I’ve finally done the rules talk with everyone. I need to adjust some of my lessons since not everyone is doing the same thing each week. I found and downloaded the ebook “The Reluctant Disciplinarian”. I really want to make this the year when I’m in control of my classroom. Teaching really shouldn’t feel like going into battle. Obviously, I’ll need to adjust some of the advice given that I am not fluent in Chinese nor are my students fluent in English but I did come away with some key thoughts.
In particular, I’ve thought about the need to be in charge. Teachers need to have high expectations and this book reminded me that students in turn have expectations of me. Students will test you and want you to pass the test. In light of this, some behaviors I’ve observed make complete sense. That’s why a student who quietly motions for me to count down or to take class points one week is pumping air into a water bottle with a bicycle pump on another day. I used to think “They have their days because they’re kids” but that’s only part of it. They need me to be that authoritative presence. They know that discipline is part of the job. They expect it. I’ve also tried to do a little more of what “real teachers” do to set those expectations better than I did last year. I gave my students homework. A small assignment, but I wanted to set that precedent now. Everyone who had their nametags and brought a notebook received a stamp, which in turn encouraged everyone to bring notebooks. I’m not sure everyone actually bought one, but things definitely changed when I and checked in to see who was taking notes. Things were more focused, quieter, more like what I expected from students. I suppose there is truth to the idea that while I am free to be the fun teacher, I still need to make it clear that I have the same expectations other teachers do. Students don’t openly say it’s for the better, but I sense a change. Maybe I’ve finally earned some respect. One of my classes got a C, then a D. They weren’t happy, but no one argued with me. I asked their other English teacher if I could watch her at work she mentioned that they’re tough for her too. She frequently walks away mad because of the noise. I’ll take notes on how she handles discipline. It would be good to identify a head teacher and observe his/her class too. Even if they are not an English teacher, head teachers are responsible for class discipline.
“The Reluctant Disciplinarian” gave me no miracles but it reminded me of what I can do and need to do. I do not have the fresh start now that Rubinstein did, but I do get the pleasure of seeing how both my students and myself change over two years.
So this week is the final one (sort of). The zhongkao (the first of the two big tests Chinese students and parents invest so much into, the high school entrance exam) is this week and the test itself takes two days. The school will also close for a day so they can completely examine the school for any devices or things that may be used for cheating. My liaison said we'd have Thursday and Friday to teach but my kids say "one day of classes" so I guess it's just Friday? To make up for the time lost when the school is hosting the exam, the kids had classes on Saturday and Sunday. I actually got a bus on Sunday morning from Changsha to catch my classes and chase down the last class that still had a sizeable numbers of students who had not finished the exam. Now I have maybe 10 stragglers from different classes: 1 here, 2 there, 3 in another class, 1 in class 3, and 5 in class 7...which is a pain because I can't put my notebooks away until I catch them all. My conscience won't allow me to rest if I just sit back and make no effort to find students during lunch or breaks.
So while I rushed to catch my Sunday classes, there was no way I was going to make the Saturday classes. They didn't even tell me about the make up days until Thursday even though I told them I'd be leaving on Friday evening to get out to Changsha for the end of service conference. I thought about saying no to the Sunday classes so I could just go out all night without worrying but I got nervous about finishing things up so I agreed to do Sunday classes. The end of service conference is nice, a great way to wrap up, see where everyone is going, and prepare for going back home (they even talked about reverse culture shock and preparing for the various questions people are likely to ask about China and teaching there). We learned the results of the media submissions contest (videos, photos, pieces of writing and such that people worked on about their time here). It was a time to relax and see people, to reflect, and enjoy one last day together as a group. We all had individual "yearbook pages" with our photos for everyone to sign and send good wishes. We also all received gifts of simple mugs with the WorldTeach China logo on one side and our name and the name of our school on the other. It's pretty cool and an excellent complement to the Swiss mug I received as a gift in Italy last year. There are about 10 of us coming back to China, though only two of us (myself included) are staying with WorldTeach for a second year. It will be good to see my students again, though I realize too that a lot of people who know that I could earn more independent of the WorldTeach program and its requirements to complete teaching modules, monthly wellness forms, and to submit lesson plans are probably thinking it's crazy. I like hearing my students talk more each week and I guess that's its own reward. It's kind of hard to encapsulate that whole day right now. We had some show and tell sessions in which we talked about an object that was meaningful and related to our time in China. Here is mine:
Back in December, I did a shopping related lesson and made fake money. I tried to ask the students what they needed in order to go shopping. Answers included "Trousers", "fruit", and "I need to buy a notebook" at which point I would draw various currency symbols or pull out my fake money to get someone to shout the magic word. I chose it because I felt it encapsulated pretty well that I enjoy my students, and that they seem to enjoy me and have a lot of fun. However, drawing pictures of your teacher in class when you're supposed to be listening to your classmates isn't quite what I wanted. So they don't do everything I want, as I want them to but the relationship is there. And I find it an intensely amusing picture too. My students loved the chance to talk about money, being asked how much you make is common to everyone here, and I have no doubt that my students think I'm pretty well off after looking at my computer ("Oooh i7!!") and seeing the cost of a children's picture book. I almost brought chopsticks for the novelty that is being asked if I like Chinese food even this many months into my time here.
