I’ve been teaching English in China for about four months now. I think I’ve become a much better teacher in that time. Sometimes you aren’t really sure, especially when your primary source of feedback doesn’t speak English.
I was just given a “Most Excellent Teacher” award by my company, which employs over 100 instructors, so I must be doing something right. I thought I’d share some insights here. All I can say with certainty is, I’ve changed my approach dramatically over the course of the term. Some teachers have a set style that they stick to, regardless of the class or setting. I’m not this sort of teacher. I’m the type that leaves every class and asks myself, “How could I have made that better?”
I’ve also changed my style because when you’re teaching in a different country, at some point I believe you have to.
Like many teachers who move abroad, I had a set Hallmark video in my mind of how classes would go. I had outlines for lessons on the full English gamut, from grammar to pronunciation.
I teach at both a primary school and a high school. For the sake of this story, I’m going to stick with accounts of primary school teaching.
After your first few classes reject your lessons (it’s bound to happen in a different country), your initial reaction is to blame the students. They seem especially blameworthy when they’re speaking over you, ignoring your requests to be quiet, and throwing paper airplanes.
This insanity happens frequently, especially when the teacher is foreign and the students are young. It isn’t mentioned when you’re recruited to teach or learning to teach, but it’s something every teacher must overcome.
One trait that helped me become great at swimming was having the ability to take criticism constructively. It means fighting my own nature; I hate having my feet held to the fire. Who doesn’t? But I also learned at a young age to take a laissez-faire approach to life. That is, to value everyone’s opinion equally. For swimming, it meant taking a comment on my technique from a stranger as seriously as an idea sprung from my own mind.
I have a big ego. Some people don’t recognize it because I’m a little quiet, but it’s true. And I definitely possess a strong and defensive reflex against people telling me that I’m doing something wrong. But, over the years, I’ve learned to recognize my own ego and cast it aside.
My previous job, actually, helped me fine-tune this ability. I have my last manager to thank. Sincerely, I’m lucky to have had a lot of people help me better myself.
So after a particularly bad class, one in which I was feeling especially testy, the last thing I wanted was to receive criticism from someone. It was a lesson I took a long time to prepare, so I held it as “beyond reproachable.” But a Chinese teacher gave me some criticism anyways, at a time when I didn’t want to hear it.
“Give them more songs and games. They’re just too bored and they need more fun.”
Surely, I thought, this can’t be the secret to managing a Chinese primary school classroom. My ego kept telling me, “If they don’t want to listen, it’s just because they suck.” And I assure any non-teachers: no teacher wants to hear that his or her lesson is boring.
But then again, this was a teacher who had worked with the grade level for multiple years. It was also a teacher who liked me; if she wanted me fired, she would have kept her mouth shut.
Regarding boring: we’re talking about a unique situation in which a nine-year-old is put into a class with a teacher who doesn’t speak a word of his or her language. I processed this for awhile and thought that there is a point to be made on ESL students being especially prone to boredom. More importantly, it isn’t their fault.
I went home and took a few deep breaths. What if, I thought, she’s right? And more importantly: What do I have to lose by trying something dramatically different?
Songs and games. These are not things that come naturally to me, especially songs. But still, if I’m going to try something new, I’m going to go “all in.” So, I developed an “alter ego” of myself, one who loves to dance, sing, and clap in front of primary school kids. I’d unleash the “alter ego” during class time, whatever his name is.
Then I looked through my lesson plan and scratched out everything that involved me lecturing. I brainstormed for awhile, asking myself, “How can the students receive the same topic in a lesson without having a teacher lecture them, at all?”
I devised a lesson that was something I’d never do under normal circumstances: a class that starts with learning the song “B-I-N-G-O” and the vocabulary in the song, then uses various chalkboard games for vocabulary work. I created a clapping chant for students who answer correctly. I started handing out stickers for prizes. I finished the class by introducing a second song.
The students loved every second of it. Students who weren’t even looking at the chalkboard were suddenly mesmerized. It was a total success.
I learned something then: you cannot fight a culture. You have to shape yourself and your teaching into the culture and the setting, and it does not matter how little you agree with what this entails. And if you’re going to teach primary school kids, you better have a goofy side.
I’ve met foreign teachers who have been in this city for five years or more and loved every term of it. I’ve also met teachers who are utterly embittered after three months and ready to catch an early flight home. Usually they’re bitter because their style of teaching isn’t working.
When something doesn’t work, try a different approach. The greatest rewards come from taking risks.
The foreign teachers who love China have one thing in common: they’re chameleons. They recognize that they’re in a different country and are willing to adapt themselves to meet its demands. They’re more apt to learn Chinese, to change their own approach, and to simply remove judgment when interacting with people.
Adapting yourself doesn’t mean losing yourself. It means having fun embracing and learning about something totally unique and new, while still being you.
Hey, I got a trophy for teaching, so like I said: I’m no Jedi master, but I must be doing something right.
Four months in, but they flew by…