When I first arrived at Jining Confucius International School in December 2012, it was already more than halfway through the first semester. It is very difficult to take over a class in the middle of a semester. Despite these challenges, I kept a positive attitude and worked diligently to get things back on the right track. I recall how I would often come into school an hour early and leave a few hours late to set things right. Eventually I was able to build trust with the parents, tame the students and get them interested in learning English again. During the following three years I provided my class with stability and treated them as if they were my own children. Primary school students arrive on campus at 7:40AM and depart at 4:30PM. What this means is that they spend roughly the same amount of time in the classroom with their teachers as they do at home with their own parents (when they are not sleeping). In my opinion, this makes primary school teachers just as relevant as parents in their children’s upbringing, especially considering how impressionable they are at this stage of their development.
Although I was initially hired as a math teacher because of my educational background in the sciences, I was very eager to break into other class subjects. A few weeks later, I got a chance to expand my role as their teacher. I knew that having additional class time with my students was exactly what was necessary to form a solid relationship with them. Management had intended to give the now vacant position to my supervisor, but I knew his schedule was already quite busy, and I fought for the position. And the extra classes did fulfill their intended purpose in giving me better access to my students.
The next school year I followed my students to grade four, but thankfully I put the summer break to good use. I took a good hard look at myself as a teacher, and studied our writing text book carefully. My conclusion was that there was too much emphasis on grammar, and minimal use of acquired skills. As a foreign teacher, I was also not properly exercising my right to be more flexible with course material. These realizations are what paved the way for my greatest contribution to my students, and unexpectedly to the primary department.
In Grade 4, much to my pleasure I also became the English reading instructor. This was exactly what I felt was needed to inspire my students and make them excited about learning English.
Most of our writing classes were now focused on creative writing with a much smaller emphasis on sentence structure. To my surprise my students had a very difficult time thinking up original ideas. They were not used to having so much freedom, and perhaps even a little scared about how other students would react to their ideas.
In order to break them in, we started basically copying stories from reading class but changing small details, such as the names of the places and characters. My students were also not used to writing multiple paragraphs, so we broke our stories down into smaller components.
In order to sweeten the deal, I promised them that they could illustrate their stories and they would be published in a book. I originally intended to publish this book using my own funds, but surprisingly the head of our department took interest in my project. It turned out to be a useful tool for new foreign teachers to get their kids into creative writing. School management also took copies of the book to our sister schools to use as an example of how English writing class should be taught.
My class followed the same formula for the remainder of grade 4, and continued into grade 5. I supplemented the stories from our reading books with my own relevant material. I exposed them to fun and interesting new ideas.
I wrote my own stories and shared them with the class. Some of them were silly. Some of them were downright embarrassing or ridiculous, but this taught my students an important lesson: don’t be afraid to express yourself in writing class.
By the end of grade 5, I could give students a topic to write about, and many of them were able to produce a rough draft of a three page story by the end of a class lesson. In grade 4 if I had given them the same assignment, they would have just stared at a blank piece of paper for 40 minutes even though they technically had the skills to write something.
Sadly grade 5 was my last year with this particular group of students. They have since left me and moved on to middle school. I miss them a lot, and I think they miss me too. Maybe in time they will forget me, but I get great satisfaction knowing that I made a difference in their education and upbringing. I did my best to make their classes fun and interesting. I pushed them to do better, and encouraged them to be creative. I changed the way they think about the English language, and helped them to understand foreigners.
As the first international class to graduate from JCIS, they will be used as a benchmark for future graduating classes. Already several of the new faces this year have started reviewing and recycling some of my previous material for their own classes. As a teacher nothing could make me happier than knowing that some of my work and ideas will continue to have a positive influence on later generations of JCIS students even after I am long gone.