I was walking to the bus station from school one afternoon and I heard two little boys talking. One of them pointed me out and said I was his foreign teacher. His friend replied:
Boy’s friend: We have a foreign teacher too. He’s black.
Boy’s friend: Yeah. He’s from the United States and I think his family used to be slaves.
Apparently there was another foreign teacher and he was teaching them about the history of slavery. How did he get these kids to understand what he’s talking about? He must be a teaching genius because I have hard enough of a time getting the kids to stand up and sit down on command. I couldn’t wait to meet him!
On the bus home as I thought about my deficiencies as a teacher, I overheard this conversation:
Older woman: Did you hear there’s a black teacher in the school. He’s going to scare the children.
Young Mother (obviously embarrassed to be having this conversation): The children will be okay.
Older Woman: I’m sure he will scare the children.
How does that work exactly? Are children scared of the color black? Or maybe she imagined that the Black teacher is going to chase the kids around in a tribal mask if they get a question wrong as a part of a proud African-American tradition. I guess you can’t really make sense of ignorance. In any case, good for the school for hiring him despite of what parents may say! I’m glad this generation of children will be exposed to people of different races. They will not grow up as ignorant as their grandparents.
The next day I met the new teacher in the staff room. I couldn’t help letting out a big “Ha!” and laugh. I met Franklin, a sweet Indian boy who spent a year living in LA. He did not in any way look, act, or sound stereotypically Black. In fact, he had a pretty thick Indian accent.
The Overly Enthusiastic One
He sat at the very front of the class always looking grave and serious. He raised his hands for every question I asked. Problem was he didn’t know the answer to most of the questions. When he got a question wrong, he sagged his head and hunched. His facial expression was a cross between a lost puppy and an old man who had lost everyone he loved. It was too funny. I picked him mostly for hard questions.
The Rebellious One
He gave me a really hard time in my first class. He wouldn’t listen to anything I have been saying and kept throwing bits of paper at his classmates. I told him stop. He wouldn’t. I told his to stand outside the class. He wouldn’t budge. At that point I knew that if I wanted any kind of control over the class, it was a fight I had to win. In the end I had to physically drag him out the door by his arms while he kicked and screamed sitting on the floor. Once he was outside, I slammed the door on him. Next class, he apologised and presented me with two origami stars. We were both relieved that it was over. I really ended up liking this one. He was quick, intelligent, and funny. After the big blow out, he was a great student. He still challenged me once in a while and sometimes I would let him get away with it because I didn’t want to crush his spirit. The world would be such a boring place if everyone was docile.
The Dirty Girl
Most of the kids at my school look very well taken care of even if they were poor. This girl looked the opposite. Her uniform was always covered with dirt and her hair always looked lanky and unwashed. While sitting in class, she would always have a finger up her nose, twisting it languidly. Once she collected enough material, she rolled it into a little ball with her thumb and index finger and sent it flying in the air. The worst part was, she kept on wanting to touch me. She would reach out her dirty little hands for a high-five whenever I walked to her corner of the class. I knew she just wanted affection. I wish I could have been more of a grown up about it but I was too busy dodging her booger hands.
The Class Clown
He was always getting into trouble. He actually liked being sent to the back of the class so he could make faces and make the other kids laugh. His constant attention seeking exhausted me. Little dude, why do you have to try so hard? He’ll probably grow up to become a Karma Whore on Reddit. He’d be good at that.
The Know It All
Out of all my students, she probably knew the most English. She knew the answer to every question and always raised her hand high in the air and shouted “Teacher, pick me! Let me try”. If I didn’t pick her she would get this desperate look as if she was about to pee herself. Since my biggest fear while teaching was that one of my students would piss or shit their pants, I called on her a lot. In case she actually wanted permission to go to the bathroom.
When I taught them the song ‘The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round’, she kept on telling me that I got the words wrong. “Sweetie, it doesn’t matter if bus goes ‘bumpdy bump’ or ‘clickdy clack’ first. It’s the same song. Just go with it. Mmmkay?”. She kept on singing the version she learned. “Whatever. As long as she doesn’t pee herself.” I thought.
The One Who was in Love with Me
After a couple of weeks at the school I realised that I saw this Six Grader way too frequently. At least once in the morning, once during recess and two to three times during lunch. When I turn a corner there he would be. He would stand tall, raise his hand, gave me a small wave and said “Hello Teacher!” He always said the same thing. Always the same wave. I found it utterly amusing and I would always laugh a little when I saw him. I think he took it as a sign that I liked him back because near the end of the school year I found him lurking near my apartment building. Not sure if cute or creepy.
The Devil Child
I should have known that there was something seriously wrong because as soon as I arrived, the home room teacher shot out without saying a word to me. She was the smallest girl in grade one. She had a baby doll face with beautiful round eyes. She was an angel, until she didn’t get her way. When she was displeased her eyes would fill with malice. She would ball her hands into little fists of fury, scream and run around the class like a deranged Velociraptor. She punched me with her steely little fists more than once. The beating I could take. But that scream! That horrid high-pitch scream that made all me feel like all my brain cells would burst. Her class learned nothing and watched a lot of Tom and Jerry. I was at the mercy of the Devil Child. I did her bidding.
When I was looking for a job in China, I never thought I would be teaching elementary school. I was never one of those people that just loved children. I liked some kids and tolerated the rest. But teaching them turned out to be the most fun and rewarding job that I’ve ever had.
