With great power comes great responsibility. As a foreign teacher in China, we don’t always have the most power considering the responsibilities we have to the education in our classrooms. We’re often seen as an additional recess by the students; a time when they get to play games and sing songs with the foreigner rather than crack the books and study relentlessly. A regular ESL class is meant to reinforce what they’re already learning rather than factor into their grades, and that lack of testing and academic pressure, along with the foreign teacher’s segregation from the school’s discipline system due to both language and position, more often than not transform our lessons into a play period for the kids to release the pressure from their other classes. A good foreign teacher knows how to work within these constraints and control their lesson with interesting content and good management, but there will inevitably be times where outside factors creep into the classroom and make our lessons impossible to control. Whether it’s a major upcoming exam, the days right before a vacation, or a full moon, there are going to be times when the students just aren’t going to cooperate no matter how alert and well prepared we are, forcing us to call on their head teachers for help in order to keep the class running even semi-smoothly. I’ve learned the hard way that using this power has a responsibility of its own, because it could very well result in several crying kids and some minor bruising.
It had been my first semester teaching in the Shenzhen public school system, and my Mandarin wasn’t anywhere near as effective as it is now. I’m not sure what had been going on outside of the classroom, but whatever it had been had transformed 6A into a circus that day. No matter what I’d done I couldn’t get the kids to stay on task, and the group work they’d been assigned had devolved into yelling and bickering. Instead of rounding the room providing feedback while the kids worked, I’d been hustling back and forth, barely keeping them in their seats as they threw things at other groups or tried to chat with friends on the other side of the room. They called my bluff when I’d threatened to get their class teacher, and I’d been left with no other choice but to actually send for him.
The short stocky science teacher had arrived at the perfect time for my language barrier and the worst time for several boys; there’d been no need to explain what was going on when they were caught red-handed trying to run back to their seats after knocking the books off of another group’s desks. He’d come prepared too, holding a flexible plastic rod similar to what people put on their lawns to organize parking without damaging the vehicles. But damn could it damage a 6th grader, and he didn’t waste any time with words or figuring out what was happening when he’d used it on them. He straight up descended on the group of boys, moving between the desks as he wailed them in their arms or backs, challenging them to stand up and run around again. Only one of the three boys didn’t cry immediately, glaring at the man defiantly before getting struck several more times and lowering his head to sob. Having accomplished what he’d come to do, their head teacher barked out a short command before giving me a nod to continue and walking out casually. I’d been left there dumb struck and slack-jawed, standing at the front of a classroom that was either sitting still as stone or sobbing silently.
Uhhh, I didn’t know he was going to do that. Seriously, I didn’t ask him to hit you. I mean, you guys weren’t THAT bad. I’d sheepishly tried to continue with the lesson, and it would’ve been hard for an onlooker to tell who was more embarrassed and shaken up by what had just went down. The kids were understandably responding like they were walking on eggshells, and go figure, the class was about as unproductive as it had been before due to their uncomfortable silence. So, uhhh, that’s why we do group work right? And with that, I awkwardly told them we’d continue the lesson next time before giving up to put a movie on. That was the last time I ever called on a male head teacher for help, continuing my teaching career with a deeper understanding of the decision Harry Truman had been forced to make.