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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 18, Number 5, March 2006

On being well: China’s English-language teachers

by Julia Johnson

In July 2005, I volunteered with 40 other people from the United States, Great Britain, and Hong Kong to teach conversational English to language teachers of China through the Amity Foundation’s Summer English Program (SEP). The SEP is funded by the Chinese government and provides an opportunity for language teachers of China to improve their English speaking ability. Volunteers are organized into teams of four to six and after a three-day orientation are sent to a regional capital where they become immersed in 20 days of English instruction and Chinese culture. My team was sent to Inner Mongolia.

My participation was a milestone for Amity; it was the first time a Canadian had volunteered for the SEP in its 20-year history. Even though this was my first experience, there were many who were returning for their 2nd, 3rd, or 4th time. It seemed to be a popular activity for those who were retired. Selection to the program was based on good health and a desire to make a difference. Age and teaching experience were not limiting factors. As a result, there was a balance of volunteers ranging in age from 20 to 70, and from every walk of life.

The Chinese government, in their effort to grow economically, wants its English-language teachers to be very good at their job so more people will be able to speak the language of international business, especially with the Olympic games being held in Beijing in 2008.

For the Chinese English-language teacher, however, the issue is how to inspire students when they perceive English as a subject they must learn in order to pass. In the rural areas, the task of teaching English is even more daunting as most students will remain in the farming community, where English will not be spoken. Another issue for these teachers is their working and learning conditions. Class size ranges from 40–100 students. With large classes there is little opportunity for individuals to practise, and students, impatient with a teacher who attempts to speak English during a lesson, complain that they don’t understand what is being said. Hence, English is taught by speaking the language of the region using an English text.

If anyone needs a wellness program it is China’s English-language teacher. There is a prevalent attitude amongst them that their students are not conversant in English because they themselves lack the skill to speak English fluently. They readily accept the blame for their inadequacies stating they are lazy, unmotivated, and too shy to open their mouths to speak English. They suggest that the lack of an English-speaking environment makes it difficult for them to improve their skills. In reality, these teachers are far from lazy and unmotivated. What they are is weary. After the long hours they spend preparing their lessons and marking their students’ work, they have no time or energy to nurture their passion, which is learning the English language. However, regardless of their adverse teaching conditions, they tell you they love their students and they love what they do.

To say I learned a lot about myself and something of China, doesn’t begin to describe the impact this teaching experience had on me. I valued this educational, relational, and cultural journey not only because it was stress-free and safe, but because the work was meaningful and fulfilling. The opportunity to be immersed in a culture is a unique way to explore a new land. Much can be shared about this work, culture, and travel, but with limited space, I will say, for the purpose of this column, that personal wellness is a universal concern and needs to be our quest for the 21st Century. If you wish a conversation regarding my China experiences, I would be pleased to speak with you. For more information on this teaching opportunity, visit www.amityfoundation.org.

Julia Johnson, a learning resource teacher at Red Bluff School, in Quesnel, is a BCTF PD wellness associate and a member of the Teacher Newsmagazine Advisory board. johnsonj@abccom.bc.ca, 250-747-3650.

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