Still Employed with Sanity Intact

I’m kind of surprised myself, but I successfully negotiated a new contract with my employer. I laid out my demands: half the hours, 2/3 the pay, and no more teaching kids. They capitulated.

This is good because I will not go crazy. I can continue to like Chinese children from a distance, keeping the good memories of the times I had teaching them, while the bad parts slowly fade. But I’ll make sure I don’t get roped into teaching kids again.

I have to admit, though… teaching kids has been a great experience for me. I’m going to share what I got out of it:

I got to use a lot of Chinese when I taught. Maybe a really good English teacher would successfully use an English-only method, but I never claimed to be good at teaching kindergarteners, and I’ll readily admit that I wanted to use Chinese as much as possible while still doing a decent job. The kindergartens seemed to like my teaching, though. Win-win.

Teaching kids means you have unlimited opportunities to interact with the kids. This may sound totally obvious, but I’m quite certain that many foreign kindergarten teachers don’t have either the ability or the inclination to do it. I got such a kick out of asking the kids (in Chinese) questions like, “how many people are there in the world?” and getting answers like “100,” “10,000,” and “40” in a classroom with no fewer than 50 people. (The point of the question was to get the kids to use the English sentence “I don’t know.” Only problem is kids often don’t realize they don’t know something. Why shouldn’t the first answer that comes to mind be the correct one?)

Talking to kids in Chinese is simultaneously encouraging and humbling. It’s encouraging (in a petty way) because most of the time I can feel secure that my Chinese is better than theirs. I have to keep in mind that there are tons of words and topics they’re just too young to understand. At the same time, their mastery of the Chinese language is already far more complete than my own, and it’s maddening.

Kids are honest. If you try to use Chinese with children and your Chinese totally sucks, they will tell you. They will laugh at you. But they will also not be totally tripped up by a few off tones here and there, and they don’t have a psychological block against comprehensible Chinese flowing from a Western face. On the other hand, the sight of big scary foreigners makes little Chinese kids cry sometimes.

Kids are impressionable. Perhaps what I like the most about teaching kids in Shanghai is that I’m doing my own small part to shape China’s future. Before you scoff at my unbridled idealism, let me expain. This past semester alone I regularly taught over 600 kindergartners. For many of them I was their first contact ever with a foreigner. This impression might very well last their entire lives.

What impression did I leave? Well, I was friendly and lovable (yes lovable — I say that because the kids frequently won’t stop hugging me after class), I was fluent in Chinese (I killed the “foreigners can’t speak Chinese” stereotype for these kids before they even learned it), and, most importantly, I was just a person. I could be fun and get angry, just like any of their other teachers. They learned this just from sufficient exposure to me. It always felt good when the kids stopped calling me Íâ¹úÀÏʦ (“foreign teacher”) and started calling me “John.” (Sometimes they even understood that “John” did not mean “foreigner.”)

Yes, I will eventually miss teaching the kids. But I’m excited about grad school. My entrance exams are in May, and the semester starts in September. It’s really time to hit the books.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Great post, great contract, way to go. I really enjoyed your list of the positives. I’m sure a list of the negatives would be interesting, too.

    I hope someday my fluency in Japanese will reach the level you’ve attained in Chinese. Have you ever given a narrative of exactly how you went from zero to hero, language-wise?

  2. Well, somebody has to teach the young kids. Let it be English, crafts, whatever. But Somebody has to. All I can say is, those who deal with these youngsters on a regular bases (other than the parents), must be “built” differently themselves to be able to handle all the stuff.

    I have to give you credit for teaching that many kids, somehow influence them, and had them love you. That, is not very easy to do. Very impressive.

    I was teaching Chinese once a week to American kids last semester. I had 6-7 year olds in my class. And that, was an eye-opener for me. I do love those kids, but I have to tell you, I had been tearing my hair out every week trying to get them to do this or that. Not everybody can handle kids, and I realized that I am certainly not among the group. I can have a great time teaching older people, even teenagers, but not little kids. It’s hard.

    At the same time, my 2 year old son was in the youngest class there “learning” Chinesee. Being the only boy in the class, he didn’t really cared for anybody there. He was constantly running to explore the toybox, doing stuff nor related to the class. The 2 teachers were impressively nice to him. And somehow he would come home and start saying a Chinese word here and there. That was impressive. And I knew in my heart that I am not cut out to deal with little monsters like my son in any class.

    I am teaching the adult class in the Spring (those little kids’ parents). I know I will miss those kids, but I am also excited to only see them in the hallway (not in my classroom).

    Good luck with your exams.

  3. I’m going to have to disagree with you about using Chinese with your kindergarten class. You were completely shortchanging them. You were put in that class to teach them in native-level English, not second language-level Chinese (no offense to your Chinese level.)

    I don’t consider myself an exceptionally gifted kindergarten teacher, but all of my 6 year old students who started with me from absolute scratch and with whom I spoke practically no Chinese have made tremendous progress. It just takes a whole lot of patience and a whole lot of repetition. You repeat the same few sentences over and over (“He is a boy. She is a girl.” as you’re pointing around), vary it a little (“I’m a boy. You’re a girl.”), get them to repeat more, play some games with it, and they’ll get it cold. You’ve just got to have a some patience and energy.

