Author Archives: Shanghai Teacher

About Shanghai Teacher

A Canadian ex-pat living in Shanghai for the past 9 years. I teach unruly and terrifyingly clever children, volunteer with the the SCAA (a foster-based animal rescue organization in Shanghai), and raise my personal zoo consisting of one adorable Shihtzu, two cats who are conspiring to take over the world, and numerous foster kitties.

Pokemon Points!

I’ve talked about classroom management and how important it is to keep kids interested in what’s going on. Over the past few Saturdays, my grade 6 class has been helping me develop a points system based on Pokemon battling! Two fellow teachers helped me work out the mathematics last week and I spent a few days this week making up the card template and a few samples. I’m finally ready to share this with everyone!

Let me start by showing you the template and samples:

Pokemon Points


Students are divided into teams. Each team gets to choose one basic pokemon from a bag (bag should contain 1-2 of each type).

Levels: One student from each team rolls a die to determine what the base Pokemon’s 1rst stage evolution level will be:

1 = 26       2 = 28       3 = 30       4 = 32       5 = 34       6 = 36

2nd and 3rd stage evolutions double from original. Example: A student rolls 2. Pichu evolves into Pikachu at 28 exp points, and into Raichu at 56 exp points.

Hit Points: A student from each team then rolls for HP.

1 = 40       2 = 45       3 = 50       4 = 55       5 = 60       6 = 65

On the board:

Pokemon (HP)  (EVS1) (EVS2) (EVS3 if applicable)  EXP:


Pichu (55HP)    (Stage 1 Pikachu=28)        (Stage 2 Raichu=56)  EXP:


Everything a team does in class earns attack points, same as a normal points system. Winning games, doing homework, great answers, helping others, finishing work first etc. These points go towards attacks. Every pokemon has the same attack stats, for simplicity’s sake:





Attack Points










Quick Attack




Attack names change based on the Pokemon but the stats stay the same, even through evolutions.

Damage – is how many points you take away from your opponents pokemon HP.

Cost – how many points you need to have to use this attack AND how many points you lose.

EXP – how many pnts you get toward evolution.

Ss can keep track of their own points (in large classes). Teachers only need to keep track of HP and EXP on the board.

Stengths and weaknesses: All Pokemon are 1 type only. If a pokemon is Strong against its opponent they flip a coin. Heads – normal damage plus 10. Tails – normal damage. If they are Weak against an opponent, they flip a coin again. Heads = half damage. Tails = normal damage.

Download samples and the template!

pokemon card template



pichu pikachu raichu stats page

Have fun with this! And please, if you have any ideas on how to improve or modify the game, please let me know!

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Posted by on May 6, 2011 in Uncategorized


Just like a bobble-head.

I have a question for you. It’s not one I ever asked myself, to be honest. It was asked of me by a former colleague of mine who asked it to every teacher he came across.

What is your goal, as a teacher?

Some teachers would automatically blurt out something noble, like helping the next generation, or helping their students’ blossom into a sane, functioning and contributing member of society. It was with great relish that my colleague – I’ll call him Seamus – cut the teacher off in their tracks and said with a great sense of finality, “No.”

For myself, I had assumed that my job was to teach them English. To my surprise, Seamus told me I was wrong as well. “Okay,” I said, still smarting a tad from being told with such conviction that I was wrong, dead wrong. “So what am I supposed to be doing?”

“You are supposed to give them the tools needed to use English,” came the calm reply.

I looked back at my colleague–slash–mentor and murmured in awe, “Oh.” Pause. “So what does that mean?” I was completely clueless.

In my last post I mentioned a Chinese English teacher insisting on short form answers and how it was wrong. Not really, actually – I didn’t make that entirely clear. It’s completely wrong for us to do. Watching them make what we perceive as a mistake just grates on us and we as native speakers then squirm in our chairs and think how we could do it better.

No, we can’t. And what the Chinese teacher is doing isn’t wrong, full-stop – it’s just different. And it’s something we can’t copy, because then we’d be neglecting our duty – which is to give them the tools they need to speak English.

What is the goal of the Chinese teacher? A Chinese English teacher will give out lists of vocabulary words, and insist that the students memorize page after page of sentence structures. She will ask them to recite from memory entire passages out of books, and drill them in repeating grammar exercises over and over again.

Foreign teachers will look at that and think, ‘wow, that lady is doing it wrong.’ Actually, no she’s not. She’s not teaching for ability, she’s teaching for knowledge. She’s prepping them to pass one of the many tests Chinese students must take and pass if they want to get ahead in life. Her class is about memorization because the tests are all written tests, and it’s all based on memory.

