American teaching English in China

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Katie Fontes with the students she taught in China
Katie Fontes with the students she taught in China
Katie Fontes with the students she taught in China

To be perfectly honest, I signed up to teach English in China over the summer almost on a whim. I went to a presentation, sent a few emails, went through the interviewing process and I was all set. But after the whirlwind of deciding to run off to China, suddenly it dawned on me that I would be leaving for Suzhou in less than a month’s time.

At first, the realisation was slightly daunting as I wondered how I would become an authority figure to 86 bright young minds. I was tasked with teaching writing to two classes of children aged 14 to 17, all very brilliant and fascinating in their own right. Things did not begin so smoothly, however. My first day on the job will forever live on as one of the most frightening moments of my life. The level of shyness of Chinese students is unmatchable. As I tried to ask them questions and find volunteers, I was met with dead silence and the piercing stares of teenagers. I kept fearing the worst, that somehow I was hated by them all or that I wasn’t being understood, but as the days passed the barrier was broken and the classes became lively and a joy to teach.

As narcissistic as it felt, what interested them most in the beginning was learning about me: I received endless personal questions ranging from the colour of my skin to my marital status. I tried to answer all of them honestly, because I was more interested in having them find a safe space for discussion rather than building a wall between teacher and student. In return, I was just as interested in learning about them. I asked them to teach me Chinese and to discuss Chinese festivals and food. They would laugh whenever I looked confused and the naughty boys in the back would playfully mock me for my ignorance. I think they enjoyed that sense of openness, something they rarely got out of school classes during the year. The students were aching to show their own personality in their writing, and many submitted work that blew me away both in its creativity and its structure.

Teens are teens, no matter where they live. The lessons they loved most revolved around everything that we loved as high schoolers. They loved discussing their obsession with The Vampire Diaries or dissecting the lyrics of Taylor Swift songs. When they heard I was from Boston, every boy wanted me to tell them about the Celtics. There was nothing exotic about them. Sure, they also loved watching Chinese movies like Tiny Times and longed for Mid-Autumn Festival to arrive so they could eat moon cakes, but despite these minute differences the best thing I learned while in China was that they were teenagers in every way.

I still keep in contact with nearly all 86 students and I am working hard to go back to teach again someday. My experience in Suzhou was invaluable and I would encourage anyone with the drive to go out there to teach, not because teaching in foreign lands highlights differences, but because it highlights many more similarities.

Photo: Katie Fontes

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