Favorites


Favorites are my worst nightmares for being dreams come true in the classroom. I fear favorites because I’d see even good teachers make bad decisions based off them. Favorites are dangerous because they meet you in the middle when most kids need you to walk all the way over to them. Hanging with the best students feels like running 5k’s to prepare for marathons. Only the best educators in my memory could tear free from the burdens of favorites doing their unceasing best work.

Only a month in and I have got a few favorite students lurking up at the front of the class. Their hands are always raised. I can’t make the sounds to tell them that they crowd out other voices. In my head I am trying at the mandarin to manage them, make them feel successful enough not to need to prove proper pronunciation at every opportunity. Sometimes I’ve harangued the words together, but I have never landed it quite right.

I have one student whose English name fluctuates a bit in my head. Though I don’t always know if it is Mark or Joe, I still like the kid for how he appreciates the English language. In class he grasps new syllables quickly and yells out the phoneme fusions before the rest of the class can drum up how a vowel bridges several consonants. The quickness throws others off. Sometimes in his earnest efforts at success he digs into the beginning of a sentence I am only halfway through. If I were still a tutor I’d congratulate him, but there are 39 other kids in the class that couldn’t catch the end of the sentence because of his hurry. So I tell him to slow down during the drills, but I lack the language to separate some correction from discipline. He gets sore and whips out a book, starts reading instead of tangling with words he already knows. I have to stand near him to keep him on task and I am back paying attention to a kid who already has it down. There’s the wrath of a favorite scorned.

In his mind it is not the first time I have spurned him either. With big classes and incessant drilling on the importance of education, Chinese schools do not disdain elitism. In addition to my ten third grade classes I teach the top of the third grade and fifth grade classes in small English corner-esque clubs. For a few weeks I’d see that boy and he’d try to bring back the lessons I taught him in the club. When I taught opposites using “Hello Goodbye” by the Beatles, he’d look at me each class for two weeks after and chant, “Hello Goodbye.” I think that he can’t really expect me to grind the whole class to a halt to run over something only the best kids can grasp. But then I remember he is no older than ten. Of course he can. So I ignored and even hushed the request and gradually he stopped. It did not feel victorious though, more like I had to end his magic impression that I was a section of school more geared toward fun than education.

In those moments I fear letting down a favorite, but over affection can make a brat and in a class of 40 kids or more a brat can really break things down. The favorite strikes a fear in me because for all the help that child can provide I have to simultaneously anchor them to the Earth and push them to chase flying colors. They are the ones that look to me for interaction past the class bell’s ring. They are also the ones the get less of my eye during drills and games because they already know how to work well. They seem to me a peculiar balancing act, a teeter totter that the wrong pressure could snap in half.

But for the fear I have of favorites, they still stick out to me and light up my classes. John and Jessie are my ideal students. They are quiet and cautious but their eyes never flinch from the English words I set on the screen. The interest in language shines through their pupils and bends their backs forward. Even seated they look lined up for a race and whenever I ask a question or set a challenge to the class, they see the flag drop. Almost always they know the right answer, but someone getting it wrong may help the class more than them getting it right. Even if I know it’s right it is an effort on my mind and a weight on my heart to defer them for the sake of others.

Both of them work hard. Jessie comes into class with the phrases trained. “Good morning Mr. Ryan” is spoken almost native. She has parsed out the distances in spaces and breaks between English words with a level only practice raises you to. I rarely hear her blurt anything out. John has another type of ethic crucial to learning language. He has no fear for the barrier language can be between people and he’ll jump it in an instant to practice. When he sees me he’ll follow at a distance until something comes up for him to say. It does not always work out right, but he finds a better feel for the sound of English during those failed attempts.

They should get rewarded for their work. They ought to earn something extra for it, but the truth is the classroom economy runs teacher attention as a currency and it can’t always be earned by straight labor. If it could than there’d be even more disillusioned students abandoning schools that ditched them first. I have to measure my class by the whether the worst can follow along, but it means moving away from the best that make things a breeze by meeting me halfway. It means pushing the people climbing a mountain instead of nudging someone going down a hill. For my own satisfaction I want to be an amalgam of the teachers my memory admires. Most of them never kept me going. I never needed it and if I wanted it I arrived at office hours to get it. Instead they spent that time and energy doing something for the struggling. I cherish the top of the class but if I cater to the best students then I stray from the image I have of the best teachers.

