Imagine my delight when I was told one of our assignments for uni is to write a minimum of 3 reflective blogs.
I’ve been given an excuse to tap away at the keys again and upload more of my rambling thoughts and feelings onto my dusty old blog.
This blog has gone from a personal venting space (a ‘let me try and sort my life/mind out’sort of thing), to somewhere for me to pass the time while I was bored sat at my desk in work, and then it became a place for me to tell the tales (and brag about) my travels around South East Asia. Well, hold onto the handlebars kids, this rollercoaster of a blog is about to take another wild turn… It’s about to become my “Academic, reflective blog”… It won’t be as interesting or as exciting as me telling you about (prepare for some more casual bragging here) that one time I rented a scooter and rode the Hai Van Pass in Vietnam, or the time I went to a questionably named festival under the Hong Kong skyline (Clockenflap, I’m talking about you)…
But, it is nice to have something that will have adapted with me and travelled through my ups and downs and twirly-whirly path of life I’ve found myself on, at the ripe old age of 25.
Anyways, I’ll quit rambling now, that’s definitely something I’m going to have to try and get better at for these posts!
Here we go, my first academic, reflective blog… enjoy!
Let me start with a genuine conversation I had with my mum and my sister:
Me: “I’m freaking out a bit! I mean, I’m going to be an actual teacher, like, I’m going to have to teach people things!”
Mum: “Why are you freaking out, you’ve done this…”
Me: “What? No I haven’t, I’ve got no experience of being a teacher, how am I supposed to handle this year?!”
Sister: “Charlie, what do you think you’ve been doing for the past year and a half…? You’ve been working at a school, TEACHING English to Chinese kids… you’re already a teacher.”
Me: “Oh… right. I mean, that didn’t count. Wait, did that count? Damn… I never thought of that.”
For my whole life, I’ve grown up saying “I’ll never be a teacher, can’t think of anything worse!”. This is basically just because I’ve seen the other side of teaching, the work and time that has to be put in, the effort and stress, the marking and paper work. My mum is an art and textiles teacher, my dad is a mechanics lecturer, my step-mum is (was: she got out!) an agricultural lecturer, and my sister is an English Literature teacher… so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when I found myself applying for ESL Teacher positions in China when my internship as a photographer was up, but I still wanted to live the crazy Chinese International lifestyle…
You ask anyone who has worked in China what they did there, and 9 times out of 10, they will say teaching. Most of the time all they need is a native speaker with an ok looking face (because you will be shoved to the front of all meetings/performances to show off to the parents; “Look parents, look how many foreigners we have, give us your money and kids!”).
When moving to China I had no teaching qualifications or experience. I’d worked at McDonalds for almost 4 years while attending college, I’d been a school’s photographer, and back in the day I was a Saturday girl at a hairdresser. That’s it.
In order for me to legally live in the country, I had to attend a week long TEFL course in Shanghai, where we were talked at for 6 days straight, drank way too much tea, and ate a ridiculous amount of food. On the 7thday, we entered the classroom to a banner congratulating us on passing the course… we hadn’t even taken the “test” yet. That’s how easy/legit this thing was.
During my 1styear in China I used my “teaching skills” only a handful of times. I ran a couple of afterschool clubs teaching the basics of photography, and created/gave a short course on photography and composition to the GCSE art students.
This was the first time I’d felt my photography skills and knowledge were challenged. What better way to put your knowledge to the test than teaching the subject ey? Thankfully, I managed just fine, and actually found myself really enjoying the process.
Fast-forward to my last year and a half in China, when I’d moved down south and taken a job as an ESL teacher for Grade 5 kids. I had no idea what the hell I was doing.
