Teaching English

Over the last few days I have somehow become a more-or-less full time English teacher.  I actually thought it would happen sooner, but our translator Cinderella is fiercely protective of us, for better or worse. I think she has issued stern warnings to her colleagues against making requests of our time.  As a result, we’ve only made a few brief appearances at her school.

Instead, I’ve been working at the city’s top high school where I’ve made friends with Cody, a relaxed and affable teacher.  He stands idly by as his colleagues fight over me, trying to fit their students into my schedule.  I can’t say I don’t like being fought over.  They’ve gotten progressively more insistent.  Yesterday, and the day before, I did four consecutive 45-minutes period.  Today I was at the school gate at 7:50 for the first of five classes.  Later on, I taught one of Sky’s classes.  Then, continuing my tour of the atmosphere, I followed Cloud into his classroom. At first I thought he said ‘Claude’.  He quickly corrected me.

Tomorrow, I have been cajoled into arriving at 7:20 so that I can squeeze in six more before lunch.  Thankfully, one teacher is bringing me breakfast. Her English wasn’t great, so I’m not 100% sure what she’s intends to prepare although I know milk is a part of it.  Perhaps she knows that Americans drink a lot of milk?  She herself admitted to not liking it.  We’ve also been taken to lunch a few times. Other invitations are pending, including one to go to a nearby mountain that I hadn’t heard of.  (There’s a dearth of English-language resources on Guizhou tourism, especially western Guizhou.  Our new Peace Corp friend Erik hopes to remedy this next year.)

I’ve managed to hold firm and insist on only morning classes, although there’s something quite different about teaching high school after dark.  I’ve done a few of those too.  Classes run through the evening until 9 or 9:15.  The students have two hours for lunch and perhaps the same amount of time for dinner, but for the majority of the day the students are wedged into their tiny desks in spartan classrooms.   Class sizes average around 75 and there are roughly 6,000 students at the school altogether.  In a striking difference from American schools, the students remain in the classroom and the teachers move about.  The students’ only respite is a 15-minute mass exercise break in the school courtyard.  (It’s quite the sight.  I’ll try to post a video later on.) Extra-curricular activities are virtually non-existent.

As you can imagine, teaching a room full of 75 teenagers isn’t easy.  The few classes I’ve sat in on have been impressively conducted. However, students’ speaking ability lags well behind their comprehension.  That’s understandable.  How on earth do you get so many students to practice speaking when the room is so tiny and time is short? As a result, most students have difficulty moving beyond, “Nice to meet you.”

At least there’s no prep time involved for me as each session essentially involves basically the same song-and-dance. The students are wildly enthusiastic although typically bashful at first.  As we’ve mentioned before, we’re the only Westerners in town and I think they are glad for a break in the monotony.  I begin with a brief introduction of myself and then spend the rest of the period answering questions.  I reward the first handful of courageous volunteers with the baseball cards we’ve brought along with us again.  I find ways to tell sneak in a few environmental lessons when they ask why I’m here.  I talk about the black neck crane and pollution. I’ve recently added over-fishing to my spiel.   While doing this, I sneak in some pronunciation lessons.  The ‘th’ sound and compound consonants like the second syllable of ‘tired’ are particularly vexing.

I get the biggest laughs when I imitate the obnoxious teenagers who scream ‘lowei’ and high-pitched ‘helllloooooos’ at us.  Lowei can be translated as ‘white ghost’ and we get serenaded with it every time we leave the reserve.  I’m trying to get them to shift to the far more pleasant ‘hey man’ or ‘what’s up’, sixty or seventy students at a time.  I figure I have a few hundred million to go.

As for what the students are asking, there is a surprising amount of variety, although a few questions continue to pop up:

  • What do you think of Chinese …..?  Fill in the blank here: food, people, music, culture, cities, etc..
  • Do you like/play basketball?
  • What do you think of President Obama?  I’m always a little nervous answering this one, but I always make a point to mildly criticize him and then say I will vote for him in 2012.
  • How do American schools differ from Chinese ones?
  • Can I have your QQ address/email address/phone number?
  • Do you like Lady Gaga?
  • Can you sing a song for us?  I only do this if a student is willing to sing one first.  So far, volunteers have eagerly stepped forward each time.  I respond with ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

If this is how I’m going to spend the rest of my time in Weining, I could think of far worse.

As for CeCe, she’s starting to transition away from project development and has begun focusing on writing her report that will double as her master’s project.  We’re off to Myanmar tomorrow evening for two weeks. When we return we will be in home stretch, and time will be especially tight if we manage to squeeze in a trip to Tibet.  Our flight home is December 8 and CeCe graduates ten days later.  I imagine we’ll see most of you around then.  Thanks for reading!


3 responses to “Teaching English

  1. I will never complain about teaching my American class of 18-25 students. I can’t imagine having 75 Chinese in one classroom. That is a bit crazy. I would like to see a video of the 15 minute exercise break. I think you also need to post a video of you singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”!!!! I can only imagine how much the students are enjoying your presence in their classroom. They are blessed to have you there! I am proud of you.
    Love you, Aunt Rosemary

  2. Hurray for both of you! Your translator is really named Cinderella? wow!

  3. christine brown

    Mark I am so impressed with your energy and commitment ! I have just started to re-read your letters and we all look forward to your return, LUCY!

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