesterday, Friday, we did basically nothing.  Today we went to Nanjing.  Our mission was for me to find some English books I could use in class, to find some cheap DVD’s to watch, and to buy Shujie some books to read.  And for me to eat at Subway.

I got to eat at Subway in the subway station.  It’s not bad but the bread isn’t as good as home.  But I was happy.  And I had gelato for dessert and it was delicious.

We didn’t see any DVD stores but we bought one (for about $2.25) in a bookstore.  It’s “Witness For the Prosecution” which I love and I know Shujie will love.  I’ve never gotten it before now since I think that even with the English subtitles she’d miss a lot of it and in a mystery that’s not good.  So this has Chinese subtitles and I’m excited to watch it tomorrow.

Finding Shujie books was no walk in the park.  I didn’t see any I knew that I could recommend.  I have to hope they have the name in English so I know what it is.  There could be some great ones there, but if I don’t know the title I can’t say anything.  I told her to look at the Chinese books and see if something catches her eye.  She bought a book about a Jewish mother in Shanghai (true story).  She’s excited about reading it.  She’s read “The Kite Runner” and the “The Secret Daughter” in the last two weeks and for someone who I don’t think has ever read a book as a leisure activity I’m quite thrilled for her.  She loved them both and if she’s turned on to reading, I’m so happy.

Now for the books in English for teachers to use.  What a joke.  All the books have covers mostly (or all) in Chinese.  The spines are in Chinese.  If I want to check out a book I have to blindly take it from the shelf and open it.  It’s much easier if the spine gets my interest.  I gave up.  I bought one book (Shujie found it) and just didn’t want to look anymore.  I don’t think any foreign English teacher in China buys their own books.  It’s just too difficult.  In Korea, the books were in English.  Here they’re a joke.

I’m looking for a book of short essays that pose moral questions.  This way we can read and discuss them.  I had a great book in Korea I used with my adult class and I know exactly what I’m looking for.  I’m going to search on Amazon and if I find some I’ll buy them and download them, and then make copies (it’s illegal) to hand out to the students.  It’s part of my self-devised curriculum.

So Nanjing was a bust.  We both really don’t like it.  Suzhou is much nicer.  Shanghai is much nicer.  We’ll probably hit a new place next weekend.  When we got back to Jurong there were no taxis to be had to bring us home.  Some of the men in private cars (gypsy cabs) or bicycle cabs told us that the taxi drivers had gone on strike.  Naturally neither of us believed them.  We figured they just wanted to rip us off.  But no cabs came.  Then a man without a car walked up which gave him instant credibility and he told us that the taxi drivers had gone on strike.  They were working in the morning but now they weren’t.  We really don’t know the whole story but it’s something to do with government licenses.  So we let one of the rip-off gypsy cabs bring us home.  That meant an extra expenditure of about 80 cents.

Then it was time to hit the street for some Shou Kao and boy am I full.  Now I write and then read.  Tomorrow promises to be a day of nothing.  We were supposed to go for coffee with a student of mine (the one we want to adopt) but she has to go to Nanjing tomorrow.  I guess if I really want to annoy Shujie I can ask Lisa to go for coffee but perhaps I won’t do that.  Lisa did come to a class and a half of mine on Thursday.  It’s very uncomfortable when Shujie meets me at the end of the day and Lisa is there.  They don’t talk to each other.  It must be this silly woman/girl thing I don’t understand.  Lisa did bring a friend on Thursday to my class.  A very nice girl.  Her name is Eleven.  Don’t even ask.

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