How Not To Handle Your First Class.


Reading time: 15 minutes

Picking up from where I left off in my previous post, today, I will talk about how I was trained to be a teacher, and the moment you’ve been waiting for, how I finally met the elusive Dick! This post captures my first ever lesson teaching in China, so it’s focused on the topic of work, but don’t worry, for those of you not planning to work in China, it’s still a story worth reading, trust me.

If you have been following my posts, you may realise that I haven’t yet spoken about how I felt in regards to being a teacher, well, that’s because, at this point, I hadn’t even considered it. My primary focus was always on living abroad, not teaching, so I hadn’t even begun to imagine myself in a classroom. This, of course, isn’t particularly smart, but I felt at ease by the notion of teaching, because I had been told that I will be ‘fully trained’, so I knew there was nothing to worry about (I know, that’s rich coming from me).

I maintained the same strategy throughout the initial stages of coming to China, that being, ‘don’t think about it’, because I knew that if I did, my anxieties would have played a strong part in my decision making, potentially, influencing me not to even go to China. So, I opted for completely disregarding potential worry points, in hopes of it not influencing me; a champion of all philosophies!

Before I begin, let me briefly share with you some working environments where foreigners are placed when teaching in China.

Most commonly, there are the language centres, owned by private businesses, and the bigger the company, the safer and more secure your placement will be. There are also small businesses, such as the one I was employed by, who bring over foreigners on empty promises and wrong visas. These language centres are run from within privately owned buildings, rooms, or more commonly, a single apartment, in a communal building, i.e. a block of flats.

Next, you have public schools, colleges, and kindergartens, the state of course usually owns these, and the working hours are more sociable than in centres. They can also sponsor you to get a working visa, but most don’t (yeah, legit schools employ foreigners illegally).

You’re showing behind the curtain!”

Yes, I may let out some secrets occasionally, but it’s all in aid of helping those who want to live and work in China. I may be branded a traitorous expatriate, but in essence, that’s ‘kinda’ the point of this blog.  Now, with all that in mind, let us continue.

A few days into my new life, and I had accompanied Donatello to his place of work (a language centre) so that I could watch a class of his, and hopefully, learn a thing or two. I had still yet to receive any training, so I had assumed that watching his lesson would be the first stage of my ‘moulding’.

Before his class began, I sat opposite him at his desk, where he sat working on a PowerPoint (PPT) for his class later on that day. He had asked me a few basic questions on spelling and grammar, which I had just assumed he was testing me on. Half an hour or so into sitting behind his desk, Donatello’s phone rang, he communicated in Chinese, seeming very excited as if he was anticipating something big; I had assumed so, as he had a big Cheshire cat grin on his face. He turned to me and said, “Do you want a McDonalds? Our colleague is there now.

Jesus”, I had thought to myself, shaking my head in disbelief.

Fast forward to his lesson, and there I was, sat to the side with a Chinese member of staff, spectating, whilst he situated himself at the front, leaning one arm on a TV screen, looking cool, calm, and collected. The lesson was based on different weathers, and the nouns of clothing appropriate for those particular climates; and I must point out, the lesson wasn’t as bad as you probably thought I was going to say.

He demonstrated confidence and classroom manageability (bear in mind it was a class of young adults, so there isn’t much managing required), but I won’t take anything away from him, it was an enjoyable lesson, and the students seemed as if they had a good time. It is worth noting for anyone wanting to be a teacher in China, that having a good time, is more important than learning when language centres are involved (madness I know, but ‘it’s business’).

After the lesson had finished, and the students had finally left after taking pictures of us aliens, we were packing away the chairs when Donatello suddenly remembered, “you’ll be teaching tomorrow!”

I paused, holding a chair in mid-air, “what?” I questioned. 

Yes, he had just told me at 9:00 pm, that I would be teaching a lesson the very next day. Apart from watching one casual adult lesson, I had received no teachers training what so ever, and before you say anything, the lesson I was going to be teaching was a private one on one, with a child! It wasn’t as if I could apply what I had just watched to my upcoming class, that experience was not transferable to my situation, so if anything, the adult group lesson that I had just witnessed, was completely irrelevant to me.

I rushed back to my rodent infested accommodation and spent the night hunched under my hotel lamp, revising the book he had given me to teach from. My philosophy of, ‘don’t think about it’, was certainly not working at all at this point. The book had twenty-something pages, and I was told to teach from two, for an hour.

