A lesson forgotten, and then relearned

As time goes by I am starting to forget what it was that annoyed me about some of the students back when I was in China. One thing that I do recall is vacillating between wanting to teach the advanced students and wanting to teach the beginners. I would go through spurts of wanting to do one, get burned out, then want to do the other.  In my final months in China I was often doing almost all the absolute beginner classes, as one of my colleagues was on Maternity leave, and someone had to do them. The students adored me, but the classes were completely void of material and thus a slog to teach. It was often 45 minutes of repeating the alphabet to the students.

But now that some time had passed, what in the world did I dislike about teaching the advanced classes? I vaguely remember them being not too bright, and I also remember how ineffective teaching them was (as you progress with a language, difficulty scales exponentially: it is easier to start learning a language then to master it. If you are teaching and you want to see real progress, teacher lower levels), but could that have been all? If nothing else, at least they would have been more fun to talk to, right?

Fast forward a year or so, and here I am back in the US, and despite my best efforts, still teaching. I for the most part do whatever class the administration tells me to. One of my colleagues was so God damned incompetent (more on her at a later date) that some of the advanced students ask to join my class instead, and I decided to do something about it. The administration of the school was inept enough to think that if this teacher was doing a bad job then that meant that she should be passed on to the advanced class, where all you really need to do is talk.

This is a very stupid idea. So I decided to help the problem by offering to teach the advanced class in the following session.

This was also a stupid idea.

The session comes and it goes fairly well. But while I was doing that the incompetent teacher fucks things up again and I am put back on the lower levels, this time to smooth things over with the lower levels. A turn of the wheel later and the advanced students are complaining again. Remember though that as you get to the top, the more the students don’t really want to do anything. Their ability to learn with minimal effort plateaus, and in normal schools they would just stop coming to classes, figuring that their English was now ‘good enough’. But I work in the US, for a visa farm, and the students are here “just to get a visa” (which is why the shitty teacher was given to them anyway). So when I was asked to teach them a second time, I was told to give them a class “with no work”.


A discussion class, they told me.  I saw this as an opportunity to sit around and talk about interesting things. I wasn’t entirely convinced of this idea, but I asked the students what they thought, got a positive reaction, and then told the administration that I would do it.

And that was my fuck up. Language is vague, and this of course is the cause of 99% of all discussions and miscommunications. I prepared a class where we would look into and discuss current events. They wanted to chat.

I hate chatting.

The first days were pretty representative of how the whole experience went. I would bring up a topic and then watch as most everyone’s eyes glazed over. Asking questions of the class proved that they were powerfully incurious about pretty much every topic under the sun. Response typically included shrugs, barely audible mumbles of “idunno’, platitudes, deepities, pointless tautologies, and occasionally hard stares through glassy eyes. The real winner of this glass was the Mongolian girl who, on two separate occasions, reprimanded me for asking her about her opinion on a subject.  “We don’t always have opinions about things!”

My problem of course was not with ‘always’, it was with ‘ever’.

To be fair, three of four students saved the day, as they were generally interesting people who wanted to actually discus and maybe learn things. But the rest of the class could have been furniture for however much it helped.

After a couple weeks of this, I came away really hating my life.

As of this writing I am back to teaching an ordinary, boring grammar class where I pretty much never ask anyone to express themselves. They work from a grammar book, and I don’t give them a singular drop of my personality.


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