In my spare time, I sleep 3

JISHOU, HUNAN — I haven’t written much lately, because I’ve been a little busy. Classes have started, and I only have half my schedule in place still. The freshmen start classes next month.

In addition to my university classes, I have also become a private tutor to three students (ages 8 to 25), a teacher of two small groups of primary students, and a guest “lecturer” for a friend’s middle-school weekend enrichment school. Since the uni is sending two students to the provincial English-speaking contest, I will also coach their pronunciation and intonation skills for the next four weeks or so.

Here’s my schedule right now:









Oral English

English Composition

Oral English 2008-

English Composition

Oral English


(11-12) Miki's

Oral English

English Composition


Harry tutor

Lizzie and Color



English Composition

Lizzie and Color



Clark tutor

Clark tutor

Clark tutor


Niki tutor

Niki tutor

All the classes labeled 2009 (China uses year of entry, not graduation, to denote classes) will not meet until after the National Holiday ends Oct. 8. This weekend, 4,000 freshmen arrived, and will have 10 days of orientation and military training until the holiday begins Oct. 1. I can’t comment on those classes yet, but I anticipate being very busy reading and marking 70 freshman compositions and 70 sophomore compositions each week or so.

The 2008 classes are the same students I had during the spring term. I’ve gotten to know them pretty well, though with a total of 145 students, of course I know some students better than others.

The Wednesday morning and Friday classes are two-year students, so most will leave the university next June to find work, probably as primary or middle school teachers. However, the uni provides a way for two-year students to obtain a bachelor’s degree. They do self-study in 13 subjects, and sit for an examination in each one. If they pass the exams, they can get a bachelor’s degree, and thereby qualify to take the postgraduate examination to further their study.

They are not two-year students by choice, necessarily. The college entrance examination, which more than 10 million students took this June, determines a student’s fate. High scores mean a student can attend a “key” university, like Peking U, or Shanghai Foreign Language University. Low scores mean they will have to settle for lesser schools (like Jishou U), or attend preparatory classes, or be consigned to a two-year program, or all of the above. Or have no university education at all. It’s a ruthlessly efficient sorting system, which penalizes students with poor preparation or poor testing skills.

A number of my Z1 and Z2 students have thrown themselves into their self-studies with a dedication that frankly takes my breath away. If they are not in class, in bed, or at a meal, they are reading the books they have to know backwards and forwards for the first set of exams next month.

The Thursday classes are the undergraduates – the four-year students. By virtue of their college entrance examination scores, they qualified for a more leisurely path to a bachelor’s degree. The logic of this dichotomy eludes me – the “weaker” students have to work twice as hard as the “stronger” students to get the same thing – but there it is. The undergrads are also in our college to prepare for study abroad, if they so choose.

All my current students need richer vocabulary, so every week now includes a vocab activity. Everyone has to bring in three new words or idioms, and I will call on a few students each class to teach their vocab to the class.
So far, it’s going pretty well.

We are learning discussion skills in the Z1 and Z2 classes. We are also awaiting the arrival of their textbooks, but personally I hope the books take their sweet time, I used the same text last fall with the current juniors, and it sucks. Meanwhile, I am wearing out the copy machine providing my own essays to discuss.

The composition classes have a better textbook, but the first half of it duplicates what we did last spring. So I am starting them writing compositions right away, with the additional goal of their writing a research paper each term. They have no experience writing expository papers, much less formal research papers, so it should be an interesting experience for all of us.

Clark, one of my clients, is 25 and is preparing for the IELTS exam in November, so he can attend the University of Bridgeport (Conn.) next year. He needs help in improving his writing, so he can get an acceptable score in that part of the exam. We’ve been meeting since July.

Niki is my neighbor downstairs. He is 8, and just arrived from Ukraine. His folks are music teachers here, and Niki has to follow the same curriculum as his school back home. So, that means covering his English primer this school year.

Lizzie and Color are our representatives to the provincial English speaking contest. Neither majors in English, but both are announcers on the campus English radio station. We’re going to work on their pronunciation and intonation, a continuation of the lessons I gave them in July. Both are juniors.

Harry, one of my G1 sophomores, wants some coaching for the Business English exam. He has plans to study abroad, and to go into international commerce.

Miki is a graduate of the Foreign Language College in Zhangjiajie. We met over the summer at an English Corner hosted by the Princeton-in-Jishou visitors to the Teacher’s College. She’s about 26, and teaches English at one of the local middle schools. Her husband teaches math. They have a weekend enrichment school for about 50 middle schoolers. I teach lessons once in a while to keep the kids’ interest up. Last Sunday, six of the kids took me to KFC for lunch.

The sixes are (right now) seven six-year-olds. The eights are (right now) four eight- and nine-year-olds. My friend, Smile, a second-year graduate student, wants to start an English training school and is now laying the foundation. The kids are children of her friends and neighbors at the Public Security Bureau (PSB) – the police HQ – where her husband works.

[Momentary digression: In China, many employers – and all government agencies – provide housing for their workers. So, just about all the police officers and their families live on the PSB grounds. We are meeting the kids in a park on the PSB grounds, which is a great way to advertise.]

Smile’s grand plan comes with the expectation that I stay in Jishou at least two more years, so that I can train other teachers in my methods – mostly Total Physical Response (TPR) and some other language instruction methods. I find it a little weird that I’m suddenly an expert in ESL when I’ve really only done it a year, but in Jishou there is not a lot of competition for the job.

Staying longer is actually not such a bad idea. If the uni cares to keep me around that long, which I figure it will, I might also end up being co-founder of a school. That has a certain ego-stroking appeal.

Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention, in case anyone is wondering. I am getting paid for all this extra work. I’m not rich by US standards, but by local measures, I’m pretty well off.

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3 thoughts on “In my spare time, I sleep

  1. Reply Belle Bell Sep 22,2009 5:40 am

    all of this is why i do not think that i will ever be able to feel good teaching students 'extra' english classes. it just confuses the hell out of them and gives them too much more to worry about. in a lot of ways, kids with rich families that want to show off their status and do things that make them look better socially–by giving their only child ridiculous amounts of classes, sometimes from the age of 3 on–have it oddly difficult. my conscience has not borne well contributing to that industry for so long…even though i only do it to try to make a decent living.

  2. Reply Janice H Quinn Sep 22,2009 9:10 am


  3. Reply John Wheaton Sep 22,2009 11:18 am

    I agree with you, Cecil. But I strive to make my classes fun, with lots of games and not much book work, and my clients so far are not rich. They're police officers' kids, so if anything I'm giving the middle class a leg up.There is at least one English enrichment school in town. I've visited there twice. Judging from the nifty cameras the parents were carrying, I'd say the rich folks send their kids there.

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