As a foreign English teacher, your goal should be to get them to use what they already know. Chinese students have an amazing vocabulary locked away in those brilliant heads of theirs – they just don’t always know how to use it. Same for reading – they can read passages, sound out words fairly easily and with the aid of their little dictionaries, they can get through unfamiliar passages with ease. But once you ask them to speak out loud using those words, now you get silence – and some teachers are quick to dub these students as being unwilling or unable to learn English.

What we should all be doing is teaching for ability – giving them what they need to respond in English. And we start by stopping the use of knowledge-based questions. For example, please answer the question below:

Is my sister’s middle name Taylor?

I know some of you are looking at that question and thinking, ‘what the heck? How should I know if her sister’s middle name is Taylor? I can’t answer that question! I have to guess!

Yup. But guess what? Non-English speakers – unless you get a batch of really animated and advanced kids – aren’t going to try and guess. Their first, last and only answer is going to be ‘I don’t know’, which doesn’t get them to practice anything. This is an example of a knowledge-based question. If you don’t have the knowledge, you can’t answer the question.

So the first thing we have to do is change that knowledge-based question into an ability-based question, and we do it in two steps.

1.       We turn it into a yes or no question:

–> Is my sister’s middle name Taylor?

2.       We either nod or shake our heads, depending on what the answer is.

Some things in life are universal. Nodding your head means ‘Yes’ or positive in North American. Shaking it from side to side means ‘No’ or negative. The same rules apply in China. So by asking a yes or no based question while nodding or shaking our heads – in this case, I’m shaking my head to indicate ‘no’ – we give the student the tools to answer the question.

Student: “No.”

Teacher: “No, what?”

Student: “No, you sister middle name not Taylor.

Teacher: *verbal correct* “No, your sister’s middle name isn’t Taylor.”

Student: “No, your sister’s middle name isn’t Taylor.”

Teacher: “Is my sister’s middle name Taylor?”

Class: “No, your sister’s middle name isn’t Taylor.”

Ah-hah – see what I did there? A verbal correct AND I got the whole class to take advantage of that great, full-sentence, 5-point answer.  A simple shake of the head – like Mojito, the bobble-headed dog from The Losers – and the student magically has the confidence to answer the question.

Give it a shot!

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Posted by on March 28, 2011 in Uncategorized


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Don’t be the car.

I was fortunate enough to be invited to watch a series of Chinese-English classes. This is a rare thing – usually Chinese-English teachers don’t like native speakers watching their class. They sometimes think that we’ll judge their English prowess (when really, I’m taking notes on how awesomely she corralled that snarky boy with just a look – I must learn their secrets!) or look down on them for having an accent. Or something.

They're laughing at me because I ordered them to do something. I am not a Chinese teacher, therefore I am not intimidating enough. ^__^

There was one male teacher I watched who was utterly brilliant in his efforts to make class interesting! He brought props. He had a flash powerpoint presentationwith cute, singing cartoons. He spoke 95% English in his class (a lot of C-E teachers do a lot of translating, which is a bad thing – but that’s the subject of another post) which is another rarity.

In fact, he did such a great job, that it was really disappointing when he got to the Q&A wrap-up. I mean, he had them singing, chanting full sentences, doing matching games, checking comprehension – and now comes the big part: asking questions and getting answers from the students.

Teacher: “Did the fox want to eat the blueberries?”

Student: “Yes, he did.”

Teacher: “Excellent! The fox wanted to eat the blueberries, great job!”

I’ve already posted about the importance of full sentences and the 80×20 rule so I won’t repeat myself (much). But this teacher did something that surprised me. After accepting this lackluster answer, he turned to the rest of the class, repeated the question and got everyone to repeat it. It was the 1 point answer, not a great one, but he got the group repeat.

That is called a macro response.

I see this look a lot with middle school kids.

Have you ever heard of the expression, ‘like a deer in headlights?’ If you’re a Canadian, you may change it to ‘moose’ or ‘caribou’ and then that covers the whole country and so yes, you have heard of the saying. It means that when the spotlight hits you, you freeze and can’t move or say anything, much like the poor deer which has now just totalled your new Neon.

Don’t be the car, people.

How to not be the car: Students are the same way. Yes, they are like deer. Some of them are outgoing and eager to volunteer and participate in bounding through the classroom field and talking without reservation. Others are almost pathologically shy, or terrified of making a mistake in front of their peers, or god forbid, their homeroom teacher who might now call their parents and explain that “little Timmy just shamed his ancestors because he couldn’t answer the question ‘what color is the brown dog’ with ‘it’s brown’.”

When – not if, when – you get that student in class who looks at you in utter terror as you ask him/her a question, keep one very important rule in mind: do not let the silence drag out. If they do not answer you in 3 seconds or less, they will not answer you in 5. Or even 10. What will happen instead is the child’s eyes will get bigger and bigger like that poor dead deer in your freezer and they will start inching backwards in their seat, trying to get away from the evil teacher closing in on them. They will then start lowering their gaze, refusing to make eye contact with you in the future and that child will grow up hating English all because you stared them down back in grade one, traumatizing them for life. Life!

