There is a dark side to teaching abroad. Yes, there are fun days, but like any full-time gig, there are also serious disadvantages to moving and living in a foreign country. Culture shock is a very real phenomenon.
Sometimes, teachers disappear. That is, they freak out from the culture shock (or multitude of other things they didn’t expect to encounter), secretly buy a ticket back to their native country, and fly away without telling anyone. They have to flee in secrecy because if they are caught, they will have broken a contract, which can incur some serious monetary and legal penalties.
The school will often find out that their teacher fled on Monday morning, when a class has to sit and wait for a teacher who will never show. Schools and agencies are used to this. There are several “fugitives” every year. Thus, it takes time for a foreign teacher to earn the trust of peers. The first few months, it’s difficult to tell whether a teacher will end up being a “runner.” I have to say that I empathize a little with the schools and agencies here, because it means a loss of money and the shortage of a teacher.
I’ve seen three teachers flee since I arrived last August, which is no short number. The Colombian teachers that I know especially hate this city, mostly because of the weather. One of my Colombian friends, Luis, fled last weekend. He didn’t say a word to me or anyone else beforehand; I suspect he just snapped from the weight of his challenges. One day his roommate went home to find Luis’s clothes and belongings gone.
Luis texted me today. “I’m sorry I had to leave Matt… it’s just so cold and I miss my family. My feet… even when I go to bed, I cannot feel my feet…”. The Colombians I’ve met arrived without enough winter gear and quickly felt the shocking effects of a brutal winter. Culturally, China is about as different from Colombia as it gets.
I remember once, in our Chinese class, when Luis refused to remove his scarf from his face to speak. We were in a heated room by that point, but he was in utter agony. The Chinese instructor would say, “Luis, can’t you remove the scarf to practice speaking a little?” Luis would mutter from beneath his scarf, “I’m… too… cold.” He also had a hat on, and the only part of his skin I could see was his glasses.
The other Colombian I knew, Juan, always said similar things. He somehow made it through his contract though. As I stated in another blog, at the end of his contract, he was practically dancing in the air. I saw Juan enter the taxi for his “final ride” to the airport; he did one of those “heel kicks” in the air before he got in. “Free at last! Colombia, here I come!” In my mind I was thinking, “Man, if I met you earlier I’d help you find some good winter boots.” I asked him if he ever considered a contract extension. “For God’s sake, no!”
You form a strong bond with the foreign teachers who manage to stick around. You have to, really. The foreign teachers are a small enclave of people in your city who speak your language. You discover your favorite places and hobbies together. You hear their life stories and, regardless of where they’re from, draw parallels to your own life. If you’re interested in different cultures, teaching abroad is definitely for you. In Changchun, you might spend a morning with Russians and Ukrainians, an afternoon with some Chinese peers, and a weekend with Colombians, Canadians, or French teachers. You see all walks of life and there’s never a dull moment.
I was thinking about the profession of teaching full-time in a public school system today. It isn’t always easy. I read in an article that public school teaching is rated the “second most stressful” job in the world. I wouldn’t go that far, but I will say that it isn’t always easy. Regardless of what country you teach in, you encounter some bad seeds, as well as bad classes.
I had a very rough Monday this week. I spent a large portion of Sunday preparing what I thought were going to be some great lessons. Then, at the primary school, every class began with students being downright disruptive. Paper airplanes flew. Pushing and shoving was happening everywhere. Suddenly, I had to spend more time being a classroom manager than teaching. I was especially disappointed because it was utterly unlike most of my Mondays, so I didn’t expect it.
Later that afternoon, I had my “special” class at my high school. This is the class where the school system bundles all the kids who either have disciplinary issues or test scores that are significantly below average. As a full-time teacher, I have to manage this class, often without another supervisor.
Getting through this class is difficult, and it was especially difficult on Monday. Often, I’m not even thinking about the lesson plan; I’m just looking closely at the people to make sure no one gets hurt! Monday was an especially bad day after I had a tough time with the primary school. The bell rang and kids started turning their desks around, away from me. Some kids took out their cell phones. Everyone was grossly eating snacks, throwing wrappers on the ground, and shouting over me. Some were playing cell phone music over my speech. This was all in the first 60 seconds of class. Every attempt I made to quiet them down was falling on deaf ears.
As a foreign teacher, my school prohibits me from doing the following: yelling at students, kicking students out of class, demeaning students, and physically harming students. In truth, I think this is fair. What use is it to yell at a kid in a language he or she doesn’t fully understand? If I was 16, there is no way I’d be receptive to a teacher yelling at me in a foreign language. And if I kick a student out of class with a learning disability, which many of them have, there is nowhere for the kid to go.
The kids have Chinese teachers and parents to fulfill disciplinary issues, and of course I can report them if their conduct is impermissible. For a “special” class such as this one, I just try to manage and maintain enough discipline to get students participating and speaking a little English. To me, this means making a highly participative lesson plan, enforcing rules as best I can, and not taking things too personally. On this particular Monday, though, the class was so egregiously bad that I immediately felt crippled. I asked kids to put their cell phones away and they glared back at me. I asked them not to face the back wall, and they again ignored me. I wanted to leave the classroom and never look back, but knew I couldn’t do that. So, I went through the motions of my lesson plan and did my best to tune out the disrespect that I was receiving. I just couldn’t muster the energy to do much more than that. “Survival mode”.
It was the worst class I have ever encountered, in academics or athletics, as an athlete, student, or teacher. It isn’t even close.
That night, I had self-loathing thoughts such as “you’re a terrible teacher,” “you don’t belong here,” “no one respects you,” etc. It was difficult. I needed a good night’s sleep. I was told by a few other foreign teachers that it’s just part of the trade. Everyone encounters it at some point. Don’t take it too personally.
Since then, every class I’ve had this week has been great. Tuesday was wonderful, as was Wednesday. It was affirming enough for me to consider Monday an “aberration.” You really can’t take this job too personally; it’s public school, after all. And teaching, like any job, has peaks and valleys. You just can’t let the bad days overshadow the great ones.