It’s impossible to believe, but I am beginning my tenth year in China. It also means it’s my tenth year as a teacher making it the longest job I’ve ever held.
Despite that, I almost never think of myself as a teacher. When someone asks me “what do you do?” I usually say “I write,” or “I play badminton.” Only if someone asks, “what is your job?” do I fess up to being a teacher.
And when someone calls me teacher outside of class, I get all weirded out. In China it is respectful to address people by their titles and “teacher” is a very respectable job. So my Chinese friends are being polite when they say, in Chinese, “Good morning teacher,” or “Hello teacher.” But I hate it.
“No, no, no!” I say. “Call me Xiao Bing!” (My Chinese name.) I’m okay with my students calling me teacher (although most just call me Becky) but I don’t identify with the title, so I don’t want my friends outside the classroom to address me like that.
Which is not to say I don’t love my job. I really love it and I think it is the only job I could stomach doing for a decade. Every year, and every class, is always different so it doesn’t get tiring like most jobs. I have a million different lesson plans, some of which I have been doing for all 10 years, but the answers change, as does my teaching, as the years go by and the world changes.
Like I’ve written before about China’s Most Influential People list. In the past 10 years the list has changed as China has changed, and as my students get “younger and younger.” (When I started my students, who have always been in their late teens/early 20’s, were born in the 90’s. Now my students were born 99 or in the 2000’s.)Different people influence their lives now then even just a decade ago and I always find that lesson fascinating in how they answer.
Some other teaching tools have fallen to the wayside. Like, I used to have a trivia question about the quote, “life is like a box of chocolates,” but I had to give it up as today’s students aren’t as familiar with Forrest Gump as my former students were.
And English names have changed to mark the pop culture heroes of today. I used to have Allen and Kobe’s (for Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant) but now it is more James or Kevin (for LeBron James and Kevin Durant.) Although I have more and more boys choosing video game characters names then sports players which reflects their changing interests.
Girls meanwhile have gone from Rose (from Titanic) to Elena or Katherine (from Vampire Diaries) to Taylor (for Taylor Swift). If I had no access to a TV I could still follow the trends in western pop culture from their English names alone.
I’ve also had to change a few class plans as the times change. For instance I had a trivia question about “How many Star Wars films are there?” but now with the main story, and all the side stories, it is an impossible question to answer (do I count Solo and Rogue One? Or do I just count the original story line?)
And some classes have gotten depressing. I’ve taught the song “Where is the Love” by the Black Eyed Peas for years. It has great spoken English, idioms and a good message we can discuss deeply. One line talks about the KKK and I used to teach a little American history about the KKK. Now I still teach the KKK but I use current events to illustrate it. Sigh….
I’ve also noticed my students have gotten more sophisticated in the past decade. When I started mobile phones were still quite new and smart phones weren’t a thing. Once, in my second year, I got an ipod touch back in America and my students would ooh and ahh over it like it was an artifact from Atlantis. Apple wasn’t available in China at that time and my most popular class topic was “What’s on Becky’s ipod?” A class about modern music. But now all my kids have nicer phones than me, and they are more plugged into western culture and movie and music than me, and have no idea what a ipod is.
But not everything has changed. They are still shy and quiet, afraid to speak their mind freely in the beginning. I always try to make my speaking class a safe space with a lot of “you’re right!” and “Good question!” in the first few months to encourage them. But I know it won’t be until around Christmas until they really start speaking openly without fear of saying something wrong.
But I have also had the amazing privileged of seeing them grow up and get older. My first students are approaching their 30’s and getting married, having babies or being really established in their own careers. That, BY FAR, is my favorite part of the job. I consider it a real privilege that so many of my students still contact me on Teacher’s Day to chat, invite me to their wedding, or ask my advice for an English name for their newborn. And as the years have gone by I’ve had a lot of students say very sweet things to me about how influenced or changed their lives. I never expected that but it makes my job much more meaningful than I ever expected.
So I don’t know how much longer I will be a teacher. I certainly didn’t expect to be one for so long, and I can’t say with any certainty how much longer I’ll keep doing it. Since I came to China expecting to teach for 6 months to a year, and here I am a decade later, I would feel silly about making any predictions about my life because they will likely be wrong.