It’s taken awhile to get resettled back here in Suzhou. Our trip to the U.S. was wonderful for so many reasons, but it was also exhausting. So was the journey back to China: our flights were cancelled, rescheduled, and ultimately it took us over 40 hours to go from A to B, including a night spent on the floor in Toronto’s Pearson International Airport.
I started teaching again this week and Andy started his new classes for his master’s degree. It’s been a busy time. I’m glad to be back in the classroom, but *wow* does the first week of teaching exhaust me! I made it to Thursday morning before feeling truly drained and to Friday afternoon before only a nap could fix me.
My students this semester have low-level English skills, and it’s my job to teach them the same material that everyone else is teaching to higher level students. It’s challenging: I have little experience with truly low-level students, and the material I’m teaching is better suited to the higher-level students, but I’m responsible for getting them to meet the same standards as the higher-level students.
I am behind a metaphorical eight ball.
I was warned that attendance wanes for these classes, especially now that we’re in the second semester. I was warned that motivation is hard to stir up in these students. (Gee, I wonder why?) I was warned that my expectations should go from helping students excel to helping students pass. Sigh.
So far it’s going okay. I’ve learned all 40 of their names (English and Chinese!), I’ve created a classroom routine, we’ve established some rapport, and I’m trying to sell them on the academic skills I can help them improve. Chinese students can be incredibly pragmatic. Sometimes they don’t care if something isn’t fun. If it isn’t obviously and directly connected to their needs, fun doesn’t matter.
So I am advertising the hell out of the pragmatic skills I am teaching. Whereas I typically prefer indirect teaching methods designed to stimulate curiosity and get students interested in learning, I am shifting away from Wizard of Oz methods and now find myself explaining to my students the exact reasons I want them to perform a task. I have to tell them what’s in it for them.
It’s a lot like being in grad school again: justifying every task for students, rationalizing class time spent, connecting the dots from theory to practice to demonstrate my understanding of language acquisition and language education. I’m a salesperson giving you the market research as part of my pitch.
I don’t mind, but it does take more time (imagine explaining everything you do at your job!) and, sometimes, it stifles my creativity. Yesterday I found myself feeling absolutely trapped by what I needed to teach because I simply don’t have the time to teach these students as intensively and carefully as they need… nor do I think they would have the time, honestly. They’re busy, and sometimes English class isn’t the top priority. Even if all their classes are in English, they can study in Chinese. Sometimes it feels hopeless. I can’t go through every step I think would be helpful. I can’t shrink a lesson that takes time to digest.
But then there are moments like today’s pronunciation activity and presentation when some students get excited. They see the silliness in producing phonemes (parts of words) like “oo” and “uh” to differentiate “pool” from “pull.” They see the benefit AND the fun of doing the activity. And when I watch this unfold before me, I remember why I’m teaching. I remember that it’s not my job to teach every little thing about English, but that if I expose my students to the joys of language learning that they’re more likely to study it independently.
I fear not being able to keep them engaged. I fear low attendance. I fear giving them assessments because they’ll be held to standards other students surpass. I fear perpetuation of the cycle that leaves them feeling downtrodden. I want much more for them. I’m not sure they’d believe me if I told them this, especially after just one week. But I often commit to students way faster and more easily than they commit to me. It’s one of my finest flaws.