Teaching Class and Taking Names

On the morning of my first class, I woke up in a cold sweat. It was so dark that I could scarcely make out the outline of my room, but my body was convinced that I was late. With no clock to assuage my fears, I lay transfixed in bed, certain of my ineffectualness but too scared to confirm it. Images began to fill my head: classrooms swelling with students, a vacant podium where a teacher ought to be standing, bells signaling the start of class, the methodical pulse of a clock’s second hand. Slowly, I got myself out of bed, and with a weary eye, peered over my cell phone at the time. 5:17am—still over two hours until class. I let out a long breath, tiptoed back to bed, and tried everything in my power to go back to sleep. As anticipated, my alarm sounded just over an hour later—but I was still awake. My mind was awash in worst-case scenarios. What if my lesson is too boring? What if my students can’t understand me? What if they don’t like me? What will their perception of me have on their attitude towards Americans? Towards all foreigners in general?

I had spent the better part of two days fiendishly hacking away at my first lesson—fine tuning it until all of the parts felt right. I would start with self-introductions, then discuss ground rules and expectations for the class, and then help students with choosing their names. I decided that the crux of my grading rubric would be based on attendance and participation (with homework and the final skit rounding out the rest), as my primary goal in an Oral English class is to try to get my students to speak as much as possible, regardless if it’s correct all the time. I figured too, though, that this would probably be the hardest thing to ask of students, so I was setting myself up for quite a bit of teeth-pulling, at least in the first few weeks. After the break, I would have them fill out a survey to get a sense of their background—who they are, what they want to learn, what their strengths and weaknesses in English are, etc.—and take their pictures, so that I could better remember their names. But with all of the mystery surrounding the logistics of teaching itself, any degree of prep work in the world would have hardly felt useful.

I did know a couple of things about the teaching situation beforehand—small tidbits I had gleamed from Anne and Nick as well as our boss, Zhao Hong, who ran down our schedules and gave us a brief prep-talk in Chinese about our classes. “Your students will be nervous about having a foreign teacher,” she told us, “so as long as you can be calm, you will do fine.” Ironically, during the break of my very first class, some of my undergraduate students were quick to point out that I “looked nervous” and that I should “relax.” But I realized that it was less about being nervous speaking in front of a bunch of people (despite how nail-biting it is, public speaking always gives me a thrill), than it was about letting people down who have trusted me to be a good teacher. My students are counting on me to have experience and be able to adequately teach them, and it is my responsibility to follow through. If I don’t put the effort in, not only do I fail myself, but I fail over 100 students, on whose lives I could have otherwise had a meaningful impact. Not to mention the fact that we’ve been prepping for this moment since the beginning of January, so there was a lot riding on how we would handle the first day.

The notebook where I write down all of my lesson plans. Originals are in black, and additional comments and revisions are in blue. I figure that using this as a resource will exponentially reduce the workload I will have as a teacher next year.

I teach four different Oral English classes, each with about 30 students. Three of them are graduate student classes which meet two times a week. The fourth is a class of undergraduate English majors who I teach once a week. The English majors are all second-years, having had Ben (the previous Shansi Fellow) as their teacher last year. Though they are all college students, the dynamic feels a little bit like high school—I can tell they are somewhat cliquey and though I am only a couple of years their senior, I often feel much older. This is a good sentiment to have, at least when it carries over to my graduate students. With no exception, they are all older than me, most just a year or two, but some upwards of ten or more—the equivalent of “continuing education students,” in addition to teachers in other departments who are interested in studying English. It feels incredibly strange to be teaching students who are older than me, mostly because I can’t understand why they continue to come to class and listen to me. After all, what can some fresh American college graduate really teach them about anything? For most of them, I am the first foreign teacher they have ever had. Their majors are all related to agriculture (hence the name of the university), with subjects as wide-ranging as ecology, forest protection, landscape architecture, crop genetics, soil science, and veterinary medicine.

