The Noble Profession

In my educational background, I’ve had a few really bad teachers, but I’ve had far more amazing ones. Those teachers really shaped my future and the way I see the world. I use the lessons they taught me every moment of everyday. They gave me the tools to succeed.

Now that I’ve become a teacher, I’ve found I really enjoy it. The students really make it worthwhile. A number of my students blow my mind on a regular basis. They are excited to learn and appreciate the education they’re getting. But teaching is really hard. Recently, I read an article about the crisis of teachers leaving the profession because of low pay and lack of support. My sister and a number of my friends are teachers and they can attest to how difficult it can be. Usually the hard part isn’t the students, it’s the administration and the parents who have a complete lack of respect for what teachers do.   

When I write, I try to focus on the positive. After all, it’s China and it’s teaching; challenges are to be expected. And I know teaching ESL is quite a bit different than teaching domestically, but some of the challenges are the same. I want to talk about some of the challenges I’ve experienced as a teacher because I think it’s instructive.

To begin, I foolishly agreed to give up one of my days off last week to teach some extra classes. This was not an economical decision for me because I actually get paid LESS to work overtime classes than regular classes. It also means that I’ve only had one real day off in three weeks. I taught six English Corner lessons last week. The English corners are extremely difficult to teach because, well, I literally teach it in a corner, not a classroom. People are always walking by and it gets very loud when I have 30 students in a small, echo filled space. I have to plan a lesson for students of all ages and levels, while somehow keeping the class interesting and fresh.

I have one student (I’ll call her Susan) who doesn’t like my teaching style. In my first few weeks of teaching she give me some “suggestions” for how to improve my classes. We had a polite conversation and I listened to what she had to say. I explained the rationale behind my teaching style and she brought up a few good points that I tried to take to heart. Since then, however, she has continued to offer me unsolicited advice. Part of the problem is that she also doesn’t realize that I have other students to focus on and I can’t design lessons just for her. She wants me to completely abandon the preplanned lessons because they aren’t well designed. While I agree with that, realistically I can’t plan 25 lessons a week from scratch (against my employer’s explicit instructions). I’m constantly skipping material or making changes to improve them, but I need some sort of foundation to work from.

To be honest, Susan really needs the structure provided by the lessons because she speaks terribly broken English, but she rejects that because she only wants classes that are 100% conversation about “our daily lives.” The fact is: using grammatically correct English is part of our daily lives and her life just isn’t interesting enough to fill every lesson. On the other hand, many of my younger students really don’t need grammar instruction. They bring a lot of energy to class and give me something to feed off of. That’s ideal because I can throw out the lesson plan and focus on the “magic moments” to direct learning. But it’s a two way street: they have to bring something to it and prove that they can learn more effectively without the lesson. Susan hasn’t done that.

She’s also disrespectful, in part because she’s older than me and doesn’t acknowledge my control over the classroom. Once, in a private class she answered her phone and talked for half an hour while I waited. In a salon class, she took issue with my teaching style in the middle of class, rather than waiting to speak with me privately. Another time she asked me a question about how to word a business email to one of her Western clients. I gave her an answer but then she didn’t believe me and said it was because “I wouldn’t know about business.” That was a bit ridiculous since I teach Business English classes at Web, know quite a lot about business, and have taken professional writing courses. It was also more of a cultural question than a business question—and I’m definitely far more qualified to answer questions about Western culture than she is.

Speaking of teaching Business English, Web designs their course levels as follows: Intermediate, Business Intermediate, Business Advanced, and finally, Advanced. In my opinion, business English should be taught as a separate, optional, extension course, not as part the standard curriculum. That forces every student to endure business lessons, regardless of their age or interest in business. The young students don’t understand the concepts being taught and the older students who are actually interested in business English get stuck in class with students who are only there because it’s the next level in the program.

One of my students (I’ll call her Ada) recently entered the Business Intermediate level. I know that Web is a franchise corporation with a specific way of doing things and I will never be able to change that, but this girl is 13 years old. Most kids in China are so busy with their studies that they don’t get their first job until after they graduate college, which is about another 9 years away for her. She would much rather talk about the Korean pop star she is in love with and what she does with her friends. Instead, we talk about things like organizational charts, brand loyalty, and the importance of company logos.

I’ve moved students into different levels before and my boss recently told me that I have fully authority to move students up (or down), but that it is best to move the students within a week or two of them entering the “new level,” as opposed to the middle of it. That made sense and I thought I could play the system a little to help this student who, after all, is ready for the advanced level.

That’s when I found out that by the “first two weeks of a new level” they really mean “the first two weeks of entering Web.” It has nothing to do with speaking ability or relevancy of the material, or whether or not the student finishes a level. This means, of course, that I really can’t help anyone unless they happen to be new student. Even then, if they start anywhere below Business Intermediate, eventually they will have to take business classes, by which time I won’t be able to help them either. I can’t do anything for veteran students like Ada simply because the system doesn’t allow me to. I’m the head of the ESL department in Rugao, but I can’t control what happens to students from other centers or with other teachers. If no one ever took the initiative to put students in the correct level or if a student is especially gifted, they still have to stay in their current level and keep wasting time until they graduate to something appropriately challenging.

I could go on, of course. There’s a myriad of issues I face with administrators, classroom management, and lessons but, again, I’m not writing to complain. I’m writing to celebrate teachers. I love teaching and I’m enjoying my time immensely but I can understand teachers wanting to do something else with their lives. It’s a hard job, and the world is often ungrateful for all that teachers do. It’s important for the world to really understand the teaching profession, because teachers make everything possible.  The next time you take a class and learn something valuable, thank your teacher.  They deserve your respect and gratitude.

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