“Ms. Teacher”

I am 4 days in to my first official week as a teacher in Shanghai and am in the midst of that traditional first week of teaching exhaustion. Despite the sore feet and desire to go to sleep at 4:30pm, I have really loved this week. My new students are absolutely delightful and full of personality, and I enjoy the general set up of my day.

A quick recap of some things from last weekend: the tech guy from Barstow Kansas City was in town so there was a lot of delicious food to be had. Thursday evening we went to a place called Szechuan Citizen in the French Concession and honest to God, it might be one of the best meals I have EVER had. We had a shrimp dish where the shrimp were cooked so perfectly they practically melted in your mouth, plus phenomenal ribs, fish, veggies, and so much more. My favorite part is most places are “family style” so you just share and get to try some of everything.

The following evening we went to a place called Lost Heaven, which is right on the Bund (the downtown-y area, which is the area that most reminds me of Manhattan and is where all the big companies and financial areas are). Another phenomenal meal with phenomenal drinks as well. We also got to experience the rooftop bar which had some pretty fantastic views. The biggest thing I noticed all night is that you can find places like that, which literally make you feel like you’re in New York not China—and then you can go back to my neighborhood and remember where you are again. It’s a really great dichotomy and I don’t think I will ever quite be able to explore this entire city.

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A few more notes before discussing school:
–People frequently nap on the back of their mopeds and I LOVE it.

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–There’s a Korean place in Fat Alley that has spicy noodles that I wish I could eat every day because they’re amazing.

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–There’s a cat living somewhere on the campus of our school and I want to adopt it. The kids named it “Little Monster”.

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–I’m rapidly becoming obsessed with the bubble tea places. The one next to school makes a delicious lemonade that I will need to exercise great self control to not drink daily.

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So, now to school. To give a quick rundown, I walk to work in the morning. I never really thought this would be something I enjoy, given my desire for creature comforts like a climate-controlled car, but I really love it. I get to be outside for a while, get to walk past all the shops and restaurants opening up, and get to experience a bit of the culture here. Breakfast seems to be much less of an experience here than in the US, meaning simply that there are far fewer options to pick something up on the way in (in a timely manner at least. Most local coffee shops open at 7 or 7:30). There is a sort of crepe/omelet-y looking dish at a place on my walk, but I have yet to plan ahead so that I have time to stop.

Typically I’ve seen a few students on their way to breakfast as I walk in, and they always excitedly wave and say good morning with big smiles (despite their claims that they are “not morning people”, they seem awfully energetic that early). The school is very quiet—I mean, there are currently 4 teachers on staff—and students just sort of meander in up until the day begins at 8:00am. I teach for 50-minute blocks, with 2 prep periods and an hour for lunch (which, after 20 minutes at my last school, is heavenly. Another teacher, the Dean, and I typically walk down to Fat Alley and get something delicious. The sushi here is fantastic). The class periods fly by—I’ve been teaching 70-90 minute blocks for the majority of my teaching career. I teach all grade levels—9th, 10th, and 11th grade ESL, 10th Grade English, and Psychology.

We allowed students to select their own elective, and I was proud to have an overwhelming demand for Psychology—you picked a good one kiddos. I started the year out in that class with a “simulated plane crash” in which they had to decide which supplies were most valuable and which remaining survivors they would choose to save (from a list of descriptions). It’s an assignment I’ve done before and always entertaining to watch students rationalize the choices they’d make.

I’ve spent a large amount of the week considering the differences and similarities between my students here and students I’ve taught in the past and honestly, there aren’t as many differences and you might assume. I have always found that each year there are students that fit into typical “boxes”—the quiet student, the outgoing student, the silly kid, the student who likes to push the boundaries. Of course they all have their own unique personalities, but eventually you see similar threads year after year. The same applies here; I’ve been having such fun getting to know them all this week. One assignment I gave in their ESL classes was to create a bucket list—first explaining what a bucket list IS—and it was awesome getting to see what they created:

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Some notable differences in my new students (and I mean this in an entirely objective, non-judgmental manner):

–They frequently refer to me as “teacher”, “Ms. Teacher” or by my first name, because they’re not used to the “Ms. Esposito” format. It’s disarming to hear them call me “Kate” because it just sounds so informal!

