Stories: Wrong Room

My assignment at ChangXing Primary School was to teach English to the second and fourth graders while my co-volunteer taught first and third grade. Why they decided to divide the classes in this way was just one of many things I never really understood. It seemed like giving one of us first and second grade and the other third and fourth grade would have been more logical. Two years difference in age translates to a tremendous difference in maturity and learning ability, and developing lessons for such disparate target groups is a challenge. On the other hand, it was kind of fun to experience the differences between the second and fourth graders. The excitement with which the second graders greeted me and their enthusiasm for singing were offset by their limited English ability. The fourth graders were more capable of engaging in interesting conversation but they could be more difficult, especially if their regular teacher was not in the back of the room.

The school’s curriculum is quite rigorous and includes many subjects. Chinese, mathematics, English, art, music, and Physical Education (PE) are all offered starting in the first grade. English has become a significant part of the curriculum in recent years, as the booming Chinese economy has led to embracing the language of international commerce. Many teachers at the school work exclusively as English teachers. First graders get only a small amount of English instruction but, starting in grade two, the children receive several English lessons every week. Some lessons focus on grammar while others center on reading and writing. One weekly lesson, the oral English lesson, is aimed at developing speaking and listening skills and this is the class that foreign teachers are asked to teach. The school’s administrators recognize the value of letting the kids hear, and speak to, a native English speaker. They also know that our presence can be beneficial to their English teachers, who typically have had little exposure to native English speakers. At ChangXing Primary, foreign teachers develop and deliver their own oral English lessons, working with the regular class teacher to do so. The regular teacher sits in the back of the room during our lessons, helping to assure discipline and translating for us when necessary.

At the beginning of the school year, students are assigned to specific classrooms and, except for music, art, and PE, all of their lessons are given in that room. English and math teachers move between classrooms to give their lessons. Since the school had four second grade classes and three fourth-grade classes, I visited seven different classrooms per week. Average class size was about 40 so I got to teach almost three hundred different students in all. I was given a printed schedule that told me where and when I needed to teach throughout the week. The school used a scheme that located grade levels on the corresponding floor of the building: all second grade classrooms were on the second floor, all fourth grade classrooms on the fourth floor. This made it easier to figure out where you needed to be: if you were teaching a second grade class, you knew you had to go to the second floor.

I think showing up only once a week made my appearance more special than it might have been otherwise. This was especially true for the second graders, where I was always warmly welcomed as I entered the room, usually about five minutes before the class start time, so I could insert the flash memory device containing my PowerPoint lesson into the classroom computer and make sure the audio-visual equipment was ready and working. There were always five or ten kids that quickly surrounded me, all wanting to ask me the only English questions they knew… “How are you?!” Their excitement was heartwarming but also a little intimidating. One little girl was so happy to see me she would wrap her arms tightly around my leg and I had to pry her off a couple of times. I considered avoiding these little scenes by waiting to enter the room right as the starting bell sounded. I laughed to myself and decided against this when I realized it would be a little like Elvis Presley handled his adoring fans, entering the concert hall minutes before showtime. To complete the fantasy, I imagined they would play an announcement after I left – “Teacher John has left the building!”

After my disastrous first week, when I discovered that the lesson I had prepared was way too difficult for the second graders, I scaled back my expectations significantly. In subsequent sessions, I started each lesson by going around the room, randomly calling on kids to stand and answer a simple question. The question was either “How are you?” or “How old are you?” and I was surprised to see how difficult it was for them to hear the difference. Many answered the question “How are you?” with “I am nine” and the question “How old are you” with “I am fine, thank you.” To help them learn the difference, at the start of each class, I would write the two questions on the board and we would review them before I started my rounds questioning the kids. I’m happy to say that, at the end of my three month stay, I rarely got a wrong answer to these questions.

Another routine segment for my second-grade lessons was the singing of “Wheels on the Bus,” a perennial favorite of western kids. Using Raffi’s rendition of the song, I created a simple music video and introduced it during my second week. Before we started singing, I used a PowerPoint presentation to teach the vocabulary needed: words like bus, wipers, baby, up, down, around, town, etc. And when we started singing along with the video, I taught them how to make movements to match what was being said. We made circles in the air with our hands as we sang “around and around…” and we all stood up and sat down in time to the lyrics “people… go up and down…..” Since they enjoyed the song so much and since it introduced so many new English words, I made singing it a regular part of every lesson, immediately following our “How are you?/How old are you?” practice.

One morning, I went to my scheduled second grade classroom and was greeted, as usual, with cries of “It’s Teacher John!” The lesson commenced normally and, after writing the two questions on the board and testing the kids on proper usage, we began singing “Wheels on the Bus.” I noticed that the regular teacher was late: she wasn’t in the back of the room where she normally was, but I wasn’t worried about it because, by that time, I felt confident enough to handle the class alone. As we were loudly singing and I directed the hand and body movements to accompany the music, I suddenly noticed there were two teachers in the hallway trying to get my attention. One was the regular class teacher who was late arriving and the other was someone I hadn’t met. When they caught my attention, the regular teacher cupped her hands around her mouth to make her voice audible over the music and said, with just a hint of a smile… “You’re in the wrong room!”

It only took an instant for me to understand what she was saying and I didn’t doubt her for a moment. I hadn’t looked carefully at my class schedule and I was teaching two classrooms down the hall from where I was supposed to be. While I was busy teaching the wrong class, the regular teacher had been in the correct classroom, waiting for me. The second teacher at the doorway turned out to be a math teacher who was scheduled to teach math to the kids I now had singing Wheels on the Bus. She spoke no English and had found me actively engaged with her students when she arrived earlier. She didn’t want to interrupt me and she had gone off to seek help determining why a foreign teacher was singing to her math students.

I can’t remember exactly how I felt at the moment I learned of my error but I know embarrassment was the primary feeling. But when you’re busy conducting an enthusiastic group of young singers, you really don’t have time to worry about what you might be feeling. Instead, you just have to figure out what to do next. I nodded to the hallway teachers to let them know I understood and, while I continued to lead the song, I started preparing to leave the room. I erased the blackboard with one arm while the other mimicked a windshield wiper to the beat of “… wipers on the bus go swish, swish, swish.” I gathered my notebook and papers while cradling an imaginary baby in my arms, singing “… the baby on the bus goes waaah, waaah, waaah.” And I held an index finger to my lips as we sang “..the parents go shhhh, shhhh, shhhh,” while the other hand removed my portable flash drive from the classroom computer.

When the song ended, I was ready to leave. I gave the kids a loud “Thank you! Bye Bye” and they reciprocated with a chorus of “Bye Bye!” and goodbye waves. If they were confused about the short duration of my lesson, they didn’t show it. As the math teacher came in and took over, the regular English teacher and I walked down the hall to the classroom where I should have been. There, another 40 little enthusiastic faces greeted me warmly and I started over.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Stories: Wrong Room

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *