A Journey in the Classroom

Ted Shipitalo

       During the month-long break in between semesters, something unexpected happened to me. I began to miss my students. Yes, the very same students that caused me frustration due to our cultural and language differences, but also the same students that could surprise me with their creativity or say something so ridiculous that I cannot help but laugh (this usually involves the phrase “eat poo poo,” which I hear several times per day). I discovered that I had an emotional connection to several hundred people that lived completely different lives from me.  

       The first two months in the classroom were difficult. I had no prior teaching experience, and I was tasked with teaching nearly six hundred students per week. I was to give no grades or do any writing exercises. “Make them speak,” I was told. I tried, and I failed. My students were either inattentive and disruptive or too shy. They lacked proper motivation and confidence, and so did their teacher.

       In order to succeed at my job, I had to find out what interested my students. What does a typical Chinese eleven year old think about? I began to experiment with various activities and discovered the keystone to success in my classroom: acting. Now, it wasn’t Li Chen or Wei Zhang speaking, but a detective interviewing a suspect about a murder, or Taylor Swift fending off questions from reporters. The students became confident by speaking through their characters. I began to divide them up into teams and have them practice their scenes. I chose different groups to demonstrate to the whole class then created a point system to judge their performances.

       My classroom now exists in a state of controlled chaos; however, most of the noise is in English.  “Yi! Er! San!,” I yell and clap my hands to simulate a director. The students begin immediately to act out the story of a bank robbery. A student stops in the middle of a sentence and yells the Chinese phrase: “zěnme shuō (how to say) jiānyù!” and four students immediately respond “Jail!”. The students learn just as much from each other as they do from me. It is amazing to see how a Chinese class can work together like a team. My job is simple now; all I have to do is provide the spark, and my students make the fire.

       China, much like college, can be a place to make important personal discoveries. I am glad that I was given the freedom to fail because I also had the freedom to experiment and learn from my mistakes. This is a valuable lesson that I will continue to apply in my future career. My view of teaching and the classroom has changed. I now understand how teaching is like a performance, and performers must do their absolute best in order to win over their audience. However, all of this hard work comes with its own reward: a classroom full of smiles and laughter.

 

                                                                                   Halloween 2014. This picture provides an accurate summary of life in my classroom.  

                                                                                   Halloween 2014. This picture provides an accurate summary of life in my classroom.

 

                                                                   Annual Sports Day 2014. I am participating in a relay race with a student and a fellow English teacher.

                                                                   Annual Sports Day 2014. I am participating in a relay race with a student and a fellow English teacher.

                                         Wencheng Middle School. I give a sample lesson to various teachers and students in a rural school with no access to foreign teachers.  

                                         Wencheng Middle School. I give a sample lesson to various teachers and students in a rural school with no access to foreign teachers.

 

                                                   Wenzhou Experimental Middle School. This is where the battles are fought. My classroom is on the fifth floor on the far right.

                                                   Wenzhou Experimental Middle School. This is where the battles are fought. My classroom is on the fifth floor on the far right.

                                                                                                                      A game of “heads up” brings smiles all around.

                                                                                                                      A game of “heads up” brings smiles all around.