Great moments in teaching #2: My mum wants to know where you’re from

So, I was back at my regular school near my home tonight. I don’t like the teaching methods there quite as much as some of the other schools, but the principal is a really, really caring guy. He’s gruff and seems uncompromising and speaks English quite poorly, but he stops in and watches many classes. He always talks about “the kids”. “The kids must like you”, “entertain the kids”, “make it fun for the kids”, “I want the kids to enjoy your classes” etc. It’s clear he really cares and loves seeing them enthused so despite him seeming grumpy he’s actually a fairly rewarding guy to work under – if he likes you, (and he doesn’t like everyone). So if he does like you, it’s a big compliment.

Anyway, my classes there are very short. I teach many classes a night, at different locations (they’re not far away but they only allocate me an incredibly short time to travel between them so you can’t afford to get lost) but they’re only 30 minutes each. That can be rough because you don’t get much time to warm them up or play games AND also cover the material you’re supposed to cover. Also, you are quite frequently teaching kids you’ve never met before. You get told in your time-table for each class how old the kids are, how many will be in the class, what level they’re at and also how many times you’ve seen them before which is helpful.

Tonight I had a new class I had never met before. I went into the class and the kids were already inside. I walked in, but one kid walked in behind me. I watched him with amusement and the first thing he did is grin at me and stick out his hand. I shook it and said “Nice to meet you. Please sit down” and then greeted the class (by which I mean I had them all rise, I said good evening to them and they said “good evening teacher” to me and waited for me to tell them to sit down again) after which I introduced myself by name and then I looked to my little friend and said “So, my new friend. What is your name ?” and he said “My name is Hu. I am 11” (this means about 10 in western terms). I said “Well Hu, I’m sure we will be good friends. Everyone, I want you to try and say my name right because it’s one that’s a little difficult for you to pronounce (it’s just “David” but you have no idea how hard that is for them… even my wife can’t say it), because it’s very important to get people’s names right. If I said Hu’s name wrong and called him Huong I’m sure he wouldn’t like me. Which is why we’re here learning English pronunciation”.

I came back to Hu a few times and called him by name. It’s not that I was singling him out and being extra nice to him. It’s just that I teach a hundred kids a night. I can’t remember everyone’s name ! Anyway, we had a fun lesson and after that class I had to move across to another branch of the school a couple of kilometers away so I went over to my motorbike. Hu, who had already walked to the front gate came running back to the parking area and said “Teacher David.. My mother want to know. Where you from ?” I said “Australia, Hu. I am from Australia” and he said “Thank you !” with a grin and ran off.

When I got out to the front gate, Hu was on the back of his mother’s bike and she was clearly waiting to see me. I pulled up beside them just in front of the busy road and said “Hello Hu ! Xin chao chi oi ! See you again soon !” and his mother gave me this big broad smile and Hu waved frantically from the back of the motorbike and said “Bye bye ! See you next time !” I suspect I just became his favourite foreign teacher because I remembered his name, greeted him, chatted to him after class and even said hello to his mother. Back home, one of my fellow teachers said “Dude she was probably a single mother. She was quite likely keen to check you out in case you were single” but I said “Nah, Hu knows I’m married. I told the class. I think she was just interested in finding out who the new foreign teacher was that her son was talking about”.

It’s hard to say when I will see Hu again. Most likely it will be the same time next week but it might not be until later. It’s unfortunate but most of these kids only get half an hour a week with a foreign teacher. Some of them really look forward to it. Others are just dog tired by the time you teach them at around 7 or 8 o’clock at night and really don’t care about learning English. But foreign teachers are fun. They are funny and they act weird and they look different and talk different. So many of the kids look forward to that 30 minutes a week when they get to joke around with a real English-speaking foreigner.. which in this neighbourhood is definitely something that doesn’t happen outside of school very often.

I’d just like to imagine that those two went home and over a meal of rice and pork his mother said “So, you like your new teacher ?” and Hu said “Oh yes. He remembered my name very well and talked to me after class. He’s really funny and cool. Much better than my other teachers” and maybe it will influence Hu to want to work with foreigners in the future or to have the confidence to want to travel overseas if he’s lucky enough to have the money and skills. Certainly he will consider English more than “Some boring shit I’m forced to do”. I hope to recognise him next week after I’ve been through seeing hundreds of other kids so that he knows I do remember him, but the real challenge will be finding a new student who also needs their confidence built up by having the teacher take an interest in them. I think I know who it is from tonight’s classes too. There was this girl, a little large for her age (a little chubby but also just unusually tall) who sat in the corner and was shy but had a beautiful clear speaking voice and good pronunciation but lacked confidence and blushed every time I called on her.

Anyway, Hu wasn’t the only kid whose name I bothered to remember tonight. There was also Kong, but tonight’s story was just about Hu, because he was obviously happy that I took such an interest in him after he shook my hand. That’s why I like my new job. I earn less than a tenth of what I used to earn doing tech support or programming in Australia, but I can assure you, the feeling of appreciation from the kids and the level of job satisfaction is worth it. At least I don’t wake up in the morning and think “Oh fuck. I have to deal with ASSHOLES again today who don’t know shit but are going to tell me what to do anyway”. These days I wake up thinking “I wonder which class I have today and how complex the tounge-twisters will have to be for their level of experience ? I hope there’s some kids in there that I remember”.

I don’t want to suggest that half an hour before I have to leave for work I don’t go “Oh god I wish I didn’t have to go to work now”. I still think that most days. But the difference is that in IT, you go to work with a smile on your face and come home with a big frown. Now I go to work a little tired and wondering how much energy I can muster, but I ride home and park my bike with a big grin still on my face and laugh at Yi and say “Hahah, I had a great night teaching tonight. There was some really adorable kids that were lots of fun to teach”. It makes a difference, I can tell you.

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