Warning: The following is an extremely long winded blog that describes the ups and downs I experienced during an ESL placement in China.
I have just returned from spending a month in China, and before that, 3 weeks in Ecuador. I know, surprise surprise, of course I’ve been traveling. But, I wanted to talk specifically about China, how it has impacted me as a teacher.
About 6 months ago, some friends and I decided that we were all going to do an Additional Qualifications course together, specifically, ESL Part 1, where we had the opportunity to complete an international placement in China. We had been looking forward to this opportunity for a while, and things changed, circumstances prevented some of us from going, but I was still able to go with a few of them.
We did not know our placement specifics until we arrived in China. On our first Sunday there, I discovered I would be teaching Kindergarten students at a school where two of my friends would be teaching the same. Excitement, nerves, anticipation, so many feelings went through my mind before that first day, but excitement was generally my main emotion.
Who would have guessed that within those 6 hours of my first day teaching that I would do a 180, and leave feeling defeated and so discouraged that I was questioning my ability to be a good teacher. My only solstice was that my two ‘coworkers’ had the same struggles during their first day.
The first week was hard. When we met with teachers from other schools, they talked about how much fun they were having, how they were able to laugh and make jokes with their students, and that they could have small conversations. It seemed as though we were the only teacher’s struggling. They discussed behaviour issues, and how their TA’s were helping them, they were teaching days of the week and action words. We were dealing with behavioural issues as well (my coworkers more than I), but we did not have a TA who could speak English. I was teaching my student’s how to say ‘my name is’ and help them learn their English names, while I also felt like I was teaching my TA as well. When we tried to explain how our students spoke ZERO English, nobody really understood. When we asked for help, all the suggestions seemed too complex to be run with our brand new English speakers. Nobody seemed to ‘get it’.
As the first week came to a close, my feelings of defeat hadn’t really changed. I still had numerous students who could not answer the question ‘what is your name?’, but I had to move on to teaching colours and classroom items. Before the week had ended my coworkers and I decided that we needed to take our own course of action and rather than try to motor through our required workbook, we needed to take to time to review what we had learned so far.
Learning Curve #1: Some student’s catch on way faster than others. That does not mean that you need to continue to move on for the benefit of those select few, because then you would not be benefiting the ones you leave behind. When looking to benefit the majority of the class, review DOES NOT HURT. Review time provides students with extra practice, and allows you to teach topics in a variety of ways. See Learning Curve #3
It was during those last couple of days of the first week that our ‘complaints’ were finally acknowledged as struggles, and some clarity provided. We were informed of the demographics of our school. While this program has been running for years, this was the first location to be publicly funded by the government, and to have classrooms full of public school students rather than a mix of public/private (contributing to numerous differences in student abilities). These students had just finished a kindergarten program that’s only goal was to ‘be happy’, so these students had never been in a formal classroom setting before, nor had they EVER been exposed to English. This combination led to learning curve #2
Learning Curve #2: A teaching from the online portion of the course that was reinforced: if students have a strong knowledge of their first language, it makes it easier to understand a second language. Therefore, my students who were yet to be proficient in Mandarin were more likely to struggle in their ability to grasp English. If they had yet to learn how to write pinyin, I could hardly expect them to write in English right?
It was nice to finally have a confirmation for what we had been trying to say during our first week, it made the second week a little easier. Because most of our students had never heard the English language before they met us, we had to approach what we were teaching in a much more simplified manner. We were given permission to create our own pages of the workbook and stop following what was originally intended to be taught.
This decreased the amount of vocabulary we were trying to teach them by a lot, allowing us more time to review the main concepts, and give students as much practice in using/hearing the vocabulary as possible.
Learning Curve #3: When you are teaching students a new language, you need to make what and how you are teaching relevant. Be aware that what may work for some, may not work for others – so it is important to provide a variety of ways that can help your variety of learners retain the vocabulary you are teaching them.
Weeks 2 and 3 consisted of a lot of creativity on our part. I never knew you could teach colours in so many ways! My classroom involved a lot of moving around, we were never doing the same thing for too long. We practiced vocabulary with movements/gestures, we played games, we did seat work, we did arts and crafts, we did group work; all to reinforce the vocabulary they had been taught.
Learning curve #4: I always knew young students have short attention spans, but I never knew how beneficial it would be for classroom management to be constantly changing activities and always introducing something new.
Weeks 2 and 3 were definitely easier, but still challenging. I was noticing student improvement in the games we played, and those same improvements were evident in my assessments, which were conducted almost daily. It was almost the second last day of summer camp, when my last student was finally able to answer “What is your name?” without any prompts. The feeling of accomplishment both the student and I felt on that day is something I need to hold on to.
During my three weeks of teaching ESL, I would constantly question whether I was really helping my students learn English. Up until our closing ceremony, I was wondering if I could have done more. But this is in my ups, remember, because I think I was proven wrong.
On our last day, my students preformed two songs in our schools closing ceremony. Two songs that they sang with clarity. Two songs I watched and directed from the sidelines with pride. A support staff of the summer camp teachers program, shared his surprise with all of our classrooms, because during the first few days, he was not sure our students would be able to sing two English songs as well as they did. Check out a video of them singing below!
During the first week if you had asked me whether I was excited to leave, I would not have hesitated to exclaim yes. But, my last day at Whale Hill Public School was full of emotional goodbyes, goodbyes I was not excited to make.
I am going to quote a part of a speech that was made by a parent representative from our school (the full speech is posted below). “The hardest thing for a child is to learn from nothing”. Being the person to begin that foundation was very challenging. There were times during these three weeks that I felt defeated and thought that teaching my students who had never heard the English language was impossible. I left my students as a teacher who was amazed at the progress they had made, from learning a new English name to being able to tell me what they are wearing, my students worked hard. I will definitely miss my little ones.