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The Slippery Slope of English Teaching


The seminar on working abroad was going quite well. Brothers and sisters from all over the globe shared how God was using and teaching them in their corner of his world. I was encouraged and challenged as I saw all the molds being broken.

One night the speaker discussed comfort zones and getting out into the new culture. Learn the language! Eat the local food! Do not isolate yourself in a foreign ghetto.

I was only half listening as I thought “Yes, of course. Right.” But then he gave a warning. Be careful of the English teaching world, he advised. It can be a slippery slope into isolation; a wall separating you from the culture, a barrier to learning language. Was he describing eight years of my life? I admit I walked to my car thinking, he has a point but . . .

English teaching has been the lens through which I have seen three Asian countries. My position in the classroom has given me a place on campus and in the neighborhood that needs little explaining.

The fruit seller tells her customers, “she teaches at the university and lives in the green buildings near the #13 bus stop. She really likes apples and last week she fell on the icy steps here.”

The kite seller cheers me on when I am late for class and I’m running past her stall. She knows I have an off-campus class near her spot in the city square. One day when I had more time she asked me about my hair color. Is it natural?

My job has given me colleagues—men and women with whom, for all our differences, I have much in common. We struggle with the same challenging students and would rather teach than give tests. My office space is shared with returnees from time spent abroad. We have enjoyed comparing notes as fellow outsiders. Some now struggle with integrating new ideas with the traditional methods of their universities. We also were able to acknowledge that for every time I felt out of the loop with department announcements there were many more incidents where I was given a break never offered to them.

Teaching has brought the expected interaction between instructor and learner. Material is presented, questions are asked, pronunciation is corrected, tests are given, and grades accepted as well as challenged. But our relationship also brings students to my door for so many more reasons than disputing a grade. Many have told me their hopes and goals. Some share family issues and affairs of the heart. I have heard, “you will be happy to hear my news,” several times concerning grad school acceptance letters or speech contest awards. Others share temptations such as the lucrative business of taking tests for others. One year a group of believers refused. I was honored and humbled to hear of their bold action.

My graduate courses required me to sit in on a Chinese teacher’s class. Our long-term working arrangement made this assignment possible as well as comfortable for the two of us. I saw firsthand the differences in teaching styles that my students faced each day. My presence in the room was proof of the huge change from when I first came to China and rarely met a teacher who was willing to chat with me in English, let alone let me come into their classroom. Their lack of confidence in their English language ability made them amazingly patient with my Chinese.

Team teaching with a Chinese teacher revealed the unique skills we each brought to the classroom. Yes, I spoke English with native pronunciation; but she learned English as our students had—as a second language. She shared with me some techniques for motivation in language learning. She knew the students had little chance to speak with native speakers so told them to apply for a speech or essay contest. Perhaps this idea can be found in a book but how special to hear it from my friend’s personal experience.

Learning a second language is a great leveler; deans and administrators suddenly communicate like preschoolers. I shared that embarrassment as I struggled to use Chinese. In the classroom, I was the expert but I knew that the minute I stepped into a store or hopped in a taxi I was in their shoes, hoping I was understood.

The foreign affairs office was often the scene where a young tri-lingual interpreter met an older administrator with long ago English classes and little confidence. When the latter found his emails were misunderstood and criticized, he came to me—the foreign teacher—for editing. “I don’t want to know what I did wrong. Just make it sound right.”

Sadly, the actions of my foreign colleagues often gave me the opportunity to be different. To respect my host culture. To be quiet. To realize there are many ways to learn language. To be asked to return. “You came back! I think you like China. We are not just part of your research.”

As my students often tell me, there are two sides to every coin. Teaching could be isolating but it has drawn me into dorm rooms, family dinners, prayer groups, holiday celebrations, and staff meetings. University presidents have shared cultural insights, restaurant owners have encouraged me about my language learning, and my building manager comforted me when my mother died.

A new believer once invited my teammate and me to accompany her on a family visit. She had been our student for three years and we had watched her journey from doubting her mother’s faith to claiming it as her own.

Her mother’s first words at meeting us? “I have prayed and prayed for my daughter to meet a college graduate that was a believer. Now I meet that person. Her teacher!” I was that person! What an honor—to be her English teacher.

For a wide-ranging discussion of the opportunities and challenges of teaching in China, watch for the 2019 winter issue of ChinaSource Quarterly coming out this month.

Image credit: N Women Asia and the Pacific via Flickr.
Barbara Kindschi

Barbara Kindschi

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


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