    Not to say I don’t use my Chinese. They always ask me questions in Chinese, but I answer in English. And discipline. When they hear me talk in Chinese, they know that the shit has hit the fan.

  4. Wayne,

    I hear you. But try that when you only teach one 30-minute class, once a week, or even once every two weeks. That’s the difference. Once a week was the most I ever taught any of those kids; teaching kids was not my full-time job.

    Also, 5 years old was the oldest age I taught. The age range was 2-5. There’s a huge difference between teaching 4-year-olds and teaching 5-year-olds. I can only imagine what the gap is between 5- and 6-year-olds.

  5. Da Xiangchang Says: January 14, 2005 at 1:23 am

    You definitely need a certain type of personality to be a teacher, whether little kids or even big ones. If you don’t have that personality, I have NO idea why anyone would want to be a teacher–unless he wants to be something else, an aspiring painter or writer or something. I’m still a teacher, but teaching is an intellectually deadening profession; you always have to surround yourself with people less knowledgeable than you are! I only do it for the okay money and the incredible time off. I feel like a whore–well, gigolo–at times; instead of selling my body (whom nobody wants to buy anyway), I sell my time. And I’m only comforted during these dark days that all the richest novelists of this world were all English teachers before they hit the jackpot–J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, Dan Brown, etc. If they could do it, I could do it. Or is that wishful thinking? 😉


    You’re still the most hardcore guy I know, going to a Chinese grad school and all!

  6. Kikko Man Says: January 14, 2005 at 3:07 am

    Great stuff. I also taught a class of 4 to 6 year olds for more a year. I was the same and loved speaking Chinese with them although I certainly tried to be all English during the actual class time. That is almost impossible though because not only are you introducing a coompletely new language, but you are often introducing ideas or objects to them they havent even learned in Chinese so a little Chinese will often go a long way. You wont have to waste hours trying to explain a concept “English-only” style when you can just sum it up in one quick Chinese phrase. I love kids’ inventiveness with the language… one of my best kids came up with the phrase “teacher monkey-face” to try and tease me…. I do have a monkey-face now that I think about it.

  7. Ray, second your comment — John, the hardcore American export, still the numero uno ‘hittin the Chinese books’ scholar.

  8. I dunno John, I taught 2 – 12 yr olds in multiple classes in Japan and never used Japanese in class, and i was in the exact same situation as you – 30 – 40mins a week, once a week. Of course I didn’t have a lot of the temptation you had as my Japanese wasn’t as good theirs, but I still could have used some simple stuff regularly if I had felt the need.

  9. Don’t get me wrong; I did use a lot of English, especially for the 5-year-olds. But if you’re explaining a game, and you can spend less than 1 minute doing it in Chinese or 5 minutes doing it in all English (and a lot of gestures), I’m going to take the Chinese route. It’s just most economical.

    I also don’t feel at all guilty about taking 1-2 minutes of class time to chat with them to build rapport.

    If I really were using an unwarranted amount of Chinese in class, I would feel guilty, though. I’m a conscientious teacher, even if I don’t feel that I’m cut out to teach little ones.

  10. If you live in Shanghai, you already know, but you can catch Sinosplice reviewed (along with Leylop’s site!) in the January 2005 CITY WEEKEND magazine: the premiere Shanghai lifestyle magazine aimed at foreigners predominantly). Thanks to Carl, err, “The Real Carl”, for the link:

  11. Ha!

    It’s a terrible review (writing wise). If the author is reading these comments, you should be ashamed of yourself. Your quotables were a terrible representation of this site. Go to Journalism School before you get a job as a writer.

  12. C’mon Carl, it’s not that bad. Maybe the writer had to fit the article into a certain word count. I do agree that the Mandarin + “getting tired of teaching kids” bit wasn’t put together so well, but the rest of the blurb is fine…

  13. andy,
    you said, “Have you ever given a narrative of exactly how you went from zero to hero, language-wise?”
    john does and has worked very hard, but aside from that, he is blessed w/ a true gift. i have had conversations w/ him about learning languages, and he honestly doesn’t understand how difficult it can be for some of us. what i mean by that is not that he’s callous or arrogant — not at all! — but that the basic elements come so easily for him that he is able to quickly move into the phase of true (“hard core”) study. i guess what i’m saying is that he was never really at “zero.” he decided to learn a language (spanish, then japanese, then chinese, now shanghainese), started doing it, practiced and read a lot, and considers it a continual process, so he never stops working at it. plus, he is fascinated by the linguistics stuff, so in a way it’s almost like a hobby (?). 😉

    (john, i don’t mean to embarrass you. yes, this is your big sister being proud, but i just wanted to let andy know that his question would not be an easy one for you to answer.)

    there’s a lesson for us all in this: find your gifts — we all have them! — and put them to use in a way that enriches your life and the lives of others, even if it means working hard sometimes at something we’re not getting paid for.
    (not as easy as it sounds, is it?)

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