Note: This article has been a few weeks late. First it was writer’s block, then general busyness, then laziness. It seems to be that the most important things to write about are the things I put off most.
Growing up, my mom always used to say, ‘Whatever you do, don’t become a teacher.’
You see, my mom has been a special education teacher for longer than I’ve been alive, so she knows that being a teacher can be a thankless, stressful, and poorly compensated career. It’s natural that you’d want your child to have an easier time in their work life, or at least a higher compensation for the same amount of struggle.
I remember the long nights she spent doing progress reports and lesson plans, the horror stories she’d tell aunties and uncles about kids and parents (mainly parents), and the extra hours she’d put in to cleaning and setting up her classroom even during summer break. I even remember going on strike while me and my brother were younger because the teachers of Hawaii clashed with the DoE on something (Probably salaries, but I was too young to remember). While my mom definitely enjoyed her work despite its many challenges, I saw that it wasn’t the career for me very early on.
And so I grew up agreeing with her statement.
So why am I here, in China, as a teacher?
To sum it up, for a change of pace.
After being let go from my previous job, I was looking at a bunch of different things to do at home in the marketing space, but no opportunity seemed like it would move the needle for me, in terms of how I wanted to advance my career. Applying to an ESL teaching position in China on a whim, I continued on with my search. It didn’t actually register as an option until I was offered the position, but as I thought more about it, the opportunity to do something different seemed more appealing.
China was this huge, unknown land; the land where half of my family is descended from. A culture far different from America’s, working in a capacity I had actively avoided. If I was looking to change my perspective, get out of my comfort zone, and grow personally and professionally, living in what felt like another world and doing something I had no training in sounded like the move to make. And I was looking. So away I went. And here I am.
Taking the Plunge:
Before even coming to China, there was online training that I took to help warm me up to the field of ESL teaching. For those unaware, the main certification for ESL teachers is the TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certification. This warmer was further expanded on once we landed in Shanghai. The first two weeks included training for new teachers at our company’s HQ in the Jing’an Temple area. We learned how to teach different levels of young learners, structures of our coursework and lessons, lesson planning, classroom management, and a whole host of other knowledge and skills we’d need once we arrived at our designated centers. To be honest, a lot of it really went over my head, and the important stuff only started sinking in after I got into the classroom environment and started actually teaching.
If it seems like a vague overview, that’s because it is. I’m not entirely sure how much I can get into as far as how my company trains its teachers and what the onboarding process is like, but I can tell you that for me, it served as a warmer for the real work. We were all so busy trying to find a foothold in this foreign land that I doubt many of my arrival group had a firm grasp of teaching ESL from the get-go.
In the Trenches:
Teaching ESL is a real battlefield.
It seems that a lot of teaching is a battle for control, with the kids, your TAs, and even the lesson material. Especially in the first two months, I would find myself struggling to have a clear picture of what I was going to be teaching to who, how if fit in with the lesson plan, and how to best use the assistants in the classroom (if there were any). Lesson planning itself took hours to complete for one class, and all of this mixed in with having to manage the classroom (especially with little kids), made for a very combative environment. It was like I was a salmon swimming upstream.
The first couple were mainly observation, followed by a lot of co-teaching, before I finally started getting classes to myself. The process has been helpful to my professional development, not throwing me off the deep end entirely, but still paced well enough to keep challenging me every day.
I still struggle with classroom management, but that seems to be something that will persist until my time is up, as kids will be kids. I can only hope to become more effective and affect the classroom environment positively. Teaching Chinese learners is a challenge because you can only communicate through body language and through as much speaking as they’ve learned, so I often find it difficult to get the students to do exactly what I want them to do, or to explain something in a way that would make them understand. Still, they learn quickly and I’ve managed to avoid too much disappointment and frustration on their end. (So far)
However, I’m a lot more efficient in my lesson planning and understanding how the lesson fits with the unit and the course overall. After a few mistakes, I’ve been making sure to understand the grammar points and sentence structures so that I can explain them in a way that will make even the slowest of students understand.
Looking Up and Forward:
Teaching has been a real challenge that takes a lot of mental and emotional energy, which is not something I’m fond of, but I realize it’ll help me grow and understand people a lot more. After all, it’s said that you learn most when you teach. Still, this line of work is not healthy long term, as there’s no real balance that can be had when you work such long and intense hours. Often times, I’ll come home at 9-10, too tired to really do anything other than shower, eat, and get ready for bed. My Mandarin studies have not progressed in the way I thought they would, I play piano only once in a while, and my work out is barely anything-only push-ups and sit-ups. Hardly enough to keep my body healthy and active. I recognize that a lot of it might be lack of motivation, but after an emotionally and mentally taxing day, studying Mandarin or doing cardio sometimes feel like much too much work. There’s no space to be creative in the classroom; in a fulfilling sense at least. You can create activities and different ways to teach a grammar point, but teaching feels much more like execution than ideation, which is the type of work I personally find most fulfilling. This experience has made me realize that marketing and advertising is really the work I’d like to return to in the future, and has taught me some valuable lessons about discerning what ‘fills’ me.
That’s not to say that it’s been all bad; teaching has some great moments, especially when kids recognize you and show you some love. Prior to this, I hadn’t really interacted or been with children all to often, so it’s been definitely a new and positive experience in that sense.
But I’m also definitely not having kids anytime soon.
Other than that, progress can be felt much more concretely than with creative fields. I can get a general sense of when I write something good, or come up with a really good tagline, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that my next one will be better or even good. With teaching, once I make a mistake, I just don’t repeat it next class, and I’ll have improved. I’ll try something new and see whether it works for me or not, and then decide whether to adopt it into my lessons. The feeling of improvement is more frequent, and I’m not as concerned with judgement of my work because all I need to do is teach the right points and create a positive learning environment; nothing as ambiguous as worrying whether or not my CD or client will like a piece that I create.
Still, I prefer the freedom and potential that comes with advertising, social media, and marketing. Using ideas to connect people has been something that has always fascinated me, and I know now where I should put my efforts.
Which is not to say I’ll stop trying hard in my teaching. I fully intend to see the year out and learn as much as possible. Somewhere along the way I’ll find a balance that will work for my time here and concentrate on things that will be beneficial and fulfilling for my future personal and professional growth.
If this sounded like a rant, it’s because it was. It’s no surprise that a lot of work comes with its own challenges and inconveniences, but I wanted to be true to how I feel about working in a foreign land, doing something I haven’t done before. I’m glad that I made the decision to challenge myself professionally, even if it meant taking a detour from the path I wanted to go down. One of my goals for being here was to gain a new perspective, and I think that while I’m only four months in, I’ve certainly gained it.
This is probably the most important post of this series, and I’m sure that I can say more on my experience teaching, but if I had to sum it up:
Teaching has been a valuable learning experience, that while challenging and mentally and emotionally taxing, has given me a new and more concrete perspective of what I want to achieve professionally.
How’s that for a change of pace?