Friday, November 9, 2012


While looking for English Corner in China images this came up.  So true.

I decided to give this blog one more go before making a decision to retire it or not. One or two posts a year does not constitute updating. So many things I could cover and so many pictures to share, but I figure I will explore a rather relevant issue that is work related. Recently had a work meeting and while there were other topics worth ranting about one that came up was that the lady who runs the department in a school I am teaching English as A Second Language at had the "novel" idea that the foreign teachers  need to conduct more extra curricular lessons, i.e. English Corners, the bane of every English teacher in Asia, so the students can benefit. Of course she can't speak a word of English herself and needs somebody to translate for her, but that still not mean that we can't shove more English down the throats of her bored and lazy students I guess. Why the uncharacteristic cynicism? Why the negativity? Isn't that part of my job here, to teach so much English that it is dripping out of the students ears like wax? Well yes it is my job and I have no problem with teaching to students and people who want to learn. The word there is "want" to learn. The school I teach at, a three year private school whose only criteria for entrance is whether or not the parents can pay the high tuition, simply lacks motivated students in any area, much less in foreign language. And that is okay, I accept that.But some foreign teachers here have a less jaded point of view than I do and they jumped on the idea of more English Corners (translates to me as more work and strain) and further had all sorts of ideas to make these new ECs more successful than the past ones. Somehow, I felt, that those ideas aregoing to equate to the teachers being expected to work even harder and do more than they're already doing, and boy was I right.

A teacher here began suggesting things like having the classes on the weekends, and at night, like at 8pm or so, and that the teachers can take the students to one of the local coffee houses and (yes, he suggested this) buy them coffees as they all sit in an informal atmosphere and chat away in monosyllabic English, if that much. I quickly expressed that I did not want to work on weekends or at night, and that classrooms were fine for me as a teaching environment, and that I don't think I have to spend money on students to make them come to my English Corners. In the end the one thing that really determines who will come or not is whether their master teachers or classroom monitor selected them to attend the EC for that one week.

The over worked black board syndrome. I know it well.
Did these students copy any of this?
All of these issues really gets into what are the myriad of pitfalls of of trying to teach unmotivated kids in China. Teachers (mostly foreign ones) rack their culture shocked brains trying to figure out how to keep the kids (they are all about 20 years old but the term kid is suitable) happy and entertained. As if somehow happy and entertained students learn better and more. Well, that may well be true but interestingly  all these "progressive" ideas are discarded, or never adopted at all, in the Chinese teacher's classes where teaching by rote for test preparation  is the only method employed really. To be fair the Chinese teachers are under much more pressure and classes can be as much as 80 or more students in size. This is the teaching method in China at all levels, but for some reason it cannot be in regards foreign teachers where we are supposed to give them an American style education (or western country of your choice really as in the west we all seem to learn the way). I gather from students and Chinese teachers that this western style education is one where there is no homework ever, no tests, the students go to the teacher's houses for dinner and all the teachers can sing and dance and do so in the classroom all the time. The students in the west are never bored and have all sorts of free time to hang out with friends and play video games all day and night with no effect being seen on their grades in school.

Oh God, this looks so dismal.
Go fellow ESL teacher, class will be over eventually.
Keep that happy face for a little longer.
Well there are good students of course and all that, but let me get back to English Corners and the debacle that they collectively are, and why I am utterly opposed to more and more of them here at my job. This may go on a bit so this well be part one of a series of posts and anecdotes to validate my claim. I do not think I would be alone in what my opinions of a successful English Corner should be.  At a school English Corner (not one of these public ones that are conducted in parks or coffee houses, of which I have no experience with as I have never in eight years been to one and never will) the group should be made up of students to want, nay, possess a burning passionate desire in the very core of their being, to improve their spoken English. Okay, okay, here and there you actually do have such a student or two, but one out of a hundred does not constitute a rule, but rather the exception to the rule. The students, ideally, would organize facilitate the English Corner and not only speak to the foreign teacher in English but to each other as well. They would arrive with pens and paper and questions. Oh they do have questions, all of about six or so they ask over and over; "how long since you been to China?" "do you like Chinese food?" "do you have a girlfriend/boyfriend?" "why did you come to China?" and a few more. Of course all of these can segue into real conversations, but they tend to end with your answers and then the students eyes begin to roll up into their heads like a scroll trying to remember another EC question like, "what is your favorite season?"A conversation may run like this:

Me: Anybody have any questions? (No one answers so I point at some frightened soul and make them, almost at gunpoint, ask me something.)