–Many of them write using a ruler on their assignments (even when there are lines provided) so as to make sure their work is perfectly aligned. I can’t quite figure out how they’re able to manage this.

–They say “Thank you” after I had them every piece of paper during class. The politeness is overwhelming.

–I get huge smiles and waves for both entering and leaving the classroom. That’s not to say that my previous students weren’t friendly or polite, it’s just…different. I consider myself pretty friendly and polite and I don’t think I ever greeted a teacher quite like this.

–They work diligently when I ask them to—the first time. There’s much less convincing of the necessity of education and not following instructions usually results from not understanding the language.

Again, none of this is to say my other students were bad or ungrateful, but they definitely came from different life circumstances and a drastically different culture. There are still students who don’t try or fall asleep in class, still a few who push my buttons and try to get away with things, bullying and teasing, and all the other nonsense that comes with teaching.

There are other things that are strangely different about teaching here as well. For example, due to what I assume is the much less lawsuit-happy culture here, we can leave students unattended at points throughout the day—i.e. the post I put up yesterday on Facebook about stepping out of the room and coming back to find all of my students diligently working. I don’t know whether it’s causation or correlation but students seem to behave themselves well without supervision also. It’s just strange to be able to leave students working alone in my room in the evening. It’s also strange to consider that I work with the entire student body. In my first school I worked with most students, and I knew most names, but I actually teach the entire student body every day at Barstow. I actually love it, it allows me to get to know all of them really well. The 10th grade students who take my Psychology course see me for class 3 times per day and I can only imagine the rapport we’ll have at the end of the year. My largest class is also only 15 kids, which is another dream, and it helps to get to check in with them so often.

The last thing for today is just a few other highlights of the week. One thing I wasn’t certain about before coming here is working with such a different population and demographic of students. When I started teaching with TFA, it was because I was committed to working on providing a quality education to all students in the U.S. and saw huge gaps in the resources and instruction available to students outside of private schools and wealthy suburbs. Moving to China to teach students at a school that costs the equivalent of 30,000 USD/year made me wonder if they would be spoiled or ungrateful. Perhaps that was naïve or unfair of me, but I always attended and taught at public schools and have honestly not had much experience with other kinds of schools (except Charters, which I consider public for this argument’s sake). But after just the first few days, I’ve seen how excited and grateful each of the students here really is, and how much they can benefit from our program and me as a teacher (I don’t like to brag but at this point in my career I at least feel comfortable saying I’m a good teacher).

For example:

–One student, Jenny, was constantly middle of the pack in her Chinese school and had difficulty paying attention to the lecture-style lessons. According to returning staff, since she started here last year she has completely blossomed and is a rock star (one of those kids we all wish we had been in high school—funny, smart, popular and nice).

–Another student, Hodge, whose face absolutely lights up every time he receives praise. One day I told him another teacher was bragging about Hodge being a superstar and he turned to me with this huge smile and just said “Really??”

–Irving, who is SO quiet and shy in class but gave me a HUGE smile, wave, and “see you later!” as he left class today.

–Today was “Teacher’s Day” and Sean, one of my 9th graders, came running in at the end of the day with a red flower (which he’d brought for all the teachers). 🙂

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–I assign them daily writing prompts in their notebooks and then I write notes back to them. They write the absolute sweetest things about normal teenager concerns—I want to do well, my best friend moved away and I miss him, I’m worried about making friends here, etc.

I have one day left in this week—and I’ve actually been at work every day for the last two weeks, including last weekend, so I’m am READY for the weekend—but it has just been delightful. There have certainly been stressful moments, like when the one printer in our building didn’t work this morning or when my internet cuts out, but I honestly can’t think of a another way to describe it. Just delightful.

