I thought I was ready.
It was the middle of my fourth week teaching primary school in Shenzhen at 5:12pm in the convenience store at the bottom of my apartment building. This was not my first visit here, nor was it my first time stopping here immediately after work buying just one thing: wine. I put the wine on the counter and said to myself for the umpteenth time since September 1st, “I thought I was ready.”
The clerk looked at me, looked at the bottle, looked back at me and, wordlessly, grabbed the corkscrew from behind the counter and opened the bottle.
He knew I wasn’t ready.
Let me explain. This isn’t my first time at the rodeo that is teaching English abroad. I had almost four years under my belt in a couple of countries before I (naively) decided I was ready for China. Sure, living there would present its expected challenges. But the classroom? It’ll be a cakewalk!
The universe has a funny way of making you eat your words.
In an ideal world as an ESL teacher, you’d have a handful of supportive teachers at your school who want to see you succeed and will help you find your footing in the classroom. Or if they can’t help you physically in class, they will at least come to your rescue when things go very south. I was not in that world filled with unicorns and rainbows.
On the first day of the semester, I was handed my schedule and sent to the wolves. Since then, it’s been a blur of tears (theirs, mostly), wine, all the swear words running on loop in my brain, sweating (a lot), and pleas to make it all stop on some days. I teach Grades 2 through 6 with 50 students in each class. All of them. Against only me. Alone.
But I’m still alive, and so are they. With only three short months left to go, I think I’m reasonably qualified to offer some words of wisdom to all the new teachers joining the ranks.
1. Donald Duck
Every class gets “TV IIIII” written on the board at the beginning of class. If they’re yelling wild things, erase a tally mark. If they go off the rails five times in a class, then they lose five glorious minutes of Donald Duck at the end of class. Chip and Dale also works. Bugs Bunny not so much. Weirdos.
2. Turn them against each other
Seriously. Every class is now divided into four teams. They get points for various things during class (answering questions, helping, etc.) and I’ll subtract points if their team is being too loud. At the end of the class, they may or may not get prizes but usually competition alone motivates them. As long as points are involved, they’ll police the bejeezus out of their teammates. I love it when students do my job.
When you’re 7 and 8, stickers are GOLD. Grades 4, 5, and 6 don’t usually need a physical reward but Grades 2 and 3 both need all the extrinsic motivation you can throw at them. If a class is particularly wild, start handing out stickers to the three or four kids who are actually listening. It still amazes me how quickly everyone jumps on the quiet train to try to get a sticker. The winning team from Grade 2 always gets stickers. ALWAYS. They won’t let me leave the class if I don’t. I trained them too well.
4.Find an ally
There are one or two in every class if you look for them. They’re usually the first ones to start policing the class when you threaten to erase a Donald Duck tally. These kids have saved my bacon in Grades 2 and 3. They start by helping hand out worksheets or stickers (and are then rewarded with a sticker of their own, obviously) and before you know it, they start leading whatever “be quiet” chant their class does when they need it. My classroom assistants are 7 years olds, it’s fine.
5.Pick your battles
This should be obvious. There are 50 students in a class. If five of them are doing homework or reading a book but aren’t disturbing the class, leave them be…save yourself and leave them be.
6.Expect and accept the tears
Being 7 is really hard. They can go from a 100% level of happiness to complete nuclear meltdown in an instant. Sometimes it’s your fault, usually it’s not. Acknowledge, comfort if needed, and keep going.
7.Keep them moving
Both 7 and 8 year olds can’t sit still. I hate dancing. But we’re learning to compromise. I suggest you start the class with the Hokey Pokey (no one hates the Hokey Pokey), teach for a small increment of time, stand up and dance to If You’re Happy and You Know It, continue the lesson, hand out stickers, and finish it off with five minutes of Donald Duck. Antsy kids are noisy kids. Dance it out in little bits of time and you’ll get through it. Trust me.
8.Get to know your local convenience store clerk
They open bottles of wine on your way home no matter what.