Now, one of these pages was just an entire picture, nothing else, simply just a picture, and the second page was split into two sections. The first section had five colours, and the second section had a dog with a speech bubble above it, saying, “I have…”. Now, I couldn’t, and nor can I still, make, or see any connection or relevance of this lessons continuity (*whispering from behind my hand*, “I don’t think this was a proper book”)

If you showed me this book today, or any of my other teacher friends back in China, we could all come up with a very vibrant and resource-rich lesson plan, no bother at all, but that’s because we have a lot of experience now, and know how to work around a terrible book. A few years ago, on the other hand, I had zero, zilch experience or classroom confidence to my name.

In fact, you could show me that book now, and I wouldn’t even need to write a lesson plan, but because I didn’t have the confidence or knowledge back then, I did write a lesson plan, a very extensive lesson plan, which consisted of a table, separating each part of the page, and an allocated time for each subject. This method though, I had simply copied from the internet, I had no idea how to actually execute my plan.

The next day, I arrived at the centre (getting lost on the way), and I was very nervous. I revised my plan repeatedly and kept it in my pocket so that I could whip it out as soon as I started to forget what the fu*k I was going to do; which was pretty much as soon as I put it back in my pocket!

I felt as if I was about to have my first professional bout, the build-up of anticipation for your first lesson is huge, and even though I kept telling myself, “it’s just me and some kid, if it goes wrong, just play a game, no one will know”, it really didn’t help.

As time got closer, my colleagues had asked how I felt, “nervous. I’ve never done this before”, I said in a subtle way to present my annoyance at not receiving any training prior to this.

I asked, “where am I teaching?”

And I was then taken to a room which was essentially a glass box (no exaggeration), and on being presented with this ridiculous transparent classroom, I was then told that the parents like to observe me, (yes me, not their children) the whole entire time.

To clarify, my classroom was a room made of glass walls, clear plain glass, not perforated glass, and there weren’t even any fu*cking blinds! And to add to that, the floor was badly tiled and wet from the humidity, so it felt as if I was teaching in a shower, for all to see, and that exposure, and pressure, was unbearable. If a bald man had been stood outside of this classroom, I would have thought that I was in the Crystal Maze dome!

This is something that I feel now I overlooked, considering that this classroom was merely glass walls, it’s very queer, and from my perspective, it’s really not a good idea at all when you’re trying to get a class of children to focus. But this does then coincide with what I had said earlier about language centres being ‘a business’, as the only purpose that these classrooms serve, is to market the spectacle that is ‘the foreigner’.

The fact I was teaching in a glass box, did not help my nerves because then I knew that everyone could see me, and hear me as if I was a naked David Blaine suspended above London. “What if the kid cries?” I had said jokingly, in an attempt to disguise my absolute dread and worry, and what I heard next completely shocked me, in fact, it shocked me so much, I had initially assumed it was a joke, just a really inappropriate and perverse joke.

Pull on their hair”, Donatello said secretively.

Sorry? Do what?” I questioned.

Pull on their hair, that’s what I do when no one’s looking, I pull on their hair behind the ear and they usually shut up”.

So, if they’re naughty, what then? Smash their face in?” I had thought to myself sarcastically, still unsure whether or not to call him out on it. Yes, that was the advice I was given by my colleague, in what to do if a child cries. Forget nurture and nature, this was the glass pit of child violence.

Rereading my plan once again and then forgetting it almost immediately, I entered the classroom and sat on one of two available chairs to await my student. Unfortunately, the chair happened to be a child’s chair, so I looked a little goofy with my long legs bunched together under my chin, and the backs of my hands resting on the floor, looking like a gangly white freak. I was sat next to the whiteboard, and before I was ready, a mum and her eight-year-old, shaven-headed son came through the door, and I’m not going to lie, I was very skittish (as if you’d believe me if I told you I wasn’t), but what happened next was something I’ll never forget.

The young boy was dumped into the other chair like he was a sack of sh*t, and the mother, who had ignored me without even offering a simple “ni hao“, abruptly left the classroom. Whilst the small boy sat there eyeballing me as if it were an omen for what was to come, the mum had taken a chair from outside and then brought it into the classroom, by dragging it along the tiled floor. She then sat down next to her son, pulled out her phone, and with her arm locked out straight, she began filming me, still without saying a single word (the phone couldn’t have been more than a metre from my face).

Unsure whether to start or not, I looked up for my colleague for some sort of signal, and low and behold, he was now coming in with a chair too. My eyes bulged as I was in shock and confusion, and out of sarcasm to myself, I looked out the glass again, as if to say, “anymore?”, and what do you know, another colleague was coming in just behind him with a chair dragging at her heel too!

So, there I was, me, an arm dangling alien, a staring shaved demon boy, his moviemaking mute mother, Donatello, and a Chinese member of staff, all squeezed in, like sardines in a can (except this can was see-through). It was as if this scene was not real, and in fact, we were all figments of a child’s imagination, disproportioned and strange.

