Junior High ESL Teaching

Junior High in Taiwan.

Junior High in Taiwan.

To set the record straight, I am 1.5 generation Chinese-American teaching English at a Taiwanese secondary school of my own free will. I am proud of my heritage and my people–Chinese, Chinese American, people of the AAPI community, Yilaners, Fulbrighters, Chicagoans, Oak Parkites, Kansas peeps, Iowans, Marylandians, Arkansans, and more. You are all my people, people. I’m proud to be part of your community, past, present or future.

Teaching as a profession, then. Let’s talk about the last five months or so. Sometimes I love it. Other times, not so much. NPR does a great segment on what it means to be a teacher called 50 Great Teachers which sums up current theories struggling to emerge among long-set traditions perfectly well. So, why the mixed feelings? Teaching is hard. Like, drag your butt up 25 flights of stairs when the elevator is broken hard. Like… this is what running a marathon everyday feels like hard. You have to be on your game at all hours, making sure you’re getting all grading, lesson planning and classroom management sorted. However, it’s also the most rewarding and beautiful thing you will ever do. Students are quirky, witty and downright fantastic. They will make you laugh, cry, and get frustrated in the best possible of ways. Junior high in Taiwan is quite different from the States, but it’s quite the same in most cases. You have the stolid social hierarchies. Students can be mean to each other, often writing terribly condescending or crass notes to each other and even making each other cry. I saw one student get escorted off campus today in tears. In Taiwan as in the U.S., you also have the great students. Not the ones who yell “Miss Yuan!” or “Teacher!” (although who doesn’t like that?), but the ones who really listen, who want to learn and be taught. Strange but true, how on both sides of the teacher-student dichotomy, we need to do more listening. Quietly observing before jumping to conclusions. How crazy is that, right?

Anyways, recently I had an interesting issue with my students at my junior high. I invited a friend out by popular demand based on a teaching evaluation I conducted. While the whole invitational went more than splendidly, something didn’t sit right in my stomach. That gut feeling proved to be true. My students questioned my legitimacy as an English teacher because I look very Asian as opposed to my friend who looked more foreign than I did. Don’t get me wrong, I love my friend, she’s absolutely the best, and I expected the kids to love her just the same. However, I did not expect them to treat me like crap because I wasn’t her. “Teacher Sherry isn’t as cute as _____.” “I wish ____ was our teacher, not Sherry.” One student even passed the record sheets to my friend because he saw her as the main authority based on her skin color and accent. I couldn’t even muster the strength to get mad. I just went home and cried. As I told my concerned friend and boyfriend, it felt like a broken dream and a breakup. You don’t get to choose how students accept you, especially if it’s based on skin color.

However, contrary to the shame I felt, I decided to be honest to everyone involved. I told my LET how hurt I was by my student’s response. I told my friend how I was deeply saddened by my students. This week, I did my multicultural Prezi lesson with both my junior high clubs and invited them to watch the two last videos posted on my blog about foreigners abroad in China or Taiwan. To my surprise, everyone was quite supportive in the end. My friend and LET gave me nothing but love and understanding.

And the students? The students actually listened this time. They stopped talking while I was talking. They understood what they were doing, and I could tell they didn’t like it. I don’t like being a source of conflict, but at the same time I don’t want to change being Asian-American. I want to teach them. Today, this day…I think they finally got it. This last semester was all about pain, humility and honesty. I came home after junior high in tears, with headaches and many questions. How do I get through to them? How do I give everyone a voice, including myself? How do I gently rebuke? I failed, many times. However, I think this time, despite students being rude and making downright racist remarks, this time they listened. They considered what it was like to be AAPI, African-American, Mexican-American, Spanish, French or otherwise while in Asia. It was nothing but fantastic to see them stop and think.

Was the pain worth it? Was the suffering worth it? Was the endless hours spent wondering, praying and getting frustrated worth it?

Absolutely. And then some.

~S.

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