Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Those Who Can't: A Case Study

Before I came here, I thought of teaching as a simple and relaxing occupation, somewhat akin to professional mattress testing or food sampling. After all, a teacher had a comprehensive grasp of his or her subject, so the actual teaching part was simple: just go into the classroom and talk about whatever bit of knowledge strikes you as important. Unfortunately, this has not proved to be the case.

I had also been told that in Chinese culture, teachers are held in high regard and are treated with reverence and respect. I had visions of students clustering eagerly around me, pleading with me to dispense just one more gem from the English language. The textbook I was given only reinforced this delusion with such ridiculous propositions as “Have the students form themselves into small groups to discuss the environmental challenges facing the world today. Because of the specialized vocabulary, some students may be tempted to use some Chinese words. This should be discouraged.” I now suspect that the developers of the textbook created their exercises in a more rarified environment, such as the Garden of Eden.

What I did not envision was a classroom full of students who snoozed at every opportunity, text-messaged their pals, chatted with their classmates in Chinese, and shouted “Class is over!” at each lull and "This is so boring! We hate it!" at every new activity. Clearly, this was going to be somewhat more challenging than I had imagined.

Thankfully, things like that usually only happen on the bad days. I hustle out the door at ten to eight, clutching my briefcase and water bottle, the two non-negotiables of teaching. I drink a lot of water. The first thing I do when I leave the building is sweat; Shanghai is on the same latitude as Austen, Texas, and the low altitude and coastal setting make for some hot, humid days. It would be warm even if the classrooms had air conditioning (which, naturally, they do not), but I make do by swigging water like it’s going out of style and keeping the shirt sleeves rolled up and windows open.

I teach 8:00-4:00, Monday through Thursday, which keeps me hopping. Each class has its own personality, and what flies with my studious and subdued Class 1 usually blows up in my face with my raucous Class 4 or the downright adverserial Class 2. That means that I always have to be ready to change up the plan if things get too hairy.

Part of the problem is that intermediate foreign-language study is not as fascinating a subject as, for instance, boyfriends and mobile phones (two topics my students are deeply interested in). So I try to compensate by being highly animated and by involving the students as much as possible. This caused some problems early on with my students, who were more used to traditional Chinese lecture methods. “Stop walking around!” they complained. “You make us feel sick!” At the beginning, the most common question I got from my students is “Are you crazy?”

After class, I generally stagger back to my office and collapse, but I rouse myself to grade the seemingly never-ending stream of papers, to write tests, or to meet with students who have English (or non-English) questions to discuss.

In the evenings, I work on the next day’s lesson or spend time with Desiree. We also use this time to try to get closer to students by playing games, talking, watching movies, or doing anything else we can together when our school duties (on both sides) don't preclude it. It’s often difficult since everyone’s time is limited, but we continue to work on new ways of making friends.

This week was final exam week, and I bid a fond farewell to my students. Even in the space of three and a half short months, I've grown attached to them. Teaching here may not be the utopian lifestyle I had imagined it to be, but it is eminently rewarding and challenging. And for those who may be considering their options: I recommend it over mortgage brokering.