All my colleagues in my grade were fully qualified real-life teachers, with years of experience in their own home countries (New Zealand, America, England etc.). And there was me, little old Charlie Parker, completely blagging my way through meetings, lessons and Scheme of Work planning sessions. After a month or so, I finally admitted to my team that I was a fraud and had never done anything like this before… they were shocked. Which, I must admit, felt really nice! I mean, sure I was younger than them by at least 8 years, but apart from that, they thought I knew what I was doing, and was doing it well. After spilling my big bad secret, I felt more confident to ask for help, and that’s when my real learning took place. Teacher by day, student by night. I spent far too many hours watching YouTube videos, reading articles and questioning my MKOs (more knowledgeable other – a little bit of Vygotsky there for you).
So, back to why I didn’t realise teaching in China as an ESL Teacher “counted” as teaching experience… I guess I just felt like I was winging it the entire time I was there. I’d never been shown or explained how to teach, let alone teach English. The fact that I spoke the language and had the TEFL in China certificate was enough evidence the school needed that I was capable for the job. I’ll be honest, there were times when we were looking at various grammar points, and I knew for a fact that the more advanced kids in the class had a better understanding of it than me! I knew that we had to form a sentence in a certain way, because it sounded wrong if we put the noun or verb in a different place. When correcting some of the kids work, I’d ask them to look over a sentence again, and point out the mistake. They’d look at me with their big brown eyes and ask, “But why can’t we say it like that Miss Charlie?”,and my honest answer? “Erm, because it sounds wrong like that.” That’s the teacher equivalent of a parent saying: “Because I said so, that’s why!” How could I have been a real teacher if that was my answer and explanation?
I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that people who learn a language, actually have a better understanding of it than the native speakers. And I 100% agree with that statement. My co-teacher (a lovely Chinese lady), who had studied English as her 3rdlanguage at university, had a better grasp and understanding of the language than I did. Sure, I could speak faster than her, and throw in some slang words here and there. But she could tell you why the direct and indirect object of a sentence had to be in a certain order. I didn’t even know what a direct or indirect object was!
I probably shouldn’t be admitting all this, but it is a reflective blog after all, and I’m reflecting upon my time as a “teacher” prior to starting my PGCE in Further Education and Training. One benefit I did find from having slightly less knowledge of the theory side of things than my co-teacher, was that when putting together lesson plans or making PPTs (one of my all-time favourite hobbies, not even being sarcastic, who doesn’t love a good PowerPoint?!), I really did “dumb it down”, and not in a patronising way. I was able to look at the grammar point or vocabulary, and think, how would I learn this, how can I make this simple enough to make sense? Because, that’s exactly what I was having to do for myself. I have no shame in admitting I was having to research these grammar points online and look up the rules in my friends Carol Vorderman: Help your kids with Englishbook prior to the sessions.
I’m a very visual person, so I’d try to figure out ways in which to make things as easily accessible, understandable and memorable as possible, through images or diagrams. If it meant making giant posters colour coded to my PPTs, and drawing pictures of our vocabulary words all over the classroom to help the kids understand and remember the information, then so be it!
I soon became the go-to in my grade for making PPTs, posters and worksheets. I had the least experience and knowledge of the subject being taught, but because of my personal preferences in learning/understanding, I was able to make them interesting and visually appealing for the students.
I’m one of those teachers that has a stash of coloured paper scraps in a basket on my desk, just in case I think of a game or activity that might need them. I had so many hand-made envelopes on my shelf containing last minute sentence structure or grammar games I’d come up with during the sessions. I knew that my co-teacher would be drilling some of the information into them old-school style: repeat repeat repeat. So if I could make up an activity that felt like a game to the kids, yet actually tested their spelling, grammar or language structure, I felt like I was making some progress.
Towards the end of my time in China, I took a moment to reflect on how far I’ve come as a person. In my friendship group, I’ve always been known as the shy one, the quiet one, the push over, the one who would rather sit on the side-lines and never have my opinion heard, as long as I didn’t have to stand up in front of people and be seen. I would think of this, and then look at what I was doing on a daily basis. I was standing in front of a room of 26 students (sure they were kids, but still…), and basically blagging my way through a 70 minute lesson. I had to take control of the room, have my voice heard, and make decisions. 3 things that would have instilled so much terror into my 21 year-old-self. Actually, making the move to China obviously improved my confidence, but I really do think teaching is what made the biggest difference (and travelling of course. I mean, it takes some confidence to stay in a 12 bed mixed-dorm on your own in a city you’ve never stepped foot in before!).
