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:
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.