“Penguins wabble” my student says. I’ll call him Steve. Steve saw my short 30-second intro video and chose me as his teacher. He is one of many of my students at DadaABC, an online one-on-one English teaching company that caters to kids in China (Apply here).
“No Steve, peguins don’t wabble. They waddle. D-d-d.” There’s a picture of baby penguins.
“Nope! W-a-d-d-l-e.” I say it as slowly and clearly as I can, moving my face up to the camera so he can clearly see how my mouth is making the sounds.
“Wabble.” As with the word apple, the “l” sound comes out more like “o”.
“Alright, let’s move on.” This particular set of slides kept repeating the same vocabulary over and over again. “You know these. What are they?”
“They are ducklings!” Correct. With all the animals that have specific names for the young offspring, I don’t know why penguins were left out, they just get stuck with being called ‘baby penguins.’
“Yes! And what can ducklings do?”
“They can run!” Steve says. He is always happy. He is six, and his bookshelf background says a lot more about the character of his home than my four colorful posters and white wall say about mine.
“Yes!” I give him a yellow star. This the default reward system for the kids, though teachers are encouraged to come up with their own. They can get a maximum of five stars per class, and after accumulating enough stars they can earn rewards, i.e. toys (there’s also a reward-point system for teachers, but that subject could fill a book and goes beyond the scope of this story).
“Alllriiiight, what are these?” I say, moving to the next animal.
“They arrrrrrrre…..kolas!” Not bad.
“Almost, listen and say: Ko-a-las.”
“Koalas.” I do the usual TPR of putting my finger to my ear (well, my headset) to indicate ‘listen’, and then moving my hand away from my mouth for ‘say.’
“What can koalas do?”
“They can climb!” Right again. We had gone over all these animals previously, but he picked them up quickly.
I use my red ‘pen’ to circle the tree the koalas are climbing. I prefer switching between red and black, but sometimes I go with yellow if there’s a dark background.
“Yes! And what do they climb?” This question is trickier for him.
“They…..climb….a……..” I keep circling the tree and then clicking the Erase All button. It’s a habit.
“It’s a tree. It’s….a….tree.”
“Tree!!” he says.
Zebras can run. Tigers can walk. Kangaroos can jump. Sea turtles can crawl.
At some point I hear something crash in the background. Steve turns his head. I hear his mom tell him:
“上课！” Shang Ke (literally “on lesson”, in this context, “pay attention”).
Sometimes Steve shows me some of his toys. A couple of weeks ago he proudly showed me a toy of his that looked like an indiscriminately assembled clump of multicolored Legos (“This is my dog!” he had said).
But usually he just smiles and goes along with the lesson. Most six year-olds aren’t so easily entertained by pictures of animals.
We get to the slide with the polar bears. Polar bears can hug.
“Teacher, can you hug?” he asks. I have a pillow behind me. I grab it and hug it. He thinks it’s hilarious. I keep doing the lesson pretending I don’t have a giant pillow in my way.
“I can hug my mom” he says.
Alright, so not every Chinese student is exactly like Steve. There are challenges in any job. Some kids want to speak only in Chinese. Some need more encouragement than others. Some need more games and laughter to get them engaged. Some are just shy and don’t want to speak.
This kind of challenge and unpredictability underpins what makes this job much more enjoyable than most others. A few years ago I came across a three-minute clip of an Alan Watts’ talk in which he begins by repeating a question he poses to his students: “What would you do if money were no object?” The clip is quite good, but there’s a lot more to the speech. He later points out that as much as each of us chases after power, we don’t really want to play God. When we really want is to be surprised — pleasantly surprised.
Kangaroos can jump. Birds can fly. People can ___________
Working for Dada has provided a nice mix between being able to see my regular students on a regular basis, while also adding in other students I’ll likely only meet once. I’ve taught three year olds, sixteen year olds, and every age in between. It can be tiring, but it’s rarely boring.
Not bad for twenty-plus US dollars an hour.
If you’re interesting in teaching Chinese kids English from home part-time, wherever you are in the world, and you think you’d make a good teacher, apply now!