Monday found our campus bustling with more students than the month before. The National Day holidays are over and our 2,100 freshmen are now beginning their classes after a week of military training. The English Department has snatched 116 into their English Education major, meaning these students will be entering the teaching field after graduation in 3 years. Another 26 are pursuing the English Business major. For myself, I am now the oral English teacher for all the second year students and also 3 new freshmen classes. Our first meeting was yesterday when I led two classes in their first lessons with their new foreign teacher.
The freshmen are an interesting mix. Depending on where they come from (a small city or the countryside) usually determines how good their English is. Those who are from Luzhou often have had a foreign teacher in the past, either in their junior high or senior high school education. Most, however, have never spoken to a native speaker before or met one in person. They are used to Chinese English teachers who are very strict in their classrooms and rarely steer from the book. Speaking English in class is not practiced. Only the study of grammar, memorizing vocabulary words and going over numerous practice tests before the final semester examinations is the norm.
My classes, on the other hand, are a mixture of our conversation book and in-class activities. This kind of format always takes time for everyone to adjust to and be comfortable with but by the end of the term, they should be quite familiar with my teaching methods. There will be few surprises or tedious coaching sessions on my part what to do. Yet before that happens, it’s a lot like leading 3-year olds by the hand. It takes a great deal of patience and energy on my part not to go bonkers with these students who are more like giggly junior high school kids than young adults.
Can’t Speak a Stitch of English
One of our first activities in class is a speaking activity which has us moving around the room, asking one another guided questions on a paper: “Can you name 5 _____ in English?” There are 12 blank-fillers for the students to choose from: 5 colors, 5 countries, 5 languages, 5 animals, just to name a few. If the person can answer, he writes down his name to show he’s accurately answered and then another person is asked another question. As the teacher, I also participate in this activity. It gives me the opportunity see who has problems understanding English, answering questions, and pronouncing words correctly. It also gives everyone the chance to meet me face-to-face in a non-threatening way.
For the most part, everyone can easily read the questions and answer. If they can’t at least name 5 of the things asked, they usually can name at least 3. But yesterday in Class 3, I noticed one lone student whom I immediately became concerned about.
At the beginning of our activity, while other students chorused the game directions together, he sat in silence. His mouth didn’t move once. When I demonstrated what to do with another student, his head was bowed and his eyes were on the desk in front of him. During our activity time, he seemed quite content to race around with everyone else but I watched him merely thrust his paper at his classmates to have them sign their names. He asked no questions and spoke not a word.
Finally, I made my way to his corner and caught him.
“Can you name 5 animals in English?” I cheerfully asked.
He smiled a wide grin and spoke in Chinese.
“I don’t understand English.”
“You don’t understand anything?” I asked him in his own language. “Not any of the questions?”
He enthusiastically shook his head.
“Can you read the English words?” I questioned.
He continued to beam his brilliant smile and gave me another shake of his head.
“So why are you an English major?” I asked.
He merely shrugged his shoulders and quickly disappeared to the side of one of his male classmates where he quickly began discussing something in Chinese with him.
Many foreign teachers would be surprised by this but I’ve seen it again and again at our small college. Many countryside parents who have little more than a primary school education push their children to continue with their studies at a college or university. It’s their hope and dream to give their child a better life. For the most part, such sons and daughters do work very hard and want to succeed. But we do have those who just aren’t really cut out for academics, no matter how low-level those academics might be. They never wanted to attend a college and have little desire or motivation to bother with further studies. In most cases, their parents even decided their course of study.
“It’s best if you study English and be an English teacher,” they say. “That way, you will always have a job. And English is becoming more and more popular. You can earn money during the holidays by tutoring children. Yes, English is a good major. You’ll study that.”
Never mind if they never did well in their high school English classes or what their feelings are about studying a subject they could care less about. It’s mom and dad’s wish. That’s all there is to it.
I’ve had quite a few students in Luzhou who fit into that category of not caring and not being able to succeed. They’ve gone through 3 years of quite difficult English courses yet still couldn’t speak a stitch of English in the end, nor pass any of their English exams that are required for them to get a teaching certificate. I watched them as freshmen enter with some degree of enthusiasm, perhaps thinking they can manage if they try. Yet they were so far behind everyone else that the workload was too overwhelming. They eventually gave up, stayed up late playing cards or talking to dorm mates, didn’t bother with their homework and basically blew away their parents’ money. The sad thing is that in many cases, if they had just moved to another major, they’d have probably done quite well.
The Greatest Challenge
These students stuck in the English department always hold a special place in my heart. I remember every single one over the years and how utterly lost they were in my classroom. The greatest challenge is trying to find one small thing they can do that will make them feel worthwhile. It might be erasing the blackboard, handing out papers, pantomiming an English word for others to guess, or even carrying my book bag back to the office.
In Class 3 yesterday, this young man made me once again realize how utterly hopeless some students will eventually feel after entering our college. It’s not all excitement and new adventure, like it is for many. For some, it’s a long, hard, bitter road that will seem never to end.
After class, I grabbed our young man for a chat in Chinese.
“What’s your Chinese name?” I asked him.
“Zhong Huaicheng,” he answered.
“You’re wearing basketball clothes. Do you like basketball?” I asked him.
“Yes!” he enthusiastically answered in English.
“Ah! You do speak English!” I praised him in Chinese, then added in my native language, “Very good!”
“No, no! Bad, bad,” he answered.
“You spoke English with the foreigner,” I continued. “That’s not bad. That’s good! You must have more courage. I know you can do it. O.K.?”
“O.K.!” he said, then he was out the door, his male classmates teasing him with punches and mimicking his “No, no! Bad, bad!” phrases.
I don’t expect Zhong Huaicheng to last long in this major. My greatest hope is that he’ll be gone in a few weeks, having switched over to something he is more interested in and better suited for. But if not, I’ll continue to do my best to make him feel worthwhile in class. He may not be able to speak, read or understand a stitch of English, but at least for now he has a hopeful outlook on his student life. I’d like to keep it that way, at least during our short time together as student and teacher.
From Luzhou, here’s sending you “Ping An” (peace) for your day.