It was this newfound confidence in myself and my abilities that allowed me and pushed me to take on the next stage in my life, the next challenge. For me, it was more terrifying to move home, back to North Wales, than it was for me to move to China in the first place. I know that doesn’t sound right, surely it must be the other way around, but nope. The thought of leaving my international life, the freedom and ease of travel, and coming home to start again in the real world, absolutely petrified me.
Coming home meant I had to face the real world, real life decisions and problems. I had to make choices about my future and what/where I wanted to be. I had another few shots at the Trainee Medical Photographerposition that forced me to start this blog way back in 2016, but yet again, that didn’t happen for me. So I was back at square 1… What did I want to do, who did I want to be?
After looking back on my time away, I realised that although I genuinely really enjoyed the teaching experience I had had, it wasn’t quite the role for me. I missed being in a creative and artistic environment. All my life I’ve been taken to galleries, spent my weekends doing crafts at home, or hanging out in my mum’s art department. When I chose to decline the offer at university for training to be a nurse, and took the alternative route of a HND in Photography. Here I was thrust into the most creative environment I’d ever experienced. There was a whole building for The Arts, and I got to go there to study, for 2 whole years. The tutors were not like any other teachers I’d had before. They wore jeans, they dropped the occasional swear word, they got excited about your work, and they had a genuine passion for their subject. It was amazing. I don’t think I’d ever put so much time, effort and work into my education before. It was a mixture of the right subject for me, but also the encouragement from the tutors, and the interest they had in our own personal practices. It completely changed my view on education, and this continued when I moved to Hereford College of Arts to complete my degree.
Having sat down and pieced together what areas I had enjoyed about my time working in China, and what I had felt was missing, my mum finally said it… “Charlie, it sounds like you’d want to work in a college.” I’d thought of being a photography or art technician before, but the hours and money are pretty crap, so I instantly dismissed the idea. She then came back to me a couple of days later; “You could always do a PGCE in further education… You wouldn’t be dealing with kids, and you could teach photography, be in a creative environment.”… Damn, now that’s an idea.
It was such an internal battle to actually allow myself to contemplate this idea. Hadn’t I sworn my whole life that I would NEVER become a teacher? Yet, apparently that’s what I’d been for a year and a half already. Would it be so bad to apply and see how it goes? Worst comes to worst, I have another qualification under my belt, I’ve educated myself some more, and I’ve taken another year out of my 20s trying to figure out what I want to do. None of those seemed like terrible things, so, I went for it.
Arriving on the course, speaking to others, and hearing about their backgrounds in education or their subjects, I felt so out of my depth. The course has such a huge mixture of people on it, from all different backgrounds and abilities, but still, I worried I’d be left behind. A lot of the people I spoke to had just finished their degree, or had done a qualification in education before. I was coming in, 4 years after finished my degree, and it was a degree in photography, not education or social sciences. Sure, I can take a nice picture for you, but can I teach? I guess they don’t expect us to be able to teach yet, that’s the whole point of this course right?
As mentioned before, my family is inundated with teachers. Well, I now have 2 of my childhood best friends who are also qualified teachers. They did their PGCE in their own personal subject areas (biology/science, and geography), and they’re finding it really hard to comprehend what this course is, and how it’s run.
They (and members of my family) ask me all the time, “So, there are about 70 people on your course?!” Yes. “So, how the hell are you all supposed to find placements?! Surely there aren’t 70 photography lecturing positions in North Wales?!”… Erm, no, I imagine there isn’t! People seem to struggle with the fact that this course is to give us the tools to teach, and to teach anything. It has nothing to do with the subject knowledge we need, that’s down to us. When I told my family and friends that I’ll be doing my placement, 3/4 hours a week, at a Chinese take-away, they looked at me so confused. “Why are you teaching photography in a take-away, and just to Chinese people? That’s weird.”
