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Same but Different

For the teacher, the year is divided neatly into semesters or terms—autumn and spring with maybe a summer session thrown in. I often use these divisions to recount my time in Asia: “First semester I taught freshmen but in 2012 a graduate class was added second term.” For many years Augusts have been spent heading east to begin a new teaching assignment. Same school and perhaps same department. Same apartment but new colleagues. Same class but new textbook. Same textbook but new school and new city. Always the intermingling of same and new.

As I sat in yet another airplane over the Pacific I reminisced about what new semesters have brought into my life. Obviously in 25 years the changes are many, but there continues to be repetition. Hopefully in these musings readers will find at least a kindred spirit and at best an encouraging word.

My first step to the front of a Chinese class was in a nippy classroom of bundled up students. I was assigned a young teacher—who would become a close friend and sister—to help interpret me to the students. I was their first up-close foreigner and all of me needed interpretation. As I left the podium and roamed the aisles I broke their mold of a teacher. When I laid my hand on their desks they jumped back. My guide told me teachers didn’t do that—least of all one with blue eyes and such white skin.

In the following class I learned that the paper strips on the windows were not decoration but served to cover the gaps and block the wind. Soon I would be joining the students mixing the flour and water and cutting the paper. Not a part of my first day’s lesson plan but explaining the procedure to me created more interaction than my “getting acquainted” activity. Nowadays this task would be unnecessary—except in remote areas—but I wonder how we teachers learn about our students’ lives today?

My next assignment was at a university that had just merged with four others to make it one of the largest in country. This political move brought with it repercussions that I discovered during my first week. Different schools had used different textbooks, had conflicting standards, and a variety of experiences with foreign teachers.

My first class of the term had students from three of the schools all in one room. It didn’t take long to feel the tension. Several girls came to me at the break and asked if I ever ate with students. It seemed like a challenge more than an invitation but I gladly made a date with them for the next day. The next day turned out to be September 12, 2001. I walked into the classroom and written across the board was “We’re so sorry, Barbara.” The girls came up after class and I told them I just didn’t feel like going out for lunch. They nodded solemnly, we agreed to a future date and by the end of the term it was a weekly appointment.

Logistical challenges of a new term make for good stories as time passes—not so much when they happen. Being given one room number or time and the students another is always funnier later. So is showing up in a room with no furniture. Or discovering the campuses of your university have three levels of technology—black boards, white boards, and smart boards. Which one will my classroom have? The first day told me.

Who one follows is no small thing in teaching. Are you coming after the wonder teacher who learned Chinese fluently, played guitar skillfully, and trained winning students in speech contests? I have. At another campus I knew before class started that I was following a runner who had brought recognition to the school in the annual sports meet. On the flip side of that scenario was the school that decided to switch classes between the foreign teachers. A group expecting me to continue with them arrives the first day to find my colleague and teammate standing before them. So many opportunities to not take oneself so seriously!

One can also follow a problem. A problem can be defined by illness, indiscretion, dishonesty, cultural inappropriateness, and misunderstandings over contracts; the list goes on and on. But the bottom line is how it affects the successor; me or maybe you.

I screamed “unfair!” (in my apartment) when I followed a problem one year and felt thrown into the foreign teacher melting pot. “We’re not all the same. I wouldn’t do that. I didn’t even know this person.”

It wasn’t to be my only time of returning to such a scenario and is hardly restricted to intercultural situations. The best word of encouragement came at a conference sponsored by my sending organization. The speaker reminded us we couldn’t undo what had been done and that words alone would never separate us from our successor. We were all foreign in our administrators’ eyes. Our job was to “clean the board.” Do my job well. Let my actions speak louder than my predecessor. Easy? Quick? What I expected? No. But isn’t it what our true Employer would want?

Exit interviews with teacher classes have shown me that the first day is much less about my lesson plan than their expectations. (Not that I shouldn’t have a plan—just puts it in perspective) They entered the room equally nervous and curious. Would they be embarrassed or able to understand me, mixed with what did I have for breakfast and could I speak any Chinese? What they had heard about me—or my predecessor—combined with what they hoped to learn.

Nothing new under the sun? Well, yes. But this new term, this group of students, this room, this textbook, and this teacher—a day that the Lord has made!

Image credit: classroom by yue via Flickr.
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Barbara Kindschi

Barbara Kindschi

Barbara Kindschi has been privileged and challenged to teach English in China, Myanmar, Laos, and most recently, Mongolia. Her classes have been filled with undergrads, professors, accountants, hotel employees, monks, government workers, and beauty pageant contestants. They continue to be both her students and teachers as she now tutors online. Barbara …View Full Bio

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