We wrapped up with a final dinner at a nearby restaurant that we simply call "the Mao" because of all the images of the Chairman that are there as well as his most famous poem, "Changsha" being printed on the back wall. I'm not sure what it's actually called in Chinese. We ate well, the steamed eggs weren't such a big hit but I was surprised by how thick it was. I actually managed to eat it with my chopsticks after putting some into my bowl and it held together. It was a lot of our favorites, stir fried enoki mushrooms, cabbage and peppers, pork and peppers, eggplant with green beans and peppers, pickled turnip (with a few red peppers but it was more sweet than spicy and a good way to take a break between dishes), tofu with celery, peppers, green onions and other essentials, and a few deep fried taro balls. There were no peppers in the taro balls. The department of education was supposed to eat with us but something came up so it was just us. A lot of us still dressed on the nicer side anyway. I wound up breaking off the from the group after they left to go to a place called Mega (where I've never been) and walked back towards the hostel with the director and assistant field director and talked about the academic pressures I went through in middle and high school and what I saw at my school here. I also talked about the difficulties in talking about different strategies with teachers who really want to improve their skills (and their students' scores) and frequently hearing "and then they memorize it?" While I think rote memory has its value, you need to pair it with skills that require practicing a process. When I was taking AP classes, we had to know the information, we had to know the contexts and dates and things but we also spent time practicing on old test questions and going through how to form a thesis statement and pull together various documents into an essay. Here, the teachers say they try to guess this year's questions and make students memorize stuff about that question. Though I see why they might do that, I would also imagine that's rather unhelpful since no one should know what is on the test before it comes out so students need to know how to actually read and listen rather than recite. Or they'll just get lost in the mass of words in front of them. I talked about how a student at my high school (years before I started) had called someone in Taiwan about the AP US history test and took advantage of the time difference to learn about the essay questions. A teacher gasped, but then she told me that they try to call people in America who take the TOEFL the day before they have it in China and ask about the questions. I struggled to bite back my tongue and ask if that wasn't also cheating. It's so hard, I know that this is the norm in China and in my position I can push my students to think differently but I still struggle with the extreme to which people use rote memory here. And then I just feel Americans get so heated about the impact that putting so much pressure on young students has on them. I don't like it, it's not nice, and I sense that many people say "That's not fair" in China but I could also see the argument that these arguments against all that pushing is easier when you have a degree and money. It's not as if I haven't been to college and thought "Hey, the view is a bit different here than it was before" but my life experiences are also quite different. I may be familiar with academic pressure, but it was less a matter of getting into high school and college than it was whether you got into the very good college. Going to college for most wasn't a question. You were going to do it, and pretty much all teacher had Masters degrees so you can guess how that can contribute to silent expectations. No one says it's wrong or right, but you don't see what else is out there or the other paths people take either. It is nice to be somewhere where education is highly valued though. I just wish there was a way to better balance what China has to offer with what America has to offer.
I've been frustrated too with the way other teachers have been walking all over me and my class to get stuff done. I realize they don't have any concept of what is it I'm doing for the most part, but it still hurts to have someone walk in and say "You're just testing right? My students want to talk about ____. Is that OK?" I said yes and became a shadow in my own classroom, thoroughly frustrated and uneasy as I realized that teacher taught the period before mine and should have just used her own class for her own needs, not mine. Teachers say my class is important, but "actions speak louder than words", as they teach their students. They can say important if they want, constantly asking me to have class at another time or to step aside for the singing contest or their own pet projects tells me something else.
Aside from frustrations, I'm about to get my name seal tomorrow. It's finished, and I can't wait to see what it looks like. That and with the school closed, I can rest. Maybe I'll even go back to Changsha for a bit to make up for having to run out on Sunday morning to get my morning classes. But I also heard that we may have dinner "either on Tuesday or Thursday" which would obviously change things. They may tell me to come to dinner the day of so I hesitate to plan anything for my free days right now though I sorely want to take the time I have left with some of the other teachers and just enjoy myself. We shall see how things work out. Now that I have a better idea of how this whole teaching thing works too I'll feel much freer to wander out on the weekends and spend time in Changsha to see everyone. I tend to just sleep in in my apartment, take myself on a walk at least once a day, and worry about my lessons on Sunday night. I'll post a picture of my name seal tomorrow after I've had a good look at it. I'm really excited both to finally get something special from Zhuzhou and to see the name seal shifu again though my Chinese is so limited.
I'm a 3rd year WorldTeach volunteer.