Thursday, October 14, 2010

Surprise! Guest blogger – Ken Dyer

I’m so lucky.  And so are you, just to let you know. 

Ken Dyer, a former MT student from the Faculty of Education at the University of Calgary, has agreed to be a guest blogger over the next few months.  Ken was in the education program in the early 2000s and since graduating, has been teaching in China.  Every summer he returns to Calgary and spends considerable time in the Doucette Library preparing new lessons for his upcoming teaching year.

Which means – Ken regales the library staff with all sorts of stories about his experiences in China, both teaching and personal, some funny, some sad and many that just leave me open-mouth and shaking my head.  It really is a different place.

This post introduces you to Ken and how he got started teaching in China.  He is willing to answer your questions, so ask away.  If you want to know about teaching in a foreign country this is your opportunity to learn more.

Unfortunately, due to filtering from the Chinese government (Ken can't access the blog directly) I will pass your questions/comments onto Ken through email and then  post his comments on the blog.  It may take a little time for you to get a response but iIt will be so worth it!

How did you end up teaching in China?

Not many people will ask this question of themselves and others, but I was recently asked this question by a friend, Tammy Flanders, at the Doucette Library.

In the past, maybe one was wanted by the law for some infraction of the rules, or they wanted to spread the “good word” to the godless people of China.  Some may have wanted to be a modern day Marco Polo, not the name calling game, but the explorer type.

When I think back to my own reasons for going to China, they certainly had nothing to do with the first two points, but a little to do with the latter.

As I recall, I had just finished my last practicum at an inner city school that made me feel more like a prison guard than a teacher, which is a bit of an exaggeration, but I do that!  It had been a rough six months, with the teaching and breaking up with a nice gal I had been seeing.  It seems I had a need to escape and a desire to explore.  It was at this moment that one Thomas Patten, a self-proclaimed expert on China, offered a “get out of teaching in Canada card” to me and three other teachers.

We, …, well, mostly Thomas, planned where we would be going, what we would be doing, and even what we should be thinking.  Thomas is a nice guy, but too controlling for my taste.  Mind you, nothing compares to the guy I roomed with for three months in China; I went from prison guard, to asylum inmate!  I am hoping to write a book about my first experiences in China and this guy will be my comic relief!

Thomas made teaching in China sound like paradise and after what I had been through, I wanted to try something different and I was up for an adventure.

We all said our good-byes to our families and boarded a plane to that mysterious country called China.  As I endured the flight, which is a really long flight, I thought about China; I really knew nothing about it but the things we all hear – it was communist, every one loved Mao, they made a lot of cheap stuff we all buy, and about Tienanmen Square.  Thomas had said one thing that really stuck in my mind: China is a paradox.  These words, I have found, are the most accurate way, I think, to describe China.  In subsequent messages you will glean the reality of those words.

When we arrived in Dalian, China I was excited and a bit apprehensive about being a teacher at a university.  Prior to that I had only taught at elementary schools.  I was certain teaching at a university would be much different than teaching kids in Canada.  For one thing, the Chinese students at university should be much taller, shouldn’t they?

I recall preparing for my first day, believing I was ready for the task, and well organized.  I walked into the room which was amazingly old fashioned; desks and chairs alike were bolted to the floor.  They were all in uniform rows: 2 chairs, space – 4 chairs, space – 2 chairs; forming rows from the front to back, no variation, it all seemed rather, …, restricted.  The walls were painted in mundane colors of green at the bottom and a dull gray at the top; when I looked at the front of the class I could easily imagine the Chinese phrase, “Long live Chairman Mao” was only one or two layers of paint below the surface.

The students entered, many with wide eyes, and the murmurs soon rose to a loud chatter, but not a word of English was spoken.  I approached the podium, and began the class.  I gave a brief introduction and asked if there were any questions.  All of the students, sat straight up and rigid as soldiers on parade, but no one said a word, no hand was raised.  I thought this odd as I was told that many of my students may have never seen a foreigner let alone had one as their teacher, so why don’t they have any questions?  So I repeated the question more slowly, and no one spoke or moved.  My heart started to beat audibly; at least I thought I could hear it pounding out the warning: “Shit! They don’t speak English at all!” 

In moments of terror and panic, I often can think clearly, which is a beautifully odd characteristic to have.  During my introduction I had noticed that one girl in the front row, who I later learned was called Zinc, was more animated than the rest of my group. So I asked her, “Do you understand me?”  There was a pause, which felt to me like a life time, but she leaned forward, and said, “Yes.”  I asked why no one asked any questions. She told me that you have to ask someone directly.  In China, at that time, students didn’t respond to general questions, you had to ask a specific student.  That all soon changed in my class, as they found their foreign teacher was nowhere as authoritative as their Chinese counter parts.

Another draconian habit was also quashed fairly soon in my class.  When students got over their fear of their foreign teacher, they would indicate their desire to ask a question, by not raising their hand as we do in the West, but rather by snapping their arm up from being flat on the desk to a rigid, L-shaped salute!  When I indicated I was ready for their question they would stand with their hands behind their backs and speak.  I informed them that the salutes were not needed, just ask and no need to stand; my listening was just as effective whether they stood or sat.

After these cursory problems were overcome, things moved happily forward, and I learned an important lesson from this experience.  Even though I was prepared to teach, I was unprepared for China.  I, naively, believed that the classroom would be the same no matter where I was.  Cultural differences did, and still prove to be extremely important when teaching, and it behooves one to learn a bit of the local culture so as not only be a good teacher, but not offend anyone unknowingly.  It is very easy to be unconsciously ethnocentric.  I’m still learning this lesson.

As an aside - if you are curious about the name Zinc, you haven’t seen anything yet. We will get into names Chinese students choose for themselves later and you will be surprised.


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