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JISHOU, HUNAN — I’ve been busy these last few days getting ready to close up shop for the Winter Holiday. My last exam — for the Western Civ classes — is next Friday, and I’ll have a week to read those exams and hand in grades before I jet to the USA for a three-week stay.

My free time, which is not that ample to begin with, has been taken up by giving oral examinations to more than 120 freshmen and sophomores, two at a time for 15 minutes each. This year, I’m using a combination of the Cambridge IELTS and BEC speaking tests: IELTS prompts for two student partners. That way, the students can do the talking while I carefully listen and evaluate pronunciation, intonation, grammar, vocabulary, rhythm and speed. After two years, I’m finally getting a handle on this oral English stuff.

I’m calculating those students’ final grades this weekend (I only have a few left to examine), so the remaining Big Tasks are (1) reading the Western Civ students’ last unit test and (2) reading their final exams. I included a short essay on the final, and I gave them the three possible essay questions earlier this month, so I expect to do a lot of reading after Jan. 7.

Yesterday, we got our teaching assignments for the spring term. I will keep the sophomore oral English students, but had to give up the freshmen to another teacher. I had lobbied hard to teach the British literature survey course to the juniors. It was only the second chance in my teaching career to use my bachelor’s degree in Comparative Lit. The first chance was about 25 years ago, and it fizzled.

Anyway, I got my wish, and I will teach the same students academic writing, which is another term for “research paper.” We started doing research papers last spring. They had to write 800 to 1,000 words on their hometowns. The results were so-so, but only a few papers were truly abysmal. Next term, I’m planning on giving them something meatier to write, and requiring multiple drafts. These students all have to write a graduation paper of about 4,000 to 5,000 words, so the college hopes I can get them in shape for it.

While I am a little unhappy at losing the freshmen (I’ve almost learned all their names!), I will have the opportunity to continue teaching the class of 2012. This is the third year I’ve taught them, and I’ve grown really fond of them all. Whether they will be fond of me after I assign them multiple essays next term remains to be seen.

As I have mentioned before (I think), I am an anomaly among the foreign teachers who have taught here. Most rarely stay more than a year, and move on. While being a tumbleweed is perhaps good for the teacher, it really sucks for the students. Each year, they get a new teacher who has no idea what they learned before, and quite likely has never taught ESL before. So, they often end up learning the same things over and over, making little progress. Several of last year’s graduates have shared their frustrations with me about this pattern. They really want to learn more about English, especially the speaking part, but getting a new teacher each year is inefficient, to say the least.

Tumbleweeds cannot develop deep and lasting bonds with students as easily. I don’t mean friendship per se, although that can certainly happen. I’m referring to the special relationship that develops between a dedicated teacher and his or her students, a relationship that lies somewhere in the murky waters amidst friendship, mentorship, parent-child, boss-employee, and superior-inferior. A really good teacher connects with the students on a personal or perhaps a visceral level. Maybe he or she cannot bond with every single student, but the teacher can connect with each class, and size it up to find its strengths and weaknesses. I suggest that tumbleweeds, knowing they will be gone by the end of the school year, avoid creating such links because of the inevitable pain of separation when they leave.

So, transient teachers, unless they are extraordinarily gifted, are not very effective. Knowing the students’ abilities, motivations and learning styles enables a teacher to adapt his or her teaching strategy to their needs. Without some sort of continuity, those kinds of master teaching plans are just not going to happen. The students get short-changed again.

Yeah, I am talking like a high school teacher here. Old habits are hard to break, especially now that I’m teaching in China. Although I am teaching at a university, it feels like high school. Students move from classroom to classroom as a group. The juniors I have now in Western Civ will be the same students I will have next year for writing and Brit Lit. It’s not the usual professor-student routine of American colleges. So, the teacher-student bonding I’m talking about is appropriate for the occasion.

Does this mean I have stayed here because of my lofty ideals? Sorry to disappoint, but that has not been my primary motivation. Surely, it’s been in the back of my mind, because teaching is my profession, but mostly I have selfish reasons for staying. I really like it here. That, and I hate moving. Besides, there are no compelling reasons for me to leave. So, why not stay? It’s good for me. It’s good for the students. Everyone wins. Yay!

As for teaching Brit Lit, I am psyched. I have wanted to teach a lit class for 27 years, but physics teachers seldom get a chance, even ones with Comp Lit degrees. It’ll be a one-term survey course, so we’re not going to able to delve deeply into many works, but many of the students have read Dickens, Austen, the Brontës and Defoe, among others, so we’re at least not starting from scratch. I hoping to have each student pick one work as their own for the term, and write about it (St. Francis sketchbook entries — Wyverns know what I mean!) as they read it. The final assessment will include an essay exploring that work, perhaps including a report to the class somehow. At least, that’s what I’m considering now.

And, since I am also teaching them academic writing, I might tie the two course objectives together, and have them research the book and author they have chosen as their “baby.” We weren’t able to explore literary analysis in their previous writing classes, so this is a good opportunity. It could be fun. Well, that’s what I’m saying now, anyway. I have 92 juniors to teach formal writing and literature to. It’ll be fun until I have to read what they’ve done, I suppose.

I’ve had a very good year. “The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades.” I hope the same is true for all of you. Happy New Year! 元旦快乐!(yuan dan kuaile)

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* Unless I feel especially inspired between now (6:41 pm China Time) and midnight.

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