I woke up at 5:00 am, which is the time I have my alarm set to daily. My room is a little warmer than it was in January. In January, the ceramic heaters just couldn’t overcome daytime highs of zero degrees, which left me sleeping in a hat and scarf on numerous occasions. Now I’m at least sleeping without those, as is expected of a normal human being. I’ve heard that sleeping in the scarf you wear all day isn’t particularly healthy. Just a rumor, maybe.
I woke up and quickly did about 30 minutes of exercise with a jump rope and dumbbells, followed by a few rounds of pushups. I’m eager to jog outside again, but the weather hasn’t quite warmed up enough. Gym? Fuhgetaboutit! It snowed three inches yesterday, on top of another four inches of snow two days before that. The daytime high is still right at 32 degrees F. It’s March 16th. The lakes are still frozen solid.
It’s been a long winter. We’re going on five months of nonstop cold weather (and I mean, COLD). I was one heck of a trooper in January, but I should’ve geared up for a marathon instead of a sprint.
I agreed to teach three extra English classes this term. This morning was to be my first day teaching the extra classes, and I found myself regretting that I accepted them. Last fall, I had 19 classes spread over four days. This term, I have 22 classes spread over Monday-Friday. Those three extra classes make a BIG difference.
After exercising, I trekked over to my newest high school: No. 6 High School. Yeah, I’m also teaching at three different schools now. This is what the workforce does to people who do something well: it gives them more to do!
Public high schools can be difficult (as any job can be difficult), regardless of what country you teach in. They present the same common problems (or “challenges”, if you’re a glass half full kinda person). Rebellious kids, smart phone distractions, and a lack of resources are my “Big 3” problem (challenge) makers. I’ve seen all of them aplenty in China, which seems eerily similar to America. Sometimes it’s more challenging in China because there’s a language barrier preventing you from communicating what you want.
So, I wasn’t too keen on going to No. 6 High School, despite accepting the offer. I’d also heard mixed (okay, negative!) things about the kids there.
The school is enormous–six stories high and possessing hallways you can walk down for minutes straight without making a turn. The architecture looks relatively modern. It’s one of those buildings where every surface is glossy enough to see a little of your reflection. That’s not how I would describe the surfaces of most public schools.
When you enter a new school in China, you sometimes get what I think of as the “new foreign teacher treatment.” This means that you arrive with zero communication on what you’re supposed to teach, zero knowledge of where your classroom is, zero knowledge of what your eating situation is going to be (are you really allowed in the cafeteria? Roll the dice!), and zero knowledge of your teaching resources.
I always bring a “goodie bag” as backup in case the classroom is ill equipped. My “goodie bag” has chalk, an eraser, a USB, a computer mouse (sometimes you have a computer without a mouse), about 30 pens (students often forget theirs), a deck of cards for English games, a soft ball for more English games, some textbooks, and some printouts (in case the computer doesn’t work, I have printouts to either distribute or show via an overhead projector).
Sometimes you get a state-of-the-art classroom with a large LED monitor “touch screen” to present your beautiful .PPT-enhanced lectures. It will have a computer that’s easy to use and a sound system that’s perfect for any audio files you might have.
Sometimes you get a dank little cellar with a few rusty chairs, moldy windows, empty candy wrappers littered about the floor, and a stained whiteboard. All that’s missing is some padded walls and a straight jacket.
You might think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. In just seven months I’ve seen the full gamut. The quality of the classroom isn’t even dependent on the school. Sometimes the same school will put you in both great and not-so-great classrooms.
Needless to say, you’ve gotta be flexible and expect the unexpected. You have to accept that stability is gone. The moment you sign up to teach English in a foreign country, it falls out the window and crashes into a million sad little pieces.
I hate arriving at places extremely early–I’m a procrastinator by nature–but you need to allow a good cushion of time for teaching in a foreign country, especially on your first day. So I arrived at the school about 45 minutes early and used the extra time to figure out everything I would need before the bell rang.
I met the Chinese teacher in charge of the English department for all of five seconds. She threw a textbook my way and said, “You can use this.” Then she took off, leaving me to an empty classroom and my own devices.
Do I have to use this? Is it optional? Do I test them with this? Do we complete the exercises in this? Welcome to China. This is a common way of beginning a term, so it didn’t shock me like it did back in September.
I then waited in my classroom, in utter silence, until my first class arrived.
Sound like hell? This is a job, and all jobs have positives and negatives. I just described some of the negatives. Nothing in life is Utopian, and if you think teaching in a country that doesn’t speak your language is a great idea, it’s important to realize that there’s a reason foreign teachers don’t tend to last long.
There’s also plenty of reasons why foreign teachers choose to stay for years. As crazy as all of that sounds, the classes can be really fun.
I was pleasantly surprised that I liked the students. They left a first impression of being enthusiastic, attentive, and generally kind; you can’t really ask for much more than that. They genuinely wanted to practice speaking English, and they were eager for me to help correct their speaking. That makes the hassle worthwhile to me. When you have a group of kids that want to learn, the exterior BS becomes meaningless. It also doesn’t hurt that the students seemed to like me (I have an ego, so yes, even I need praise!).
Despite loving free time, I have to acknowledge something important: with every class I teach, I improve a little at teaching. There is something fulfilling about feeling tangible improvements in anything you do. Improvements signify growth, and if we aren’t growing, well… it means we’re dying.
I got home at noon and received a message from my company. “The Bureau of Education will be inspecting your No. 2 High School classes on Monday and Tuesday. Please prepare the best lessons you can. Make them perfect.”
This isn’t the time to be a smart ass and reply, “But no one is perfect!”
Like I said, you have to be flexible if you want to do a job this far off the beaten path. When I get messages like these, I responds with a simple “Ok, I will do my best,” and I get to work. What else can you do? So, I spent the remainder of my Friday creating what I hope are some decent high school lectures for next week.
I might be doing something right. In a field of about 120 teachers, I was selected the “Most Excellent Teacher” in the city for 2017. I don’t say this to brag… okay okay, I do a little! But mostly it’s to suggest that just maintaining a positive attitude and doing your job can elevate you over a very large field, in any facet of life.
Tomorrow I’ll get back to my “normal” weekend routine. This means going to the cinema, eating at a decent restaurant, and reading a good book. Not too much different from the American weekend, I guess.
A day in the life…