The Old Must Go for the New to Come

In January 2010, I crammed 25 years of my life into two little 50 lbs bags and headed out on a China-bound plane to educate the young and inquisitive minds of Dalian on all things American. But why? Why leave a coveted associate producer position at CBS (and six years of journalism training to boot) and head off to a lowly English teaching position in China? Why? Because, frankly, I've learned getting what you think you want out of life isn't always what it's cracked up to be. What follows are the tales of my trials and triumphs (like overcoming my fear of the dreaded squatty potty) and the lessons I've learned along the way...

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Student Has Become the Teacher

If you had told me a year ago that this time next year I would be teaching E.F.L to young adults, I would have laughed in your face…not over the absurdity of going halfway around the world to work for people I’ve never met, BUT because I never EVER saw myself as a teacher…a professor, maybe, but never a teacher. I mean, I’ve spent the last seven years (and countless more tuition dollars) building up a career as journalist. And don’t get me wrong. I have a great deal of respect for teachers. I was raised by teachers (both my parents, plus my grandmother), some of my closest friends are teachers, and if not for the encouragement and insight of my incredible twelfth grade Composition Writing teacher (Ms. Maker) I may have never even realized the profound power of the pen. Teachers, after all, are charged with a daunting task: to educate and inform an entire generation of young minds. And what more is journalism but a charge to educate and inform the minds of the entire viewing public?

So perhaps in a sense, I was destined to teach at some point in my life, but nevertheless, I did not see it coming and especially NOT at a secondary education-level. If anything, middle school and high school, are the very levels I always said I would never want to deal with. I mean, I do love children. Being around a young child whose not yet been jaded by the disappointment and disillusions of life is like water baptism—washing away all the filth of a corrupted and cynical adult world. And I don’t get people who don’t like children. I mean, I understand not liking some children (because some are just plain evil little spawns of Satan), but not all children. Nevertheless, babies, preschoolers, elementary kids, I can do. Most of them are still starry-eyed and easily entertained by Sesame Street songs and art crafts that involve edible paste. But when they hit 11, 12, and 13 that’s when the attitudes and all those adolescent mood swings always seem to kick in…at least, that always seem to be the case in America.

Ironically, despite my repeated requests to teach only very young children and adults…I ended up, to my chagrin, with mainly classes full of 12 to 16-year-olds. In the days leading up to my teaching debut, I was bracing myself for miserable classrooms full of bored, apathetic youth counting the minutes until their clueless teacher dismissed them...Yet now, after nearly three months of teaching here, I have to say that it’s in these very classrooms that I have the most fun of all. I’ve found that it’s in this age group that I’m free to act as goofy and stupid as I like but without expending tons of energy and time on discipline. I’ve fallen in love with my students—most of whom still possess all the innocent wonder and excitement of elementary school kids along with some insight and perceptiveness that is well beyond their years (which often leaves me with some room for my satirical brand of humor.)  And while all my kids are wonderful, little droplets of sunshine from Heaven, every teacher has their favorites (the ones who say they don’t are bold-faced liars--let’s be real) so here are just a few of mine:

Susan: A very bright, little pig-tailed 10-year-old in my lowest grade-level class, which consists of mainly 9 to 11-year-olds. She’s often the first to answer questions but ironically, also the last to actually get to class (most of the time she’s 10 or even 20 minutes late). From my very first day in the class, I immediately took to Susan, because she reminded me of my little sister Shemaiah. I’m not quite sure why. I mean, they do share similar skin-color, eyes and even hair texture (my sister’s hair is very long and fine), but Shemaiah is much older (14), much taller and while she is very smart, she doesn’t exactly share Susan’s enthusiasm for learning.

Peter: A little mouse of a boy with the biggest smile you’ve ever seen only to be matched by a pair of glasses two sizes too big for his face. The three or four little wisps of hair that spike out at the front of his closely shaven coif always remind me a little of Charlie Brown. At ten years old, he is the youngest in a class of primarily 11 to 13-year-olds, but he is also the brightest. But despite the fact that he is just about half the size of most of the other students, he is far from a shrinking violet in the class. His exuberance is infectious. He’s the first to chime in with one of my silly songs or chants and I seriously believe his smile could bring peace to the world. He’s the most adorable little ten-year-old and I am currently devising a plan for smuggling him with me back to the states when my contract is up:o)

Bill (that’s Mr. Bill to you): The first day I was introduced to one of my new classes, a chubby, happy-faced, little 13-year-old with a very trendy haircut came up to me with a bashful smile and said “You hair is very beautiful.” And from that moment, I knew I was in love. Bill (who just recently informed me he will now go by Mr. Bill because it sounds more professional) is one of my all time favorite students in one of my all time favorite classes at Jayland. He is not the youngest nor the brightest nor the most enthusiastic learner in the class by any means…But he definitely keeps the class entertaining. He is certifiably the class clown of the group but in a good-spirited sort of way (not the kind you want to punch in the face—which technically, you’re allowed to do as a teacher in China.)

Cornelia (the student formerly known as “Sunny”): An outspoken and inquisitive pre-teen in the same class as Bill and a relative newcomer to the class. Unlike, most of the other students in Jayland (or China, in general) she’s spent some time in the states and her fluency in English is well beyond that of her peers. She should actually be in a higher level conversation class. One day after class, I informed her of this to which she responded, "I know, but I want to stay in this class." And while “Sunny” is probably the number one, most-picked English name for E.F.L. students across China, I always thought it was incredibly fitting for this young student’s cheerful disposition. However, just this week, to my dismay, Sunny informed me that she no longer wished to be addressed by the aforementioned name but rather by “Cornelia.” I suppose maybe she wanted to set herself apart from the million and two other “Sunny’s” of China. But why pick a name that sounds like it came from a Charles Dickens novel? I don't know. But I do know she will always be "Sunny" in my heart.

As I mentioned before, these are just a few of my favorites. There are sooo many more I could name, but I'm sure if you haven't stopped reading this post by now, you probably will stop in about three or four more lines. So I guess I'll just end this the lazy way with a corny cliche (a big journalism no-no, but hey, who cares? I'm a teacher now): Happiness is often where you least expect it. The end.


  1. I read your posts when I need a laugh, a quiet smile, and/or wisdom inconsistent with age.
    You are a delight to me!.... and I wish I could meet these students, but after 30 years of 3000 students, I kinda feel I already have. :-)

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