ESL Teacher Life

{at a local high school in ShenZhen, China}

If I had my way with blog post titles, they'd always be ridiculously long. Today we're back to #ChinaLife. The other Rachael will be talking a little bit about her job working in a private international school in ShangHai. I'm talking about what working life looks like for us these days.

{sometimes we take pictures of each other in our work clothes while waiting for our bus}

We both teach conversational English classes at a local high school. Our high school has about 3,000 live-in students, which means that as far as student population goes, it's 3/4ths the size of the college we attended!

Of those 3,000 students, I teach 10 classes (each class once per week) of about 50 students each, and Angel teaches 18 classes (each class once every other week) of about 50 students each. That means that I have about 500 students and Angel has about 900 students. I teach the equivalent of 10th grade and Angel teaches the equivalent of 11th grade.

We don't have a classroom of our own--at our school, the classrooms stay with the students, so I teach in 10 different classrooms and Angel teaches in 18 different classrooms. Some of Angel's classrooms are on the 6th floor which require a long walk up, up, up! We don't have any assigned curriculum, just the mission to help our students move from the English theory classes they've been taught for years to actually being able to communicate in the English language. We create our own lessons based on what we determine are our classes' interests and greatest needs (this week's lesson in my class was on semi-advanced preposition use, Angel's lesson was on terminology used in comparing and contrasting, with the difference between Chinese and American high schools as the theme).

Besides the class schedule, we also jointly lead a weekly "English Corner." English Corner can mean many different things, in this case, it happens to mean gathering up approximately 100 11th graders outside and leading them in games that encourage English speaking, letting them interview us, or teaching them how to swing dance. Even though I'm loud, I'm usually given a loudspeaker when leading English Corner, and I feel very important when I have a loudspeaker in my hands.

Schedules don't tend to be set far in advance, so we tend to go into work with a "Be prepared at all times" mentality. The first time we led English Corner, we didn't know we were doing so until about 2 minutes before. Good thing that I have the kind of personality where I'm not flustered or stressed by that sort of thing! Also, it's a good thing that I let youth group games for years so I have a never-ending dictionary of games in my head...

Other duties generally include being the go-to English speaker for any extracurricular needs: spell-checking and editing for coworkers or students, and helping students with special projects. Angel helped one of his students create a list of interview questions to prepare for interviewing an astronaut who came to visit our school, and then acted like he was the astronaut in a mock-interview in order to give her a chance to get comfortable with the questions and format. Our ambitious students like to chat with us during class breaks to get natural conversation practice, something that is incredibly rare for them. The other day we helped brainstorm student speech topics for controversies about holidays (are holidays wasteful? over-commercialized? Should religious holidays be celebrated by people who don't share that religion?).

Probably the most challenging part of the job is designing lessons that get all 50 students involved and talking and hopefully learning and growing more comfortable in their second language. During time that I give them to work on projects in groups or pairs, I often wander the classroom to randomly ask questions of students. Sometimes when I ask a student a question, they'll say "Sorry, my English is very poor." But that's not quite good enough for me. I'll respond with a grin, "That means you need to practice your English more, right?" and I'll do what I can to keep them talking for a bit longer.

I had one of those encounters the other day with a boy who sits in the back of class and I asked him to just tell me a sentence, any sentence, that used the word however. He responded with a sentence that actually contained perfect grammar (a rarity in my grade level) and I about jumped out of my skin with congratulating him. The look of joy on his face when he said, "Really? It was correct?" was priceless.

We have a huge range of abilities among our classes. Students who can't put three-word sentences together are lumped in with students who are effectively fluent but just have large, random gaps in their vocabulary. We try our best to include all students and their levels equally in our lessons but don't always succeed.

Our students are largely well-behaved. Occasionally they try to do homework for other classes or sleep during our class, but those students are a small minority. They always greet us when they walk by in the hallways, either with a "Mrs. Rachel/Mr. Angel, Hello!" or the Mandarin "Lao Shi Hao." Sometimes they sneak their cellphone into class and ask us to please not tattle to their head teacher, but they really want to take a picture of the American teacher to send to their parents (my face is all over social media, I have no doubt of it).

Angel's claim to fame at the school is his sports interest. He plays basketball after work with our coworkers once or twice a week, and attends the students' basketball tournaments to cheer for his classes. He also, famously, walked on his hands in the introductory lesson for all of his classes, so that his students would know what kind of teacher they had. I seem to be best known for my looks (awkward). Once I was chatting with two boys and they saw Angel in the distance, asked if he was my husband, and then one told me: "Your husband is very handsome!" and the other boy added, "But you are really beautiful!" There's something about speaking a 2nd language which means that the compliments are more direct than they otherwise would be. My students aren't shy to compliment themselves, either. I had several students introduce themselves to me: "Hello, my name is...... I am a very handsome boy." I love these teens so very much.

