My skills and experience might make a difference

Young students warmly welcome Denise during a visit of a Mountain School in Hunan

“I could have worked anywhere in China, and could earn a lot of money at a prestigious university here, but then I had the privilege of experiencing life in the northwest of China. The students were so eager to learn, so desperately happy to have a native English teacher,” says Denise, one of Amity’s long-term English teachers in the following interview during Amity’s Winter Conference in Hunan. 

Can you introduce yourself and what are you doing here in China?

My name is Denise and I'm from Australia. I've been teaching at a university in Inner Mongolia for one semester so far, with the Amity long-term teacher training program (ATP).

Why in Inner Mongolia?

Because that was where the need was most. Amity long-term teachers are assigned to universities that are most in need of native English teachers. Inner Mongolia is a bit of a shock to the system of someone who prefers the sub-tropical south...haha!...but this sub-Arctic region of the north is currently in need.

What are the needs?

I am working in the Basic Education School with students who will become primary school English teachers in their home towns or regions. As an Amity teacher, I go in as a native English speaker to help build students' confidence in using the language. Most have had very little exposure to native speakers, if any, and many come from disadvantaged areas. They haven't had much opportunity to use the language in an authentic setting or practice the everyday spoken English and listening skills they need. So, hopefully within the classroom they become more attuned to English and start to feel more comfortable using it, and outside the class there are fun social activities to engage in authentic use and to expose them to western culture. We are also able to introduce different teaching techniques. I try to make everything I teach them something they might pass on to their own students, something they might be able to use as an additional, alternative or engaging method in the classroom.

Denise is a volunteer of Amity's long-term teacher program

You said they come from disadvantaged areas. Can you explain this?

Most of my students come from outlying regions, not from major cities like Hohhot, the capital of the province. They are scattered through the whole of Inner Mongolia and neighbouring provinces. Unlike many students who come from the more affluent, multi-national mega-cities of the south, my students often come from tiny towns and villages where they and their English teachers before them have never met a foreigner who speaks native English. So their ability to speak the language is disadvantaged by the fact that they have been taught by teachers who haven't had exposure to native English speakers and are studying in a city where very few native speakers choose to work as teachers. So, being part of this program, being taught by an Amity teacher, not only gives them greater exposure to English language and western culture, and greater confidence using the English language, but can also give them more of a competitive edge for postgraduate education or employment.

Why did you choose Amity as a sending agency?

I could have worked anywhere in China, and could earn a lot of money at a prestigious university here, but ten years ago I worked in Shanxi University and I had the privilege of experiencing life in the northwest of China and not being part of the Shanghai, Beijing big university prestige club. That was my first exposure to students who were really disadvantaged. Shanxi was one of the poorest provinces at that time. But the students were so eager to learn, so desperately happy to have a native English teacher. They just came alive in the classes and I saw such opportunities here to really connect on a personal level. It is almost like family, this whole class of kids. You can build relationships, see them enjoying talking in English, and there's a vibrancy about it. You can watch them grow and really evaluate the worth of the experience. It's very different from going somewhere where students have the expectation of the best quality education. So, as Amity's values and mission matched my own, to serve students with the greatest need, being part of the Amity teacher's program felt like a natural fit. It's a real privilege to know that, as part of the ATP, my skills and experience might make a difference in not just their language education and their career prospects, but also in their lives.

Why did you come to China?

I have no idea! I just know I am called to be here. I was bitten by the China bug when I was in Shanxi ten years ago, and have lived and studied in Hong Kong for a couple of years, and love it passionately. But for my work, I knew it could never just be anywhere in China - it was always the north and west of China that held my heart, and I knew I had to return, and by the grace of God here I am in the north.

Now you are attending the Amity mid-term conference. What do you think about the fact that Amity organizes mid-term conferences?

I love it! I think it is a wonderful idea bringing the whole Amity team together. For the kids in the Youth Program maybe it is not such a special experience because they are already working in teams, but for the long-term teachers, because we are scattered throughout the country, being part of this big team is a precious gift. And it's great to see the Amity projects in action, actually going up to the remote areas and seeing firsthand what other ventures Amity is involved in...seeing the big picture...for me it's very special.

