When I was moving to China my tutor would ask me, “Are you moving to China to teach English or are you moving to China to learn Mandarin?” I would optimistically say, “Both!” But after three months I can now say my focus is on teaching (and finding really cheap and delicious food…).
Before moving to China I was a teaching artist in New York City for about two years. I had been at one public school in Brooklyn for one year as a “Theatre Specialist.” I learned so much my year there. I felt confident in my lessons: I knew what activities worked, I knew how to get my students attention, I knew how to make theatre with them and I knew how to make the process engaging and fun. I guess I did slightly comfortable but I always looking for ways to improve. I loved teaching theatre to my students and they knew it too. I had lots of freedom as my supervisor let me do whatever I want so I explored it all- Masks? Yes! Write our own plays? Yes! Shakespeare? You bet! Sock puppets? Why not! Can the sock puppets dance to “Everything is Awesome?” Oh yes! Direct a version of Aladdin Jr. and cut out all the songs? It can be done!
In my emails of going to China the idea of “bringing drama to our school” was mentioned several times. I was excited to explore the idea of using drama to teach a language as it would be a new and fun challenge. To get a working visa in China I had to get a “Teaching English as a Foreign Language” (TEFL) certificate so for my birthday my Dad and Grandma paid for an online class. I found a super cheap option from some place in Canada. The course was kind of a joke and I may or may have not gone on Facebook and read feminist articles while doing it.
Going in to my free day of class I had no idea what to except. After the first ten minutes of class I concluded, “Yeah, they don’t know any English.” The first three weeks were rough as I was discovering what worked and what completely failed. I remember clearly teaching in my second week. Twenty eight pairs of eyes were watching the foreign teacher. I was explaining coins and it was just not working at all. As I kept on teaching I thought, “Oh my god. This isn’t working. This isn’t working at all. This is not at their level! They don’t understand. Oh my god. What should I do? Maybe we could play a game? Yah, games are always good! But what game should we play? This really isn’t working. Come on, think of something!”
I teach sixteen classes a week and each class is forty five minutes but students are always late so realistically I am getting less than forty minutes of teaching time. (I’ve told my colleague numerous times that students are continuously late to my class but still nothing has been done.) I’ve made a curriculum map for the year planning what my lessons and units will be about but after my observations I know major adjustments need to happen. I’ve said goodbye to my Shakespeare unit and even my “Basic Theatre” unit.
For the most part my students are very “good.” Yes they are middle school students so they have their own unique problems but for the most part they are fine. Each class has anywhere from 28 to 32 students so talking can be a problem but thanks to my teacher bag of tricks I know many ways to get their attention and focus and to listen to instructions. Most students are eager to come to class. Multiple students have special needs too.
I’ve had moments while teaching, “Oh my god. I am somehow living in a foreign country all by myself and somehow I am responsible for thirty two middle school students and we don’t even speak the same language! They are all looking at me! Like I know what I am doing or something!”
We’ve had lots of good times. We learned how to play “Go Fish” and “Heads Up, Seven Up.” We learned how to express our feelings and I even had a class that applauded my example of “I feel sad.”I’ve introduced them to The Beatles and ABBA. Their favorite English song is “Money, Money, Money” and many quote it to me whenever they see me.
But its not all rainbows and butterflies and sunshine. To be honest is really fucking hard. I have barely any support from the school so with that and the language barrier discipline issues are just plain exhausting. It goes against my “educational philosophy” but sometimes I just have to send a student outside as I feel like its the only option. I’ve put students on “time out.” Students play dumb or think I’m dumb but language is 55% body language and I am the master of charades. Some students view me as “friend” as my hippie educational theatre philosophies are very different than the education system in China.
The students are good little robots. If I say a word, they all like to repeat after me. They are extremely good at repeating. Like really good. But on their own some can barely speak. They know some basic English scripts so I like to change it up for a challenge.
I met with some guy in the education department in my third week of teaching. I showed him a video of one of my lessons. I taught basic sight words (up, down, stop, go) by having the students use their bodies. When I said “Up” they would put their hands up and reach for the sky. When I said “Go” they would walk around the space. Eventually, a student would take the lead and tell his fellow classmates what to do. (Essentially, a very modified version of Simon Says.) With these site words we learned The Beatles “Hello, Goodbye.” His reaction was, “The students at this school don’t do good on test. Why don’t you teach them grammar?”
I wanted to laugh in his face. It was the third week of classes so I had each class for less than three hours. They can barely say, “I’m fine. Thank.s” so I highly doubt they can grab the concept of a verb or a noun or adverb explained in English. What is comes down to is, “Do you want me to teach them how to pass an English exam or do you want me to teach them how to communicate in English with another human being.”
Sometimes I feel like a really well paid foreign babysitter and I just happen to watch thirty kids at once. I mean, how can I teach a language when I see a student for 4o minutes once a week? You can’t learn a language that way. You need more time. And there’s so many of them and a variety of levels. I know they have English teachers but I have no freaking clue what they are teaching them. (Probably grammar because the Chinese are obsessed with grammar for some reason.)
I really miss teaching. I really miss teaching theatre. I know my students care about me and I care about them but I miss being able to have a conversation with them. I miss hearing silly stories about what their little brother said or how they loved Inside Out or about the computer game they designed or how they moved from Canada and their dad owns a restaurant or how someone is tearing down all the signs they made to run for student government.
I’ll probably never real know the effect I am having on my current students. But I am probably their first interaction with a “foreigner” so I am trying to make it a good one. And I hope I can at least start a small spark of learning English.
A teacher used my name to explain “First Name, Middle Name, and Last Name.” And I have the hope that one day in the future one of my students will be able to find “Emily Louise Kugel” on Facebook.