Its been a little over two weeks since my last post and the near impossibilities of trying to teach rich and wonderful, but conceptually challenging subjects to students who barely speak a few words of English, have hit me harder than I’d like to admit.
After my last post there was a five day national holiday here in China. I spent those days wandering the ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. It was wonderful and I promise to post photos and my fabulous experiences later this week. But as I wandered, I hoped that the lushness of the land, the warmth of the Cambodian people and the awesomeness of the temples would set my mind to the challenges ahead. I would return with a desire to conquer the problems and preserver in my quest to educate my students on the delectable subjects of humanities.
Unfortunately that didn’t happen. As I slowly meandered through the vibrant green rice fields, waving to smiling passers-by in my little tuk tuk, it dawned on me that it wasn’t only the student’s lack of English that was dampening my determination; it was the whole situation. I was living in a suburb of one million people in what I call “high-rise” city, where nothing is really pretty and you can’t get out of town on your bike to go for a hike simply because it is so far away. There is nothing to buy that isn’t cheaply made and can be bought anywhere in the world (they make it all right here in Guangzhou) and their aren’t local craftspeople selling their unique items (which I love the most). The culture is one of loud. Individually the people are soft spoken, but something drastic changes when they encounter even two other people (or simply answer their cellphone). The conversation rises to what I would consider yelling. Put a large group together in an enclosed location, such as a grocery store, and the decibel levels reach beyond what my ears and mental capacity can handle.
So this is to say that I have not found happiness outside the classroom. I had so hoped that being in the suburbs and nearer to the mountains, that I would spend my weekends hiking and biking and exploring the little villages. But it isn’t to be.
The one redeeming happiness is the staff at my school. For the most part, I really enjoy both the Chinese and the foreign staff. An eclectic group from the US, South Africa, Canada and New Zealand.
So last week, upon returning from my country-side capers, I was supposed to begin with new vigor and determination. But instead I found that simple requests, written on the white board, such as: Choose two vocabulary words and write each in a sentence, were received with blank stares and complete incomprehension. I spent twenty minutes explaining what choose, vocabulary, write each, sentence… meant. This was a starter, something to take five minutes that would refresh their memories on the vocab. It was the final straw. It wasn’t the student’s fault. They simply didn’t understand. So I decided that I needed to throw out the curriculum and teach ESL.
I asked my principal and he approved, but that was just for year 7’s. Then I proceeded to keep trying with the four other grades I teach, which are a tiny bit more versed in English. I tried. Although I had revamped my units a few times already, I did it again, slowing them down further. I left another week wracking my head to find more creative solutions. The other foreign teachers are doing the same. We weren’t hired to be ESL teachers and we have all continued to cling to our subject content with the unrealistic hopes that a new day brings enlightenment and fluency to our students.
Yesterday, in near tears, I knocked on my principals office. We spoke and I explained the reality. I (we all) believe that he is still in denial of the situation. He was blown away with the examples I was giving him. He ended up saying to me “chuck it all and start all over teaching ESL.” Then proceeded to apologize over and over saying that he knew I didn’t want to teach ESL and he knows how excited I was to teach humanities.
Well, another day has come and gone and I am having the hardest time letting go of my content. I so want to enrich my students with skills of critical thinking and to open their eyes to what is beyond China. So I continue to try to find creative ways to infuse ESL with the wonders of the world. A process, a bit of a roller-coaster and I’m finding, very emotional.
Thanks for listening. I will bring you beautiful photos and a few tales of ancient Cambodia in a few days.