I like to think that I am a kind teacher, that I have a certain awareness that allows me to avoid discomforting my students. This does not extend, however, to ignoring students who have difficulty with English. I will have them stand before the class and humiliate themselves as they struggle to give me an answer. That they have difficulty highlights the need for them to provide answers, but I digress…
No, I refer to knowing when a student is uncomfortable discussing certain topics. For example, I had a lapse in judgement where, when discussing the second conditional, I had the students discuss which country had the most important leader and what they would do if they were him or her. While in itself not that bad an activity, you have to remember that this is China, and I’m an American. The students want to give the answer that they expect the teacher wants, which would be “Obama!” But they’re Chinese and cannot say anything other than Mao or Xi. When this became apparent, I hurriedly moved on, but, once more, I digress…
The school had asked if I would be interested judging an English Contest that would decide who they would send to the Provincial English Contest. I accepted because, while they had but asked if I was interested, in China that was tantamount to telling me to be a judge. Now, the content of the contest is another post entirely. Know, however, that I sat through twenty-one contestants, voted for eight students I thought deserved to pass Round One, and then left. I had classes in the afternoon and could not remain for the remainder.
When I arrived in my classroom (no more than fifteen had passed), I noticed that one of the contestants was there. It did not take much to deduce that she had not proceeded to Round Two. I told her, rather loudly, how surprised I was that she had not. She had been one of the students I had voted for. I was going to make another comment, but then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw another contestant, one I did not vote for.
She wore a blank smile. I should have given her some words of encouragement, as well, but she had done very poorly, so much so that she had to have been aware of it. Instead, I just quieted myself and prepared the room for the lesson.
Strike one, Johnny Boy.
The lesson begins, and we are discussing the present perfect simple. Having given a short lecture and some controlled practice, we continue with more open-ended controlled practice. I allow the students to freely speak with one another, the topic of their talk being slapped on the board. While the students may speak off-topic for three minutes, eventually they will realign themselves and work on the topic at hand.
Time is up, ding ding ding, and I begin hearing back from the students. They have had ample time to discuss the topics with a partner, so now I want to hear from them.
The topics provided demanded answers in the present perfect simple. “How many mountains have you climbed”, “Have you ever broken a bone?”, and one that I may have omitted if I had any semblance of foresight, “Have you ever won a contest?”
By this time, my participation as a judge has entirely left my mind. There is no glimmer of remembrance. I have students stand; I ask them one of the questions; I go over their answers further solidifying the classes understanding of the present perfect simple.
I am steadily moving through the class and the questions. I call upon one student wearing a white dress shirt and black skirt. The question, “Have you ever won a contest?” Something clicks, and I remember what I was doing, what she was doing an hour ago, and a broad smile (very Chinese, might I add) of anxiety spreads across my face.
“I apologize, that was probably not the best question to ask you,” I blurt this out with my anxiety-wrought smile. The girl, either in good-humor or near hysterics, says very loudly, “No, I never win anything. I have never won a contest!”
Strike Two, Johnny Boy.
I smile for her, decide against probing her answer and asking follow-ups, and instead swirl around to the other side of the room, wanting to distance myself as much as I can from that failed contestant. Not wanting to lose the flow of the lesson, I jump on the first student I see who is not wearing a white dress shirt and black skirt, and ask, again, “Have you ever won a contest?”
And my smile turns into a nervous laugh as I realize, while the girl is not wearing a black skirt and white dress shirt, she also competed in the contest. And, don don don!, did not proceed to Round Two.
Strike Three, Johnny Boy. You’re out!
“I have another question,” I say, tripping over my tongue, “how many mountains have you climbed?”