High school vs. College

As I’ve written in recent posts, I recently started teaching a class for ETP at Shida. Which means I’m officially a college professor. Immediately after graduating from college. This kind of things doesn’t fly in the United States, but here my unbelievable innate ability to speak English, along with my white skin (thanks, Eastern European Jewry!), has allowed me to effortlessly bypass the normal requirements for the job of professor – Masters’ degrees and Ph.D.’s – and jump right into the action.

Which has been gratifying, to say the least. The students I teach at ETP are quiet, attentive, engaged, and intellectually curious. They soak up information in a manner I previously, from my experiences at the middle school down the street, thought impossible; like the super-absorbent Trader Joes’ Super Amazing Kitchen Cloth (as usual, they eschew the humble simplicity of the word ‘sponge’) that my ever-thoughtful mother just sent me in a recent care package. They do their homework completely and turn it in on time. They do the readings and pepper me with questions via email and in class about new words and ideas they’ve come across. After a full week of teaching at Shida Fuzhong, its gratifying to walk into a classroom of students that actually want to learn.

I decided to teach them an Introduction to Environmental Studies course, inspired by (but taking lessons from) the eponymous course at Bowdoin, which I took the first semester of my freshman year. The course, which is supposed to introduce the freshman to the interdisciplinary nature of Environmental Studies, includes units on ecology, philosophy, and politics, each taught by a different professor. However, these units were not entirely separate, but mixed together, so that it was often unclear who was teaching the day’s course until you entered the classroom. I remember being exposed to some amazing material in the class, from Thoreau and Muir to Hardin’s classic article The Tragedy of the Commons, material which helped me further define and refine my environmental viewpoints. However, it was so jumbled together in a mixed bag of professors and course topics and differently-styled powerpoints prepared with differing degrees of ineptitude that my primary impression of the course as a whole was that of confusion.

It helps in teaching my class at ETP that I’m one (rather than three people). But I think it also helps to differentiate less between the disciplines that together constitute environmental studies than my did own teachers (who, being three people, quite necessarily had to differentiate to some extent). The course is also differently structured as it aims not only to provide an introduction to Environmental Studies but to build basic English speaking, listening, writing and reading skills for non-native speakers – many of whom started learning the language less than two years ago. I started the course by giving a brief introduction to world ecosystems and some of the basic tensions in man’s relationship to nature (illustrated through Aldo Leopold’s brilliant essay Thinking Like a Mountain), and followed this up by giving two lessons on basic ecology. This week, I’ll start talking about environmental ethics using Leopold’s The Land Ethic and, next week, selections from Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, which – as the students have studied some philosophy with Devin – promises to be interesting. Following these classes, I will devote one to two classes each to the world’s major ecosystems, talking about their ecology while discussing some of the current problems they face. For instance, for the Ocean classes I plan to have the students read a small excerpt of Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us as well as an account of an oil spill (the Gulf of Mexico, 2010? Exxon Valdez? so many to choose from!) and, with students who have never been within a thousand miles of the sea, talk about ocean ecology and coral reefs and oil spills and compare the issues facing our oceans to the ecological imbalances the students have seen in their own hometowns, in the sparse forests and vast high grasslands and sweepingly massive mountains of the Tibetan Plateau.

I’m proud that I’m able to teach this course to such motivated students, and my gratefulness to do so sinks in every Thursday at 10:15 when I hurry back from the university to teach Senior 2 class 13 at the middle school, the only class of mine whose behavior has gotten worse since the beginning of second semester. My students at Shida Fuzhong are, despite my redoubled efforts in lesson planning (I spend about two times as long per lesson this semester as before) and persistent attempts to get them engaged through games and units on such things as music, art, and crazy Japanese inventions, for the most part (with notable exceptions) still reluctant to learn. It’s hard to convince someone they want to learn if their teachers, classmates, and administrators are saying that the class doesn’t matter and should be used for relaxation rather than study (or, if for study, then for doing homework for other subjects). My students, to be fair to them, are truly driven hard; they attend class six days per week from early morning to 6pm and have large amounts of homework. But this does not excuse them for their atrocious behavior in my class, their unwillingness to do the minute amounts of homework I’ve assigned, or their generally apathetic, sometimes even mean-spirited and nasty attitude.