I taught at a public school in the suburbs of Dalian. I had about 14 classes a week and I taught grade 1, grade 2, and grade 6. I had about 40-60 kids for every class. Most of them were well behaved and eager to please and once I figured out the trick, it wasn’t too hard to control them. I’m really glad I paid attention in English class when we studied George Orwell though. I joke. (not really)
I had a lot of freedom with my classes. I wasn’t given a curriculum or a text book. When I started I had no experience with kids and very little time to prepare. I was offered the job on Sunday and asked if I could start on Monday. My first class was a mess. I went through what I thought was 40 minutes of material in 15 minutes. The children didn’t seem to understand anything thing I was saying. No one answered any of my questions. Half way through the class I was afraid they might boo me off the podium. Then I heard one boy whisper to his desk mate in Chinese “this foreigner is not funny”.
Thanks to the help of a Chinese teacher, I’m happy to say that my second class was better and by the end of the day I was tolerable. I quickly discovered that kids don’t seem to tire of repetition. They behave a lot better when I group them and made them compete with each other. I also made them police each other and rewarded them for snitching. Thanks for the tips Gorge Orwell.
I really didn’t need to worry about being horrible. The head of the English department and the principle weren’t very interested in what I was teaching. They were more interested in showing me off. I was their trophy “Spanish” teacher. As long as I looked and acted foreign, it was all good. On more than one occasion a herd of middle-aged men in suites would walk to the back of the class to watch me teach. They also put me in their school plays and introduced me to wealthy parents. Once I had to wait for around of more than an hour so the mayor of the city could get a glimpse of me as I pretended to guide the children to perform Mary had a Little Lamb. I didn’t even teach them that song or the dance moves. I hate that song. Then the principle introduced me as Spanish and from Australia. I have no idea where she got Australia.
For the most part, I didn’t really mind being their trophy. It was only a minor inconvenience. After all I was getting paid twice as much as a Chinese teacher and I could do whatever wanted in the classroom. I used my freedom to never give the kids any homework or tests. We also played a lot of games and watched a lot of cartoons. That doesn’t mean they didn’t learn anything. By the end of the semester most of them could answer my question in full sentences, sing a few English songs, greet me with “What’s up?” or “How’s it going?” and say “Guy! Stop it!” with no accent. Everything else I have taught them they pronounce with a Chinese accent. I used to snap my fingers and say “Guys! Stop it!” so much in class that all my students have learned to imitate me in uncanny perfection. Long after they have forgotten everything else I’ve taught them, surely this will be my legacy. This will be the one thing they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.
For the first portion of my journey, I planned to stay in Dalian, China for a few months to be close to my family. I also wanted to try my hand at teaching. I had tutoring experience and my friend who had worked in China before assured me that it was ridiculously easy to get a teaching job. He told me that there are a lot of english training schools and they are all dying for native English speakers. The money wasn’t great but a part time teaching gig would cover all my living expenses. My friend wasn’t wrong. It wasn’t hard to get a teaching job in China but the job seeking process left me culture shocked, insulted, and amused at the same time.
Dalian, unlike bigger cities like Beijing or Shanghai still didn’t have the networks to link foreigners with language schools. At first, I tried applying online. Since I speak only broken Chinese, I though this was the best way to go. The city was littered with English schools but they rarely have English websites. The ones that allowed you to submit resumé online took too long to go through them. I only got responses to the applications I submitted in February in April.
Impatient, I went to the English school in the neighbourhood to ask them whether they had any openings. I had no trouble finding them; there was at least one every block downtown. I figured I would just drop off my resume with the receptionist and be on my way. However, the headmaster or HR personnel would usually be called in to see me. Probably due to the fact that the receptionist spoke very little or no English.
Here’s how that conversation usually went:
Headmaster: *looks at me with elevator eyes* Are you Asian?
Headmaster: Are you Chinese?
Me: Yes. But I grew up in Canada.
Headmaster: But we are looking for a foreign teacher.
Me: I AM a foreign teacher. I’m from Canada. I’ve been speaking English most of my life. I have experience tutoring in Canada. Here is a copy of my resume. Please take a look.
Headmaster: Okay… so….you’re from Canada. Are both of your parents Chinese?
Me: Yes, they are both Chinese.
Then they would proceed to ask me a series of questions which would be highly inappropriate Canada and not at all relevant. Things like: Are your parents in Canada? Are your grandparents in Canada? What do they do? How old are you? Are you married? Do you have a boyfriend? No one ever looked at the resume. If I were to do this again, I would write keeping it real and pimpin’ as my special skills and add that I’ve been voted the #1 narcotics sales rep in the Greater Toronto Area for 3 years in a row (it’s all about being #1 in China). I will bet anything that no one would notice. It would also make the interview process much more fun.
Some of the places blatantly told me that they were looking for a Caucasian teacher but if they didn’t find anyone, they would give me a call. One lady actually asked me if I had any white friends for the job. “Bitch, are you kidding me?!”, I thought and looked at her wide eyed.
The most disappointing fact is that they weren’t looking for more qualified teachers, just more White. I was really surprised by how broken most of the English teachers’ English was. Most of the teachers were Russian exchange students with really strong accents. They could barely string an English sentence together.
Despite the baffling interview process, it only took me a week to find a position at a public school. I later found out that I got hired because the HR lady thought I was Spanish.