Without So Much as a Good-bye
Another school year comes to a close.
There are exams which are meant to show how far the students have come. Sadly, they have not come very far. And for the sake of giving face, I have to curve the results to ridiculous lengths.
There should be dinners where collegues toast one another showing thanks and to shower praise upon one another's weary backs. In fact, there are no dinners, acknowledgements, nor good-byes.
There is, in fact, little sense of completion other than a physical sense of relief that I feel once the knowledge that it is over has settled in.
I manage to come up with a way to bring closure to the experience.
I file away another book of semester plans. I make travel plans. I treat myself to an end of the year gift which doubles as a birthday gift. I go through my photos and blog. I write.
So when THAT school year comes to an end--the one in which I actually leave Yichang--I am at least familiar with that feeling. THAT year has come. I know which motions to go through. They act as a type of ceremony. And I can take care of myself while being fully aware that no one cares.
The Role of Foreigners Here
Very rarely have I seen foreign teachers who have the education and qualification to actually teach. It is not an important qualification around here. Pride in the job is not high on a lot of people's list here. Working as a teacher is a means to an end.
Still, there is little excuse for being a hack teacher these days. The Internet has lots of great resources. A teacher's guides accompanying most textbooks show you how to use the books. By trying things out and comparing them against other methods (until you zero-in on a toolbox best practices) eventually you become a good teacher. In other words, you can make it up as you go along enough until experience makes you great. It isn't really that hard.
Rarely have I seen any foreigner who has a conversational ability in Chinese. Actually, over the past 10 years, I can name two. Sadly this says more about the limits of my circles than anything else, but with that said, understanding your students' native language is invaluable. Just understanding how their language works will help you see why they are making the kinds of mistakes that they are making. Also, the chatter in the native language during class is often not a symptom of their boredom but is in fact their effort to find out what is going on. A teacher who understands that can teach more effectively. Also talking with the parents will be in Chinese. Dealing with daily needs will be in Chinese. Living life in China will be in Chinese.
For all of those foreigners who do not understand enough Chinese to fully function, I do not know how they do it. I do know why they rarely stay very long.
Rarely have I seen a foreign teacher stay at the same school for more than three years. Generally the schools do not want dedicated foreigners to communicate with students and parents or to commit long enough to one place long enough to actually make a real impact.
The schools want foreigners to come and go year after year. Anything learned from them is accumulated over years as mistakes made one year are corrected the next with new people. Wages can then stay stagnant. Class sizes and training centers grow. Young, energetic foreigners arrive eager to please their first post-college bosses. The first year in a school is filled with lots of potential and enthusiasm. A second year is a chance to put best practices into use. A third year has got to include some sort of reinvention or they will tire of you. By then, most foreigners move on anyway.
Teaching in China is not seen as a career move. The schools want warm bodies, not partners. The very meaning of "learning English" should not be assumed as Chinese teachers (the kind the students are exposed to daily) have low exposure to English. They rarely practice their skills, and have a limited access to English language entertainment/arts. They then form ridiculously low expectations for students which consist of test prep and memorization.
A native English speaker comes into this situation equipped with such a different background from what the Chinese teachers and Chinese students are accustomed to. Just their presence offers something refreshing for the classroom. That starting point can be played with for over 10 months. The job is easy.
A foreigner staying in China for only a year cannot be too concerned with the issues facing schools. They need to focus on adjusting to strange sights, freezing classrooms in winter, general jabber-wocky information, and figuring out how to communicate with students. Actually, such foreigners are more concerned with socializing with others in their same situation. Having talked with them, it is clear that they can figure out the issues preventing effective language learning within a matter of weeks and apply their college learning to articulate the issues quite well. They don't need a whole school year to figure it out. They certainly don't need eight years. If they wish to stay, two to three years is a good length of time to stay, no more.
They have a very healthy attitude unlike someone who has been here too long who wrongfully believes that they have a greater say, greater impact, greater influence because they have made a greater commitment.
So Why Stay Here For So Long?
Over the past eight years, there were three times when I highly considered leaving before I finally made the decision to leave in the Spring of 2015. Yichang is far from an exciting place to live. After holidays, I would return here and find myself slumped in a mild depression for a week or two from the shock of returning to this sleepy backwards place.
I stayed because I believed in what I was doing. I believed that no matter where I lived I would only be successful if I focused on the work. Big cities are full of pleasant distractions and have a higher cost of living. Yichang was a city I could easily grow familiar with. Rapidly developing, I saw department stores open, Starbucks come to town, the opening of high speed train lines. Old buildings came down to be replaced with glass and steel high-rise banks. That kind of stuff is interesting to see happen before your eyes.
Also my rent was cheap and I lived close enough to work to walk. I was able to take secondary jobs and cushion my income. I had enough time to develop my photography. I had a mastery of the job and over time I created many books filled with my lesson plans--sometimes in a single semester putting together 5 of 6 books. In the years between 2008 and 2011 I would rewrite the lessons just so that I could go into the classroom with a clear mind. You need to memorize your plan and forget it and then recall it in the teaching situation. I would write the books up in a more organized way.
After some years, especially with the new texts, I realized that I didn't need to write up lesson plans at all. I knew what needed to be done and I would rely on a well-equipped classroom with paper, markers, flashcards, etc. at hand to use if I felt that the class needed it.
But mastery of the job is not the point. Applying that mastery with students is the point. Over the years I have had many students. Some have gone off to foreign universities and some are at the end of their high school years and pop in to say, "Hello."
It is hard to measure the value of seeing former students grow up or to learn that they have moved on to top American or British universities. On one hand, connecting with old students is a minor thing. On the other hand, connecting with former students is the only way to see if I had any positive influence on them. And that is the entire point.
But there is more to life than just teaching and there is not much life to live here in Yichang. That is not an insult. Everyone knows it. Most people leave Yichang, if they can.
When no one expects me to stay here for very long, it means that they don't care for me to stay long. If I believe that I am committing myself selflessly as a dedicated teacher, others shrug and say, "Fine. Sure. Go ahead."
This place is simply not for me like I thought it once was.
I came to Yichang completely unaware that I would find reason to stay so long. I am thankful that over the years so many people have made it so easy for me to leave and not look back. I am untied.
Now is time to unmoor from this town along the Yang-tze. Test my skills On The Sea.