Which was prominently displayed in a recent episode. Last week, I got a text message from a number I didn’t recognize. “坏蛋外教” – literally, “bad egg foreign teacher.” I had a brief text exchange with the unknown student (for it only could have been a student, a suspicion that was confirmed in later texts), surprising them with the fact that I actually could speak Chinese, before I brought the matter to my friends. They suggested I call the number in class to discover the culprit, which I’ve done in all of my classes to no success. Several insulting texts later, I don’t know who it is but know there is some degree of resentment towards my presence at the front of the classroom, a foreign teacher who doesn’t let the kids play on their cell phones all class long and who actually asks for some degree of effort. I know these are the reasons I’m resented by my least favorite students because they were openly vocalized (in Chinese, which they thought I was unable to understand) at a meeting in December with class 14, Mr. Wang, and all of class 14’s various teachers. During the meeting, when Mr. Wang asked the class for comments, students told me to my face that I should be like Esme, their teacher from the previous year, who let them do their other homeworks and play on their cell phones and do other such things; that I should conduct my lessons in Chinese, that I should stop giving quizzes and tests and homework; that I should let them cheat; that I should let them do their own thing in class; basically, that I should give up and stop teaching. If anything, this strengthened my resolve to be a better and more engaging teacher this semester. I know that I’ve lost some students, but the majority of my classes are better behaved and better-connected to me than before.

This past weekend, Caroline visited us from her home in Guyuan, Ningxia province. We hadn’t seen her in months, so it was nice to spend the weekend hanging out together. We made an excursion to Ligaya and Steve’s apartment at Qinghai Daxue (which, as a university renowned for its agricultural programs, is a vast complex of massive buildings and spacious lawns strangely plopped in the middle of prime farmland in a valley 15km north of town) for brunch and an impromptu dance party, had our obligatory hotpot dinner, and went dancing at 88酒吧, Xining’s major dance club. Where, when I was dancing on a stage with Caroline to the thumping bass resonating from the speakers, being cheered by young fashionable Qinghai men and women, flush with new money and drunk from the alcohol and from spending their parents’ cash and from the presence of foreigners grinding on stage, I saw one of my senior 2 students.

The student in question is a nice guy, one of the few boys in my highest-level and best-behaved Senior 2 class (#12) who happens to be a bit behind the rest of the students in English because he arrived in Xining from Yushu at the end of December after his parents decided they were sick of living in tents. I said hello to him and expressed my surprise at seeing him; he was obviously tickled and excited by seeing a teacher out of their appropriate element (e.g. the classroom), and (I assumed) would quickly spread the news around all of my students. But, as it turned out, he didn’t.  Maybe it was because he didn’t want it known that he was out dancing, or because he saw me with non-school friends, or because he simply didn’t care. But when I arrived in school on Monday (and even teaching class today), nobody seemed to know or care. Which is great, as I don’t either, but its something that high schoolers would probably make into a big deal. Seeing your college professor at a bar or dance club is fun; you want to talk with them, hang out with them, learn from them, and be with them as people But seeing your high school teacher at such a place is a different kettle of fish. Speaking for myself, if my friends and I had seen my high school chemistry teacher dancing the night away at a Philly club, the news would have spread quickly throughout the school. I don’t think it’s a respect for privacy which has made the news seem less important here, but maybe it’s a respect for teachers, or an ignorance of my own culture – the idea that foreigners simply do things differently. Either way, I’m grateful that I haven’t been turned into a high school gossip item or scandal.

As I’m learning from teaching and living with both simultaneously, high school is truly different from college. Thank God.

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