So what do you do instead?

If a student doesn’t answer you right away, immediately look to their neighbour, or someone with their hand up. Get the correct response from them.This is called a micro response – getting one student to give the answer. Get that answer, and then get the whole class to repeat it for the macro.

Understand?  Let me show you:

Teacher -> one student -> Teacher repeats ?? -> whole class answers

They all get to take advantage of that correct answer instead of just one kid in the class. But then, the most important thing you need to remember, which so many people don’t, is to go back to the original kid, the deer in the headlights, and give them a second chance to answer in the micro response.

Maybe they didn’t understand the question and needed to hear the answer first. Maybe they knew the answer but were shy about pronouncing some of the words. Maybe they thought they knew the answer, but being Chinese and being conditioned to being ridiculed or insulted for not giving perfect answers, they chose to remain silent until they knew for sure. Whatever the reason, you now have an excellent opportunity to get that full answer from them. You can now get them to OPEN THEIR MOUTHS and USE ENGLISH.

So like I said – don’t be the car.

Back to this awesome Chinese teacher – had they been accepting proper, 5-point-or-more sentences, this would have been darn near perfect. Get those full-sentence answers, get the micro-macro-micro responses and let them all take advantage of the proper English being spoken and used in the classroom. Full sentences. FULL. Please, for the love of Hades, don’t do this:

Teacher: “Did he want strawberries?”

Student: “No, he didn’t want strawberries.”

Teacher: “No. Did he want strawberries?”

Student: “……No, he wanted blueberries…?”

Teacher: “No. DID HE want strawberries?”

Student: “…..Oh. No, he didn’t.”

Teacher: “Great job!”


High Value vs Low Value

Low Value

I want to relate a teaching story I heard from a coworker. Actually, I’ve heard it many times, as he used to tell this story to our new recruits during every orientation session. My ORI partner and I still use it but it’s been modified as we don’t have his flair for it because it still serves a useful purpose.

I had the opportunity to go and view a local Chinese teacher’s English class. The students were well-behaved, they sat up straight and they eagerly participated in the lesson. The teacher was giving a lesson on fruits and vegetables, and she asked one student, ‘do you like apples?’  The student sat up straight and proudly answered,  ‘Yes!’

The teacher smiled, nodded and praised him. Then she asked another student a similar question – ‘Do you like strawberries?’

The student shook her head and said, ‘No, I don’t.’

The teacher clapped her hands, everyone oohed and ahhed and they all smiled because they were learning English! And it was complete and utter bull****.

A little harsh, but the sentiment is essentially correct. And just before I explain why (unless you’ve already guessed), I’ll follow that up with another of his stories he also used to illustrate the problem:

I was watching one of our foreign teachers in her classroom. There was a page in the text book that had pictures of magical items – a crystal ball, a magic wand, a wizards hat, etc. They were numbered, and below them were blank spaces in which to write the names from the word bank. The teacher gave them some time to fill it in, and then asked one of her students, ‘Which one is the wizards hat?’ The student paused, and looked at his book in confusion, so she prompted him, putting her hands on her head to help him out. “Wizards hat? Which one is the wizards hat?’

The student chewed his lip and finally uttered, ‘…three?’

The teacher cheered and clapped and exclaimed, ‘Yes! Number three is the wizards hat! Great job!’

Did any of you out there following along at home figure out what was wrong with these sentences?

To understand, let me explain something about Chinese classrooms. Chinese English lessons are full of vocabulary lists that need to be memorized, sentences patterns parroted, and grammar points to be translated. The teachers are not teaching their students to use the language – that is not their priority. Their job is to prepare their students for tests, and the tests they must pass are all based on memorization.

Chinese students are not pushed very hard, despite what you might think. The teachers are constantly answer-feeding – that is, they ask a question and then immediately follow up with the answer before anyone has time to begin to formulate a guess. They are pushed to remember,  NOT to use.

Let’s refer back to the first story. The reason my former colleague called it bull**** was because they were accepting the lowest possible value in an answer. Yes or No. It’s not rocket science, no thought is involved, and you have a 50% chance of getting the right answer. Except in this case, it’s 100% because the teacher was asking an opinion question – ‘Do you like…’. The student may have no idea what this odd word ‘strawberry is’, but they’ve memorized that the correct answer to a ‘Do you like’ question is either an yes or a no. Their personal preferences mean nothing to them – only getting the smile from the teacher that says yes, they’ve answered correctly.

Your typical low-value answers are:

Yes / No.

Yes I do / No I don’t.

Yes I like / No I don’t like.

Yes I can / No I can’t.