What was your favorite project?

Yesterday at the school, most definitely! The school rebuilding project is one of my passions. Seriously, I would have my hand in every part of it if I could, not just for a day. I see it as such an essential project, enabling the village children to stay closer to home for their schooling.

What does your long-term commitment to teach English to disadvantaged people in China mean to you?

I think it is a wonderful privilege for me to do it, to know that I am not just teaching another bunch of students who already have or will have the luxury of heading overseas to, the luxury of an experience so many others can only dream of. For me, there is a satisfaction in knowing that my students are learning a language that they are going to be teaching here in China, that I am playing a small part in equipping them as professionals, and hopefully helping fuel their passion in the language. I know many students in the English education strand don't have a passion for the language. So when I see a spark in the students, it makes me think: "Wow! They getting it! They can see the enjoyment they can get from teaching the language".  For me teaching English is not just a job, so it's great to see students with a bit of that fire for teaching the language too. And hopefully that passion will be passed on to their students in turn.

Denise and YAP volunteers teaching young pupils during a visit of Amity's school rebuilding project

China is still a developing country in many ways and it is still opening up. So how is it different compared to western countries?

In society in general there is a high degree of openness to western culture, a fascination with the material and entertainment worlds of the West, and a keen interest in the values and philosophies of western nations. Students ask many questions and I feel I'm learning as much about China as they are about the West. What I have discovered the most in Hohhot is the need for flexibility in the classroom. It is very different teaching here, a little more rigid and traditional than expected. I have taught English in China before, but training English teachers is really different, and again I feel I am learning as much as they are. I need to know more about how English is taught over here and it is very different from how westerners teach, almost entirely different at times. So, though there is some openness to western teaching and learning methodologies, the reality of students...and ultimately their schools... adventuring to apply them themselves is complex and unlikely.

Because it is a developing country or because the culture is so different?

I think it is the culture. To western eyes, it seems a system set in stone, with a fierce tradition to how things are done and always will be done in many schools. But the system is geared to their immensely huge population, enormous class sizes compared to the West, and it works for them in many ways, so why would they want to change it? But I think the fact that they invite ATP teachers on board shows a desire to address the issue of the north/south education divide – this is wonderful. 

But I think it is also very exciting. I mean working in a country that was so closed thirty years ago and is now opening up. I think that might be very exciting.

It is very exciting. This semester with some of my students I was teaching Culture. The students were so keen to see how things are done in western countries, comparing it with how it is done in China, looking at the pros and cons of the different systems. It is very encouraging. They see the world through their own eyes and also see how we are doing things in the West, and they are so open to hear how things are done and perceived differently. For me that is really exciting. They are fascinated with all things Western, and I feel there is much I can contribute in this area. But at the same time, the comparative view shows them that there are great things in how their own country works, great things in how their teaching system works. They also see things about the western system that wouldn't work in China and things that would, allowing them to consider how their teaching practices might be shaped a little by the Western techniques they are learning and by ideas they are hearing and by activities they are involved in. That's interesting, because then I think there might be the possibility of a slight cultural shift in the English teaching approach, encouraging students to engage more with the productive language skills.

Besides teaching English in the school, how else can you support them? You mentioned different cultural teaching styles.

I have a lot of fun outside of class. The key to my position here is to get people using English and feeling comfortable using it. The best way to do this is to tap into their interests, and they are fascinated by western culture, movies and music in particular. The students adore music, and exposure to carefully chosen songs can stretch their understanding of values and beliefs and behaviors. Getting them to explore the lyrics and texts they've never had access to before broadens their understanding of the way westerners think, of moral standards, and why we think and do what we do. Students love philosophy, and so we can explore a lot of different issues and we have great discussions together, for example, in English corners. There are also many things on a social level we can do together, like open houses, shopping trips, movie nights, and the more we do that, the more they want to explore and use the language. And hopefully the excitement and passion they have for the English language, and their understanding of western culture and philosophies, will grow and then be passed on to their students. That is the idea.

Denise and her students in Inner Mongolia taking a group photo