I spent the early hours of Monday morning in front of the bathroom mirror, practicing my ‘serious teacher face’ before my first class at 9:00am. Sheets of paper quivered in my hands as I tried again and again to cobble together a two-and-a-half-hour class from a few measly pages of content.
Finally, it was time. I climbed down from my fourth-floor room and waded through the baking heat towards the village shop to pick up my breakfast – a chocolate cornetto. I unfurled a bundle of 1, 5 and 10-yuan notes for the shopkeeper. She shouted at me in Chinese and gestured at my pile of notes in exasperation – something that would become a tradition (she saw my crumpled notes as disrespectful, a translator later told me).
I felt as though I was precariously standing on top of one of the village’s pointed peaks, balancing against the wind and trying, with all my might, not to look down. By the time I’d made it to the door of my first class, ‘Echo class’, my palms were sweaty, and my nerves were shot with a deep sense that I was out of my depth.The commotion emanating from the other side didn’t help. What’s worse, it was all in Chinese. ‘How do you shout, ‘be quiet’ in Mandarin?’, I thought. Such thoughts confirmed to me that I was way, way under prepared. After all, this was my first ever time teaching, and one of only a handful of public speaking experiences. In the usual way, my breathing became rapid and stunted, and I realised that the longer I stood here in anticipation, the more doomsday scenarios my bastard brain would continue to churn out, which, in turn, would peak my anxiety and only worsen the potential for a cock-up. I was very eager to steer-clear of the usual self-fulfilling prophecy.
I heaved a final intake of hot, humid air and pulled down on the doorknob. Immediately, the noise from the other side subsided.
What followed were 4 weeks of demanding but incredibly fulfilling teaching. School days were cleaved in 2: the mornings were reserved for academic work, the afternoons, for creative pursuits. The school curriculum was premised upon play production. In the mornings, the teacher would introduce a popular story to the class – à la Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Around the World in Eighty Days, before re-writing and condensing the story into a script, with a role for each kid (the Ugly Stepsisters of Cinderella elicited wails and tears from the two chosen girls, so were quickly reconceptualised as the ‘the Very Beautiful Stepsisters’). In afternoons, we would play language games – gauging whether the kids had understood that morning’s vocabulary, designed sets, costumes, and generally pissed about.
I like to think of myself as a fairly ‘cool’ teacher – insofar as 21-year-old playing piggy in the middle with 8-12-year olds (and losing) can be cool. The reservations I had about teaching Chinese kids, fearing as I did a uniform mass of robotically disciplined, personality-less students, was nonsense and, I’m ashamed to say, premised on little more than prejudice. The kids were bursting with personality, and engaged with me, despite being in a position of ‘authority’, frankly. It was imperative that I cultivated some form of connection with each student individually, as I very much saw the experience as an opportunity to learn much about Chinese culture, the bedrock of which is composed of multiple hundreds of millions of individuals. I tried my best to learn not only the kids’ English names, but their Chinese names, and I spent much time during breaks to get to know each and every kid, though this was easier for some more than others.Over time, the efforts both I and the students made to get to know each other payed off, and a ‘chilled’ learning environment evolved, one in which we were all invested in perfecting the production for that week – which would take place in front of the school. Of course, at times the relationship would break down and restless kids could take advantage of a fairly liberal setting that they were probably not afforded at school. Classes were very much composed of a binary: some seemed to crave discipline, while others thrived in an environment of independent learning, and the two came to blows on occasion. One kid, Mango, would curl up in a ball on the floor every time we engaged in a class activity. Another, Jason, when asked to recite in front of the class a full sentence containing his thoughts on that week’s story, Cinderella, confidently rose up and pronounced “I don’t enjoy Cinderella because it’s fucking boring” – I immediately removed both Jason and myself from the class: him for detention, myself to let flow the tears of laughter I’d bottled up to save face in front of the class.With the roll around of each Friday, it was time for classes to perform their week’s effort in front of the rest of the school. Shows took place in the morning, in the school canteen at the top of a 5-story building, the tallest structure within the school’s complex. Every week, handymen would clear out the post-breakfast mess and line up countless rows of chairs. Large ceiling fans and towering AC units were plugged in and amped up – a futile effort once the room was full, and the morning sun had pierced the windows that lined all 4 walls. What the fans and AC towers did accomplish was a contribution to an incredible noise, which would render the dramas unfolding on stage largely inaudible.But, through the noise of countless yammering kids in the audience and the din of AC units buzzing in vain, classes stood proudly and laid bare the fruit of our collective efforts. Audible to only the first 3 or four rows at most, and the recording equipment that would relay the performance to their parents, the kids always gave their all, bowed deservedly and patted each other on the back in commendation as they returned to their seats.
As teachers, most of us weren’t naïve enough to believe that we were making some profound contribution to these kids’ lives. We appreciated our primary purpose as components of this particular school’s USP: exposure to native, foreign English speakers – a feature not all that common amongst other rural language schools. But what we did, at least what I like to think we contributed, was a human face to the process of education. A gentle push towards self-learning through a student-teacher relationship in which both parties were invested: a more sustainable commitment to knowledge that wouldn’t end with the rigours of the school day, or the closure of a homework book late in the evening. We weren’t there to counterbalance the oft-faceless intensity of the Chinese education system, but merely hoped to be both educator and friend to our students, if only for a short summer.