Yes I do / No I don’t.

These have literally no value whatsoever. The student may not have any clue about the vocabulary but they are trained to listen for those key words and formulate a canned response consisting of as few words as humanly possible.

High Value

High value answers are answers that show the student’s comprehension. Full and complete sentences are what you’re going for if you want to teach for ability, which should be the goal of every ESL/EFL teacher (I will expand on that in more detail later). We don’t care about knowledge. They can get knowledge from anywhere – books, the internet. What we need to do is give them the tools to USE the language, and we start by not accepting crap answers in the form of 3 words or less.

Let’s try the above question from that local teacher again, only this time, we’ll substitute a high-value answer.

Teacher: “Do you like strawberries?”

Student: “No, I don’t like strawberries.”

They get one point for the yes/no. They get 1 point for reversing ‘I’ for ‘you’. They one point for using a contraction. They get one point for using the vocabulary word (strawberries). They get one point for a grammatically correct sentence (words in proper sentence structure).  A 5 point answer, versus the 1 point they’d get for simply answering ‘yes’.

Let’s try another one:

Teacher: “Can dogs fly?”

Student 1: “No.”  <– 1 point.

Student 2: “No, dogs can’t fly.”

Point for ‘no’. Point for using the vocab word ‘dogs’. Point for negative (can’t) AND point for the contraction. Point for the other vocab word ‘fly’. Nice full sentence – yup, another point. A beautiful 6 point answer.

Now to address the other story… do me a favor. Go back up, re-read that second story, and count how many times the teacher said the vocab word ‘wizard hat’. Go on – I’ll wait.

Back already? I’ll give you a hint: the teacher said the vocab word 4 times. Four.  How many times did the student say the vocab words?


In teaching, we have this thing called the 80×20 rule. This is where the students speak 80% of the time, and the teacher speaks 20%. In the above example, we have this completely reversed. There are full sentences involved, but the only one saying them is the teacher.  The teacher asked a question and yes, the student did show comprehension by correctly identifying number three as the word in question, but the sum total of his verbal efforts was to say the word ‘three’.

I have news for you – he didn’t need practice saying the word ‘three’. Numbers are one of the first things every child learns here in Shanghai – either in kindergarten or in grade 1. This was a grade 3 class – I guarantee you he already knew his numbers.

The proper thing to do here would be to prompt the student for that full sentence, high-value answer:

The wizards hat is number 3.

Immediately followed by some macro-micro responses – but that would be the subject of a future post. 😀

So when you’re teaching your students, remember that those short sentences do no one any good. Get those full sentences, insist on those full sentences – and if you don’t know how to do that?

Check back for my next post. ^__^

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Posted by on March 25, 2011 in Uncategorized


You’re doing it wrong.

Anything can be taught to anyone. Any subject to any grade level. If you tell me that you can’t teach a certain subject matter to a student, my first thought is not that the content is too difficult – it’s that you haven’t done your job right. A teacher needs to know how to break down difficult material – break it down, break it up, find snippets inside it to expand on and then knit all the little snippets back together for the big finish.

One thing I always try to tell teachers is to experiment with what works. Try new things. Everything from sign language to decorative letters to inter-class postcards to play dough, to cooking with non-cook recipes. Your mileage may vary depending on the activity, the way you manage it, and your students, but there’s no reason not to try something at least once. Once you have the students interest, the comprehension will eventually follow. Trust me. They want to learn, they just don’t always know it. 😀

Every textbook has a unit on food, and once you hit grade 3, they start to talk to you about recipes and how to prepare things, like sandwiches, or fruit salad. I had an entire month dedicated to making as many non-cook classroom recipes as I could, including no-cook applesauce and fruit smoothies. The kids – if you’ll pardon the pun – ate it up.

For example, the sandwiches. Oh, the sandwiches! We made peanut butter and jam sandwiches in my G3 class after everyone’s parents signed a bilingual waiver regarding eating and food allergies. I divided them up into groups of four (I had 20 kids at the time) and then divided them again into pairs. Everyone got one piece of bread.

I did it this way because after four years of floundering, I had finally discovered the key to mastering these type of group activities. Planning. Strict, even severe planning, from step 1A all the to Z4. Everyone follows along and everyone does exactly as told. And it worked!

So yes, everyone has a slice of bread in hand. In the pairs, I had additionally labeled them 1 and 2. 1’s got the butter knife and the peanut butter. 2’s got the spoon and the jam jar. I instructed the 1’s to spread the peanut butter on the bread, and that’s where the hilarity began.

Ilia began pounding the peanut butter with her knife, trying to move across the surface by brute force. Two others neatly ripped their slices in half with the knife as they tried to spread. The only one to do it successfully was Elly, who waved me over, gave me a cheeky grin and a double V-sign and told me, “I no break the bread!”

