Teaching the little ones 4

[Cross-posted at The Daily Kos]

JISHOU, HUNAN — Anyone who teaches English as a Second Language in China sooner or later gets called on to give private lessons or classes, or to put it another way, to get sucked into the maelstrom of English-learning angst here.

Some of your students might be university students trying for high scores on their postgraduate exams (the Chinese equivalent of the GRE), which include a pretty tough section on English skills, or the two main qualification exams for foreign study, TOEFL and IELTS.

But, by far most of your potential students will be middle school students (and their parents) who want high scores on the college entrance examination, and primary school students whose upwardly mobile parents want them to get into a good middle school.

[In China, primary schools are like US elementary schools, and middle schools have two levels, lower and upper, corresponding roughly to US middle and high schools.]

Many of these same children will also be taking piano, violin, dance, art, kung fu and/or taiji lessons besides. If all this over-scheduling sounds familiar to you, perhaps you know some parents in the States with similar agendas for their kids. It’s a wonder the children have a chance to breathe.

Technically, taking side jobs is not exactly kosher under the terms of our contracts. Most employers look the other way as long as your sideline doesn’t impinge on your “day job” performance or make you too much money, which would attract the attention of China’s equivalent of the IRS and raise embarrassing questions. You cannot work for another school, since a teacher’s foreign expert license (the “blue book”) is held by a single employer. Schools also need licenses to employ foreign teachers.

But tutoring one-on-one or small groups is OK. Once people learn you are giving private lessons, word travels fast, and so it is that I now find myself teaching 26 kids ranging in age from 4 to 11.

My university teaching schedule is 16 class meetings (about 50 minutes each), evenly split between freshmen and sophomore oral and writing classes. I have no evening or weekend classes, so I had free time. Much less now, as you will soon see.

Downstairs are a Ukrainian couple, who teach piano at the university. Their son, Nik, joined them this year, accompanied by all the texts he needs to pass the third grade. Of course, English is one of his subjects. They asked me if I would work with Nik two evening hours a week — for pay, of course. Each class, we spend about a half hour chatting in English, and the other half hour working through his textbook. We’ll finish the text next month, well ahead of the time he has to go back to Ukraine to take his tests to enter the fourth grade.

In case you’re wondering, Nik is homeschooled. Chinese primary schools don’t offer the instruction he will need to pass his tests: Ukrainian, Russian, English, natural science, health, civics, handwriting (Cyrillic and Roman) and mathematics. His parents handle all that, as well as give him piano lessons. Big surprise on that last one.

PJF is a good friend of mine in town. We met during the fall of 2008 when she participated, and won, a postgraduate English speaking contest which I helped judge. A former primary school teacher, PJF returned to the university to earn a master’s degree and thereby teach older students. About 30 or so, she is married to a police officer and lives in the Public Security Bureau residential compound downtown.

PJF has two dreams: to teach Chinese in the USA and/or to found her own English-language school in Jishou. Hoping to plant a seed for the second dream, she asked me if I would teach some of her friends’ kids on the weekend. I agreed, so she spread the word among her police-officer friends.

On Saturday afternoons, I (with one or two student helpers) teach five six-year-olds. On Sunday morning, we have 12 eight- and nine-year-olds. Their parents want them to learn to speak English, which Chinese schools typically do not teach.

Aware that most of the older kids spend hours sitting at their desks, virtually immobile, I made a conscious decision to make the classes as fun as possible. The climate here permits us to meet outdoors in the PSB compound’s garden — a pavilion is nearby in case of rain — and the visibility of the classes has attracted new students. It’s a two-edged sword, though. I cannot deny I am teaching students on the side, but at the same time I’m teaching at the one institution (other than the tax bureau) that could potentially cause problems for me. One of my new students is the daughter of the vice-president of the PSB, and her lessons are, um, gratis, on the recommendation of PJF.

PJF and I have a mutual friend, TXY, who is also about 30 and divorced with a four-year-old girl. A classmate of PJF’s, TXY is a civil servant — an officer now — in the local cultural affairs office. Her dad is a noted artist and expert on Tujia arts and crafts. Incidentally, both PJF and TXY are Tujia, one of the minorities in this part of China. The Tujia have mostly assimilated into the larger Han culture.

