Much like the mythical phoenix, my interest in teaching English to foreign students has gone through various rebirths; it's soared, dipped (plummeted), and is currently in the process of resurrection. Similar to the myth existing cross-culturally, my teaching resurrections have been ignited and have decayed as I move across borders.
It is thanks to my experience in Shanghai that this recent insurrection blossoms. Yet, for the past few years abroad, I worked as a teacher in the Middle East, primarily Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. It was there that new challenges emptied me of any desire to continue along the well-trodden ESL path. I just about hung up my ESL-er boots.
I first set foot in the Middle East back in 2011. I had a post at a university in Riyadh teaching English to business and engineering students. What followed was a five-year stint in that region before I landed my current position here in Shanghai, where I teach Chinese students who are working hard in preparation for study in universities abroad.
There exists a bottomless gulf when comparing the teaching experiences. The comparisons are so deep and wide that I suffered a form of ESL-culture shock when I first met my students in China. After five years of rigorous daily classroom management, I arrived in Shanghai on-guard. However, Chinese students behave differently in a classroom in that they usually behave themselves. The absence of all that pointless noise has filtered out—in a strange way the echoing silence takes some getting used to.
In Saudi and Kuwait, it didn’t take long to figure out that the general apathy toward learning English has its roots in privilege, or the expectation that privilege delivers results—regardless of the actual performance.
“Err on the side of generosity,” advised our department head in a defeated tone. He was referring to how we should mark our students’ papers.
“Err on the side of generosity,” our department head said, addressing us in a defeated tone. He was referring to how we should mark our students’ papers. We obliged, knowing that to do otherwise may eventually lead to a cancelled contract. I watched students graduate from their preparatory English courses truly unprepared, having failed, only to be saved by the extremely steep grading curve.
In the car parking lots—universally dull places—I watched students roll up in the newest sports cars, off-road vehicles or expensive classics. The place dripped in profligacy. It was the closest I came to living in an ideal consumer society. And the buying didn’t stop there. It spread like a raging desert storm to blind everyone in its path.
Semiotics is a tricky business. The learning environment in the universities and technical colleges I worked at in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia had all the merits of a movie set: the buildings looked real with big, real names emboldening their entrances, senior management seemed to make genuine promises about correct practices, and professionalism was budding on every tongue; even the syllabus stank of legitimacy.
Yet, that was not the case. It was never the case. By name, anything can be everything. But the promise in words can deeply disappoint. There were days when great things said lacked any form of spine. The ESL dance macabre has many such pitfalls. It is a world built on shaky foundations. My time in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia destroyed my morale. Teaching was all classroom management with interludes—brief flashes of learning, coupled by stale resentment for the subject matter. The lack of ambition and attitude toward learning led us all into a state of futility.
This brings me back to behaviour. Thus far, I have had no real disciplinary problems in any of my classes in China. The kids are shy and willing to learn. That sense of futility is rolling off me like an early morning mist. Yes, it is a new day in my teaching journey. With less classroom management issues, teaching has become easier, and despite the tiredness due to the long hours the students study, they are receptive to the material.
These past few months in Shanghai have me in recovery position. I am seeing slow, but positive progress in my classes. I am feeling excited about my lessons again. The students are shy, but not unwilling to learn. One of my English literature teacher’s favourite quips was that the empty barrels make the most noise. Considering this now, and reflecting on my time in countries where barrels are tied into massive profit, I think of him, and find myself agreeing wholeheartedly.Add this article to your reading list