apples and oranges

24 Feb

Prepare for more talk about work. This is my first week of teaching, so while I do have other daily-life-in-China stories to tell (Chinese Walmart!), I’m a bit preoccupied with the job right now.

I came to a realization today in between classes. Although I tried, I was unable to get any real information about the English proficiency level of my students before I began teaching. I knew that I would have students between the ages of 12 and 17, divided into 4 “grades”, and I was told that their English skills varied wildly. I assumed, without giving it any real thought, that the younger students would know less English than the older students. This turned out to be a faulty assumption.

Approaches to teaching English in Chinese schools have changed rapidly in the past decade. About 5 years ago, it turns out, they changed the way they teach English here in Jiujiang–before that, they were only teaching English in high school. This means that unless their parents arranged private English lessons when they were younger, many of my 17 year olds didn’t start learning English until they were 12 or 13. All of my 12 year olds started learning English when they were 7, at the latest. This seems to make a big difference.

It took me 2.5 days to notice that my classes with the poorest comprehension are all older students. My classes with the strongest English are older students, too, but I think they’re the kids who have had extra English instruction throughout their school careers. The younger students are pretty solidly in the middle.

My first class on Monday was 12 year olds, and when they were able to understand my instructions and successfully complete the activities, I thought, “okay, I’m golden”, because I was assuming that the older students would be at least as proficient. The class after that was 16 year olds, and they were a handful. In retrospect, I’m wondering if they weren’t distracted and uncooperative because they were somewhat lost. I mean, some of the students were definitely intentionally giving me a hard time, and I had to confiscate a number of cellphones. But I think it’s possible that they were restless because what I wanted from them was, to some extent, going over their heads.

I mentioned this theory to several of the Chinese English teachers this evening, and they all nodded. “It’s possible,” one of them said. “It is true that many of the senior students have the poorest English ability. They are the last students affected by old-fashioned thinking about teaching languages, from before policies changed.”

Well, now I know.

I’m happy to consider the possibility that my lesson plan was off-target because it’s something I can change. I can’t do anything about class size, or the fact that it’s not cool to participate in class when you’re 16, so if these are contributing factors to my older classes being a handful (and I suspect they are), all I can do is try to find work-arounds. But I can tweak my approach to lesson planning.

I feel like I’m giving the impression that this week has been hell, or that my teaching has gone badly, and neither of those things are true. 3 out of 9 classes have had trying moments, 6 classes have been wonderful. None of my classes have even approached disastrous. I’ve had 2 teachers from my department sit in on classes, and both were very pleased.

But I fret, and I enjoy being really good at my job. Come hell or high water, I’m going to get really good at this.

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One Response to “apples and oranges”

  1. Kathy February 24, 2011 at 1:18 pm #

    Good week Erin, give yourself a pat on the back. There were bound to be ups and downs ( surprises ). Welcome to being a teacher!

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