A Less than Merry Christmas

This will be quite an auspicious post, or perhaps not, depending on your own disposition. As you may or may not now know, I am currently living in China, Shanghai to be more specific. As you may or may not know, Christmas isn’t really a holiday that is celebrated or observed out here. Strange enough as it is, that this will be my first Christmas away from home, but it’ll be in a country in which Christmas isn’t even a big deal!

There have been a few advantages to this lack of Christmas cheer however. As of yet, I haven’t suffered under the usual barrage of premature advertisements, decorations or Christmas songs. This reprieve  has been, for the most part, very welcome. Equally this year I’ll be missing out on the Christmas advert competition that annually rages between rival supermarkets. There are other advantages to being in China, the ‘Great Firewall’ has meant that I’ve not had to face the online bickering that always accompanies the months leading up to Christmas. You know the kind I’m on about, “It’s November, It’s not even close to Christmas yet!” and all the numerous and endless variances produced in a flurry without fail. Equally I haven’t been slapped in the face by the ever increasing snowball of Memes, either celebrating Christmas, denouncing it or attacking Christmas fanatics in a passively aggressive manner.

But putting these small pleasures aside, it seems many people, or at least those that I work with, imagine that this Christmas will be an entirely lacklustre affair. I myself, am pretty inclined to agree with them. The only thing providing any notion of Christmas is the plummeting daily temperature, something as I’m sure you can imagine is a bit of a mixed blessing. It also doesn’t help that, as Christmas in not a national holiday, which means we will be working on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Say what you might, but nothing says merry Christmas like presiding over a classroom or two of twenty screaming children that require your constant attention. It is likely my school will put on a Christmas event, although the exact details are unknown to me and will likely remain so until the day of, or if I’m lucky the day before. I will however be employing a slight countermeasure to this lack of cheer and festiveness by means of my Santa Claus onesie that I picked during my university years. Something small to look forward to adorning.

This year I will have to face the prospect of experiencing a very different Christmas. I won’t be sitting around the Christmas Tree joyfully exchanging gifts with my family. Before eating and drinking myself into a stupor, playing what has become the annual and sole game of Risk and generally continually eating. This year, I will, if all goes well, be spending Christmas with my Aunt and Uncle, eating what I hope will be a stupendous Christmas Dinner. But that is all yet to come. So in all, my Christmas won’t be as I’ve come to expect Christmas, a sea of red, aggressive marketing and overplayed Christmas songs. Instead it appears as though it will be a little more low key, not quite bah humbug, but definitely not Ho Ho Ho! I wonder who will be this year’s Christmas number one ……….

A Letter to Myself Five Years in the Future

I recently stumbled across this idea whilst reading from one of my subscriptions on WeChat. It caught my attention as something that might be fun to do. So rolling off of the top of my head, here we go!

 

Dear future me,

How’s it going? I can only imagine a lot has changed, or at least I hope it has, otherwise we’ve made a few poor judgements along the way. I’m very curious to see where we’ve landed, where we are living, what we are doing and who we are doing it with. Has there been love or loss? Triumphs or failures? All these questions you can answer now, its a pretty exciting thought. Five years is a long time, by then we’ll be thirty, a thought that sends a little shiver down my spine. No matter how hard I try, I can’t help but feel thirty is old. Of course in actuality, its not, but I’ve never really imagined us as being thirty! It seems almost alien.

Do we have a home? I’m pretty sure we’ll still be in China, I’m enjoying it here too much at the moment to warrant leaving. Although I can only imagine that by this time we will have explored a great deal more of it. Whilst we are on the topic of China, I truly hope we’ve pulled our socks up and mastered, or at least gotten close to mastering Mandarin, how else could we expect to survive otherwise? What’s our apartment like? Is it even an apartment that we live in? Are we alone, preferably, unless we are in one very serious relationship? Its all very much a great mystery at the moment. I’m a little jealous that you have all the answers. Although, at the same time I’m in no rush to get there.