Each class period is two hours long, and so, in all, I end up teaching seven classes totaling fourteen hours every week. Ostensibly, the time I spend teaching seems almost laughably paltry—and before I arrived here, I certainly shared those sentiments. I figured that in comparison to a 40-hour-a-week job in the states, this teaching gig would almost certainly be a cinch. I even began to contemplate the ways I would spend the almost endless expanse of free time that I imagined myself to have. But in practice, this is far from the truth. Planning lessons takes an incalculably long time, as does all of the behind-the-scenes work of grading papers and previewing teaching materials. Not to mention that standing, speaking loudly, and gesturing (wildly) for four hours a day starts to take its toll. But, that aside, the situation is almost as ideal as a person in my position could ask. None of us teach class on Fridays, yielding us permanent three-day weekends, and the open schedule allows for a lot of other activities that can be pursued based on individual interest.

Just a sampling of some of the essays I am already having to wade through.

But though the situation may be ideal, it’s not to say that there aren’t a ton of challenges that come part and parcel. The first is the length of the class period. A two-hour class can certainly feel unwieldy at times, even when simply trying to hold a class’s attention. Often, it would seem more beneficial to have four one-hour classes per week instead. But we’ve devised good ways to remedy that problem, taking a ten-minute break at around the one-hour mark, and letting our students out ten minutes early so that they can get to their next class on time. The second challenge is the classrooms themselves. My English majors’ classroom doesn’t have a board of any kind, but rather, a projector hooked up in quite elaborate fashion to a computer. Theoretically, this makes it easier to use advanced technology when planning a lesson, but it ends up being more inconvenient than anything else. Thankfully, my graduate students’ classroom has a blackboard, so when demonstrating how to spell a word or assigning discussion questions, my students don’t have to squint at a tiny palm-sized computer screen by their desks to read it. However, in both classrooms, the desks and chairs are bolted resolutely to the floor, with all of the attention directed forward at the teacher.

This stands to demonstrate a critical difference between the American and the Chinese system of education. Whereas American education is by and large more “student-centered,” in China, lecturing and rote memorization seem to be the primary tools at a teacher’s disposal. From what we’ve heard from student friends of ours, students are oftentimes incredibly bored in traditional classes, and there is little to no participation. Professors will assign experiments and homework and expect students to spit back key terms and data for exams. Though this is not unheard of in America, in my experience as a student I have found this to be more of the exception than the rule. However, as teachers we now have the power to change that through a fair bit of flexibility, creativity, and patience. I am trying to scrap the “lecture model” of teaching and spend the majority of every class emphasizing group work so that students can actually practice the language. I have found that this works best by having students switch seats and take new partners to discuss in small groups.

I assigned a "Show and Tell" assignment for one of my first classes, and one of my graduate students surprised me by not only bringing in mooncakes (appropriate for the fast-approaching Mid-Autumn Festival), but then insisting that I keep them as a gift!

Another major challenge is assessing my students’ language levels. Within any given class, there is a wide discrepancy in the level at which my students perform—while some seem near fluent (at least conversationally), others can barely string together a complete sentence without asking for help from their classmates in Chinese. It also seems that many, if not all, of my students can read and write at levels three and four times higher than they can speak. Trying to mitigate these wide inconsistencies has proven difficult, and so oftentimes I end up relying on those higher-level students to act as language shepherds for those who are struggling, in addition to giving them more advanced work. The final challenge is designing lessons. Without a textbook or supervision of any kind, we are given almost total freedom to plan and implement a curriculum. Though this is incredibly nerve-racking in the sheer vastness of material out there, it also enables us to be creative about having to pick and choose which aspects of English language and culture we are most passionate about teaching.