Even with all that justification, it is a constant battle not to fall to favoritism. They make my life easier meeting me halfway and they fill me with happiness for this job. That happiness is bitter because I don’t have the class time to reward the ones that create a lot of it. John, Jessie, Joe and the rest of my favorites help me greatly, but they tear me up with the reminder that I can’t get to everyone. They instill the serious necessity of impersonality when teaching ten classes of 40 each for forty minute periods just once a week. If I am lucky I have just the time to do decent by most kids in the class. If I am blessed I have the time to catch up the ones that lag. Only if I am foolish do I take the time to do great by favorites. Well, don’t tell anyone but sometimes I am mighty foolish.

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The Very First Week of My New Job


For as bitter as failure tastes it is a quick acting medicine. I never wanted to step up there unprepared again. I never wanted to feel deep fear for the people I was helping and end up paralyzed. There will always be room for mistakes in my life but only so long as I fix the ones that arise.

I re-forged the powerpoint until each slide became less dense with random words and only the necessities were left. I straightened out animations and visuals to as clear a point as I could get them. With a bit of recollection I remembered some disciplinary methods I could implement as well. More important than anything I had fallen back on the old tricks I had learned years ago to get some confidence back. Sometimes it felt silly to say to myself that I could do something but materializing the words meant that I could cling to them like water wings until I could tread water. It also helped tremendously to see in a group chat that many of my fellow foreign teachers experienced the same dilemmas. Many of us had overestimated what the kids knew or what we could do in the first couple days.

Back from scratch and heading into the next two classes with some more confidence, the plan straightened out into something closer to what I had imagined. Standing before an energetic class of eager third graders who had never seen a foreigner did not shock as bad as when it was an entirely novel experience. The crooked teeth of ten year olds could not cannibalize me. The dynamite eyes of explosively energetic children could blow down the mountains in the class’s way as much as it could tear us all apart. It was up to me harness that energy.

A picture of the gardens at the entrance of my school, Wujin Star.
A picture of the gardens at the entrance of my school, Wujin Star.

Much was up to me and that became clear with every minor correction and addition. An ounce of effort from me could mean a pound from them. When I smiled half of them would too. When I got into a song it could sway the back of the class and when I was too tired I’d have to circle like a shark for anyone not trying. In that way less effort in one area meant more in a few others. There were classes that were battles no matter what. But you fight out those battles until you strike quick and targeted. Stickers and treats as rewards helped many students snap into the work.

Bribing the children with stickers and cookies made them eager to speak at every opportunity, but it had a serious side effect. I’d stand in between the rows of desks scanning for a kid that hadn’t had the opportunity to talk. Quietly at first, I’d hear the exertion of kids trying to stretch their arms out of their sockets and up to the sun. How it would build. How the noise would swell until I’d hear “teacher” nearly screamed in English as well as Chinese and see a sea of arms reaching out for those stickers. I could not even imagine the days when stickers had that magic – an affirmation you needed to possess. The subtle understanding of a cookie as something ten times bigger than a little sweet had completely left me even at this shallow stage of adulthood I am at.

After each class I’d come out panting and demanding water, but my eyes would be wide and I’d find the teacher that helped me after class just so I could run my mouth off a bit just to lose some excess energy. At times I’d even strike gold and get advice. It was always to change the simplest things, but more than a few times the simplest things made a world of difference. Dialogues do not work in bullet points, they work in A’s and B’s or Jacks and Jills. Vowel sounds ought to come before the words featuring them. Their mouths have to churn conscious to chew up every word. Only one person in the room could subconsciously devour whole English sentences, unhinged snake jaw style, and that was me.

Sometimes the other Teachers taught me unintentionally. A bit of close listening and I’d learned some Chinese instructions to stumble over with ugly Mandarin side of my brain. When a teacher told me how she was pleasantly surprised not to have to translate my instructions the entire class I started to feel like I could actually do this. I still need to learn the Mandarin phrases to keep the kids in line and cannot manage a class entirely on my own, but I can wait to reach that point. Right now baby steps feel like lunges, so I’ll hold out until I find a good stride.

The abstract star that is something like my school's logo.
The abstract star that is something like my school’s logo.

In between classes I managed some English interest classes with the help of one of the third grade teachers. I talked about the basketball game H.O.R.S.E. and played basketball with a few of the kids. Around the same time I sat in with the teachers and had a collaborative lesson planning session with the teachers. We shared some snacks and I taught them the word “raisin.” It made me realize that it was a bit of an anomaly. Why not just call it a dried grape like every other fruit? Then I realized raisins deserved a little more. Dried banana slices could not step to the raisin box on a shelf in every kid’s house. Raisins justified bran based cereal, something dried apple could never claim.