I had no idea of what to do, or how to even begin a class, so I took the initiative to start by introducing myself and then asking the boy to introduce himself. As I was speaking, my two co-workers consistently interrupted, by speaking over me, pausing me, to essentially criticize what I was doing. This created the atmosphere of me looking as if I was completely new at this, yes okay, I was completely new at this, but the mum didn’t need to know that. It was as if I was on a really sh*t version of ‘Britain’s Got Talent’, except the judges weren’t letting me perform my act and kept pressing their buzzers as soon as I spoke. 

This atmosphere painted a vibrant, strikingly obvious no-nonsense picture, that I was in fact clueless. The mum had sensed it, and so did the demon… I mean the boy! 

This atmosphere was so apparent, that the mum then started to criticize me too, I couldn’t get a word in edgeways, and before I knew it, Donatello had taken over, and I sat there feeling absolutely deflated, with my already stupid chair posture, sinking further down.

The lesson had ended, and the mum had said, “I don’t want him teaching my son.

Now, I know what she said, because of my co-worker for some reason, unnecessarily translated it to me in real time, which did ‘wonders for my confidence’. This of course required some response, one that I wasn’t sure how to, so I hazard a guess and went with “shame“, in hopes that it was the right thing to say. To be fair to myself, I didn’t actually have the opportunity to find my feet.

Whilst Donatello and the mother spoke, the Chinese member of staff had asked me to play with, or ‘occupy’ the boy, so that Donatello could sell a course to the mother, with him as the boy’s teacher. Being the newbie that I was, I agreed without hesitation and encouraged the boy to follow me to the other side of the centre, giving Donatello the space I had assumed he needed.

The boy somewhat reluctantly followed me, with the aid of his mother shoeing him away with verbal abuse. I took a seat around the corner in an attempt to see if my lesson plan would of in fact worked, if I hadn’t of been interrupted in the first place.

Feeling much more at ease, I smiled at the boy and said, “Hello, I’m Lee. What’s your name?”

The boy, who was sat on the floor in front of me, looked up, and without warning, spat at me. 

As his vile saliva left his nasty little mouth, I watched his spit traject itself with purpose, as it looked as if it had enough thrust behind it to hit me in the face. But fortunately for me, being the little fu*ker he was, he hadn’t yet learnt full spitting control like many of the adults in China. His spit took a declining descent and landed on my shoe (thank God I wasn’t wearing flip-flops!)

Being the germaphobe that I am, it had nauseated and disgusted me, so much so, I wanted to take my shoe off and wipe it across his stupid, incorrectly spelt English t-shirt. But with all the ‘grooming press’ you hear about these days, and being the monstrous sh*t that he was, I really wanted to avoid any physical contact with the boy, as he’d probably say I ‘violated’ him.

I knew what I wanted to do, and it was more than pull on his bloody hair, that’s for sure!

I then felt a conflict emerge, as I felt as if my colleagues and the boy’s mother were not on my side at all, so if I did tell them what just happened, I wouldn’t be surprised if they blamed me somehow. I also thought, “if I tell them he’s just done that, will it make me look as if I have no control?”, again, another conflicting notion that was playing on my mind.

Whilst I pondered all of these issues, the boy sat before me, still eyeballing me, and as he did, I felt my teeth grit together tightly, but I remained calm, yet assertive and said, “do not spit!”, loud enough for him to hear, yet not loud enough for anyone else too.

He responded by attempting to spit again, so as quick as I could, I got up as if a wasp was buzzing around my head, and I said once again, “do not spit!”.

The boy didn’t spit, but instead, he hit me.

The situation of having to discipline a child in front of their parent, is awkward, very awkward, especially in China, as the parents choose to not see any wrong in their children. But consider my situation, I was the newbie, I wouldn’t have just been disciplining him in front of his mother, but my colleagues also, and it may have looked as if I was just taking my anger out on him for failing in the lesson.

I looked around the corner, hoping that Donatello was nearly finished with the cacodemons mother, but unfortunately, they seemed to be engaged in frivolous babble. Looking back at the boy, he was then buried behind the reception desk, touching and medalling with company paperwork and supplies, like a racoon in the trash.

Having no time for his capricious conduct, and seriously lacking in patience, I limped over to him and picked him up with my arms out straight for fear of him spitting again, and without saying a word, I put him down on the nearest chair as quickly as I could. It was as if I was holding an old pissing dog, wincing, and ‘grossed out’ by its ‘disgustingness’.

I was sure that the boy had never received that kind of nonverbal discipline, as he sat in total disbelief, that I, the funny foreign clown had the audacity to ‘manhandle’ him. Well, my moment wasn’t over, whilst maintaining eye contact with him, I pointed to the spit on my shoe, picked up his backpack and wiped it across my foot, without saying a single word.

