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.

Advertisements

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

~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

Orienting


I’ll lay it out straight. Orientations tend to suck. Orientations are often ice breaker banquets where the surface is still chilly after countless camp counselor style warmers. That’s not to say every orientation is that way, but there’s a certain art to situating someone for something. The bigger that something is the harder it is to situate someone to it. For those four year undergrad programs there’s only so much placing a program can manage and the unexpected ends are so vast that designing something that sticks past the start is hard.

Ameson Year in China (the program we had all enrolled in) located us pretty well. Maybe Ameson had it a little easier, but I think teaching ten months in a developing nation unfamiliar in custom and language still had a murkiness that would make anyone a bit uncertain. Most of us were uncertain of a lot of things. Most of us had no idea what our cities and schools looked like, let alone our apartments. Now before you go thinking I went off unprepared I’ll have you know I gave my city and my school a good google – half past cursory in quality at least!

But even with that knowledge, even with pictures of apartments and word of policies, the reality of any event does not hit until you are right there in it. Many of us felt uncertain, and rightfully so. Near none of us had taught English for this long – if at all – or been to China for such a stretch of time. We had all had learned how to teach over the internet, but that had been over a month ago and that task still felt daunting.

The first day we had all been up early. New friends and acquaintances reported having woken up early as 5 AM. I had managed to sleep in until 6 AM and for the first time I had the odd problem of waking up too early. Last night my roommate and I had both tried to tough it out until 10 PM to battle off jetlag. I turned on a movie on my laptop at eight and he turned on the TV. In less than ten minutes he fell asleep over the covers with the remote still in hand and in less than thirty I fell asleep in front of my screen and awoke only briefly enough to turn off my computer and get under the covers.

In the morning everyone admirably beat their eyes open across several dense lectures from important Chinese academics. For a while I thought this might be the pace I’d have to run the whole way, and I quickly bought myself some caffeine to keep me going. Fortunately the lectures subsided some and the teaching training began in earnest. After a few days I dropped the jetlag, too. The feeling of getting into a new timezone is akin to shedding old and heavy skin for a fresh and light new layer.
Before long everything started to pick up. People were going and sampling the night life, some even venturing into two hours away central Shanghai in small groups. English as foreign language teachers started to refresh us in old material we had learned online. More importantly, they demonstrated much of what they taught on us so we could see how the parts form into a whole. Each instructor radiated the word “teacher” in such a way that they made me envious how they owned a function so thoroughly. The mastery they had over one thing was fascinating and deeply encouraging. I had the feeling that even without owning an ounce of what they had, I could tap into it and make something come together the way I liked.

It was overwhelming, but in China so is everything. Look outside and everything is moving towards so many ends that there’s no tying it together. All that movement occurs in different dialects of a language that has no root with a western one and a culture nurtured in Confucianism and Communism. Try to capture each memorable moment in your mind and you’ll have it racing. Try to capture it all on film or paper and you’ll race your mind right off a cliff. So in a way absorbing all the knowledge of wise elders felt par for the course.

Each day we were booked solid so I hardly even noticed the time fly by. Towards the end things got a bit hectic and wild. Our organizers arranged an impromptu trip to downtown Shanghai where we all performed the Macarena in a flash mob. We had about ten minutes to prepare it and that showed somewhat but it went well enough. By the time we were done a ring of Chinese people had enclosed us with flashing cameras and the little lights of phones.

After that everyone went to an immensely crowded section of Shanghai where we all took pictures with the city skyline. A few Chinese people joined us. I was crouched across the way from two Chinese women taking pictures on their camera phones. Using the large and goofy facial features of mine I cheesed enough to get them to notice me and laugh a little. I felt proud of that. It felt like a little honest connection. I tried to give them a pleasant emotion and they received it just fine. In a way, it felt more communicative than a conversation would have. In butchering every Mandarin phrase I know over and over, sometimes it seems frustratingly like I am only read with delight at doing something right or awkwardness at missing another thing. The frustration of language is making words pack the right punch and biting down on a second tongue doubles all that up.

By the end of the night I had to turn in a photo essay for a competition and by the next morning I needed to be ready to do a teaching demo and take a test. Somehow it all fell into order. Everything came together hastily and felt like it could fall apart from a slight push, but it all held up. The demo lesson went well and the test even better. The end came fast and whacked me on my ass. Not much past an hour of taking the test, the results were in and I was sitting in a closing ceremony watching awards get doled out. Of course I was an entrant into a competition myself and eager to hear the winners. In the whole of my mind I was sure I wasn’t one of them and bracing myself for the defeat. At that moment I could see all the overwrought tendencies of my fake-deep, faux-philosophical writing coming up to shame me for trying at this thing.

These days I am more determined not to take my own abuse. This time some thoughts fought back and told me to stand by the decision. How was I supposed to grow by shutting my writings in? Embarrassing is a word you live until failures turn to successes. Red cheeks and cringes are what build up creative muscle. Screw not trying. I ought to try hard every day even if it means I die embarrassed.

It was all melodrama anyways. I was one of the winners of the contest I entered into. Hearing my name called genuinely shocked me. A tall wave of harsh self criticism crashed against the reality of winning the award. Happiness crept up on me, but it was so cautious I could hardly feel it. Much of the growth I made had been done alone, reliant on stabbing open words and tearing apart pieces to see what was worthwhile in each. The happiness of a warm reception was and still is a fair weather friend that knew it ought to walk gingerly over even unjustified self-criticisms. That happiness owed much of its existence to that self-criticism in the first place. Flitting happiness had no right to unseat the beast that bit at my heels until I got things done – the beast that, when I appease, gives me true confidence. Feeling all those negative emotions try to rebound into something positive felt really odd. Maybe I did feel good about winning, but maybe the errors I scrounged up while scared in my chair ought to haunt me some.

I gave myself a break anyways and thanked anyone who congratulated me. Who knows what all of it really means? I liked the other winners’ pieces more than my own and think they showed most of the entrants did well. The sharp and willful people that had come here to teach all seemed up to the task of beating me at writing something so maybe I should be proud, but maybe hardly anyone took the time. In the end it’s all questions that don’t need answers. I was happy enough with what I made.

The liaison at our school told us right after the ceremony that the school driver was ready to take a fellow teacher and I to our new home in Changzhou. Before I could unpack anything, I repacked everything and said sharp goodbyes to the people I met. I had not time to track down many I wanted to see off, fearing that I’d make a bad impression by having my host school wait on me any longer. Before I knew it, I was oriented. Though I still did not really know where I was headed and I still have no idea what it will mean.

~Austin R Ryan