After I told them my lesson plan and they had serious skepticism about me teaching the pronunciation of two vowels over one class. In my mind I could not fathom stretching out a vowel over forty minutes. We all agreed to try it out and if it did not work I’d retreat to a vowel a week. Honestly it felt strange to teach by vowel anyways, but most methods seem arbitrary in some way. I’d have a chance to prove my plan just once this week. One class had gotten a lecture ahead. It was the one class that I had taught on my very first day, class 9.

This time I stepped in with a lesson plan that had the backing of some experience, even if it was fledgling stuff. More than that, the fear and paranoia that riddled me once had abated now. Teeth were just teeth, eyes were just eyes, energy was just energy, and the kids were just kids. The boy that asked me if I was happy earlier had been in my interest class and was one of the best English speakers in the grade. I had played basketball with him. This time he did not feel the need to ask that question. The rest of the class was still raucous but I realized it was not out of derision. They had a raw interest in the strange words they heard me say, and the odd way that I carried them. They were invested in the way they were supposed to be to the point that they’d repeat any word I’d said. After leading them in a chant, I’d say “very good!” and they’d say it back to me in a chorus. It threw me off a bit at first, but I could not help but laugh it off after a while.

Maybe more illuminating than anything, the kids of class 9 managed my review section perfectly. They knew almost everything of the class I thought I had botched beyond repair. The nervousness that I had was toxic. Drinking it in I’d think that I couldn’t do anything, and drinking those thoughts in I’d inch closer to the point where I actually couldn’t. Introspection matters, but never to the point that it should fog up the outer world. I would keep trying to improve, but that improvement could only come with confidence. When I said my goodbye, the teacher expressed remorse over the wildness of the class and her not bringing them in line. I felt confident enough to say that was false modesty. The class went well. So had the week.

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~Austin R Ryan

The Very First Day of My New Job


The first day of teaching is sort of like the first time performing something. The previous day you spend composing everything you’ll teach, learning your lines, and thinking up some improv in case anything goes wrong. The performance itself depends on your confidence first and your audience second.

I made my way to the classroom a bit early and got in during the students’ break time. On seeing me they all rushed in and started screaming out their best hellos. I brought my large red backpack and had dressed up in my nice black slacks and a green button down short sleeve shirt so that I looked a little bit like mint chocolate chip ice cream. We had been taught not to be threatening, and what was less threatening than mint chocolate chip ice cream? Unfortunately it is not very sturdy either.

I had met the teacher there to help me but only briefly during an intense meeting. Initially I tried to handle the kids. A sea of tiny eyes poked back up at me from absolutely enthralled faces. There were so many hands that I could not process all the possessions of mine being touched. Two sides of my brain started grinding it out against each other as Chinese and English questions bounded in. Both were equally hard to understand at first. Just then the teacher there squeezes in a question about my plan and whether it involves powerpoint.

When I say that it does, she shoos away several children before opening up a compartment with the computer that links up to the projector. As I am plugging in the flash drive and booting up the program, a Chinese error message pops up. A student right underneath me pulls on a pant leg and looks dead at me with eyes twinkling. “Teacher, are you happy?” That question makes my face scrunch up for a second. It is absolutely surreal. The ends of my mouth wiggle as I try to make a big smile. My eyes are still wide with worry and wrapped up in the Chinese teacher’s efforts to fix whatever went wrong with the computer. “Yes, I am very happy.”

When the powerpoint loads up I see that three children pulling at my backpack, about to pull things out. The mandarin words for “please sit down” come rushing back to me and I tell the crowd to disperse for their seats and pull my backpack back to me. All contents still seem to be there. I have brought stickers and candy with me that I plan to use to bribe the children into good behavior.

When the class starts, I stand up and give the class a small hello and introduction in Chinese. It does not seem they understand a lot of what I say. There are blank stares and a fair share of laughter. There’s also a lot of smiles, but my stomach is rocking so hard I can’t tell what those tiny teeth want from me. All these stares from eyes more eager than I had ever seen… It feels like I am being devoured. I think I am being chewed up by kids half my age, but it is my own lack of confidence that really grinds me down to mush.

“Teacher, are you happy?” The boy says again. Why you are still asking? What in the world is happening right now? I look at him for a second. I swear there’s so much shaking energy in children that at times their eyes seem like fuses twinkling on the edge of the next thing they’ll explode into. That smile is still stretched onto each of my face, though my eyes are wide and can’t crease at all for fear of failing to register a single visual sensation. The room is so full of the colors children love piled on top of construction paper practically cut from my own youth. I look back at him and nod vigorously.

