A year ago I had no idea what would happen next.
Now, a year later, I'm a "foreign expert" living and working in China and beginning my second semester teaching at a vocational institute in Zibo, Shandong Province.
Although I had taught office skills and business English a vocational instructor, I had never really described myself as a teacher. In the months before leaving for China, I was getting up at four in the morning to teach online English lessons to adult learners in China. I was serious about improving my credentials.
Since I arrived here last March, I've had the opportunity to teach college age kids, middle-school students, business professionals and some pre-schoolers. I've had the pleasure of designing and presenting class activities that had the entire class enthusiastically participating, and I've had the not-so-good days when the expressions on my students' faces clearly told me they weren't finding the material -- or my delivery of it -- very interesting. I've logged an unreasonable number of hours slowly building up my own stock of activities, warm-ups and lesson plans and spent many evenings looking around the Internet for more. I've had the humbling experience of visiting the Silk Market in Beijing and realizing that my students could learn more English by working there for three weeks, ("Hey lady, hey lady, you want purse? Come here, we got it right here!") than I could teach them in three months.
My most heartfelt satisfaction comes when the shyest students, who literally trembled at the thought of speaking in class, start to speak -- first barely audibly, then with growing confidence as the weeks go by. I love being able to tie the lesson in the textbook to some issue, topic, or video clip that gets the class interested. And ah, these textbooks. They are a compendium of Chicken-Soup-for-the-Soul-type stories and old Reader's Digest vignettes and some things that might surprise you. Would you expect to find Spiro Agnew's speech about media hostility to President Nixon? Abraham Lincoln's farewell speech in Springfield? The Beatitudes? An old O.Henry play? The long excerpts the students are supposed to read include vocabulary and phrasing that is often archaic. I love The Importance of Being Ernest but few of my students are at a level to understand it, let alone appreciate its wry humor.
And truly I am not saying this to complain -- this is more of a challenge to overcome -- my assigned classroom is a language lab where the students sit in rows at their little monitors. It's not possible to rearrange the seating to sit them in groups, and there are over 30 of them, which is a lot for an oral class.
Commencing a second career this late in life was made much easier by the support and encouragement of my TESL instructor, Julie, my practicum supervisor, Judy, and by the comradeship of my fellow TESL students. I also had the excellent example of two teachers I worked with in the past, Moni and Susan, not to mention the other professional educators in my family.
"When I look back on all the crap I learned in high school," Paul Simon sang, "it's a wonder I can think at all."
I only wish I could remember more of the crap I learned in high school, especially English grammar. And I think of my old high school teachers with more gratitude now, than I often did then.
Most of all I'm thankful for the changes this past year has brought to my life.