Yes, I settled for a slightly less interactive approach, as his bag was not on his person. Before you condemn me, if you think about it, it’s a good lesson to be had. But of course, this was a child, the only thoughts he had were, ‘spitting’, ‘pooing’ and ‘eating’, like a camel. Oh, and “I want, I want“, so more like a spoilt camel then.

To be frank, I suspect this really wasn’t the first time he had done it, and his intrusively rude mother should have done something about it a long time ago. Clearly, though, this boy was having one on one lessons for a reason, and in a strange way, it made me feel a little better about the lesson going badly, as I knew then that it wasn’t entirely my fault.

Once Donatello had finished, I took myself to the staff offices (which were also glass rooms), and the Chinese member of staff that had joined my lesson, followed me in, to what I had assumed, give me some helpful feedback on my class. But of course, she didn’t, in fact, she started with, “that was not good, very bad, terrible, poor”, essentially just listing as many negative adjectives as she could. So, I knew from the word go that this chat wasn’t going to be a ‘helpful critique’.

I wasn’t angry because I disagreed with her, because she was right, it was awful, I was angry because I felt as if they should have taken my performance as a reflection of their teacher’s training, and their lack of notification for an upcoming lesson.

With nothing left for me to do, I was told to go home and expect more training tomorrow morning, “great”, I had thought to myself.

Heading back, I recall the usual albatross of being heavily gawked and glared at, by every individual that I walked past.

One person though was not staring at me, a ponderously sloven western man, who was walking towards me in the direction of the language centre, that I had just failed miserably at. His head was down looking at his phone, completely oblivious to his surroundings, just unconsciously directing himself through the maze of human traffic that blockaded the street. My attention was drawn to him because, like me, he stood out because he was western.

As I noticed him, he looked up and noticed me too. His face projected a blend of shock and surprise, he then sped up and approached me, with one hand holding the shoulder strap of his rucksack, and one hand clutching his phone, he said nervously, “Hello Lee, how’re you?”, he knew me somehow, or at least, he recognized me.

As for me, I was adamant that I had never met this man before, but what I did recognise, was his accent, his thick Scottish accent; he then asked me, “how are you enjoying China so far?”, of course, it was him, it was Dick. There he was, the man who had given me employment, enabling me to start a new life, the man who had invited me to fly halfway around the world and had yet to even arrange to meet with me.

I felt taken back by his casual approach, as I expected some explanation or reason as to why I hadn’t met him yet, or why he didn’t meet me at the airport, or in fact, why I wasn’t staying in this apparent flat with other teachers. I responded to his question with a concise, “difficult, but I like it”.

And before I could pronounce the ‘t’ in “it“, he responded in a hurry with, “that’s great, I’ll see you soon”, clearly not interested in anything I had to say, or so I thought.  

And just like that, he had brushed past my shoulder, and blended into the crowd of people walking past me. I wouldn’t see Dick again for at least another few weeks, during which time, he had told me via email that I was to find my own apartment as soon as possible.

I stood for a moment before continuing on home, considering what had just happened. Yes, it was strange that he didn’t engage in much conversation, considering that he was my boss, but, “maybe he was busy“, I had thought, trying to make sense of it, justifying his apathy.

Then again, he never looked me in the eye once, in fact, when he spoke to me, he kept scratching his forearm and looking at the ground. He was twitchy and his voice was broken, it was as if he was riddled with an inhibited demur and overwhelming shyness.

His behaviour was that of a man who was immensely nervous, or more worryingly, the behaviour of a man who was guilty. Maybe it was because of the fact I was cast aside in some squalid hotel, or maybe… he knew something about me, that I didn’t.


5 thoughts on “How Not To Handle Your First Class.

  1. beetleypete says:

    I really enjoyed this. I went to China in 2000, to stay with an old friend who was working in Beijing. He was an advertising executive for Audi Cars, and living in an expensive luxury flat in the centre,( just down from Tiananmen Square) with his wife and young son. He had already been there for two years, and when he picked me up at the airport, he described his feelings to me during the trip into the city. “They are all pigs, these Chinese. They need western expertise, but resent having to, and they look at me like I’m a f******g zoo animal. Oh, and they all spit. Spitting, ignorant pigs. But some of the girls in my office are nice, and they are ‘up for it’ too”.
    He was very ‘ex-pat’ as you can tell, having previously worked for ten years in Oman and Dubai.
    I left three weeks later, with a different opinion of the Chinese I had met. But he was right about one thing. They all spit.
    Thanks for following my blog, which is much appreciated.
    Best wishes, Pete.


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