In December of 2018 I embarked on a journey to teach English in China. This presented several opportunities for me, as well as challenges. Having lived in a Western culture where English is the native language, many things were taken for granted. A close friend had arrived two months before and had somewhat enlightened me about what to expect. Regardless of this, nothing could prepare me for what I was about to experience. Being that the population of China is approximately 1.4 billion and that of Jamaica is almost 3 million, classrooms were expected to be large, but not overcrowded. Classrooms with as many as eighty students of differing language levels, behavioral and academic challenges were commonplace. Indeed, their public-school system is similar in some respects to the one in Jamaica, but inability to communicate in students’ native tongue played an integral part in the teaching – learning interplay.
Inside the classroom
Employment at a middle school meant that I would teach students at the junior and senior high levels. There were vast differences in their levels of attention, discipline, behaviour, and also academic development. For classrooms this size, effective communication is paramount to teach and also, punish negative behaviours. Some schools require that a Chinese teaching assistant be present in English classes to help with classroom management. On the other hand, others are not as strict with enforcing this rule. The onus is on the Chinese teacher to attend at will.
To mitigate these challenges, a few plans of action were put in place. Firstly, observation of colleagues’ classes. As this was suggested by the head of department at the school, I felt as though it was a testament of my inability to have engaging and inspiring classes. In China, of equal, perhaps even more importance than students’ learning, is how comfortable and engaged they are in classes. However, observation of other foreign teachers’ classes was beneficial in more ways than one. It provided exposure to different methodologies for classes of mixed abilities, and also showed the importance of communicating in their language. Among these methodologies were incorporating short clips of movies, popular music videos, and role plays, which were engaging to students.
To become a successful foreign language teacher, cultivating a habit of reflecting on each class is also paramount. From this, I garnered what strategies worked best with adolescents and then tweaked my teaching style to address the shortfalls.
One characteristic of smaller cities is the fascination with ‘foreign skin’. Due to their under- exposure to foreigners, the sight of one is met with sheer intrigue. Anything from attire, to accent or hair is so compelling that most Chinese would take pictures or simply stare in awe. This was perhaps the phenomenon that seemed the most surprising to the average small-town Chinese. Even more fascinating was seeing a foreigner of African descent.
As fate would have it, each of these challenges faded as time progressed and integration with people and familiarity with the language improved. In retrospect, a few things could have been done to make the transition to this Eastern culture smoother. First of all, it is not just recommended, but necessary to know basic phrases in the language. Equally important is to become cognizant of cultural differences and festivals. And finally, but by no means the least important, to make a more successful transition into anything foreign, it is important to be resilient, embrace the challenges (as they are opportunities for growth and personal development) and having a positive outlook on every single experience one may have. Today, I have matured not only with the confidence in my ability to teach, but also, I can live successfully in any society that I might myself in, and in the future.