Like her friend, TXY also has dreams, but her biggest is to live in the USA, so her daughter can attend school there. TXY’s English skills are not strong, but she wants her girl to learn English as early as possible. TXY recruited two of her friends’ children to join us. After my Sunday morning lessons, TXY’s friend picks me up at the PSB, we all have lunch somewhere, then retire to his home for a one-hour lesson using the New Concept English books for pre-K children.

As if this wasn’t enough, I have another friend, WH, a colleague of the Ukrainians, who recommended me to a few of her private piano students. First, I was going to meet just one, a seven-year-old girl, but then WH sent another my way, an 11-year-old boy. At this point, I asked her not to send me any more students, but the other parents didn’t get the news. Another 11-year-old girl, who studies piano with a different teacher, joined us. With the two older kids, addressing the needs of the younger girl is a real challenge, but we manage.

Then, the seven-year-old’s mom said she had a friend who also wanted tutoring for her daughter. I could not politely say no, so I agreed to meet her on Saturday mornings.

The one girl turned out to be three. (Somehow one of my own university students was involved in this tripling effect, but I am not clear how.) These girls are six and seven, and the youngest studied last fall in Singapore, which has a much better English program than China. So, she is a little more advanced than her friends. [Another girl, her pal, just joined the class today.]

In case you’ve lost count, I teach Nik two hours, and teach a total of 10 hours on weekends, for a grand total of 28 hours a week. But those additional 12 hours are on my schedule, and I can cancel them with prior notice. Parents also have to cancel on occasion for holidays and such, so it’s not as tedious as it may sound.

Along the way, I’ve concluded that teaching primary students is a lot of fun, but a lot harder by far than teaching university students. You primary/elementary school teachers all get a big pat on the back from me. No way I could handle 25 kids five days a week every year. The few I have is more than enough, and I have help from college students and parents!

I’m of two minds about all this English tutoring. I have a friend (and former student) who spent five years teaching English in Hangzhou, a substantially larger city. She shares some of my misgivings. On the one hand, we are providing a service for parents who want their kids to succeed in a surprisingly competitive society. (Forget all those concepts of Chinese all marching lockstep toward a common goal for the Motherland. People here can be as cut throat and driven as any Wall Street financier.) On the other hand, we are contributing to a few more hours of lost childhood each week for our young charges. In my friend’s case, those big-city parents would just find another foreign tutor. In mine, if I say no, there’s really no one else in town offering lessons. Would those parents then spare their children some more play time, or find another activity for them? I have no way of knowing.

So, the best I can do is try to make the lessons as fun as possible. For those of you in the ESL racket, I use a lot of activities from James Asher’s Total Physical Response (TPR) method, word games, normal conversation, and if I can get a good book about it here, eventually Asher’s Total Physical Response Storytelling. In other words, I am trying to avoid book larnin’ — the traditional Chinese method of language instruction. My students (all of them!) get enough of that in their regular classes.

A few parents, who are used to traditional Chinese teaching methods, have asked me (through my friend PJF as interpreter) to teach their kids like their regular teachers would. I reply that I am an American teacher, and I use American methods, the implication being that if they don’t like it, they can find someone else.

All of them, however, somehow expect their little darlings will be chattering away in English like magpies after each lesson. They want instant results, in other words. I wish I could find that magic spell that could turn all my students into fluent English speakers, but that could only happen if they were totally immersed in English 24-7. I only teach them two hours a week. So whatever progress the children make will be necessarily gradual.

Which goes to show that children and their parents are pretty much the same everywhere. Children want to play all the time, and avoid lessons. Parents want teachers, while they are herding the little cats, to perform daily miracles in pedagogy.

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4 thoughts on “Teaching the little ones

  1. Reply Kerry P Doyle Apr 20,2010 10:08 am

    This is very interesting, John. I bet you're great with the little kids!

  2. Reply Darcy Apr 22,2010 4:19 pm

    Good lord, Daddio, your schedule is ridiculous! I had thought you’d been sucked into giving private lessons, but I didn’t realize for how many students or for how long. Do you still get free time? haha

  3. Reply John Wheaton Apr 26,2010 7:23 pm

    I love teaching them, but I'm not sure I could ever be an elementary school teacher. At least, not at my current chronological age …

  4. Reply Anne Barton Wittke Apr 29,2010 2:25 pm

    This is interesting. What is the Daily Kos, though?

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