That would be why I brought that extra loaf of bread. It did come in handy, yes indeed.

Next up was the jelly. This was fairly easy – dip, scoop, dump and spread with the back of spoon. Pretty much every 2 was able to do this fairly easily. But group 1 was having a lot of chatter, so I went to investigate – and found poor, henpecked Potato being bossed around by his seat mate Margaret.

Margaret: “Spread it more. More. This side. That side. Potato, more spread. More spread! Do you want more jam? Jam in the corner, Potato. Can I help? Can I do it?”

Potato: “I can do it! You no say you! Mandy, she is a 1, she sit down, yes?”

Recalling the rules, I told Margaret Potato had a point. She had her turn, now it was Potato’s. Margaret wasn’t satisfied.

Margaret: “Mandy, he do it wrong.”

The drama ended soon after Potato slammed a third spoonful of jam onto the bread and slopped it all over every single white space left. He held up the dripping mess for Margaret’s approval and she nodded. He had appeased her.  Thank the goddesses.

The easy part was putting the two slices together. The interesting part was cutting it in half so each pair could get one half of the sandwich. Kelly demonstrated her expertise in handling flatware as she carefully sawed through the sandwich. Jack wailed for me to help him when he accidentally pulled the top slice along with his knife where it landed jelly – and a bit of peanut butter – side down on the desk. Jack took the Ilia method of sandwich-ology – that is, he began beating his knife against the sandwich until there were several cuts through it instead of the smooth diagonal line we were going for.

In the end though, all the kids enjoyed their English snack, and carefully copied down the ‘recipe’ and the instructions. I knew this was a complete success when a few days later, several of the kids returned to class to tell me they’d convinced their parents to buy peanut butter and jam so they could make sandwiches at home. Potato told me that for several months, it was his preferred afternoon snack after school, and rather than have his grandpa bring it to him already made to nibble on during the walk home, Potato insisted on going straight home so he could make it himself. Not only did he learn English, but he picked up a few life skills as well!

I did the same thing when we studied Goldilocks and the 3 bears (we made sweet porridge with Quaker oats, brown sugar, cinnamon, hot water, a bit of milk and sweet raisins), healthy eating (fruit smoothies, with yogurt, apple juice, bananas, strawberries and kiwi’s) and when we came to the fruit salad recipe in the textbook (apples, oranges, bananas, sugar, apple juice, and lemon juice).

The key to all this is to make it English related. We start by reviewing the ingredients – mostly English food vocabulary. Then we add materials – cups, spoons, bowls, knives – basically, things found in a kitchen (and this can also be tied into an overall ‘In My Home’ kind of theme). Then we put them together and wrote a recipe complete with the materials, ingredients and then step by step instructions. This also includes new vocabulary, like ‘spread’, ‘peel’, ‘open’, ‘chop’, ‘cut’, ‘mix’ and ‘stir’. Then you wrap it up after eating by challenging them to come up with their own recipes, making substitutions, or inventing strange new ones (Insect Stew anyone?).

And of course, you stress hygiene at all times. Ingredients like fruits and veggies need to be washed, utensils need to be clean, and everyone – no exceptions – needs to wash their hands. My kids had two steps to this actually – first, they all trooped to the bathroom to wash their hands. Then when they came back, as they passed through the door, I squirted some hand sanitizer into their cupped palms. They got so good at washing their hands, they began to berate their classmates (remember I had 20 – half of them. An actual Chinese class has 40+kids in it) when they neglected to wash their hands before lunchtime.

Now, I realize not everyone has the freedom or ability – or even classroom capability to activities like these. I don’t expect everyone to. But you do have to find new ways to make your classes interesting and memorable, if you truly want your students to retain anything.

If you’re not a cooking fan, well, there’s still plenty of other things you can get them to do and try that still fits under the umbrella of English. I have a few more things to share along those lines but that will wait until the next post. ^^


It’s all about control.

Some schools provide you with training before you get started. It could be an hour of watching teaching videos, or a month of shadowing an existing teacher. It might be a week in a classroom practicing demo classes with other teachers, or going to schools to watch Chinese classes. Training for what – how to teach? Can you seriously learn that in a week? How to handle the kids? Ah, now you’re getting it. See these kids? They look adorably innocent but they will EAT YOU ALIVE if you’re not careful. ^^

The big ticket item of discussion would most definitely be classroom management and how to handle these curious, insanely intelligent children. If you can get some semblance of control over your classroom, almost every other problem that appears on our ticky list o’probs will practically disappear.

Case in point – I walked into a classroom the other day to do an evaluation. I walked in, had a brief conversation with the coordinator there, sat down, rifled through my bag to pull out evaluation papers, and took notes. The kids were so enthralled with what this teacher was doing that they never took their eyes off the board once. In fact, the only reason they noticed me at all was because the teacher pointed me out for something (an opinion on their topic of discussion) and I answered. Twenty heads spun around with wide eyes and slack-jaws, all gaping and asking, “When did she come in?”