I've read blogs before that claim that teaching ESL overseas is hard. I mentioned that to Angel and he scoffed. To be fair, he worked as a hospital nurse in a PCU unit for 5 years, so his definition of  a "hard job" might not be the same as the definition in the mind of the average liberal arts major with a brand new B.A. who wants to see the world.

This is not a hard job. You can probably already tell, it's not even a full 40 hr. per week job. It's not for everyone, but for me it's the kind of job that I can wake up excited to go to every single day. Sure, there's overarching problems with the ESL teaching system overseas. I don't like it that some of the ESL teachers I know openly state that they dislike children. I think the kids deserve better than that. I know that most of my students will never ever be 100% fluent in English. But to me, this is a very, very good job, and one I'm blessed to have for this season.

Things We See

Trying something a little different today. I like to focus more on words, because I recognize that photography isn't one of my or Angel's talents, but, recently, I feel like a lot of the little sights we see on a regular basis are so interesting, and I like to capture and remember them in mediocre photos.

 Making Powerpoints filled with faulty grammar--I will be assigning students to find what's wrong with the sentences and fix them. I'm focusing on using grammar points that my students find especially tricky.

 Dinner! The huge cabbage dish with garlic all over it was all for me, the wonton soup was for Angel.

 A cute message that my students wrote, decorating one of the blackboards in their classroom.

 These are the bus schedules/routes, conveniently located at every bus stop. Angel commented recently, "When I first saw these, I thought it was hopeless, and I'd never be able to figure out what bus to get on. Now, it doesn't seem so bad."

Granted, most of the time he's still relying on me to figure out which bus will take us where, and when to get off, but we're both growing to understand the public transportation system better.

 Very stylish man carrying a little dog in a bag. This is pretty normal. However, one day we saw a man waiting to cross the road with a giant live turtle tied by a rope to a stick. That was interesting

Da Mei Sha
 The colorful angels of DaMeiSha, one of the most famous beaches of ShenZhen (not that ShenZhen is famous for beaches or anything, but we wanted to experience a local beach).

 It's not a pyramid or a plate, it's a food pagoda! This just really made me smile.

 Dinner at our friends' home. All this food for only 4 adults and an infant! Actually, this isn't all, there was another vegetable dish, pork soup, rice, and apples and oranges, in addition to what's pictured here: tofu, "tree ear" mushrooms, grapes, shrimp, beef, fish, and chicken.

 Chillin' at the park with the rest of the neighborhood + an inchworm.

 I'm not sure I've ever heard a better description for Jenga than "The Tower for Sociality."
I mean, I'm pretty sure sociality isn't even a word, but you know exactly what they mean, don't you?

We like to hang out in pretty places, so we see couples getting wedding photos taken quite often, but this was my first time seeing an entire group, bridesmaids and groomsmen and all!


What did you think? Is this the sort of post you'd like to see on The Random Writings, or should I stick to more words and cohesive topics?

Missing Milestones

It's my sister Lizzy's 21st birthday today!

Just hangin' out with Jerusalem back when she lived in Israel for 3 months when she was 19.

Missing milestones is a natural part of my family's lifestyle, and always will be. For me, the milestones I hate missing the most are the ones that naturally lend themselves to parties. If you know anything about me, you probably know that I like to throw a good party.

So, today, I thought I'd talk about what I'd do if I were there, with you, Lizzy, to celebrate today.

First of all, I know you'd be so happy to see me, since I've been gone for over 3 months now. Surprise!

I'd try my best to declare today a national holiday so that you didn't have to work and go to class. If I didn't succeed, I hope that at least your boss would give you a birthday cake in honor of the day.

Once all of that boring "real life" stuff was done with, we both know that birthdays require the wearing of lovely new clothes. I suggest this Modcloth dress. It's your green and I can picture you wearing it already:

And while were talking about imaginary Modcloth dresses, I might as well pick out what I'd wear for the party. What about this one? Festive and eminently suitable for the occasion. Plus, I mean, we have to look as different as humanly possible whenever we're together so that people don't confuse us:

I'd assign Isaac to making Korean dishes for dinner--bulgogi beef and kimbab especially. I don't have experience in cooking these dishes, which is why I delegate.

