JISHOU, HUNAN — So, I survived my first week on the job here.
The classes went well (I think), considering my comparative lack of experience teaching ESL and practically zero preparation time before the first, Oral Business English 2005. I can tell, though, there is a wide range of English skills among the students, which will require some careful planning on my part.
I have three groups right now. I see about a dozen business students twice a week for oral and written English. Senior English students — 21 in all — see me twice a week for the same kind of courses. And there’s the 35 sophomores I see once a week for oral English.
The youngest ones, as you might expect, are the least practiced in English, but do fairly well reciting English passages and writing English. As with most Asian students I’ve had, however, their listening and speaking skills are not as developed. The senior English students are the strongest, but again, need work on their aural and oral skills. These kids are stressing about the IELTS (International English Language Testing System) exam, the outcome of which determines whether they can attend university in an English-speaking country.
My most challenging class so far is the Business English class. I’m sorry if I offend anyone here, but in my experience many business majors in the US are college students who had no clue what they should major in, and chose business because they figured it would help them get a job. Or to put it more bluntly, they are not exactly dedicated scholars.
So it is here in China. The English majors — even the sophs — all came to class prepared with pen, paper, notebooks and little electronic translator gizmos. Among the business English students, about a quarter came with nothing but the clothes on their backs and shoes on their feet. (Well, maybe they had cell phones …) These kids as a group have the weakest English skills, and seem the least motivated, save one or two stars in the group who will probably end up as CEOs somewhere. (Strangely, the English selections they have in their business texts are as dense as anything you might find at the Harvard Business School. I see a disconnect here pedagogically speaking …)
Suffice it to say my first efforts with the business kids were not as successful as with the English majors. I truly overestimated their ability to understand me, and their willingness to put a little effort into the process. With this group, I am going to have to be creative to keep them alert and receptive.
Well, that’s true for all of them, actually.
What they don’t want or expect is for their foreign-born English teacher to be just like all the homegrown instructors they have had since middle school. In other words, I have to be different. Avoid reliance on the texts they have. Get them out of their seats and actively involved in reading, writing, speaking and listening. And I need to accomplish all this while giving them enough assessments so that we all have some idea of whether they are learning anything.
Ah, the life of a teacher …!
While the tasks ahead of me are daunting, I am finding the process rather liberating. After 20 years of teaching physics and math, I now have the opportunity to try radically different teaching techniques, of which I am sure I have only skimmed the surface in my hasty research online. I am also blessed to have worked alongside some of the most creative foreign language teachers in Kentucky, who have unwittingly served as my role models.
Still, knowing what I can do and getting it done are two different things.
My orientation here was brief and to some extent not all that informative. Sure, I know what my classes are, where they meet, what books they might have, but I am unclear how I award grades, whether I grade homework or whether I even assign it. Do they have regular examinations? Do I prepare those exams? So many questions … I have new ones each day.
You language instructors out there will cringe at the tiny amount of contact time I have with these students. Each class meets just once a week. While they may have other English exposure in their other classes, the practice time is insufficient. Given the difficulty of learning any language, especially one with an entirely different writing system, these kids have to be motivated enough to work on their own time to get the practice they need.
(I told my first class to make sure they brought their work in when we met the next day. Silly American! They reminded me that the class meets next week. Clearly, I need to shed some old habits.)
So far, I have plenty of time with my light teaching load to prepare for these courses. In fact, the amount of free time I have is embarrassing. After two decades of being a high school teacher, with perhaps four or five classes in a row each day, this generous, almost sinful, amount of prep time is mindboggling. Even with all the time I have spent buying provisions for the kitchen and outfitting the flat, which involves a lot of walking, I have the luxury to peruse the Internet and let my mind run free pondering different teaching strategies.
It will not last. I expect within a few weeks to be assigned freshman classes, as the university has not yet located another “foreign expert” willing to come to a small city that’s a bit off the beaten path for foreigners. There is talk of overtime pay, even, as my contract specifies I am not to teach more than 18 hours a week.
All good things must come to an end, I suppose. At least I have time to steel myself for the inevitable.
By that time, I may actually know what I’m doing.