Are we married? Marriage! What a strange idea that one is. I’ve never put much stock in it, but by the time we are thirty could that all have changed? Could we have met someone who changed that idea for us? What kind of person would it take to change that? That’s the truly fascinating conundrum. She’d have to be one hell of a woman to convince me to take that plunge. I’m beside myself with curiosity, what does she look like? But before I get to carried away, there is the very really possibility we won’t be in this position at all. Moving on!

Where are we working and who for? Have we been, at any point, struck with a life altering epiphany that has led us to say start our own business or travel the world volunteering perhaps?  Or did we just drag our heels? I hope not, I’d be awfully disappointed in us if that was the case.One thing I can almost say with a sense of almost complete certainty is that by now, we shouldn’t be teaching anymore. I do enjoy the job, but I don’t feel as though it will ever by my final career path, and being me, I’m sure will feel the same way. But again there is always that chance that we will never leave the profession, due to circumstance or maybe even a new found love for the job.

Of course everything that has been mentioned is pure speculation. But is intriguing none the well. This letter I’ve written you has been a little self centred. But we can’t go on talking about family and friends and everyone’s adventures otherwise will we have missed our own and I’ll wake up one day, a thirty year old man with a long list of stories that aren’t  my own. All I can say for now is good luck in the future, I hope we are doing well!

 

Yours Faithfully,

You.

 

Learning a New Language, and more Specifically Learning Mandarin

Collectively, I have a good few years of language learning under my belt. Not only did I naturally and instinctively learn my native language, much in the same way we all do. I also went through the British education system, meaning I studied both French and German for two years each respectively. How many words can I speak in either language? A small smattering at best. A handful of words that wouldn’t get my by in either country, shameful really, especially after so many years of such dedicated study …..

I recently began the long and winding road that is learning a new language, this time with a little more enthusiasm than I had once possessed in my school years. However this time learning a language will be slightly different. Now, as a language teacher, my views and perceptions, even my knowledge of language acquisition have grown and changed. Before, sitting in a classroom felt forced and unwanted, but I can see now what I wasted opportunity all those hours have become. Possessing any number of languages above and beyond your own is completely invaluable in all manners of your life; your personal life, employment, business and many more. Even more so as I have moved to the other side of the world, language has become ever more important in my life and in the not too distant future.

For me, as is the case for many others, obtaining a new language does not come very easily. This is for several reasons, some I believe I am not at fault for, whilst others are exactly the opposite in their nature. Firstly, in my experience, I don’t possess a head/mind for languages. Possibly an odd statement considering my current area of employment, but on the other hand teaching your own language is significantly less challenging than learning a new one. What I mean by this is that new words, for example, struggle to stick in my mind, their pronunciation and meaning are often lost to me much faster than I would like. The problem is only exacerbated when you consider how alien Mandarin appears to your tongue. Being a tonal language, again for example, the meaning of a word changes drastically depending on which of the four tones you use. Moreover Mandarin contains sounds that simply do not exist in English. This is what I find most difficult, it simply doesn’t stick. Secondly, there is almost always an overwhelming feeling of awkwardness or embarrassment when trying to speak, especially out loud to actual living people. Making mistakes is definitely a natural part of the learning process, but I really don’t enjoy making mistakes. Its these feelings I need to overcome in order to be more successful. Besides, what is the point of learning to speak a new language if you aren’t going to speak to anyone!

When you break any language down into its four main components: speaking, listening, reading and writing another great hurdle presents itself. Listening, hearing new words and questions from a native speaker, or anyone for that matter, in any manner of speed is without a doubt very difficult. You can repeat the word to yourself any number of times, but as soon as someone else mutters the word, all meaning seemingly disappears. It is certainly a challenge.

But all is not lost! There are simple remedies to these speed bumps. The predominant solution is so terribly obvious I can hear you screaming it now! Its practice. Practice, repetition and more practice, that’s all that is need, and where better to practice a language than its country of origin. Here in lies on of those problems that is self-inflicted. I don’t practice enough nor do I always practice well. Learning vocabulary by myself is an essential part of the process, but ideally I should be practicing more with Chinese nationals, the people that surround me day in and day out. I’m not completely useless in this regard, I do speak to my colleagues in broken Mandarin and they do help me along the way, but in the quest for new language I must do more!