Then I start up the powerpoint. My heart is pounding at me to wrap everything up quickly and the words issue out in blurted burst far too fast for the kids to pick up. Heads tilt. 什么?什么?什么?shenme. Chinese for “what?” Whispered words that speak to failed communication. That shit sits ugly in my dreams during Chinese nights. So I start in with gestures.

But gestures are not always a universal language. It takes me several tries before the students understand what my wafting hands are signaling. The teacher steps into help. “来(lai)!” She yells out loud. It means something like “come here” but has a lot more uses. The kids are very slow to silence, even in spite of the teacher’s anger. I am in between her and my own powerpoint, shaking. I look over and feel nauseous at how crowded with words I made each slide.

The gestures start to come and the class goes on, but not so gracefully. I squeeze out a few activities, like getting them to write down some words they know and put their hands up if they have English names. Most do not. I am already notorious with names. I could not get a handle on all of my aunts’ names until I was a teen – it was funny, they used to quiz me on it. With Chinese names the task is twice as hard because there’s no context. English names line up with a cultural figure, an old friend, extended family, a character on TV, something. But with Chinese it isn’t so. Not every kid will be named after someone famous like Mo Yan or Liu Bang or even something close to a Chinese friend or teacher.

Every activity takes twice as long as I imagined, mostly from explaining the task to the teacher, having her quiet the class down, and then translating it for them. I just barely scratch along to the last thing – a dialogue – and it is way too hard for a lot of kids. The bell rings as they try to complete the task. Pleasant piano tunes trickle through the intercom system. All the kids rush me. Their little hands start tugging and grasping at my arms, my bag, and even my flash drive. I try to answer their barrage of questions. Before long I have to grab my red bag away from some kids and secure my flash drive. As I do, I realize I hadn’t used any of the rewards I brought with me to class.

“Teacher, are you happy?” Those words reverberate like echoes across a classroom crammed to the brim with sensation. It bounces off walls of stimulus. “Yes, I am happy.” But it feels like the Earth is quaking and I can’t do this. It feels like I am a mile out from being a real teacher, let alone the one I want to be. When I finally step outside the teacher, Angel, and I speak a little bit. She tells me that the class is a bit badly behaved normally, but I think it is just covering for me. The feeling of failing is so immense that it shrouds me in anxiety, so I just say I will do better next time and beat out a path to my next class. Kids line the hall to say hello to me. I try to respond without getting caught in conversation. It is easy to feel spiteful, like their energy sunk me. But I know better than that. My Father of four and Mother of a small business centered on kids taught me to be better than the bitter bite of my pride.

Another teacher stops me and tells me that there was a mix up; I don’t have to teach it right now. The paranoia bites me so deep that I think they all know how bad I did and don’t want me to teach until I can do better. This piercing feeling of regret at having failed children and adults alike pushes up an awkward apology. “It is like this for all of us the first week.” The teacher says, “It is okay.” But I hardly even believe it. I am stretching out every inch of my legs into a shambling stride back to my apartment on campus. The next hour or so is a lot of pacing and talking to myself. The hour after that is trying to learn what my fellow AYC teacher here did. Back to the drawing board. Let’s rehearse these lines until I’ve got every ounce of intoned intention down right.

~Austin R Ryan

Airport Sorrows and Solid Ground Smiles


I have made the grave mistake of promising some folks back home a travel blog as I go to Changzhou, China to teach English. If you travel abroad, this is something you should avoid doing. You might think I am just being misanthropic, but if you don’t heed my warning you’ll have the task of adequately recording the sentimental memories clinging to you all the way from one international flight to another. But I am here, and I want to bring a bit of it back home for some relatives, so this starts my second Chinese travel blog.

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Plenty of trips start with a nearly crying mother, I think. That’s where mine really begins. It is the fine point where my mind cordons off old home from roaming. While I am weighing my baggage my mind is far off. Most people look up when they think about things, and my eyes are trained on the massive swooping ceiling of O’Hare. It looms grey and full endless empty space like an international airport ought to do.

My mother’s making anxious conversation with the clerk at the desk passing me easily through the process. I am hearing the words, registering them. But it is hard to respond right.

“He’s my last one.”

She says of me, the fourth to live outside of state and the second to live out of country.

“He’s the baby.”

And that one I’ve heard so often that I can hardly be embarrassed anymore.

“Oh, this is really the hardest one.”

That one slips out, and it’s really different from what I know.

“Oh, I’ll miss you guys a lot. That’ll be the worst part about being so far away.” I say. The O’Hare ceiling curves into endless up and open. The words are token in some way, but you do your best – especially with goodbyes.