THAT is classroom management. Or more specifically, THAT is classroom PRESENCE.

I swear, the one thing you truly need in this job and it’s something I can’t teach, or bottle up and sell. Classroom presence. That feeling of walking into the classroom knowing you’re in charge, and imparting that feeling to the students before you even open your mouth. And when you DO speak to them, it’s with such confidence, such authority that the kids can’t help but sit up and listen.

I’ve seen some very shy and quiet teachers over the years. The ones who whisper, “Guys? Be quiet please? Please? Teacher needs to talk now, can you please listen? Please?”

Begging is for dogs and three-year-olds in the candy aisle at the supermarket. You do not ask for your students’ attention – you demand it, take it, and do not let it go. But for some people, that requires a major overhaul on their personality, and it’s not easy to do. And that’s fine – I respect that. That just means we have to find another way to gain their interest.

Then on the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got the boomers. You know, the ones that are so loud and enthusiastic they scare the heck out of those teeny tiny little first graders who are blown away by the volume. You may think waving your arms around is showing enthusiasm – they see flailing fists and think ‘threat’. But you know, I actually really enjoy working with these kinds if teachers simply because they have that personality that I can mold and channel into more positive gestures. They’ve got presence – we just need to work on delivery. 😀

The one thing I can’t do is demand someone just change their personality. I was giving a mini-workshop to Chinese staff members about effective communication – the best ways to convey their opinions and suggestions to stubborn, mule-headed foreigners, and as a solution for one of the problem-solving scenarios, one of the coordinators told me that he wanted to tell a teacher to change their personality.

….I had an instant vision of an angry teacher storming into the office and yelling about how unfair it is to expect a person to change a fundamental aspect of their personality and how psychologically impossible it is for them to do so. I nearly had a spontaneous migraine just imagining this encounter and told the coordinator that if that happened, I would be coming for him next to share the pain. 😀 Okay, okay, in reality we talked about what to do in this situation and I told him I was just joking about the threatening. But still, it was a valid problem.

There are so many ways to get around classroom management problems even if you have no voice at all. I know schools here in China like seeing active and enthusiastic teachers so for our shy guys, we have tricks to get around that. Things like games that are specifically designed to get students loud and involved – but require very little input from the teacher once it’s under way. And if you properly utilize the 80 x 20 rule – that is, the students speak 80 percent of the time while speak twenty percent – the kids basically spend the whole class being loud and active while you can be your shy violet self as much as you need to.

man⋅age⋅ment:/ˈmæn ɪdʒmənt/ [man-ij-muhnt]


1. the act or manner of managing; handling, direction, or control.

I have to repeat this – seriously, ninety-five percent of all classroom problems would disappear if people utilized proper classroom control. I can give ideas out the whazoo but it does absolutely no good whatsoever if the teacher doesn’t use any of them.

We hold the points system up as the total and complete sum of all decent teaching. You can accomplish anything if you properly utilize thy blessed point system, so sayeth the experienced teachers. And to an extent, this is true. Local Chinese teachers use points systems in their classes, and we’ve all seen how well the kids behave for them!

The way it works: regardless of how many students you have, divvy them up into teams or squads, and put those teams on the board – or on paper, if you’re really keeping track. Points are given for a wide variety of reasons – anything from completing homework to raising one’s hand during class – to giving a particularly witty answer during class and making the teacher laugh. In my case, I gave them points if they got the better of me, and since they were smarter than me, they racked up a fair number of stickers, curse them ALL. 😀  Anyway, you give points freely, and kids respond to this because they like seeing physical proof – marks on the paper or on the board – of them accomplishing things.

However, this is only half the battle. The real way to utilize points is to take them away just as aggressively. Someone didn’t raise their hand – take a point. Talking out of turn – there’s another one gone. And still, this is not the whole of what you do. The last part? You need to personalize it.

Seriously, I cannot stress just how imperative it is for a foreign teacher to utilize the concept of peer policing. You want the kids to govern themselves, and their teams instead of you. So you personalize the point system: “I’m giving Team 2  three points because Jackie gave such a great answer. But I’m taking 2 points from team one because Tommy spoke Chinese instead of English.”

If you do this properly, you are pretty much guaranteed much better classroom behaviour then you had previously. But the real kicker is the rewards. Kids need proof that they did something well. Parents don’t always believe them because kids are prone to exaggerations and lying just to see a proud look on mom and dad’s faces. So you reward the teams at the end of the day or at the end of the week with stickers in their book, showing that they worked together to score the highest points in the whole classroom. Kids are highly competitive, and taking something home to their parents as proof of their success is sure to help gain their attention in your classroom.