I might be here for a while, kids.

More to come!

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An American in Shanghai—Part 双*

Hey kiddos! I want to get something posted because I haven’t updated much (and set a goal of posting at least once per week). However, I’m insanely busy preparing for the new school year so written brilliance may not be on the menu today.

Things are going well here in Shanghai. I’m getting more settled each day and even had a moment last evening when I thought, “I might really enjoy it here…”. As I learn more about the culture, the food, the people and the language, it becomes easier to feel like this is my life rather than some strange dream. I find myself thinking maybe I could really stay for more than a year…But I think I’ll see how the next few months go first.

Last Friday I went for my health inspection—which apparently all new residents need to take. I’m not sure the exact purpose, as they mentioned something about “quarantine”, but I went for this inspection almost a full week after arriving. The entire process was extremely efficient but a little intense. You’re brought to a changing room and given a spa-looking robe to wear. You’re then shepherded among a row of numbered rooms for a variety of tests including an EKG, chest x-ray, ultrasound, eye exam, blood draw, and a few other poking/prodding type things. I had a large number of medical tests for the equivalent of about 90 USD. Apparently I passed though, because they let me leave.

I spent my 29th birthday at Ikea, which was actually quite enjoyable because I love Ikea and I love furnishing apartments. My amazing new coworkers also took me out to dinner later in the evening, at a Mexican cantina of all places. It was incredibly delicious but I was still fighting jet-lag so they made me many promises of taking me out again when I am not a zombie (I now think I’m over it after almost two weeks so you might get some more funny stories soon).

Back to the Ikea trip though. I’d had a particularly interesting experience at Carrefour (the French-based grocery/all-purpose store closest to me) the day before and I have still refused to go back. It’s entirely stupid, but basically a pushy salesperson tried to pick out everything for me and made me check out before I was ready to. Being that she spoke zero English and apparently didn’t understand the “I’m ignoring you” tactic that I tried using, I left well before I was ready to. Plus it was raining and I had to walk home with my new linens so I was a little peeved.

Ikea proved much more successful and I have a decently furnished place now—the furniture was already there but not the trappings. I have also discovered (another fact of life not in the guidebooks) that Chinese mattresses feel like Chinese floors. They’re insanely hard and apparently consist of a tiny strip of padding followed by a hard wooden plank. True, it’s probably great for my back, but I’d rather sink into the bed a little. Therefore, it’s my mission to learn to use Taobao (crazy cheap online shopping, entirely in Chinese) so that I can purchase a plush, memory foam mattress pad.

The apartment required a bit of a scouring before I really felt settled. Evidently “clean” = “I rubbed a damp cloth on it” here. Fortunately I’m not unfamiliar with elbow grease and found some quality cleaning products and scrubby rags. They dried out my skin and made it peel, so I’m pretty sure they’re totally non-environmentally friendly and poisonous—but hey, my kitchen isn’t greased up anymore! I also discovered how to use my DVD player (even though the entire tv menu and remote are both in Chinese) so I’ve got a good set up. Choosing to bring my entire DVD collection has proven excellent—and may even earn me a few friends. Living in a studio apartment is also incredibly tolerable, save for the fact that I cannot spread my time between couch and bed and pretend that I’m more active than I really am. Having 6 flights of stairs to climb up helps rectify that issue.

Kitchen. Gotta love the robot stickers on the fridge.

Kitchen. Gotta love the robot stickers on the fridge.

More kitchen (just a stove top, no oven).

More kitchen (just a stove top, no oven).

Main room.

Main room.

Other view of the main room, complete with large wooden storage cabinets (a real score).

Other view of the main room, complete with large wooden storage cabinets (a real score).

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3rd view of the main room. The recessed area is for laundry (there are 2 long laundry-hanging rods on the ceiling because most places have a washer but no dryer).

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Bathroom.

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Left view from my apartment.

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Right view from my apartment.