Student: How long since you been to China? (this is common grammatically incorrect method of asking the question.)

Me: Eight years.

Student: (Silence.)

Well, I can't tell you how many times I've had that enriching dialog. I press on for another question.

Student: Do you like Chinese food?

Me: Well, yes, most of it, but not all.

Student: (Silence.)
How long since you been to China?
 Do you like Chinese food? Can I have your QQ?
Can I go to the toilet?

At this point I am looking at the slow moving clock and sighing in panicky exasperation.  Be clear, there are people in China who can answer these questions and you can have a dialog with them. What I am talking about here are these mandatory college/university English Corners, where you tend to get a group of new faces every week except for one or two occasional motivated students every couple years. Sometimes even the regular faces are deceiving as they avoid questions or sit and talk to their friends in Chinese to the point where you to have to tell them to shut up or leave and then disrupt the atmosphere with negativity. What happens with some foreign teachers is they get into  trying to undo this Gordian knot of laziness. Yes, they proclaim, it is up to us to make them on fire for English. Yes, we can do it! We must do this and do that and blah, blah blah... and later I discover they spend an hour and a half teaching them Row Row Row Your Boat or playing Simon Says. I am not talking about 10 year olds here, I am talking about 2o year old college students. I will not do that. I will let the clock run out on the class in which I am babbling away to myself basically rather then denigrate myself having a group sing along You Are My Sunshine or play Blind Man's Bluff and then later say at a meeting  "I teach my students English, you should use my method!" And that is not to fault teachers who do this. They are basically trying to cope is all. They are signed up to do 90 minutes of something and they resort to things like this out of desperation, though they tend to gild the lily later. Be weary of teachers who always proclaim how wonderful their classes and students are and how much progress they are making. We have someone like that here now. I have spoken to some of their students before and, like most, they are unable to tell be where there hometown is or what they had dinner for last night. But maybe they have to say these things to feel good about themselves. That what they are doing may in some way better mankind as a whole. I can understand. But I don't buy any of that malarkey.

One issue here is that somehow Chinese leaders think students who come to English Corner learn more than when they are in a regular class. They do not.  I think there is even something even more simple and just administrative about it than that. It looks good on paper and on a computer screen to have these classes running in their departments. It is also a way to pad the teacher's schedule. If you are not working your full contract hours then a few English corners gets you closer to that and makes the school feel like they are not giving you free money. Reasonable really. But the only way I can have any success with a class is to have the same faces week to week. I have had really some good EC good students and tell them so. I tell them that their English is wonderful and I encourage them to please come back. "Oh yes, I will come back!" Of course I never see them again and the next week there is a group of fresh faces that were randomly selected by their Chinese master teacher (their only "real" teacher) and the monitor who shows up to make sure the other students showed up as they were told. All teachers have the same problem. And when the discussion begins what do I hear first? "How long since you been to China?"

This will be the end of part one. Expect more English Corner diatribe in the future.

Evidence you are in an English Corner in China. Brave but tired looking foreign teacher putting on a
warm smile. Looks like a nice guy. Does he deserve this?
 Over worked blackboard but no pens or paper in the student's hands.
And lots of photo op "peace signs".


piglet said...

I am not a big fan of English Corner as one always gets asked those exact same questions. With us (since we are a couple) we also get how long are you married,where you meet etc etc. BOORING.
My sympathies mate.

Bill D. Courtney said...

Yea, I can imagine. I have a Chinese wife and there is no way anymore I would want her to come to a class. The students, who never had a question in their lives for me before, suddenly can't shut with questions. All personal and even embarrassing. "Why don't you have a baby? Mixed blood is so lovely!"