….but no matter how many times I stress this, I can’t tell you how many classrooms I’ve walked into just to see complete chaos erupt with no management in sight. Sure, the points system is on the board, but maybe the teacher forgets it’s there. Or they give points all the time, but never take them away. That’s nearly as bad as the teachers who threaten to take points away all the time but seldom do. What you end up with then is a class full of kids who will call your bluff in a heartbeat.  You can’t just take one portion of this system and expect it to work perfectly unless you’ve got a classroom of complete angels – and do you know often that happens? There are no atheists in foxholes and there are no angels in classrooms.

So yeah, the point system is our keystone, our load bearer for classroom management. That’s not to say that’s all we rely on, but it is the main one.

I also like the ‘keep them moving’ option. This is where you come to class so well prepared, that everything flows smoothly – one activity moves directly into the next, you’re never left floundering for things to do, you don’t have to go rummaging through your bag to get stuff you need because you set it all up in advance; you’re not constantly turning your back on the class to write stuff because you got to class early to write it before class began. These kinds of teachers rarely report problems with the class, and why? Because they keep their students motivated and involved and not giving them a chance to get bored. Before they get a chance to throw that pencil box, these teachers have already called upon them to stand up and recite something, or take part in the game already underway. Adding to this is a decent use of the points system, and you’ve got the perfect class – and yet 1 or 2 teachers still stand there, scratching their heads and asking me why they didn’t get such a great class to work with.

I rarely blame students. Dude, when I was in school, the teachers who bored me got the brunt of my boredom. My French teacher from grade 6 to grade 8 – I think back on the hassles we gave her back in primary school and I find myself wanting to look up Mademoiselle Ineo to apologize for the gray hairs I’m sure we gave her. But in our defense, writing down all those verbs, conjugating them and listing whether this noun was male or female – it was dull. DULL. If we could have done more speaking games, more interesting dialog scenarios, maybe we wouldn’t have been such brats.

Same thing here – kids who are bored are not going to be even remotely interested in paying attention, much less acting like they respect you. And if you come to class with little to no preparation, you’ll get eaten alive. Little kids are like sharks and coming to class while displaying bouts of forgetfulness or unpreparedness on your part is like chumming the water.

So no, the kids, I rarely blame. If the foreign teacher was truly taking their job seriously and doing more than the bare minimum in prep work, they wouldn’t be having so many of these issues.

And yes, I can tell. I know darn well who is treating this like a real job and who is not, over the years. I can see it in the faces of the kids who happily greet their teacher or the ones who barely notice he or she’s there. I see it in the lesson plans – from the ones typed up neatly, to the ones scribbled down on ripped out sheets of note paper in point form and in handwriting so messy I can barely figure out what they’re doing. The teachers I meet at bars telling me how they have time to get a buzz going between classes – really guys, you’re not impressing anyone.

That’s the big problem with ESL teaching. There are definitely good teachers out there. I do see a lot of them, and I’m fortunate to work with so many professionals who take their job as seriously as I do. However, for every great teacher out there, there’s at least 2 or 3 who treat teaching as something fun to do to earn cash so they can move on to their next destination. Or even better – they teach to make money to support themselves until they manage to land their dream job – their entire focus is on the future and looking forward to that magical day they can quit. What do they care about the day to day running of their classrooms? They have no investment here.

But yeah, back to classroom management for teachers who actually care. You know, the hardest thing to do? It has nothing to do with points and systems and bribes. The biggest boon to teaching, the best way to captivate students attention is… something that can’t be taught. I repeat: it can’t be bottled, sold or passed along. What I’m referring to is sheer classroom presence.

I didn’t actually understand the importance of this for the longest time. I could never figure out why I had no trouble gaining the attention of my students while other teachers reported no one listening to them, or having to fight to get their attention. I just didn’t get it.

When I go into a classroom, I go in there with the attitude that it’s MY classroom and we’re gonna have fun today. We ARE going to accomplish everything on my list and we ARE going to this, that and the other thing. Everything I do is exciting because I make it that way – I wave my arms, I join in, I play with those kids. I have a naturally loud voice which can boom across a room and get that attention back in a heartbeat but that’s not the only thing – if that were the case, teachers would simply solve all their problems by investing in a microphone and speakers.

I have this saying that I pass along to teachers, primarily Primary teachers (though it does kind of filter along to most kinds of ESL training, save for adults):

Check your dignity at the door.

Seriously. You are working with KIDS – if you aren’t enjoying yourself, then chances are, neither are they. You need to act as though everything you do is the most exciting stuff in the world. Wave those arms of yours, act out songs as campy as you can. Change your voice, sing along with the songs, boogie along with the kids or conduct them with the pointer. Laugh at them, laugh WITH them and let them laugh at you.

