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Monday, October 13, 2008

Why I keep teaching (it ain't the money)

[This essay was originally posted to a blog on Weebly. In transferring it I have updated and made corrections where necessary.]

Why have I continued to teach for nearly thirty years? Hint: It's about love.

I began teaching in September of 1981. Since then, I've taught mostly English. But I've also taught biology, history, photography, Junior Great Books, religion (Christianity), religion ("Buddhism in English") and cross-cultural studies.

I've taught dozens of business and technical English classes. I've tutored English, history, biology, math, Spanish, and study skills; and I've led salons and discussions outside of class.

I have also spent two years in America as a high school dean, and four as an elementary principal; two-and-a-half as "Chief Instructor and Trainer" for the corporate training section of a commercial language school in Japan; and most recently, one as Director of Cross-Cultural Studies for a Buddhist seminary in China.

I've taught Kindergartners to twelfth-graders in America; junior high kids to 84-year-olds in Japan; and mostly college age in China (though some older students as well).

In addition to school students, I've taught engineers, nurses, monks, hotel employees, and many other working people.

And for six months, I was the one-on-one live-in tutor of an actor's high-school-aged son.

In the end what I teach is not as important as who I teach. Because early in my career, I learned that teaching is a relationship. I dislike teaching 60 students in a class that meets twice a month, because I can't get to know my students. Even in such a class, I take pictures of the students and try to get to know their names and a little about them.

So, why do I keep teaching? Just because of that human touch.

The school where I teach now is a polytechnic school. This is for students who couldn't qualify for any kind of university. (In China, students don't choose their schools or majors; they're placed by test scores.) When I first arrived at the school, an administrator told me these would be "the worst students you've ever taught."

A friend clarified, though: he said "They're really bad students, but they're really great kids."

That has generally been true.

But a few years ago, I had one of my worst classes ever. It was after lunch (usually a bad time), and the students were automotive repairs majors. That means, basically, they lacked the academic skills to place in any higher class, even within the offerings of a polytechnic school. They were disorganized, unaware, and in many cases downright lazy. Because even the simplest English was beyond most of them, to save "face" they would misbehave.

The class leader, Vincent, and a handful of others, were "great kids," though. They would often roll their eyes at the behavior of their classmates (a safe move, since only I could see it--Chinese students seldom "break ranks" and openly criticize classmates.)

For the final exam, I always take my students to another room one-by-one. The plan is: they make a statement of their choosing, and then I ask questions.

A student might say, "I went shopping last week." And then I ask, "Where did you go?" "What did you buy?" etc. Thus, they set the topic (and the tense--those who can't handle the past tense may say "I like movies" and then all the questions are in the present tense).

So, at final exam time, Vincent came in. His English was, to put it nicely, substandard. So he sat down and just stared at me for a minute. Then, struggling, he said, "James... my class... I..."

I could tell that he was trying to work up an apology. How would he put it? After a pause, he blurted: "I love you, James!" and handed me a paper flower he had made, and left.

He passed the class. And I still have the flower.

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