One of those initial “teacher moments” came when giving my students their English names. As second-years, all of my English majors already had names, but with few exceptions, my graduate students were blank slates, and despite their having studied English for upwards of ten years, giving them names was a weird sort of christening into the English-speaking world. But it was for that very reason that I felt so panicked—I found myself seated with an immense responsibility just minutes after meeting those students. After all, what’s in a name? Everything! How could I possibly discover enough about a person in so short a time to decide what their English face to the world would be? Luckily for me, unlike in Chinese, most English names don’t come with an incredibly complex back story—though names are necessarily derived from different cultures, their meanings aren’t intrinsically linked to the components that make them up, and names like “Chris” or “Barbara” aren’t really all that different from “Thomas” or “Samantha” save for subjective preferences and the labels we associate with them from past experience.

And so, rather than name my students based on famous American people or on actual friends of mine (a strategy that other Fellows have taken), I decided to take a more laissez-faire approach to name-choosing. I started class by brainstorming some well-known English names, and then gave my students some time to think of names (and in some cases, adjectives) that they liked and felt suited them well. This led to more than a fair share of requests (“I really like flowers and am interested in swimming. What should my name be?”), but for the most part, my students came to individual decisions about their preferred monikers. The results were certainly mixed. I got more “A” names than I knew what to do with—“Ann,” “Anne,” “Anna,” “Amy,” “Angela,” “Alex,” “Alice,” “Alva,” “Andy,” “Anastasia,” “Alma,” “Albert,” “Allen,” “Amelia,” and even “Anny,” when two people in the same class wanted the name “Annie.” I also got a fair share of the sports-related (“James” after Lebron James, “Owen” after Michael Owen), the famous (“Bruce” after “Bruce Lee), and those influences by popular culture (“Nemo” and “Clark”). Then, of course, there were the downright strange—“Ripal,” “Era,” “Rainbow,” “Apple,” and “Marhone,” just to name a few. One of my more inquiring students settled on the name “Karl Marx,” and his seatmate wrote down the name “Hitler,” gesturing to himself. I kept “Karl Marx,” but “Hitler” was the only name I turned down. Because at the end of the day, it’s about my students, and who am I to say that “Salary” is a fixed wage, or that “Jocab” should actually be spelled “Jacob?”

Me with fellow teachers James (left) and David (right) after our first day of class.

I’m starting to think of myself as a real teacher. It feels so empowering to dress up every morning in slacks, a blazer, and dress shoes, all with a messenger bag full of ready-to-impart knowledge slung over my shoulder. It’s almost enough to make me look forward to the mix of bewildered and inquisitive stares I get from students passing by my classroom. This is no small discovery, as previous to this experience, I would never have pegged myself as an educator. Given my tutoring experience in high school and at Oberlin, working with students was always on my mind, but being a legitimate teacher was almost certainly out of the question. I didn’t think I had the confidence or the motivation necessary to pull it off. But now my students smile and wave when they see me, and I leave each class with the sticky soft sensation of chalk still clinging to my fingertips. Despite my request to simply call me Daniel (as the title of “professor” requires a degree that I can’t say I’ve acquired), half of my students call me “teacher,” and more than a handful staunchly resolve to call me “sir.” I’ve even developed some of the telltale traits of English teachers—learning how to speak slowly, enunciate my words, pace my sentences, and repeat phrases until they stick.

In short, it is a job—like most other things in life—that comes with its fair share of triumphs and hardships. It certainly helps that I have four other foreign teachers here that I can work with and bounce ideas off of. And it also helps that the Chinese model of education seems to build-in an immense amount of respect for educators—much more so than that in the states. To say you are a teacher in China really sets you apart as a professional. In class, the students are incredibly courteous—they apologize profusely if they are late, volunteer to wipe the blackboard for you, and stop talking immediately when you speak. After hearing so many horror stories about students with discipline problems or who don’t cooperate (whether in the states or abroad), I feel so fortunate that the worst I have to deal with is a room of blank faces when I say something that my students don’t understand. By and large, they are smart, hard-working, and motivated to learn—and I am more than excited to get to know them all a little better as their teacher.