Saturday, November 28, 2015

I'm Not Fluff!

I know what this school hired me to do: be fluff. Panache. A bit of extra pizzazz for those studying English, and for every other student on campus who did not select English as their major. I am not expected to teach grammer, vocabulary, composition, listening, literature or anything 'official'. My Chinese counterparts are tasked with those duties. My only job is to make students talk, and occasionally correct mispronunciations. I'm pretty good at it.

Recently, our junior students – indeed English Major students all over China got their TEM-4 results. I don't know about the rest of China, but the students in my school were devastated. On our campus, only 40 students passed this career-defining exam.

Let's back up for a second. TEM-4 is, literally: Test for English Majors. Every student engaged in such studies is required to take this exam during spring semester of their sophomore year. Every October, the results are published. The prospect of testing is so daunting that everyone fairly quivers at the mere mention of that dreaded acronym. And for good reason! In the five years I've been here, I've yet to hear of a majority of students passing on the first try. Some don't pass it on the second try, either. 

Every year, when hearing the miserable outcome of this exam, I rail against the system that so poorly prepares students. Every year, I wonder: couldn't more be done to assure passing grades for the majority?

I'm not just wailing to myself or while commiserating with students so despondent they don't feel they deserve to live. Over the years I've taken this issue up with colleagues and department leadership. Until this year, I've gotten a lot of nods, hand pats, thanks for caring so much... and no changes or results. This year, I was shocked to learn nationwide test statistics: only 38% of English Major students nationwide pass TEM-4 every year!

I suppose I should be happy because our department came in at 1% point above the national average.

Does anyone else find it outrageous that, after better than 6 years of English studies, students are so unprepared for their most important exam (after the GaoKao) that more than half fail?  

I should be doing more than designing clever ways to make students talk. Sure, within the parameters I operate in the classroom, I have all kinds of opportunities to bond with my students, spot and identify at-risk kids and become more than a teacher to those who need it; I have time to tutor those who want extra help and all kinds of energy to get involved in English club activities. I feel that doesn't do much good when, year after year, kids parade through my classes with only rudimentary knowledge of English – certainly not enough to pass an exam, let alone get along in the outside world. Why console them after failure when I could help prevent failure altogether?

I want to be a 'real' teacher.

There are several problems with that, the biggest one being that the kids are not learning proper English to begin with. Intricacies such as verb tenses and punctuation seem to be ignored. They are being taught English in Chinese and never seem to get over the concept of thinking in their native tongue and translating. My choices are: discredit my colleagues' efforts and teach students the finer points of English, or ignore the problem, as I have been.

Nested inside that challenge lies another: lecturing. I do not agree that a pure lecture format is the best way to teach, but engaging students and activating recently acquired knowledge takes a level of skill I'm still working to hone. As I've never been called to actually teach anything, I'm still searching for an effective balance between imparting knowledge and providing the arena and atmosphere necessary to exercise that knowledge.

The second stumbling block is the kids themselves. When they come to our college, to one degree or another they are already lost as far as understanding English is concerned. Some hide behind shyness or seeming incomprehension, often calling on their peers to help them understand what is being said. Most never ask for any explanation or clarification. While most remain motivated as freshmen. By  sophomore year, phones and social lives dominate. Thus, the possibility of properly educating anyone dwindles.      

This year, for the first time since I've been here, Juniors are required to take Oral English. As I've already had them for their first two years, I have to come up with all new material for their third year in my class. That's one of the perks of my particular position: I have no curriculum to follow and have free reign to design any lesson I choose. My creative juices flowed, my PPT hummed, ideas so bright they popped like klieg lights... and then I found out how despondent everyone was over their TEM-4 results.

Their tears and dejection decided me. With due respect to Colleagues' efforts, this semester I've opted for lessons in verb tenses, punctuation, mood and condition sentence construction. As far as I know, Oral English plays no part in TEM-4, so I might as well use the time I have with these kids to teach them how to conjugate rather than to role play in bad English... right?

Has anyone else had this problem? How do you deal with it? How did you overcome it?   

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