Saturday, April 2, 2011

Reflection #8: Crime and Punishment

As a student, I've always hated teachers that yell. It's been a while since I've had one, but the ones who yell are the ones who have zero idea how to handle a classroom. I can be a yeller in everyday life, but in the classroom I've always found that silence and an icy stare usually does the trick.

This isn't a post about my yelling at a class, thank God. At least I can still hold onto that. But I did lay a spectacular guilt trip on them in the form of having to write answers, in English, to three questions. The whole thing made me feel as icky as if I had yelled; I felt like the worst kind of teacher ever.

I'll back up. Suddenly on Thursday, in my three-hour break between morning and afternoon classes, I started feeling sick. All the energy seemed to drain from my body, and my throat went from slightly scratchy to full-on sore (I'd been raspy all day). I asked Li An if I could go home and teach my afternoon classes the next day, and she was agreeable, but that also involved having the head teachers keep an eye on the kids for that time, and I wasn't dying, so I didn't see the point in making someone else do my work.

I went to my first class, and with 75 kids, while I don't have to yell, I have to do some projecting. They quieted down quickly and I explained that I didn't feel well so I couldn't be as loud as I normally was, and that I needed them to be quiet so they could hear me, and I'd appreciate if they worked hard, and volunteered when I needed helpers. The whole class nodded, solemn, as if I'd set them on a quest instead of just asking for a little courtesy. They were angels, too, as if their good behavior could cure me. I thanked them and proceeded to my next class.

These kids would barely calm down enough for me to deliver my plea for pity. The funny thing is, I'd never had a bit of trouble from them before, probably because rowdy usually suits my teaching style and I'd never asked them to be quiet. Last weekend, when we were in Shenyang, Jim Garrison told me that they had been his problem class, and I laughed; I don't know if I was projecting what he had said on them, but I was in no mood to trifle.

I made it through the first ten minutes of my forty-minute lesson, at which point I asked for a volunteer. Oh they all shut up then. I couldn't even get Future and Shirley, the girls who took Jamie and me to People's Park, to make eye contact. When I told Lee the story later, he asked why I didn't just choose someone. The only answer was, "I was not in the mood to coax."

Instead, I had them all take out pieces of paper upon which they were to answer three questions: Why is sympathy important?, Why is obedience important?, and How do you like people to treat you when you're sick?

Now, two days later, I can laugh at those questions. Why didn't I just ask them "Why are you the worst class ever, why do you hate me, and don't you just feel terrible?" At the time, though, I felt fully justified, and about half my students set to work. The other half were divided between staring me down and being asleep, but I didn't care; I wasn't trying to talk over them anymore.

I laid it on pretty thick, too, telling them they could stop writing and explaining that I had had a fun lesson planned that all the other classes really enjoyed, but now they didn't get to do it. When I got home, I read the answers; the exercise went over some kids' heads, but others were practically distraught, berating themselves for not being more respectful of me. I know some people think these kids are automatons, prepared to act only upon my command, but they're kids. They're jerks sometimes, just like adults. The big difference between Chinese teenagers and their American counterparts is that, while the American kids may have felt bad, they probably wouldn't have confessed it. They would have answered the questions as simply as possible and turned them in. So in this way, the Chinese kids turned the guilt trip around on me. Kudos to them, because I felt like a giant jerk, which was worse than feeling ill.

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