China, Educate, Guangzhou, High School, Humanities

A Rough Start

A disturbing, satirical, perplexing, and very frustrating two weeks have just flown by.  As you know the school I am working for, the actual building, was far from complete the week before we were to open.

School CollageMiraculous work took place and we are now in the buildings.  Unfortunately the need to open the buildings/school on time took precedence over quality of construction.  We have also learned that resources were not ordered in any timely manner or logical order, so that while we have 20 printer/copiers, the network to connect them to our computers is not fully established yet, nor is there enough paper to print with.  As the library has zero books, and most of us do not have textbooks either, we are left to the our own devices, and much of that requires printing.

The week that school was to open (Thursday, Sept. 18th) the engineers decided that there was simply no way they would be ready and they needed four more days (thats all they needed – really?).  And as the owners of the school did not want to lose face, that is big here, they couldn’t simply forstall the opening to Monday, 9/22, so instead we created an orientation camp.  They rented out the resort near our school and we hosted crazy games for two days (which didn’t allow for much communication between teachers and students) culminating in a 30 minute lecture from the regional curriculum director about how they should embrace their new school, while shushing some kids who had questions.

Orientation Collage

Monday, opening day.  No detailed plan had been given to us teachers.  We only knew we had to get our form class (similar to a home room) and wait. We waited and waited in the hot (no A/C working) cafeteria.  Finally they moved us out to the flag pole where we hoisted the flag, one gal from admin sang what we are now calling the funeral march song, our school anthem, alone, as none of us knew the words.  Then school was off and running.


This is when the big blow to the gut started hitting us foreign teachers in waves.

As our sweet and wonderful kids sat down, we excited teachers began introducing ourselves and getting the kids ready for a great year.  But wait, why isn’t anyone understanding me?  Why aren’t they answering my questions?  Just shy?  Cultural issues?  Or?  It was the Or.  We had been told that our students would not be fluent, but most would be close.  A few would be lower level English speakers, but just a few.  Nope.  Just the opposite.  I have approximately 1% that can understand me most of the time, 50% can understand me about 50% of the time and the rest, 49% can understand next to nothing in English.

So I began speaking really slowly.  I enunciated every single word.  Blank stares.  I mimed and did antics to get them to respond.  I did get some laughs.  But overall it was devastating.   Please do not mis-understand me.  These kids are great.  99% of them are fun, warm, ready to learn, happy kids.  But the majority simply do not have the English language level to understand their foreign teachers.

So while some of the kids would translate for the others, and my charades at the front of the class ensued, my mind was rushing to and fro trying to find ways to solve the problem.  But as the week continued, and I learned that everyone had been sold the same bag of dirt (most students would be close to fluent), a collective sad came over of us all.

Late in the week I started planning my next unit.  It will start when we come back from the national holiday (First week of October).  For 7th grade I am supposed to be starting a unit on world religions.  I found wonderful resources on the internet and was putting together my plan when I stopped and re-read my essential question – the one you ask the kids at the beginning to launch critical thinking and what is to come:

Is it important to learn about other cultures and beliefs?  Why?

How would my non-English speakers understand the very first question of the unit?  Even if I pre-defined cultures and beliefs, they wouldn’t understand the nuance/concept of the question.  How can I move forward?  My heart sank.  I really wanted to introduce my kids to TED talks and other great sources.  But on those videos, people talk too fast and with vocabulary way beyond my students.

We finished the week on Saturday as the parents had not had a chance to tour the campus before school started, so we spent the better part of the day listening to presentations, presenting ourselves (with translators) and then giving the parents a tour.

So now I sit here, Sunday night, trying to maintain a positive outlook and to come up with some sort of plan.  How to teach the subjects I love rather than straight-up ESL?  I know the myriad of other problems (no paper, printers not working, wifi rarely stable, no books, no shelving in our classrooms…) will eventually work themselves out.   It would all be dealable if our students could understand us and we could dive into our subjects.

One great beam of light appeared yesterday.  I was awarded six Nexus 7 Tablets from Map Your World, a great organization helping teachers get kids directly involved in solving local problems.  When these tablets arrive I am going to get my kids outside and documenting their world and the issues swirling around them, come hell or high water!

On that note, have a stellar week.  We deserve one!


4 thoughts on “A Rough Start”

  1. What an experience! So glad you are blogging this and maybe one day you can expand it into a paper or other document to help other teachers who are considering your path! I think it would be valuable to teacher candidates to read about these issues as so many have no idea…

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