Together we haul my two massive bags off to the side to get scanned and tagged. Then I step into the security line and hug my Mother. I had gone fast enough that my Dad did not need to come in, but I hugged him earlier. When my oldest sister Britt left to live in Cyprus with her husband I remember her looking back at us. She was waving, with beautiful thin drips of cinematic tears coming from the corners of each eye. As the line moved and Mom did too, I wondered if I should cry like my sister had. I really couldn’t even if I wanted to. But seeing her standing there in Indianapolis International security is so vividly beautiful in my memory. When she stepped over that threshold I swear it was so singular and dramatic that even near a decade later my head can set the scene in detail. In recollected strokes I’d painted it out so well I can still see the whole airport materialize around her.

Sometimes stomaching forward movement is a forced process, and glancing back seems like it’ll suck you into hell with Orpheus. I respected the way she looked back, brimming up. It seemed courageous to roll up all that past and future into the present and let it wash outward in overload. I am not sure if my heart could even manage it. But I believe you are in part the strength of your family. The O’Hare airport swelters up with the hot talk of time consumed passengers. Everyone’s steamed words boils up to the top of the building and I am with it watching it shift and lurch along in line. I am looking up. Maybe I was thinking about how I wasn’t alone. Most likely it wasn’t so pretty, just something pithy about the trip in front of me.

But I’ll spare you the nitty gritty of TSA checkpoints and layovers and try to highlight what good and interesting I found in it. Chicago goes to LA and LA to Taipei. In between I am feeding myself caffeine and rough sleep to keep upward. My body’s a twisted ball of anxiety, I can tell you that for sure. No matter how bad my memory is, if it is a long trip then I am sweating it. Believe me, I have done it before in several separate forms. Far flung as Spain and close as D.C. and San Francisco I go hours early to airports for meeting eventualities that have rarely struck me.

At the LA airport I am six hours early for my flight and ask an attendant for the gate number. There’s a school group heading back to Hong Kong swimming all around me. On the flight I am packed tight to not touch a Chinese teenager on one side and a woman on the other. For some reason, I am constantly stealing glances. Is this the time to practice Mandarin? I stayed silent since the thoughts in my head sounded too loud.
At Taipei the airport is Orientalized tackily. It has a calligraphy station for anyone interested in dabbling in that during their layover and random Asian topography splattered over linoleum floors. There are people from the States, clearly from my program but I have million other things twisted up in my stomach so I can’t fill up on conversation. Intriguingly, I see early my later roommate standing a few chairs away from me.

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Then there’s Shanghai Pudong, my final destination. The halls here stretch on endlessly. If looking up at O’Hare was something then looking up here was something more. The glass arteries pour us out across at least ten of those flat escalators that carry you and your luggage across terminals. The big red camping backpack saddling me bites on the shoulders some. Normally I am shaking at the baggage claims for fear of losing something dear. This time my heart is really racing. But it can’t even beat for long before the big black bags come pounding out on the conveyor belt. Funny how things work out, someone I’d come to talk to quite a bit at orientation was across the way, speaking on his own anxious waiting.

My baggage is quite a bit. I have to stay for eight months, so there’s a lot to bring along. I have to place a smaller suitcase haphazard on another and roll both away. Hearing so much huffing and puffing, a friendly Chinese man offers to help, but I decline. It’s fine for now. I am on solid ground and I couldn’t care less how much I was carrying.

AYC coordinators meet up with us and in no time I am carrying on conversation. All of our faces are marked with the mixed feelings of eagerness and anxiety. Coming together, I think we all feel a little less alone. I know I do.

On the bus the Shanghai suburbs spin outward and I really feel back. It is a weird sensation, but in some way I feel a simultaneous sense of familiar and far, home and hotel. I had been in this place once before and for some reason it felt incredibly fitting to be back. The sun starts to settle behind rows of buildings constructed to look the exact same. Some stand half-constructed underneath the dying sun, while others sparkle with bits of light while all of them tower over small, squat housing areas with green lawns that sometimes turn to dirt fields. It is not vibrant foliage, not tiered rice paddies, not ancient terraced roofs of palaces. It is only a grey freeway that sprawls out into a suburban nowhere that has rapidly reached out to everywhere. It is a place where people live, will come to live, and will move away from.

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It is China. Lots of journeys start with crying mothers, but most don’t end that way. Most journeys don’t stay in what was given away from an old home, but live in the process of making a new one. Maybe I can manage this. Maybe I can teach like I mean it, make meaningful connections like I speak the language, and live here like I’d like to. I’d be happy to just get close to those expectations. That tight ball of anxiety and nerves in my stomach bit by bit untangles and I feel an easy smile creeping up on me.

~Austin R Ryan

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