Tuesday, December 22, 2009
As teachers at SAU, we don’t make a whole lot of money. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it so explicitly before, but the monthly haul amounts to just under the American equivalent of $400. But it’s not all bad. Since it’s far below the minimum-wage level in the states, it’s the reason why I got approved on a deferment from my student loans for the next two years. And because there isn’t an actual check to cash, it also writes me off from taxes. Our pay is essentially a translucent slip of paper—more suitable perhaps for making rice candy than accounting—on which is written our name, the date, and the sum of money we are entitled to, along with our boss’s signature. Once a month, we turn that slip over to the reception desk at the building that handles expenses in exchange for a stack of crisp 100 yuan notes, counted and neatly re-counted by a charming man seated next to a vault, of which both the room to the vault and the vault itself are unlocked, often with stacks of money pooled casually over the various tables in the office.
Although it’s not nearly enough to live on in a place like New York, in Taigu it does me just fine, and I often find myself saving at least ¾ of that paycheck every month. After all, with rent and utilities paid for, our only real expenses are for food and everyday living necessities. But with that said, if some of my students decide to supplement that paycheck with some extra money of their own accord, who am I to stop them? Heading into grading season, we thought up a little joke. Give students the option of paying 10 yuan for every extra point they want added to their final semester grade. That translates to about $15 to go from a B to an A and $90 to go from a zero to a passing 60. Counting at least five students in each of my classes whose names have been on the roster but who have never once attended class, I fancied myself becoming a much richer man as I scrimped to save money for a two-month vacation outside of China.
A sampling of some of the food and gifts that my students presented me with on my last day of class.
In truth, grading was the hardest part of the end-of-semester work obligations. I now understand all too well the pressures that teachers face having to cope with students who desperately implore you to raise their grade against all rationale. At the beginning of the year, one of the central tenets in my syllabus was that, “if you ask me to raise your grade without good reason, I will lower it.” Most of my students' grades ended up falling in the A/B range, with a few notable D and F exceptions. As it turned out, I ended up giving the worst grade in one of my classes to the student who came in with the highest English level. My reasoning? 50% of my grading criteria is for attendance and participation, and though his English was superb, he rarely ever came to class. Though prior English knowledge is preferred for more interesting and lively classes, my primary objective is to reward effort and improvement in a student's English fluency. Luckily for me, many of my students are making noticeable gains in that department.
At the end of Semester One as a teacher, I can safely say that I've really begun to get a hang for the job. By now, my classes are also home to a fair share of stragglers—students who aren't on my roster, but who want free English lessons—who I am happy to invite to sit in on my classes, so long as they don't try to dominate discussions. Everything from lesson planning to the actual teaching itself has gotten easier too. Whereas before I'd spend whole afternoons and evenings racking my brain over what to teach, I can often wake up a couple of hours before class with a vague idea and be able to plan out a cohesive and (sometimes) engaging 2-hour lesson over breakfast and a morning podcast. Time management during class itself has gotten better too. I no longer need to cue myself on when to start and stop activities, but instead, let them grow organically depending on a class's interest and relative ability. I am proud to say that I now know all 120 of my students' names by heart and can take attendance without calling on them. I've also begun to realize that teaching is a lot like comedy. With three more-or-less identical classes dedicated to each new lesson, by the third class you start to figure out what works and what doesn't. Every class is an opportunity to try out your best material and see what your students respond most to.
As an end-of-semester gift, one of my students got me a set of Chinese shot glasses and another brought me an expensive bottle of mare's-milk wine from her hometown of Inner Mongolia. I still haven't brought up the nerve to try it yet, but it sure came in a nice package.
Trusting the advice of my Senior Fellows, I decided to administer an oral skit as a substitute for a written final examination at the end of the semester. Our bosses only really care that we have some sort of exam to close out the year, but never specify what kind. What's more, an oral skit makes it that much harder for our students to cheat in a country where plagiarism is hardly frowned upon. As a result, I was eager to see how the students I had come to really know and respect over the last four months would handle a year-end staple that has been utilized in nearly every language class I've ever taken. I gave them about two weeks to prepare for the 15-minute skit—letting them choose small groups of four or five to work with, having them write a script of the appropriate length from scratch, workshop it with me one-on-one to go over errors, and finally perform it in class. The topic I gave them was simple. You and your group-mates find yourselves on a hot air balloon and it is only during mid-flight that you notice it has begun to sink. The big question: What do you do?
For the most part, I was pleasantly surprised with the kinds of skits my students came up with. Most were not the most creative I had ever seen, but there were definitely more than a few gems. Given the material I taught them over the course of the semester—with dating, marriage, and food all making the Top Ten—it's no surprise how some of them turned out. As one might expect, there was plenty of mid-air hi-jinx, divine intervention, jilted weddings, vengeful lovers, and inter-planetary revelations. Many borrowed themes from popular American movies like Dirty Harry and Titanic. In fact, at least a third of them featured a re-working of the scene in Titanic where Jack is standing behind a blind-folded Rose at the ship's bow with her arms spread out before her. Though I never made props or clothing mandatory for the skit, I was surprised by the lengths to which students “dressed” the part, including one group that brought in a real-life wedding dress with a train. Many other groups decided to use cross-dressing for comedic effect. It was particularly hilarious to see some of my normally shyer male students come to life under a delicate coat of blush and eye shadow. To top it all off, nearly every group employed a carefully-selected playlist of MIDI music tracks from their cell phones, including “Wedding March” and the seminal “My Heart Will Go On.”