I'd delegate cleaning the bathrooms and vacuuming the house to Angel. He's really so good at both tasks. We can't have the birthday girl doing chores, but you have to have the house looking awesome for company.

(Because we're inviting ALL your friends over, of course, I know how important they are to you!)

I'd decorate--we'd have coordinating muddy brown napkins, burgundy paper plates, and cream-colored plastic silverware. As much as those color kill me, today is for you. I'd make up a bunch of cookies, because cookies are better than cake, and I'd set out all sorts of fixins' so that when your friends came by, everyone could decorate their own cookies with frosting and candies and sprinkles and glitter. I know they're the crowd who, although being over 21, would not scoff at fun of this sort. I'd decorate a cookie for you and it would bear a special message: "21 is not actually old."

(It would have to be a rather large cookie.)

We'd eat our Korean dinner, with tea and coffee to accompany it, and you and your buddies would retire to the basement to play while me and my boys/minions cleaned up the dinner. I'd arrive downstairs just in time to lead everyone in a rousing "Hot Sauce Game."

We'd all stay up way too late, but if you can't do that when you're 21, when can you? Love ya, Liz!


Guys, my sister, for this birthday, is asking for recommendations to shape her year of being 21. What book or movie or fun/important experience or goal could you suggest to her? I know that most of my audience is over 21, so what sorts of things do you think would make for an extraordinary year at this season of her life? That Lizzy of mine is anything but average.

Cultural Faux Pas

At this point, I'd kind of thought we were immune to this. I have lived in Asia before, and I spent my entire college career studying the language, philosophy, and culture of China, so I thought I had a good handle on all the dos and do nots of our new home.

Turns out, when it comes to culture, like most things in life, you never stop learning.

Because, you see, when Angel is too lazy to style his hair, he'll wear a baseball cap instead.

Lately it's been this John Deere cap, because it's the only one he has. This lifestyle doesn't allow for a lot of duplicates.

Angel made the grand mistake of going casual to the office on a day when he didn't have any classes. "Casual" meant he didn't want to put product in his hair, so he wore a cap.

He'd hardly been working at his desk for long when a coworker pulled up a stool next to him. From her body language, he could already tell that he was in for a serious conversation.

"I know you're new to China," she said, "And I am very, very sorry to tell you this, but it is very bad for you to wear a green hat."

He snatched the formerly-innocent John Deere advertisement off his head, stuffed it in the backpack, and said, "Can I ask why?"

"Just believe me. It's very bad."

Now we know, from this point on, Angel will only wear his cap when we travel outside the country.

We were curious enough to do our own research on why wearing a green hat is so bad that our coworkers won't even tell us why it's bad. According to the internet, wearing a green hat means a man's wife is cheating on him. Aiyah! Also, according to the internet, the reasoning behind this is because the phrase describing the action of wearing a green hat sounds similar to the phrase that means cuckold. Not that everything found on the internet is true, but to me, this has the ring of truth, as most Chinese superstitions stem from a would-be innocent object being a homonym or near-homonym of something bad and undesirable. The nature of Mandarin lends itself to homonyms, they are much more common in that language than in English, but this is one I'd never yet come across.

If you're ever in China, now you know, leave the green hats at home!

To Women Who Don't Date

I come from within the non-dating Christian community. I never actually read any of the too-well-known books on the topic: i.e. I Kissed Dating Goodbye or Before You Meet Prince Charming. To be honest, I had no real interest in the topic and occasionally found that I suddenly needed to go help out in the nursery whenever a visiting preacher decided to tackle the topic of BGRs (boy-girl relationships) in my youth group, because, man, those sermons were kind of miserable.

And yet, I agree with the overall principle of such teachings, though they tend to be incomplete (one of their flaws is tackled here). I am glad I didn't date before being courted by my husband. I treasure the fact that he was my first love. To me, he's worth it.

Yet I've noticed something that saddens me among the young women from the non-dating movement. Many of these young ladies are open about their desire to be married and to raise a family, and they've also committed to not getting involved in casual romantic entanglements, both of which are well and good--but what I've noticed is that years are going by and youth is fading while women now in their upper 20s and 30s and beyond are still longing for a husband but don't appear to be any closer to having a prospective spouse than they were a decade ago.

I'm not talking here about those who don't want to get married. They're good. If you aren't married and you don't want to be, I'd say that situation lends itself easily to contentment. I can't relate to that sentiment myself...when I was 16 I swore I'd never get married but it didn't take me long to change my mind.

