I had just under two weeks to prepare 8 hours worth of lectures and 8 hours of seminars. Each lecture is two hours long, and after my first attempt, I realised I had to rewrite everything and pitch it much lower.The language barrier was too severe. It was an intense period of writing, re-writing and delivering to a sea of 107 blank Chinese faces.
I was pre-warned about the students’ lethargy. They are timetabled to get up for an hour of private study from 7am to 8am ready for their first lecture of the day, which of course they receive in a foreign language. This is International School so everything is taught in English. There is prestige about the English language in China. Once you’re in the International School system, the lethargy kicks in. You’ve made it. Once the tuition fees have been paid, that’s it, you’re automatically en route to getting a job. I had a strong feeling that personal aspiration is considered futile in China. The Communist system is designed to carry you through, so as a result, there’s little incentive to stay awake in class. Why would you when you know you can play on your smartphone all day long and get a perfectly acceptable job as a supermarket sweeper or a receipt checker or someone who knocks down buildings and rebuilds them.
After the first week, the frustration started to get to me. In an environment of grey concrete and grey sky, I couldn’t help but question the likelihood that I could make any impact whatsoever.
So my questioning had to become more self-reflective. How can this experience enhance my teaching skills?, I thought. What can I get out of this? It became my means of measuring my success. Was I satisfied with what I’d achieved?
They didn’t really respond. But they didn’t talk through my lectures. I felt like I had presence, in the same way that the TV has presence when it’s on in the pub and the sound’s turned down, but it doesn’t matter because it moves in a certain way that means you can’t stop looking at it and guessing what they’re saying. That was me. At least they looked like they wanted to understand. That was enough for me.
Seminars were more difficult. Harry suggested that planning a seminar too meticulously was an inevitable failure. A seminar is about responding to the needs of the class. I would agree, if this was an English speaking class. But without language, how was the class supposed to communicate their needs?
Harry had suggested avoiding making a plan, so I didn’t, and I did badly. But by the end I came to realise that I don’t work in that way. There’s no right or wrong approach to teaching, other than doing what feels comfortable to you as a teacher. Keep within your comfort zone as far as you can. It’s not often I think that. I’d love to implement this valuable lesson in another bout of China teaching. A fruitful challenge, yes. I want to do it again.