Teaching is full of first impressions.
Students meet the teacher they’ve “heard” about. Will they agree with what they’ve heard or return to the dorm with their own story? Do they see a smiling face before them or a silly unprepared instructor?
I once taught at a university where the English majors told new students about their two foreign teachers. “One is beautiful and one is funny.” We both struggled with the pictures that had formed in their minds.
On a long bike ride one day I hurried to catch up with some equally slow students. I laughed with the other out-of-shape ladies in my group. One commented about having enjoyed my class. As I smiled she added, “and you’re really not ugly like I had been told.” My smile froze and we rode on.
On the other side of the desk? Teachers may pray to see each face in the room equally but what does that smirk mean in the second row? Was that a challenging question or just a request for clarification? Is the girl in red really rolling her eyes? Later I find out the board is so old and shiny they can’t see what I write.
Second period started well, I thought, with so many smiles and nods. I hold up the text and go over the syllabus. After class a bold boy approaches the podium, “what book will we use?” Have I really forgotten my own Chinese language class where I said “Wo neng ting dong” (I understand) to everything my teacher said to me regardless if I did or not?
Over lunch one day a group of former students was reminiscing about their first experience with a foreign teacher—me. Unlike many of today’s language students, none of these students who were teachers, deans, and administrators had had such an experience before our class. Similar conversations with undergrads brought out a list of differences in teaching styles between China and the west. Not this day. Methodology was not on their minds that first day.
I really don’t remember anything you said or did for a week. I just kept looking at your blue eyes. I was nervous about sitting at the front—you might ask me something. But I wanted to see your eyes.
I wanted to ask you what you had for breakfast.
Do you speak Chinese? Do you eat Chinese food?
I noticed your nose the first day. It’s bigger than a Chinese nose, so the bar on your glasses has a use for you. It really has no use for us.
I wasn’t sure—were you going to write a paper about us?
My colleague was in your class. She liked you. Said you had been in China for a long time.
I remember I felt like I was in my daughter’s kindergarten class. We were the little students.
I wondered how you got to class.
First impressions. What did I take away from that first day?
I was in a position to make them—deans and administrators—nervous.
Foreign teachers had used them as research subjects.
Language learning (my classroom) puts everyone back in a humbling student role.
They were concerned and curious about my daily life.
Had I made any attempt to learn of their world/language/food?
Returning to their campus/China was part of my reputation.
Walking home that day I was humbled to have seen my lesson plan in such light. Yes, there’s only one first day of class but there are many more days ahead to use what I’ve learned.
Image credit: UCL Institute of Education (IOE) via Flickr.
Barbara Kindschi has had the privilege and challenge of teaching English in six cities in China and now Myanmar and Laos. Undergrads, professors, hotel employees, monks, and beauty pageant contestants have sat in her classroom. All have been both her students and teachers. View Full Bio