When I go into my room, I am the most interesting thing in there. They don’t want to take their eyes off me because they don’t know what the crazy foreigner is going to do next. Maybe I’ll have them dip balls of toilet paper into water to make snowballs to throw at my snowman target on the blackboard. Maybe I’ll let them throw paper airplanes to measure distances in English. Maybe we’ll sit on the desks and wave our hands in the hair singing ‘YMCA!’ They never know what I’m going to throw at them – they only know it’s going to be interesting and fun and man, they don’t want to be left behind.

If you are having fun, then so are they. Keep that in mind, and your class will go so much easier. ^^

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Posted by on March 22, 2011 in china, shanghai, teaching


Can you name the name?

One of the perks of teaching abroad – particularly if you’re teaching young children – is the naming process. Every Chinese pupil wants an English name so he and she can be just like the teacher.

Not only do the kids want them, but naming the children was something I was told I would have to do. Miss Fan, my classroom assistant,  told me that some of the kids already had English names – Norman, Winston, Thomas, Tommy, Tony and Charley did, for example – but many of the others didn’t. Miss Fan told me I should hand out names like prizes, rewards for proper classroom behaviour. I thought about it, and then decided to just give them out and not drag it on.

My main reasoning for this was the fact that at the time, I was four days into teaching and other then the five or six students that had English names already, I was referring to everyone else as  “You there!” or “Hey!”*snapsnap* “Ýou!” and this was not a good thing. At the very least, I wanted to be able to yell something when they were causing trouble, and there was no way I could pronounce their Chinese names. Not that I knew them to begin with.

So for one entire class, that’s what I did. I had blank stickers and a black marker and I went around one by one and asked them what their Chinese name was. I tried to find an English equivalent in order to make it easier for them to remember, but this didn’t always work out. That’s when I began delving into my list of friends and family, and subsequently, my family has quite a few namesakes roaming about the streets of Shanghai today.

Miss Fan wanted an English name from me too, and this would turn into a running gag for the next two years. Naming children was one thing, but I didn’t want to be responsible for naming an adult.

My creative mind could only think of one thing to call her.

Me: “We have an English name that’s very close to your own. ‘Fawn’.”

Fan: “What does it mean?”

Me: “Fawn means ‘a baby deer’.”

Fan: “I like that name!”

Me: “Fawn?”

Fan: “Deer!”

…thankfully she later accepted my sister’s middle name – Erin – as her own. But to this day, she still laments over how she could have had the beautiful name ‘Deer’.

–       excerpt from my journal, 2005

Names are kind of important you know? We all have one, we all need one, and most of us are kinda proud of them. One of the things I hate most is hearing about a teacher bragging that he gave his kids joke names – sure it makes for a funny story at the bar. Go you, big man. But these kids look up to their teachers, they love and – in most cases – respect them, and so they don’t know any better. All they know is Teacher gave them a name, and they don’t care too much about the meaning.  Some are cute. Some are funny. One of the smartest little boys I’ve ever had the pleasure of teaching was named Potato (though to be fair, he wanted that name because the Chinese word for Potato – ‘tudou’ was in his actual Chinese name, and he understood we don’t typically name Western kids after vegetables), and during my first year here, I had the pleasure of teaching an entire fruit basket – Apple, Peach, Pear, Cherry and Mango.

….on that note, I did have a little girl in that same class named Marina. I loved that name, I thought it was beautiful and I told her so. Still, she wasn’t happy because she didn’t blend in well enough, so one day she came to me with a smile on her face:

Marina: “I have a new name, okay?”

Mandy: “Oh, but I loved your name. What’s your new one?”

Marina: *proudly*  “Banana!”

And of course, there’s a common complaint about naming kids, boy or girl, Happy. I mentioned to one teacher I had a Happy in my class, and he complained about that being such a stupid and yet so common a name to give the kids. In my defense, Happy had chosen her name because her Chinese name was ‘Gaoxing’ which literally means ‘happy’. If you ask her, she’ll tell you that the day she was born, her parents were so happy, they decided to name her as such. And it suits her personality so well. The only other name I can think of that would fit better would be ‘Sarcastic’ or ‘Smart Mouth’ but then I’d be breaking my own rules. 😀

Anyway, I went off on a tangent again. Names. Need some thought. Never mind that there is a very good chance this kids is gonna keep that name you gave them for the rest of their life; they are going to use that name if they try to go abroad and fill out paperwork, or try to get a job with a foreign company. How many ‘Killer’s’, ‘Ray Gun’s’, ‘Sparkly’s’ and ‘Nintendo’s’ have you hired recently?

So yeah, I ask that teachers put a little bit of thought into it before they make the child a joke for life in the English-speaking world.

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Posted by on March 22, 2011 in Uncategorized