Teach English in Shunhe Zhen - Xuzhou Shi

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I spent a semester teaching grade 4 at a high tuition private international school in the port city of Ningbo, China, about an hour by bullet train south of Shanghai. How did I get that job? I had previously been working 3 years at an American school in , Erbil, Kurdistan/Iraq. At the end of the 2014 school year the staff was evacuated when ISIS took control of Mosul less than 50 miles down the highway from us in Erbil. When we were told not to return “yet” when September rolled around, I took a permanent substitute position in Ningbo for a 4th grade teacher who had gotten pregnant over the summer and was going to remain in the states. It was an incredibly interesting experience. When I arrived in Ningbo via Hong Kong and after all the crazy paperwork and running around I had to do there for a week before getting to work, I was greeted at the school by my new class with great fanfare; as the guy who came from maybe the most dangerous place in the world at that moment. School had started a few days earlier. I arrived a couple hours late to school, right off the plane and taxi from Hong Kong, and after a greeting and talk with my new principal, escorted to my new classroom. The kids had all made cards and had welcome posters on the walls. They got themselves into a line, obviously having practiced, and introduced themselves formally to me, shaking my hand and with mostly the same greeting: “Welcome to Access, Mr. Ross. My name is…” Twelve kids, mixed evenly between boy and girls. They were so cute! The first day was mostly sitting in a circle answering their questions, telling them about my travels and where I’d taught previously, gaging the level of English as I listened to them answering my own question. We went to the playground during class hours and I introduced them to kickball – an American game similar to baseball except kicking a rubber ball rather than hitting. Of course, they loved it (although it was chaotic), and they thought I was the coolest teacher taking them out to play during class hours. It was good rapport building for Day 1. And at the end of a great Day 1 I gathered my bags and a staff member from HR took me to my apartment…on the 34the floor of a 40 story apartment building! Beilun is a wealthy district in Ningbo, which is a busy fort city of about 5 million people. My place was new, nice, and very small. The smallest apartment I’d ever seen, maybe 350-400 square feet, furnished and with silverware, pots, pans, plates, towels, etc. It had Wifi, but no Facebook, no Youtube, no Google, nor any of the social media sites I was used to. I was warned about this but thought I wouldn’t mind since I’m not a big social media or Youtube guy anyway, but when you don’t have it, you realize how much you wish you did. Everything outside was in Mandarin characters; nothing in English. Ningbo is not a tourist town and all the street signs, menus, directions, ingredients on food labels, medicines, everything was Chinese. I could read nothing unless it was an English news site on the internet, or literature from our school library. Still, although very few people at the high-end malls and stores and restaurants could speak a word of English, they were so nice and happy to meet an American and through facial gestures and pointing and body language, we could manage. About the school and the kids. None of them had a brother or sister. Their parents were paying a lot of money – I’d heard $20,000 USD – and I soon learned what the term “Tiger Mom” really meant. And I saw it first-hand. The teachers were to stay in close contact with the parents as a matter of school policy. That was never a problem since the parents had our school emails and every day was a blitz from almost all the parents, mostly the moms. I wondered what I would have done if I’d had a class of 25 kids. I could barely keep up with the 9-10 who were constantly asking me, “Why did Xi get only a 94% on his test? Is he not paying attention in class?” “What’s wrong with Lu? She reads to me her English book but does not sound fluent.” (Those parents whose English was poor would cc everything through a staff member whose job it was to interpret everything for the teachers.) The stress level of the kids throughout the school was high. It was the most concerning issue for admin and teachers. Access International Academy Ningbo (AIAN) is a small school. With 12 students I had one of the biggest classes in a K-12 campus. Yet we had two counselors who were the busiest staff on campus dealing with kids and parents freaking out because they may be struggling at something; maybe even gotten a B in a subject. I learned that parents in the community knew the grades of the other kids. The parents would compare. Their expectations were incredibly high – unrealistically high - for the kids. Besides their academic work, I think every student in my class had an after-school activity, whether it was a musical instrument, badminton (big in China), martial arts, soccer….and they were all pressured to excel there also. Teachers had training in how to talk with “Tiger Moms,” and yet we also knew that wealthy Chinese families thought we were full of it and didn’t know what we were talking about; otherwise, we wouldn’t be teachers! I felt so bad for my kids. (But they we danged good!) I was hired for the entire school year and promised a job somewhere in the school when the next year began, probably the same position as the school had not heard if the regular teacher would be coming back. However, by December I was already offered jobs in Lima, Peru, thanks to the connections I had made previously working in Peru. I did like China in many ways, but it was a no-brainer for me when I was given the choice between two of the best schools in Lima after Skype interviews. (Yes, I eventually managed to get a VPN and wiggle my way through those social media blocks.)