Many of my students dressed up to give mock-weddings on board the hot-air balloon before it began to sink.
Having to grade the skits also gave me some unexpected insight into the secrets of teaching. Take, for instance, your average presentation. My grading criteria consisted of four parts—clarity, smoothness, vocabulary, and creativity—each weighed differently, and together totaling 100 points. When it comes down to it, the final was worth about 40% of my students' final grades, which should mean that there is little room for subjective error. But barring downright unpreparedness on the parts of my students, so much of the skit's grading was left to my own subjective interpretation. If a skit goes two minutes under the slated time, how many points should you deduct? Can you really give a number grade for creativity? How can you rightfully compare presentations that took place four days apart from each other? How do you cope with your own biases and prevent them from influencing your judgment? Can you rectify the fact that the first skit will always be graded more conservatively than the last? I discovered that in the end, my students weren't the only ones to have to trust that I was making a fair and balanced assessment of a semester's worth of their effort in my class.
Me at my first banquet, well before the alcohol really started flowing.
On the days leading up to the end of the semester and the last day of class itself—which I split between performing the last of the skits and having a celebratory party—my students bombarded me with food and gifts. Needless to say, it's a custom that teachers in America can only dream of. Teachers are highly respected here in China and it is reflected in both their salary (which is high relative to other non-government jobs) and in the respect it comands from students. The best that most of my college professors got was a round of applause at their last lecture, and here I was being presented with bags overflowing with fruits, enough packaged snack foods to outlast a nuclear winter, and a number of more pricey gifts including alcohol and porcelain glasses. One of the sweetest gifts I got was a set of pictures taken of the campus, each signed with a message from one of my students on the back. At first I figured it was just a ploy to get me to raise their grades, but when practically everyone in my class didn't leave without giving me something, I knew that it was more a token of their appreciation for having me as a teacher, oftentimes the first foreigner they have ever interacted with first-hand.
In addition to all the food and gifts, I was also treated to lavish, end-of-semester banquets with each of my three graduate student classes. In retrospect, it's hard to tell whether it was as thanks for their final grades or in spite of them. Going out with some of my students in the past was nothing new. I had been to more than a few dinners with students and had done karaoke on a few occasions over the course of the past four months. Even during H1N1 and the campus lock-down, we still managed to find a way out. Though SAU is contained within a gigantic wall (like all but two universities in all of China), elsewhere on campus, other loopholes were found. Graduate students were able to climb over shorter sections of the wall and exploit the long section of gravel and trash on the far side of campus that eventually emptied out onto street level. We even helped to aid and abet Chinese friends by physically belaying them over the wall ourselves.
The entire class managed to squeeze in together at one table during my second banquet.
What was different about the end-of-semester banquets, though, was that it was not simply a handful of students that I would be eating with, but an entire class of 35. In each case, students rented out space in a restaurant for the evening and financed the entire operation themselves. There was more food and drink available than I ever thought possible—indeed, fitting well with the Chinese saying of “eat well, drink well.” It felt incredibly odd to be such a celebrated guest, but it may very well be the only time in my life when, upon my arrival, an entire roomful of people stands up and cheers for me before ushering me into the vacant seat at the head of the table. Being as naive to the situation as I was, I agreed to having the banquets on three back-to-back days over the weekend. Each night started out simple enough with the lot of us eating, laughing, and reminiscing in English and Chinese, but it wasn't long before things got a little dicey, and I quickly realized the ulterior motive of the Chinese banquet—to get the guest-of-honor as wasted as humanly possible. In all three cases, that person was me.
I never anticipated that as a teacher I would be getting drunk with my students, but custom dictated that it was actually disrespectful if I didn't cheers with each of them. At first, we started out with short glasses of beer, but when the beer ran out, we started using bai jiu, the toxic fire liquor that I have become all too familiar with since coming to China. Though my tolerance has improved in China largely because of the heavy drinking culture, I was still in no shape to handle more than 20 shots of 40-proof alcohol over a two-hour dinner, despite how much food I was eating. But try as I might, I couldn't bring myself to refuse since that would make my students lose face. As a result, I did the best that I could, and in most cases, stopped myself at the ultimate extent of my limit. But that wasn't before my students got me to sing both the theme song to Titanic and the first two verses of Biz Markie's “Just a Friend” (before I forgot the rest of the words). Luckily it wasn't just me—when Chinese people get drunk, they sing, and a few of my braver students went on to garner rave applause. At the end of each night—and despite how well-meaning my students were for wanting fun and revelry—for three-nights-in-a-row, I ended up stumbling home more drunk than I'd ever thought possible, having a date with the porcelain goddess, and immediately passing out on my bed. My liver had never more strongly longed to secede from my body. To my students, you might call it a success, but not if you were the expensive dinners that kept getting expelled from my stomach. Still, all of this was just practice. Now that I know the score, the real test will be how well I fare come the end of Semester Two as a teacher at SAU.