The Sixteenth Time is a Charm

I teach sixteen classes a week. The same exact lesson sixteen times in the span of five days. So by the end of the week I have figured out all the bumps and lumps. Most of the time that is. As theatre teacher now teaching English as a Second Language it sometimes feels like I really don’t know what I am doing. And sometimes I really don’t know what I am doing.

Teaching is damn hard but some factors can make it easier or a living hell. Having a good administrator can make the job easier. But there are so many other little factors too. Each of the sixteen classes have their own personalities. Some of are goodfballs and some are super quiet. One lesson might be better for a loud class while another might be better for students who can be quiet. Also the class on Monday morning is going to be different than the last class on Friday afternoon. And I am going to be different on a Monday morning than a Friday afternoon. If the class clown is having a bad day the whole class energy changes. If I am grumpy the energy changes too.

Stickers make everything better.

Currently I feel like I am just fighting an uphill battle with a plastic spoon. First my students are never on time. I don’t think I’ve actually had a class start on time. I have told my colleague this many times and he replied, “I told the teachers this.” It seem they are not concerned about wasting my time or the students learning time. In addition, I see each class once week. That means I have the goal of teaching them a language with only thirty five minutes a week. There is also about thirty two students in each class. Naturally each individual student has their own personality and own abilities. I have students who can have a simple conversation in English and I have student who are basically much nonverbal. I know many of my students are “special needs” though I think this is an American term.

There is is also no motivation or accountability for my once a week English class. Why do my students need to know English? They don’t really. They need English skills to pass an exam but none of them need to know how to speak with another human being in English. Yes, someone will want to move out of Chuzhou or need English in their future career but that is a small percentage of them. Because of this my students’ behavior is less than ideal. I have never had students talk so much and just be flat out rude. But granted why should they listen or be respectful? They don’t want to be in my class and there is no “punishment” if they are rude. I am just a foreigner. If a teach a lesson that is too simple the students get bored and talk. If the lesson is too difficult they get confused and talk. I haven’t found the perfect balance yet. And I not sure I ever will master it.

Stickers make everything better.

It was a typical beginning of the week thought. “What am I going to do this week?” I threw away my curriculum map so I had nothing. I googled ESL games and looked them over. None stood out. There was one called “Word Chain” that I thought my student could do.

This is an excruciatingly simple game that can be played in classes that are very young or quite advanced. To play, the teacher first says a word (such as “apple”).  The next student must then say a word that begins with the last letter of apple, such as egg.  The last letter in egg is G, so the next student must say a word that begins with G, and so on, and so on, and so on. A typical string of words looks something like this:

apple – egg – ghost – table – eat – take – eleven – night – two

I found this lesson one of my most successful and by successful I mean “the students were engaged most of the time and the students were challenged.”

Though the game I learned hey know lots of English. The know English words and they know how to spell them. They loved the challenge of trying to think of words. I could see the wheels in their brains turning. But there pronunciation was horrible. Like atrocious. Like I couldn’t understand them. At some time I would bring them my phone and let them type the word. At other times, five of them at once we would be spelling the word and I would be utterly confused. It didn’t sound like English letters at all to my native ears. They struggled to say letters. I asked one eighth grades class, “Who is teaching you this?!” And they replied their teachers. It made realize that the teachers are teaching them wrong. They don’t talk to me so they probably never speak or interact with an English speaker yet they are declared an “English teacher.”

My parents taught in China for a summer before I was born. My mom told me, “Some of it may be bad but how good can you be if YOU have never hard the language before? My students were teachers but had never spoken with a native speaker.” I wouldn’t be surprised that almost thirty year later this is still happening. I mean, on a train ride in September I met a couple and I was the first foreigner they ever talked to in their life yet they were capable of a basic conversation in English. I believe its hard for me to understand because of completely different experience. In high school I learned Spanish from Mr. Brache who came from Cuba. When I wanted to learn Chinese I learned from a man who was born and raised in Shanghai.

This game also showed me they don’t know how listen. I already knew this before but this game just proved it even more so. Last month I had a series of basic questions: How are you? How old are you? Where are you from? I would ask students individually but always switch up the order. That in itself was too much for them. They knew the script but they didn’t comprehend it. Granted I don’t know how much listening is on their English exams and from my personal guess probably its no a lot.

The view from the fourth floor.

I think my job for this school is for them to say “We have a foreign teacher.” I had a Chinese friend said, “I don’t know why this school in a small city has a foreign teacher. It doesn’t make sense.” I think it’s somehow the idea that the students get to be in the same room is a foreigner once a week. It looks impressive and makes the parents happy.

I believe a good educator is constantly reflecting.It takes time and failure to perfect a lesson. What worked? What did not work? Where did I fail? By the tenth lessons of “Word Chain” I made so many adjustments to teaching this “simple” game. I realized I had to teach new vocabulary such as “letter” “words” and “sentence.” To help explain even further I gave an example with the word “CAT.” What letter is this?  And what letter is this? What word is this? What is the last letter in cat? What is the first letter in cat? Plus, to reinforce listening during I used stickers as a reward if you could remember a person’s word. Worked like a charm.


Looking back and thinking about what I thought China would be like I thought my students would be at a higher level of English. They have English teachers and they have had English classes for years. Surely they could have a basic conversation! I’ll find a way to teach them some basic theatre too! What a great way to learn English!! In a way I feel like I am in a period of “mourning” of what I could have taught or what could have been.

I have less than two more months with these students I have been reflecting “What the hell do I even do with these students?” Instead of learning I am emphasizing reinforcing. I can teach them new vocabulary but they won’t remember. But I do hope by the end of time with them they won’t be saying “gooda” but “good.” It’s a big goal that’s not going to happen but a teacher can dream.

I have less than two more months with these students so I have been reflecting ,”What the hell do I even do with these students?” Do I attempt to make them “unlearn” all the bad English they have been taught? What can I do in thirty five minutes that will keep them engaged and let me keep my sanity? Instead of learning I am emphasizing reinforcing. But even that doesn’t matter. I can say “pink pink pink pink pink” Forty times in class but by next week they don’t remember. (My students tend to add “a” to every word. Pinka. Yesa. Gooda. Who is teaching them this?!?!)

I dream that perhaps in seven weeks they will be able to say Good instead of Gooda. It’s a big dream but I might as well shoot for the stars.

Good. Good. Good. Good. Good. Good. Good. Good. Good.

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