Written by Tim
I have to confess something to you: I’m not good at my job. You, your classmates and my supervisors all think that I am, but you need to trust me on this. I’m not. When I think of a good ESL teacher, I think of someone who smiles most of the time. I think of a person who knows their craft and their subject matter through and through. I think of a person with patience to answer even the most basic questions about our language. I think of a person interested in helping others.
I am someone who only laughs when fat children fall down; who learned grammar from the “I’m Feeling Lucky” button on Google; who taught you how to use context to build your vocabulary only because I was so goddamned tired of
reminding you what “for instance” meant every time it came up in your textbook; who once said “I haven’t shown up to work drunk in two years” as if it were an incredible achievement.
I had selfish reasons for coming to China and weaseling into various teaching jobs and, when I first arrived, that showed. I was unknowledgeable, awkward and had no idea how to run a classroom. In the years since, I’ve gotten better.
That’s not because I learned about teaching while on the job, but rather because I learned how to cover my inadequacies and trick people into thinking I was some sort of genius.
I tell you this, Calvin, because I want you to try to understand the man I was when I stood in front of you and your classmates, and to understand who I was before I was him. I want you to know that I once cared about learning how to
better share my language and culture with my students, but I had that well-meaning naivety replaced with this industry’s cynical notion that it doesn’t matter if it’s good, as long as it looks good. Or, as an exasperated
former boss so eloquently put it: “F— teaching them ‘real English’. Make them learn the words in the book so their parents don’t complain and just make sure they have fun.” Even when I made the jump to teaching adults, I couldn’t shake the feeling that what I did ultimately didn’t matter so long as I was a shiny happy foreigner doing
my dance in front of the paying customers. Anything you may have learned from me was incidental.
This is why our “moderated group discussions” were more akin to a stand-up doing crowd work and battling hecklers. Because that was fun. This is why I would regularly waste entire classes with a topic as inane as “aliens”. Because that was fun, too. This is why, when you told me you didn’t believe in aliens because “there’s no proof that they exist,” I didn’t ask you a germane question about the value of faith in a society or about the probabilities of there being something else in the vastness of space. Instead, I shot right from the hip with “Well,there’s no proof that you’ll ever find a girlfriend, either,” because, for me, that was way more fun.
I got my laughs from your classmates who had understood my joke, but not from you. You stayed quiet for the rest of the period. I saw you maybe once or twice in the week following, but then neveragain. Maybe you just had to return
to your internship at that fancy hotel in Beijing, but I blame myself.
I had forgotten the first rule of English teaching in China: It must be fun, and I took that fun from you.
Incidentally, you did learn “real English” that evening with fifteen of your peers, but probably not in the way you would have liked. You didn’t deserve that, and I apologize.
You were a good guy and a good student, and I hope your bottomless, deep voice and your almost-Japanese politeness will take you very far in the hospitality industry and, someday, into the arms of a woman deserving of your kindness.
But most of all, I hope you were paying attention, just that one time, so that someday you can use the
only “real English” I taught you to zing someone hard and really ruin their day.