I went on my first home visit of the year last weekend. This one was different than the other ones I have been on, because I did it alone. No Chinese support, no helping hand when things get awkward–Just me and “May” (My 4th grade student), her mom, dad, and grandparents. May is the sassiest girl I know. Most girls in my classes are very quiet. They might stutter before the speak, and I typically have to ask them to repeat their answers or to 大声一点 (Speak a little louder).
May was also my 3rd grade student last year. She struggles in other subjects, but she is fearless in English. I knew she was special when she started responding to my Chinese questions with an English “No Miss Hannah!” or asking for water by saying “Can I have some water Miss Hannah?”. Simply put, she was the first student to recognize that English, like Chinese, is a language that can be used to communicate ideas, not just something you are required to study.
For this reason, I obviously took to her, as she is an inquisitive, brave learner. We just clicked.
Her father is a doctor at the local hospital, and her mother started working at the school cafeteria this year. Since the start of the school year, her mother has repeatedly approached me about going on a home visit. I thought she was just being polite until about 2 weeks ago. She was concerned that I would be leaving after 2 years, so she approached me to ask me to stay another 2 years –“It will be very hard for May if you leave. She says that she does not want to study English with anyone else. She mentions you multiple times a week. If you stay 4 years, then you can teach May until she goes to middle school.”
I wanted to look at her and tell her, “Yes, I will stay for four years. I promise.”, as there are days I love my students so much that I tell myself I will stay. It was painful to tell her that my contract was ending after 2 years.
I told her I had decided to go spend the weekend at her home.
The generosity of the people I meet here seems to be endless. Per usual, I was carrying my red trekking bag to take the 1.5 hour hike. May’s mother insisted on carrying it the whole way. I refused her offer about 10 times until she finally took the bag from me. Not only did she carry my bag but found a way to continuously offer me snacks.
1.5 hours later, May knew how to say: bridge, flower, squirrel, grass, tree, plant, bug, and peas–all due to her own curiosity.
The generosity continued as we arrived at May’s home. My clothes were quickly replaced with her mother’s fancy pink coat, as her mom insisted on hand washing the sweater I had worn on the hike.
I had brought a variety of tools to foster the bonding process: English books, flash cards, the movie “Cinderella”, and four years of pictures on my computer. All were used! May’s favorite was obviously “Cinderella”. I felt like a sort of older sister, as we laid on the bed and watched it together. I observed her as she huffed and puffed at the wicked step mother. It reminded me of how I must have felt watching Cinderella as a child. We both fell asleep as were watching the movie, to be woken up by the smell of spicy hot pot.
I met her grandparents over dinner. Their Baizuhua (language) was just too thick for me to understand, so May had to translate everything they said for me.
I reflected on the challenges for minority students in rural China. May is considered to be a privileged child in our context. The fact that both of her parents speak Mandarin gives her a unique advantage in our village. Other students that do not have this sort of exposure struggle in all subjects as they transition into the purely “Mandarin” environment. There are so many layers to education inequity. For example, I am teaching at Liu He Elementary School, as it is an under resourced school. From the perspective of people in this mountainous area though, my school is the best school in the area.
Half of my 4th grade students come from a village 4 hours away, and the school they attended in 3rd grade did not have the resources to provide them with English. Therefore, they are already a year behind. It may not seem like much, but a year’s worth of English is enough to provide you with the building blocks of the language.
May’s village has a smaller elementary school, but it has much less resources than Liu He Elementary School. Her parents can afford to send her to a school 1.5 hours away from home. May’s parents have also already planned to send her to Heqing, the best, closest option for middle school. As for high school and college, her parents say her scores are too low. To be honest, the odds are indeed against her. The closest high school is about 2 hours away, and you have to be the BEST of your class to go. So, even though she will be lucky enough to go to Heqing for middle school, she will be competing against students that have already had a better elementary school education than she has. It is possible, but there are only so many spots available.
The complexity of this problem had caused me to lose touch with the moment entirely. My focus quickly snapped back to the delicious hot pot I was eating when I noticed that the grandma was touching my hair and smiling. Everyone laughed, of course. May went on to say “Miss Hannah has long, yellow hair” (a sentence structure she had just learned in Unit 3).
After dinner, May’s family got dolled up for me to take a picture of them–hence the crown on May’s head.
At the request of May, round 2 of Cinderella needed to happen. Midway through the movie, around 9pm, I heard the death cries of a chicken. Shortly after, I discovered that her father had killed a chicken for us to have an 11pm “chicken noodle” snack. He was concerned I would be hungry, and killing an animal is a sign of hospitality here.
As I prepared to leave the next morning, May asked me if I would stay for four years. I told her I could not, and in classic May style she responded by saying, ” I will not study English under anyone else but you, and I will intentionally not make good grades if you leave.” I told her that she was not studying English to please me, but for her own academic achievement. She cutely smiled and said, “I know.”
After weekends like this, I am conflicted as to my role as a Teach for China fellow. Right when I feel like I am becoming the teacher I want to be, I have to leave. What impact have I had here? This is a complicated question, and when it’s raised, I tend to just stick to what I can absolutely be sure of. I am sure of the following:
- My students and I have connected .
- I have seen many struggling students blossom in my class.
- My students are happy in English class.
- My students are confident in English class.
- My students like learning English.
- My students have learned valuable study habits in my class.
- My students and I communicate both inside and outside of the classroom.
I am confident that the above statements are true.
As for my long-term impact, it is not clear yet. I can only hope, just like every fellow hopes, that my relationships with my students along with my classroom instruction will have a lasting impact—whatever that means. For every student, this could mean something different. For May, it might mean a love for English. For Trey, it might mean learning to wash his hands before coming to class. For Kelly, it might mean learning how to raise her hand in class. For Brandon, the principal’s son, it might very well mean a ticket to a US college one day. Who knows! Impact manifests itself in countless ways. In fear of constricting it, giving impact a one-dimensional definition does not seem right. I am just going to let it breathe.