On Teaching

Education is the most valuable tool we have access to.

I have long believed this. But for a huge portion of my life, I didn’t understand the impact this belief should have on my working life. My own education is my most valuable asset. It anchors me, allows me my freedom and never stops growing. Why did it take me so long to begin sharing that passion with a captive audience?

Undergraduate students Andy, Abner, Christina and IUndergraduate students Andy, Abner, Christina and I

Two weeks ago, upon absent-mindedly checking my university emails, I was surprised to see an email with the subject line:

FAIL IN THE FINAL EXAM?!

I was mortified. I had managed to award one of my most promising undergraduate students with a big fat zero for both of her final exams. I burst into tears. Frantically, I riffled through my notes until I discovered how the error had occurred.

Solving the problem was complicated but I managed it before the end of the term, receiving an email just a week later from that unlucky student, who was overjoyed at seeing her true results on the official system. My prompt actions may have improved her chances at changing her major from English to Physics (though I will be sad to see her go).

Beside my frustration at both myself and the chaos that is the university grading system (bearing in mind that frustration is an almost daily emotion while living in China), I felt two things:

A profound sense of responsibility for my students

Overwhelming delight at being a teacher (and an appreciated one at that)!

I never imagined myself as a teacher. The truth is, I always refused the idea. When I was a student, telling new people I was doing a drama degree was often met with an initial reaction something like this:

“Drama? So you want to be an actor?”

“No.”

“Oh, right. You want to be a teacher.”

I reckon the student demographic surrounded with the most (and most often incorrect) stereotypes is Theatre students. (We’re all flamboyant, pretentious, lazy and haven’t a hope in hell of a decent job after graduation… which is why we will all resort to becoming the quintessential eccentric high school drama teacher.) And of course, we were all trying our damnedest to break from those stereotypes and prove we have unique (if theatrical) individual personalities.

Teaching was (and is) so often treated as a cop-out, the easy option. “If you can’t do, teach.” I wanted so badly to ‘do’ something, and do it well. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was so concerned with ‘doing’ something I only ever declared utter detest when it came to teaching.

That detest was only fuelled by meeting ex-pat teachers in Korea who proudly proclaimed they didn’t have any relevant qualifications, didn’t make any effort to learn or speak Korean and didn’t show any concern whatsoever about their students’ education or about doing their job well. I distinctly remember one teacher in her thirties (and possibly a little drunk at the time) declaring that her life in Seoul was like constantly being on Spring Break.

When a good friend announced she would be doing a PGCE after she graduated, I quietly thought it was a cop-out move and that she simply didn’t know what else to do (how very prejudiced of me). I had no idea that teaching had been her ambition since before we met. A year later, listening to her talk about the challenges of teaching 14 year old students in the UK, I wasn’t jealous of the difficulties her job posed, but inspired by her joy at overcoming them. I seem to remember her shedding a tear of determination as she recounted the progress she’d made, and feeling an empathetic lump form in my throat.

Yet another 6 months later, confused that my 40-hour weeks spent staring at a computer screen in a North London office weren’t satisfying me, I finally began to reconsider my position. Having decided that my future lay in East Asia but owning little money to get me there, I applied for my first serious teaching job. I realised I had perhaps seen a less desirable side of ex-pat teachers in Seoul and that I could make the simple choice never to be a teacher like that. I put my priorities straight, got myself a teaching qualification and booked a flight. I would be a “Foreign Expert”, teaching English.

After my first term as a Professor in China, I see how much of a good choice this was for me. There are daily challenges to this job. There is learning to be done, relationships to build and a tonne of responsibility. What I do five days a week affects the future of 85 students at various points in their university education. I try to be a good role model, provide inspiration and challenge them. I am their primary source of non-Chinese opinions and ideas. My relationship with my students is extremely satisfying. They surprise and delight me in almost every class. In the final weeks of term, I left every single class with a huge grin on my face, declaring to the cold Beijing sky “I love being a teacher!” Between getting cards, emails, requests for help and being given apples on Christmas Eve, I can only guess that they like me, too.

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