Training wheels

For ten years I worked full-time as an American Sign Language interpreter. For six years I worked in a hospital. My job was very serious, and I took it very seriously. Pressure to get every word right was high. Medical decisions were on the line.

I now work in a kindergarten doing 20–30 minute lessons with 3–5 year olds. Flashcards, songs, games, chants. I blow bubbles. I clap my hands. I dance. I ask over and over “what’s this?”, “how many?”, “where?”. Forgive me if I can’t bring myself to take this job quite as seriously.

I had such hopes for this. My agency, like many schools and staffing agencies in China, specifically hires people without teaching credentials. Those with teaching credentials (I believe we call these people “teachers”) are in higher-paying positions at international schools. I (a “non-teacher”) am at a school that put the word “international” up on its sign but is, in fact, just an overpriced Chinese kindergarten in a remote subdistrict of Shenzhen.

Three of the agency’s Chinese staff have left “for personal reasons” recently, including my direct superior. Her replacement, who’s never met me, messaged me this week, passing along feedback from the school about me.

The school is unhappy with me. Unsatisfied with “the teaching result”. The parents think the English program is fake. The kids’ English level hasn’t improved. They still can’t answer basic questions.

I’ve heard this all before from the school principal, but for some reason it hit differently this time, seeing it all laid out in writing, staring me in the face. A shock of emotions hit me like a wave. Fear icy in my stomach and shame burning in my throat. The treadmill of my thoughts speeding up, faster and faster. I took a breath. I should pause here, I thought to myself, process my emotions before responding.

Did I? No. I shot off a long reply. “I’m sorry the school isn’t happy with me, I’m not happy here either. Perhaps you could move me to a different grade level or let me out of my contract and find a better teacher for this school.” Phew. There it is. I said it.

Her reply? “Sorry, Anna, that’s what the school told me. I have another meeting to go to now. I’ll come to the school next week to check things out.”

I am not suited to this position, but I am trying. My behavior management as a first year non-teacher teacher is, as you can imagine, lacking. I imagine I would do better in a lecture scenario, but with students this young who don’t speak a word of English, it’s more entertainment and catching their attention and stickers and candy than any kind of meaningful linguistic exchange. God, I want to talk to them.

Another year and a half of this. My coworker, the other foreign teacher in the school, supplies more context. Three foreign teachers have left already. It seems no one is happy at the school, and the school is not happy with anyone. It also seems that the parents are not happy with any aspect of the school, including the Chinese side of things. It paints a picture of a failing school, a failing agency, and an overall not so dreamy situation.

What are my options? I can petition my agency to transfer me. In fact, I’ve already broached this subject with my previous reply. I expect they will continue to brush me aside. I can leave my contract early and pay the penalty, which is 20,000–30,000元, or $3,000-$4,500USD. It’s more than an entire month’s pay. How much is my happiness worth?

If I leave my contract, other problems develop. I have to find a new job. I have to make sure my visa is safe. The visa issue is by far the biggest issue. My agency can, at their discretion, cooperate by giving me my release papers and allowing me to transfer my working visa to my new job. Or, they can refuse. They can actually cancel my visa entirely, rendering me an illegal alien in China. I can be deported, even blacklisted.

I’ve met others who have left my agency on bad terms, paid the penalty, even gone to court, and are still in China, in new positions, working. I feel stuck, frustrated and ashamed for letting my fear keep me stuck. On the one hand, I know I am tough, and I am not in danger. I can go to this job, do it to the best of my ability, and there’s no real way to fail. If the school fires me, then my agency has to transfer me to another school or let me out of my contract, so I get what I want in the end.

I just have to withstand my mercurial school principal and the frequent complaints, meetings, lack of communication, and pop-quiz-like demands. A part of me feels like this is actually a good inoculation for China’s work culture. Once I’ve endured this, a little poor communication or overtime will be a cakewalk.

Whatever happens, I will not let this this school, this agency, define my experience of China. I have my own goals here, let’s not forget, and though I am crawling now, using the training wheels of this agency, learning the language, learning the culture and customs, slowly but surely, I will get my feet under me, and when I do, I’m gonna run. Free and wild and sure.

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