It was the end of another long day teaching English in China. I’d spent the last five hours trying to help a group of ten-year-olds decipher some American common core 6th grade reading and science textbooks. At this point, they didn’t want to learn, and I didn’t want to teach. So, I did what any good teacher would do: I organized a paper airplane throwing contest.
I gave the kids fifteen minutes or so to make their planes. Their little faces lit up at having something else to do besides answer multiple-choice questions and make sentences with vocabulary words. One girl, Daisy, asked for a yellow marker. She drew a big number one on each side of her plane, complete with feathery bird wings on either side.
We all went into the hallway, where they threw their planes two at a time. Daisy’s paper airplane won every single match. It even came dangerously close to the end of the hall, where one of my bosses might see it and question the educational value of the activity.
The other kids were impressed. “How did you make your plane fly so far?” they asked.
She grinned and pointed to the yellow, flying “1”s she’d drawn. “It’s because of the drawing,” she said.
I laughed along with the others. “No,” they said. “How did you fold it? How did you really make it fly so far?”
Daisy’s mouth twisted into a little pout. “I don’t know why you don’t believe me,” she said. “The drawing is very important.”
Teaching in China during the time of Coronavirus
Of course, there was no chance for paper airplane competitions during the peak of the COVID-19 lockdown in China. We were lucky enough to be able to teach online. And when I say “lucky”, I really mean “annoyed” and “grudgingly accepting”.
The kids were fine, for the most part. The parents were the real problem. I can’t count how many times I had to pause a class because a parent sat down next to his or her child while talking loudly on a cell phone.
Other parents sat just outside the range of the camera… feeding their children the answers to all the questions. Kids who were average in class were suddenly handing in tests with every answer correct. I wanted to write some sarcastic feedback, like “wow, Elsa, your father’s English has really improved!”
It’s very easy to not take online classes seriously.
Once, I glanced at the background behind a student. I wasn’t sure, but I thought I saw a towel rack and maybe a shelf full of toilet paper. Sure enough, a moment later, the student was pulling up her pants and very clearly carrying her iPad out of the bathroom.
This student did this many times. Once, with her camera muted, she shouted at someone. An old woman, likely her grandmother, rushed in. The grandmother grabbed a roll of toilet paper and proceeded to wipe her nine-year-old granddaughter’s ass. The girl stayed focused on the lesson the whole time.
Maybe some kids take online classes a little too seriously.
The dark side of teaching English in China
Teaching English in China can also be heartbreaking, though. One student of mine was particularly naughty. His mother was a bit of a Chinese Karen, and spent over an hour talking at the teaching assistant after class.
Later, I asked the teaching assistant what she’d said. “She’s very upset,” she told me, “she says if —– is naughty you should use… you should use…”
She frowned and pulled her phone out of her pocket. She typed some Chinese into a translation app, then showed it to me. The word was “corporal punishment.”
Sometimes kids show up to class with bruises. It’s not common, but every teacher I know has seen it. Unfortunately, there isn’t the culture or infrastructure for any kind of intervention with child abuse here.
Even if they aren’t being hit, the kids often lead difficult lives. China’s new middle-class parents, much like their counterparts everywhere, want their children to be the best. They fill their lives with lessons and classes, hoping that will get them into a super prestigious university one day.
A parent once asked one of my coworkers: “Do you think my child is on track to go to an Ivy League university?” The child in question was four years old.
Some of these kids already have crippling perfectionism. One former student of mine started crying uncontrollably when he got a 94 out of 100 on a test. It was the highest score in the class, by at least ten points. “No!” he sobbed. “It has to be 96!!”
I’ve come to realize I can only do so much. I have the kids for two hours a week. The best I can do is to try and make that two hours as enjoyable as possible for them.
What. Is. Your. Name?
It’s not all bad, though. In fact, I’d say the job is mostly good. I get why people become teachers now. I had one student — a boy who showed up to class on the first day wearing an adorable little suit and tie, by the way — who almost didn’t know a single word of English.
It was a challenge, since most of our other students tend to come in with at least some basic knowledge. I spent two hours with this kid, jumping and pointing and gesturing just to get him to understand “what is your name?”
A few months later, his grades in school were improving, and he was apparently going around telling anyone who would listen that English was now his favorite subject.
Every class is like a little puzzle. Take “what is your name?” to us, it’s a simple question with an easy response. But to someone who has absolutely no concept of English, it’s incredibly complex.
How do you explain the abstract concept of “name” as something you use to define yourself in relation to other people? How do you define “my” and “your” as concepts relating to ownership of this abstract definition of self? What about “what” in a context that seems like it would be better suited to “who”? And let’s not even get started on “is”, a tiny word that defines being and existence.
But it worked. And now this little seven-year-old can confidently walk around any major American or British city learning people’s names.
Get a real job, you hippie.
For some expats in China, teaching English seems to have some kind of stigma attached to it. And… to be completely honest, a lot of people teaching English in China are total scumbags.
English teachers are in such high demand that many schools will literally higher anyone. Almost anyone, anyway. There are some shady schools that are explicitly just looking for white faces. There are more than a few “native English speakers” from Russia, Ukraine and elsewhere.
The government keeps saying they’re going to crack down on this, and if you follow the rules, they’re actually pretty strict about credentials and back ground checks and all that. Of course, not everyone follows the rules.
I’ve also known some people with the right credentials that are total scumbags, too. It’s not uncommon for people to show up late, or just not show up at all, because they were too drunk from the night before. One guy taught class with a coffee mug full of whiskey. He got fired.
So, okay, maybe some of the stigma is deserved. Unfortunately for the kids, many people view teaching English as some kind of gap year holiday. To be fair, many of the people that come are just out of college. Teaching English is probably their first job, ever.
It’s an easy job to get, but a very difficult job to do well. Yeah, sometimes you have a shitty day, but even professional puppy snugglers have days they don’t want to go to work. After a life time of grinding away at low wage jobs, I’m finally getting paid a decent living to do something I actually enjoy. Deciding to start teaching English in China is easily one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I can’t wait for the next paper airplane contest.