Challenges In The Classroom: What I’m Learning By Teaching Children

“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”

— William Arthur Ward

Nostalgia occurs every day

Being a teacher (lǎoshī/老师) in China is the most challenging job I’ve had thus far. I’ve been entrusted with helping educate young children with a foreign language and it’s my first time ever being in an official teaching position. Reflecting on these past two months of teaching, I’ve frequently found myself reminiscing over memories of my own childhood.

I’ve been thinking of who were my favorite teachers and why. Why did I enjoy math during the 5th grade so much? Was it because of my teacher’s apparent enthusiasm in the subject? His constant belief that his students weren’t being pushed hard enough, that he believed in us so much? Or was it because he was so funny? And these questions come up with various other teachers and professors I had in high school and in college.

All of the classes that I enjoyed had someone who wasn’t speaking down at us from some high pedestal. They were speaking with us, perhaps with a hope that they could learn more about the very subject they were teaching from the questions that their students were asking them.

They weren’t just doing their job, they were good company. They could talk about how their morning commute was on the way to school and you would be enthralled with every detail because that’s how they received your own words when you were trying to unpack a difficult concept. I believe the common thread amongst all good teachers is that they made learning enjoyable.

With that being said, creating a vision of what a good teacher is and manifesting that vision in the classroom are two entirely different tasks.

My new challenge: Learning how to entertain kids

Keeping a child focused in a classroom isn’t something you can study in a book. Even with the training given to us when we arrived in China, I still struggle with my new profession. I personally have zero experience in teaching children, so this new profession is often both exciting and stress-inducing.

I’m learning new skills every day, one of the many being how to entertain. I’ve been learning how to be an entertainer ever since I’ve been playing guitar in high school. Studying music in college helped me become comfortable performing in front of people but, kids can be the harshest of critics. Have you ever had a child blatantly roll their eyes in front of your face for every little thing you say? Or have a kid scream for twenty minutes straight because you scare the living daylights out of them? Children teach you that you can’t control other people’s emotions or reactions they have towards you, you can only control your own and go with the flow. Without a deep sense of equanimity and focus on what has to be achieved, the classroom will never be a productive place.

For some of my students I’m the first foreign teacher some of these kids ever encounter. Some of them start their education at my school at the age of three, others at the age of four or five and they haven’t even begun their public education yet. And no amount of preparation before a lesson can account for what a three-year-old will do in a classroom. Children teach you to be comfortable adapting to chaos.

Simplifying my language, engaging with shy students, not being afraid to be stern for classroom management, and trying not to get them to simply recite what I am saying is just a small portion of the challenges I am facing. I notice that if you aren’t deliberate in achieving the goal of teaching them, they lose interest immediately. If I simply have them try to repeat my speech, they stare blankly at my lips and some stop speaking if I only mouth the syllables. Teaching English to pre-K and kindergarten level students is more than just having them learn new words – I’m teaching children the foundations of how to learn. This wasn’t something I prepared for going into this profession but, now that I know this I’m even more excited about what I will be doing about the coming months.

I’m beginning to see some of my own strengths as a teacher. I believe that my kindness is one of my most redeeming factors. Although this is an impediment when it comes to keeping rowdy students in check, shy students have slowly but surely become more responsive to me over time. I also try my best to be as engaging as possible, I don’t want my students sitting in their chairs for every forty minute lesson I have with them. If they are not having fun with me while I teach, they won’t ever look forward to the experience of learning. After a while their boredom can affect me and the last thing I want is to be bored teaching them. It’s not only my job to teach them English, it’s also my job to make them want to learn.

Related: ¿Being Bilingual: Navigating The World With Two Identities?

Present, Practice, & Produce

Another teaching goal that I have as an English as a Foreign Language instructor is ensuring that my students not only produce the English language but, that they also understand new and old concepts about the world in English. Anyone can recite words they hear from someone else, however one doesn’t effectively learn the words they are saying by merely parroting them. They will remain sounds that they can vocalize and nothing more. The end goal should be enhancing their ability to create meaningful conversations with others. Careful consideration must be put into the context and the content used to present new words — when the goal is effective teaching.

I’ve found that no amount of practice without the proper demonstration/presentation of the word will help them produce it on their own. Reflecting on my current journey in increasing my proficiency with Spanish, exposure to a language isn’t enough to help me use it. We have to feel as if the words we are using in a new language is a part of us — it is only when we identify with the words we are using that we can begin to use them comfortably. Having the children describe how they feel, what they like and don’t like, and what they did over the weekend are some discussion topics I have leveraged so far. I am also attempting to have them speak to each other in English, although this task in and of itself is extremely difficult since they immediately default to their native tongue whenever I’m not monitoring them.

Insofar as my current experience has allowed me to see, all children learn differently. However, the practical application of such an obvious statement isn’t as apparent as one might think.

Related: Perfect Practice Makes Perfect vs Practice Makes Perfect

A child’s development is extremely complex

The first four years of a child’s development is vital for building neural pathways in the brain. During the initial stages of my training we went over the theories proposed by Jean Piaget on child psychology and child development. Simply reviewing his Wikipedia has shown me how complex a child’s mind can be and how that complexity differs throughout their formative years.

Children at the age of three to five years old differ drastically in their educational needs and in their personality traits as compared to children ages six to nine. There has to be a constant balance of teaching the content designed for the lesson and being creative in how said content is delivered. Although there has been extensive research done on how to teach mathematics, manners, science, world culture, music, art, and various other subjects within the context of English language education – certain topics will be too difficult to grasp if a child’s individual needs aren’t taken into account. Even with all the lesson preparation done beforehand, if the particular student’s needs aren’t also considered then everyone’s time will be wasted. Besides one can never truly plan a lesson in which everything goes “according to the script”.

And that’s where my final challenge lies. In the year that follows, I’m going to be tasked with not only teaching my students English but, also with providing them a foundation in which they can see their own progress in learning various subjects. I believe that the earlier we are able to see the fruits of our own labor from within the classroom setting, the faster we can begin to optimize our own self-education and take responsibility for it. This is what I believe is the ultimate goal of teaching. The students shouldn’t be merely reciting new words but, learning how to have conversations about topics that interest them. Learning how to develop a curiosity of the world, utilizing multiple languages.

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