First Day of Class

I’m not sure if I liked my first day of class or not. It was very different from any other first day of class that I’ve had. It was a mix of good and bad.

I arrived to my classroom about 20 minutes early so that I could get everything set up and make sure that all of my copies were in order. Surprisingly, many students were already seated in the classroom, waiting for class to begin, and when I walked into the room they all started whispering and letting out little squeals of delight and unabashedly staring at their new foreign teacher. One of the students was at the blackboard, washing all of the notes from last class so that I would have a clean slate to work with. Another had a broom and was sweeping the floor. Were they assigned those tasks, or did they just volunteer? I wondered. You never see American students voluntarily cleaning their classroom, that’s for sure. I told the boy who had just finished cleaning the blackboard, “Thank-you,” and he looked so stunned and thrilled that I had acknowledged him.

I started setting things up for class and checking my watch periodically so that I would start on time, and was surprised when I heard a bell ring outside, signaling the start of the period. “Was that a bell?” I asked the class, not sure if they would respond, and all 38 students replied, “YES!” in unison (as if they had practiced!) and then dissolved into a fit of giggles. “Okay….well I guess we’ll get started…”

I had prepared a survey for the students very similar to the one that I use with my American students at the beginning of the year. It was just general questions about their likes and interests; it’s something that helps me get to know them better. I didn’t plan on it being the most challenging task of the day. I guess I had deluded myself into thinking that these students pretty much have a handle on the English language, they just needed practice with speaking and pronunciation. Man, was I wrong! Most of my students know very little English, and the words that I had used on the survey to ask them questions were outside of their limited vocabularies. How could I have been so dumb?! Justin and I have been walking around campus for almost a week now, and the most common words we’ve heard from the students are “Hello!” and “How are you?” and after that they usually giggle and run away because they don’t know what to say next. Even the English teachers on the faculty have trouble understanding what we say at times….why did I think these students would be any different?

I tried not to panic too much, and just continue on with what I had planned as best I could. I helped them out with their survey by writing just a couple of key words from each question on the board with a question mark after it, and did a lot of miming, and gave them multiple choice answers so that they wouldn’t have to come up with something from scratch. One of the students raised a hand and asked, “Do you speak Chinese?” and I said, “No….not at all.” The student translated into Chinese for the class and they all exchanged worried glances with each other as if to say, “What are we going to do?” I’m wondering the same thing…

Next class, I plan on giving them a simple lesson on greetings. Many of them already know some basic greetings, so that will help them feel comfortable, and I can teach them some new greetings and extend into basic small talk and have them practice. I also plan to make PowerPoints with LOTS of pictures to help them understand. It should be interesting! But I hope that I can help them improve at least a little by the end of the semester.

As far as behavior goes, I don’t think I’ll have any problems. Most of my classes are full of girls, with just a handful of boys clumped together on the side or in the back of the room. I had one afternoon class with a row of boys in the back who were all jokers. One of them would say something loud in Chinese and the others would laugh. A girl in the row in front of them would try to shush them and admonish them in Chinese, and then turn to me and apologize for them in English. Once after an outburst, I walked slowly to the back of the room and said, “Do you have something to say to me?” Every eye turned to that boy, and many of his classmates were giggling, and he looked at the ground and said, “No.” But he still had a hint of a sly smile on his face….I’m sure it’s not the last I’ve heard from him.

But I have a feeling that if I ever had any real problems with behavior in this class, I could report it to my superiors and they would be able to fix it right away. In fact, I told one of the other English teachers that I was surprised about how little English these students seem to know, and she said, “Don’t let them fool you. They know more than they let on. Don’t let them play stupid.” And she even offered to come and give them a stern talking-to in Chinese if I wanted.

I think dealing with student behavior in China will be very different from dealing with student behavior in American public schools. In America, I was afraid to report having problems with behavior in my classroom, because it would usually come back to bite me. My principal would call me into his office and matter-of-factly tell me that I was doing something wrong….I was not being authoritative enough, or not keeping them busy enough with work, or somehow allowing them to take control of the classroom. And they loved to tell me that the right thing to do was to keep themselves out of it and let me handle the misbehavior and the students would respect me more in the end. Which is definitely true in cases of minor disciplinary problems, but in other cases it’s just a principal who is trying to side-step extra responsibility. Some people include it in that horrible blanket term of “educational reform”–weeding out the strong teachers from the weak ones by throwing them to the lions and seeing who survives. And the ones who survive are rewarded with a smaller paycheck and fewer benefits than last year, but if they complain, the school board reminds them that they’re “lucky” to even have a job.

Yuck! I don’t know what got me off on that tangent. But regardless of the challenges I face teaching these Chinese students this year, I’m glad to have a reprieve from all that public school nonsense for at least a little while. I only teach two days a week, and I get two-hour lunch breaks, and I don’t have to cover FCAT (or even the textbook, if I decide that the textbook is worthless)….they value my teaching background and my expertise in the English language and they’ve given me full freedom to teach whatever/however I want! Imagine that! I had to escape to communist China to finally find freedom in the classroom…there’s some irony for you.

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