The complex itself is delightful, full of families and a great group of older people who sit by the front gate playing cards every day. I get stared at a lot because I appear to be the only “laowei” (foreigner) within the area and I’m pretty sure they’re all wondering why the hell I’m there. I like living in a more authentic area though. There’s always a smell of incense in my stairwell, as well as delicious food smells during dinnertime. Most people leave their doors open with just a screen up and I’ve wondered if I could get away with a “hungry laowei” face and grab some tasty grub. There are quite a few pet owners—my favorite begin a woman with a dog that looks like a mop and I’d love to understand what she’s saying because she coos at it in this hysterical tone of voice. I’ve tried to get pictures of but I just feel creepy. I’ll work on my stealth and see what I can do.

School will start on Monday and I’m incredibly excited. Here are some pictures of my newly set up classroom–room 205 🙂

(And duh, there are Harry potter quotes on the walls).

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The school itself is in many ways quite different from what I’m used to. The Bartstow School in Kansas City, MO is our parent school and they are pretty involved in what we do here. However, our school also works closely with a company called Knowledge Link (KL) that manages the Chinese side of things and provides much needed assistance with navigating the city. We then also work with a company called New Channel, which is our Chinese partner (allowing us, through Chinese law, to open the school here). They also provide the building and some of the materials.

Our campus is tiny—only 5 teachers and about 40 students right now. I am unbelievably excited at the prospect of all of my classes having 10-15 students, maximum 20. Unheard of. The “satellite” aspect of our school—as well as our infant stage of development—has made it very teacher-driven, which is really amazing. As teachers, we’ve had a lot of leeway to determine how we want things to operate, how we want to teach, etc. Eventually we’ll most likely run into some issues given the massive cultural differences between Chinese education and American education, but it’s nice to be so involved in the conversation and have so much creative license.

Though our school follows an American-style curriculum and set up, there is still much that’s different from my experience of high school. For example, the students board here during the week and it’s a closed campus—meaning they cannot leave. They also are not allowed any electronic devices except an iPad during the school day—on which we have disabled anything non-academic. They attend school all day until 4:30pm, then they have study hall until 9:00pm. If they have free time, they’re encouraged to read. Many of them do go home on weekends—and I love dearly that they’re encouraged to read so much—but I cannot quite imagine this lifestyle in high school. It’s going to be really interesting to see in action and I will certainly post more about school as the year begins.

A few other tidbits I’ve found interesting:

–When you know the right people, and the right places, the food here is SO AMAZING. There’s a strip of places right by school that I’ve taken to calling “Fat Alley” in my head because that’s what I think it will lead to. In particular, one noodle shop at which you hand pick everything you want and they cook it up for you in this spicy, delicious broth. On average, it costs about 25 rmb, or $3 for a big bowl.

Delicious noodles...sooo delicious.

Delicious noodles…sooo delicious.

Bubble tea. Also so delicious.

Bubble tea. Also so delicious.

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Fat Alley

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Noodle shop. Mmm….noodles…

–Internet here SUCKS. It’s slow and you need a VPN (virtual private network, which basically uses your IP address to act like you’re still in the US…I think…) to get on all the good stuff. I’m discovering, however, that my entire life doesn’t have to revolve around the internet.

–Spitting is a very real thing—for men and women. I often hear/see people “hocking up loogees” and it is the most disgusting thing. Apparently, though, it has something to do with Eastern medicine and “getting the bad out”, according to a coworker of mine.

–The “international” section at the supermarket is hilarious (probably like it is for other cultures in the US) and consists of things like Welch’s grape juice and pasta. And there IS Skippy peanut butter here, which has made for a great meal given my lack of cooking supplies.

The supermarket is another photo-op waiting to happen—until next time!

I’ll work on more thematic/hilarious/brilliantly perceptive writing for next time folks, but until then, it’s time to finish writing my lessons for next week.

*PS: The character in the title of this blog means “double” not “two” but was one of the translations that popped up. Workin on learnin that Mandarin…