I would like to add, as a footnote, whilst this little post may sound like I’m complaining a little too much, I’m not. I’m excited about the challenges ahead and identifying the problems I face in learning a new language is one of the best ways to over come them. To all those learning a new language, good luck out there and keep working hard.

Teaching – What I’ve Learnt so Far

It can’t be denied that teaching is a mixed bag, it can leave you exhausted and broken, or put you on a massive life high. During my brief tenure so far (the accumulated work of 6 months) I have experienced both extremes. I’ve been overjoyed by the work and progress of my students and left scrambling under the weight of my schedule (although, lucky I’ve not yet reached a point where I cannot handle it). So what has my experience taught me so far?

The Kids, my students, they come in all shapes and sizes, each one with a totally unique personality. They are the fundamental key to my profession, I wouldn’t be where I am right now if it wasn’t for them. I owe them a lot. But, like any good teacher, my focus is entirely outward facing. My job is simply to hasten the learning abilities of my students and advance their English as much as I possibly can. It’s important to me that I do a good job. Now there are people of the opinion that TEFL teachers mostly use their positions to focus on travel and other such experiences, as opposed to their actual role. In some cases, I’m sure that’s true, and in a lot of other cases I’m sure it’s not. Sweeping that all aside however, I know I feel I have to do the best job I can; as whilst I may only be a part of my students’ lives for a short time, the impact I will potentially have is much greater. Not to sounds big-headed or anything of the like, but if I can actively improve their English, then I am doing them a service.

Moving on from that minor tangent, I’ve found/ I’ve met students of all abilities, each with different strengths and weaknesses. It’s important to treat them all with the same level of patience and understanding in each area of their linguistic development. The confidence of a child is something that needs to be nurtured. If they feel humiliated, embarrassed or take any such knock, you could inadvertently shut them out of a lesson or more, if you’re not careful.

There is no one size fits all when it comes to teaching. This includes every single aspect of the profession. From lesson planning and structure, right the way down to discipline and classroom management. What might work for one individual or class could be entirely catastrophic if implemented with another. In fact, I have found the more I have taught, the broader and broader my lesson plans have actually gotten. It’s a relatively stark contrast. Throwback to when I first started and my plans were meticulous, accounting for almost every minute and describing how every and any action would be enacted. Now however, they largely consist of boxes carrying titles of the general activity I plan to do, like spelling or pronunciation practice, for example. Teaching is certainly something you grow into.

Patience is beyond a virtue when it comes to this profession. In my experience, although I’m sure this may vary from teacher to teacher, it seems you need endless volumes of the stuff, no matter the level you are teaching. Even your golden classes or favourite students can have their bad days and drive you round the bend, and yes, we have favourites, anyone who says otherwise is telling you a lie. Patience is a requirement to get through the day, to cope with the demands of your students and their parents.

Discipline is a balancing act, its like spinning a dozen plates whilst balancing on a tight rope suspended between two elephants’ trunks whilst they contend with balancing on a small circus ball (one each respectively). When it works it’s a marvel to behold, when it doesn’t, well the outcomes can be disastrous. I’ve seen kids throw their books and bags across the classroom because they can’t sit where they want or next to the person they constantly matter with. I’ve had kids cry, fight and god knows what else in my class. On the other hand I’ve had classes run like a well oiled machine, moving seamlessly from task to task, being both highly motivated and focused. I’d like to say its just the luck of the draw, and it is to an extent, but it also comes down to how well you can balance and juggle.

The solution and something else rather odd I’ve discovered, is how much you lean on what you learnt from your own teachers growing up. I’ve ended up adopting some of their methods and a favoured mentality I always admired: a fun and relaxed atmosphere, but strong and strict when needed. So far it’s guided me pretty well. But I can see some of you now, recoiling in horror at the thought of becoming anything like the teachers that used you haunt your days at school. But you’ll be surprised, when you think about it, at just how similar you are, in many ways, to the adults you grew up around.

Now this is a pretty brief run down, and I have a lot more to learn, discover and see. But after a long day of teaching, my brain is finally beginning to fail me, so I’ll leave it at this. Good luck out there!