Finding and being lucky enough to have been offered this placement felt like such a relief. It felt almost like a cushiony comfort blanket, softening my landing into this big bad world of teaching. I am able to keep some connection to China and the Chinese community, but back here in Wales. I always felt terrible that I didn’t pick up much of the language while living out there, and I guess, as corny as this sounds, I feel like I’m finally able to give something back to people from the Chinese community. When living in China, I felt so welcomed and humbled by the locals. They would smile (and stare) at me on the metro, they would try and help me when I looked lost on the streets of a giant city, even if we couldn’t communicate, they did their best to make my time there easier and more comfortable. I guess I just want to be able to do the same for those who chose to come to the UK and make this their home, like I did in their home country.
Before my first session with my learners, I was, understandably, rather nervous. I’d never done this before, I’d never sat and taught people English (lies). When I thought too much about it, it really freaked me out. Especially when looking back at my classes in Guangzhou, I was responsible for 52 students English education. How was I allowed to have that sort of responsibility?! Thankfully, as soon as I arrived at the venue, was introduced to the learners (all 4 of them), and started flicking through my PPT, I relaxed into it, and realised, I can do this. And in fact, I actually enjoy doing it. It was my first-time teaching adults, so that was new. And it was also quite daunting not having a classroom set up: no massive white board for me to doodle on, no projector, no OHP, no desks or chairs even. Just me, the learners, and my laptop (and whatever worksheet I had conjured up for the session).
I had my 4thlesson with the learners yesterday, and I’m really enjoying it. Yet I’m still feeling quite overwhelmed by the responsibility. I think it’s the age-old imposter syndromerearing its ugly head again. I’m having to create my lessons and schemes of work as I go. I know, I know, that’s not how teaching should be done. But right now, I’m working week by week. I’m getting used to the learner’s pace, the way they like to be taught, the length of time needed on certain types of grammar points or vocabular they find useful. As I stated before, I’ve never been told how to teach English. I have no idea what sentence structure or grammar needs to be taught first before we can go headlong into forming and answering questions. Yet again, I find myself blagging and winging my way through it. But, I am noticing improvements in myself, my teaching, and my understanding, so that’s progress right?
I really did think I was going to be out of my depth and behind the others on the course. However, I’ve found myself remembering things from my Psychology A-Level that I’d not thought about in years and being able to apply it to theorists or case studies (mainly talking about Skinner the Rat Man, and Pavlov the Dog Dude here). Another moment I had that made me thing, actually, I might be able to handle this, and maybe do ok here, was when we walked into the SCALE up room one afternoon, sat down, and were asked to present about the laminated word on our table. Ours wasscaffolding. Now, one lad on our table started chatting about the metal stuff that goes up around your house when you’re having work done, and genuinely thought that’s what we were here to talk about. Whereas, casting my mind back to one horribly humid meeting for Grade 5, I recalled my colleague mention about needing to implement more scaffolding into our sessions for the lower levelled kids. And off I went, chunnering away about sentence structure as support and scaffolding for ESL students, giving them thebuilding blocksor foundationof the sentence, and helping them to form questions and answers with this as support. I actually sounded like I knew what I was talking about! Go me!
I’ve found myself having these mini moments (we could possibly call them threshold moments?) during lectures too. When Jo has mentioned some theories, or practices within the classroom, and they’re things I’ve been doing, either subconsciously, or just without knowing the word or phrase for them. It’s like things are all finally falling into place. I’m able to draw on my limited past experience of teaching, and relate it to what is being spoken about during lectures. I’m understanding more and more as we go along, and I’m enjoying learning about the theory side of teaching and education. Am I classed as a geekif I admit to having missed education? If so, then allow me to pop my glasses on, whack out a book on educational theories, and slap the work geek on my head, because I am so happy to be back in an educational environment and improving myself, which will hopefully allow me to assist others in their own educational journeys in the future.