What concerns me right now is those women who long for families of their own, yet may not even realize that some of their own actions may be thwarting the desires of their hearts. I've noticed that ladies who have committed to waiting on God to "write their love story" can often be susceptible to a few bad habits that might be to blame for an excessively long waiting period. Here are a few of those:

1. Being downright unfriendly to the opposite gender.

Often, in a desire to avoid leading anyone on via flirtation, women simply won't make friends at all with men. But friendliness is not inherently flirtatious. A smile, a kind word, an invitation to a Christmas party--that kind of stuff goes a long way. It's long-held wisdom that most good marriages start from friendships--if having only female friends is one of your standards, it might be time to rethink that standard. If all of your social events are "girls only"--that's not conducive to building healthy relationships with the kind of friends you might marry.

2. Dressing unattractively. 

 If you want to marry a boy, it's best not to dress like one. I know, because I wore jeans and unisex tees all through high school--I have the lack of a figure which means I resemble a boy when I dress like that, so I don't anymore (although at times I imagined being the heroine of a book where I had to disguise myself as a boy to survive some sort of terrible disaster...I'm still keeping that option in the back of my mind for future reference). Yes, yes, yes. Men SHOULD appreciate our minds and personalities and not our looks...but they don't always do that, do they?

3. Refusing to have private conversations with men. 

 Now, I'm not recommending here that you go park in the seminary parking lot at 11 at night to have a chat with your friend...but there's nothing inherently wrong with talking to a man. Chat with them at school, work, church, on the phone--because how in the world do you expect them to appreciate your brains and personality over your looks when you refuse to talk with them unless your father or a group of friends are present? Some might not believe this, but there is actually no law in the Bible against talking to guys. Here's some advice: You are an adult human being. You have control over your actions. You will not, suddenly, against your own will, find yourself falling head over heels in love with a boy or compromising your own convictions if you talk on the phone to a boy, even if no one else is listening in on your phone call. Trust me, I've tried it. You may rack up a lot of minutes on your cell phone bill if the boy is really fun to talk to, but I suppose that's a risk you'll have to take.

4. Lack of demonstrating practical spousal skills.

I'm not that old-fashioned. I appreciate a husband who can cook and clean as well as I appreciate a wife who can too. This isn't about gender roles, this is about maturity and generosity and skillfulness, traits needed in a spouse. I consider myself a good cook--at least for someone who is too lazy to use recipes. In college, I regularly brought cookies or fried noodles or muffins to get-togethers with friends. When I walked into a friend's apartment and saw dirty dishes all over the kitchen, I'd start washing their dishes. Giving away food and helping people out with unpleasant chores are attractive traits--DO attractive things.

5. Saying "no" all the time. 

 There are times to say "no." And family first, I get that. And work, and homework, and church commitments. There's a lot of different priorities in life--but there's still value in just being the kind of person who finds a way to say "yes!" when they can. During my freshman year of college Angel often called me to go hang out with him. I didn't like his idea of hanging out--to me it looked a lot like dating without even dating, so I'd propose alternatives to his ideas rather than just refuse him. He'd ask if I wanted to go out to see a movie with him, and I said, "Hey, actually, my cousins are sleeping over tonight, you wanna come and play dominoes with us?" [and that's how my cousins famously met my future husband]. He'd ask if I wanted to go get Mexican food with him and I'd tell him to bring it over to my grandparents' house and we could play checkers after we ate [I was a riot, can't you tell?].

6. Being too picky. 

 I've noticed a trend among women who are waiting for God to write their love story: an idea that since the Creator of the universe is in charge of coming up with their perfect spouse, there will be grand spiritual fireworks when they meet him and he will be amazing and there will never be a doubt in their mind that this is it. Now, I'll admit, I was never cut out for romance, so maybe my experience is unusual, but sometimes the guy for you is just a normal guy and the two of you kind of simultaneously decide that getting married both sounds like a lot of fun and is a logically wise choice, and your parents agree. The fact is, the whole "soulmate" idea is not Scriptural. Marrying someone who shares your beliefs is Scriptural. Marrying a guy who isn't a loser (including but not limited to: liars, weasels, and pigs) is wise and will make your life much easier--but beyond that, there's actually a lot of flexibility. Marriage isn't the rocket science you heard about in that cliched proverb.

The point of all this is: the way I see it, choosing not to date casually doesn't doom you to a life of hanging out with your girlfriends waiting for the perfect man to show up. There are things every woman can do to make marriage a more likely outcome of her lifestyle.

What's your opinion on the matter of finding a mate?