Barrett Teaches English in China

Nick Barrett ’19 was a History and Economics double-major at Saint Anselm College whose senior thesis in the History Department’s research seminar was about the impact of World War II on the Maine lobster industry. Barrett is now about as far away from Maine as one can be—he’s been teaching English in Shenzhen, China, since late August. One Thing after Another was intrigued by Barrett’s story, so this blog decided to ask him some question about his unusual experiences.

Q: What grade level of students do you teach English to? What level of language proficiency would you say your students leave your class with?

A: I teach 7th and 8th grade Oral English. I see each class once every two weeks, and I teach 12 classes a week. Each class has roughly 50 students. In total, I teach 1200 students. The level of English in every class varies greatly from student to student, and so I am working on making sure that students can recognize certain conversational English words. I make sure that students use their English in class, and I speak no Chinese, so I only use English during the class. Ideally, my students understand what I am saying to them and are able to respond correctly and coherently.

Q: What is the most challenging part of your job?

A: The sheer number of students I have is fairly daunting. Luckily, I do not have to give homework, quizzes, or exams, but because I have 1200 students, I have a hard time developing a relationship with them. I am a novelty to them, and they all enthusiastically yell “Hello!” as I walk by, but I cannot even begin to learn all of their names and understand the best way to handle each individual student. It’s hard to see progress in your students when you teach this way, so I do feel a little frustrated. My Chinese teachers claim my students are making progress, and that talking with me does allow them to become more proficient in their spoken English — a skill that is becoming more and more important in China.

Q: Why did you want to teach in China, and when did you make the decision? Would you want to teach anywhere else or teach any other subject?

A: China was really my best offer. I did not explore the ESL market much, and I have learned that the traditionally large ESL markets such as South Korea, Japan, and the Czech Republic are becoming saturated; job security and wages are precarious. Countries such as China and Vietnam are becoming more popular for ESL teachers because of increased opportunities and wages. I also welcomed the opportunity to work in China, as it is the second largest economy in the world and a basic understanding of the culture and Mandarin would not hurt future employment opportunities.

Q: How did you become an English teacher in China? What qualifications were required?

A: The process was fairly simple. I signed a contract with SeaDragon Education in March 2019. I then had to complete an online TEFL course to become certified in teaching ESL in a foreign country.  After that, I had a few hoops to jump through to get a working visa, but my company aided me with the whole process. SeaDragon Education also found me a school to work in (they facilitate the placement and payment of foreign teachers throughout Shenzhen) well before I got there—which is not always the case for foreign teachers. When I got to China in the last week of August, I quickly found an apartment, had some basic teacher training, met with my school, and taught my first class the following week.

Q: Are there any interesting stories pertaining to your classes or your life in China that you would be willing to share?

A: One of the more interesting parts about my life here is how international my friends  are. I have friends from all over the globe, all of whom are ex-pats and foreign teachers. The community of foreign teachers is large and allows us all to support each other because we are all, well, foreign.  Some of the normal conveniences we enjoy at home are not available here here, and being able to hop on WeChat (the Chinese messenger app) and send a message to a huge group of teachers and instantly receive feedback is incredibly helpful. You can find answers to questions ranging from simple things like how to use a certain delivery service to something as complex as what hospital to go to in case of an emergency. I also have many Chinese friends whom I have met at school. They speak very little English, but we play in a teacher’s basketball league together so I have become fairly close with the teachers who play. They, too, are a great resource if I ever have any questions about how to get by.

Q: Why did you decide to become a history major? How has this helped prepare you for your current vocation?

A: I had 8 credits from my AP history courses when I came to Saint A’s, and I have always enjoyed History, but I also knew I wanted major in Economics.  Instead of choosing between the two, I decided to do both.  And it didn’t hurt that the History and Economics & Business departments are in the same building. I also wanted to be sure I knew how to analyze and present information effectively which is a major part of my job here. I explain concepts to students who do not speak the same language as I do, so I have to research creative ways to explain the concepts and then implement them effectively in the classroom. I also do a decent amount of writing with lesson planning, so the basic skills I learned in history classes really help me with writing my lesson plans. I also believe that being a History major in a foreign country is a huge advantage, since learning about new cultures and what drives them was already a major part of my education. You appreciate the culture more if you know the history of it. Living abroad, I get to experience a new culture up close and personal, not through explanations in textbook or a monograph.

Q: What do you plan to do afterwards?

A: I have no plans.  I have the option to renew my contract here after the current school year, but I have not thought that far ahead yet.

“So, What are you doing on your sabbatical” Part II: Talking Tiananmen

Professor Masur is on sabbatical this semester. Some of you may be wondering: what exactly does a history professor do while on sabbatical? This is the second entry in what may be a regular series of posts from Professor Masur about how he is spending his time.

During a department meeting last fall, Professor Salerno (our Department Chair) suggested that we give public lectures as a way to reach out to the campus community and give students a chance to learn about history outside of the classroom. It just so happens that I had been mulling the idea of some kind of talk in conjunction with the thirtieth anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations. Because I would be on sabbatical in the spring, I felt that I could take the time to prepare a lecture without, say, worrying about a stack of papers that needed to be graded.

Tiananmen Square made sense as a topic. For our students—most of whom were born at least a decade after the demonstrations—Tiananmen is a bit of a mystery. Many of them are familiar with some of the famous images from the protest, but they may not have a deeper understanding of the origins, historical significance, or current relevance of the demonstrations. And even those of us who were alive at the time may be interested in revisiting those dramatic days of 1989.

The talk took place last week, well in advance of the anniversary of the demonstrations. The timing more necessity than choice—the calendar will be pretty full in March and April (including with talks from Professor Dubrulle and Professor Perrone), so it made sense to do the talk earlier in the semester. Nevertheless, we had a good turnout—to borrow a phrase from Sean Spicer, it was “the largest audience ever” to witness a talk at Saint Anselm. (Don’t believe anyone who says otherwise, even if they have data to support their claims. Haters.)

What did the lucky attendees learn, other than that I have some trouble operating PowerPoint? For those who could not attend, here is a brief overview:

First, I provided a summary of the demonstrations. The protests began in mid-April after the sudden death of Hu Yaobang, former General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party who had lost his position because of his moderate views. In subsequent weeks, additional students, workers, and local residents joined the demonstrations, and they began calling for various political and economic reforms. Hardline Party leaders felt threatened and, after some deliberation, declared martial law in May. In early June, troops from the People’s Liberation Army violently suppressed the protests, killing and injuring an unknown number of demonstrators and bystanders.

Second, I explained the motives of the protesters. Although the demonstrations were ostensibly about honoring Hu Yaobang, the student protesters used the initial demonstrations as a way to criticize other CCP leaders, such as Deng Xiaoping. Many of the demonstrators simply rebelled against the suffocating control of the Party. And as the demonstrations grew, it became clear that the demonstrators were motivated by growing disappointment with political and economic conditions in China. Economic liberalization had brought prosperity but had stalled. Inflation cut into economic gains, and some workers were in danger of losing their job security. It had also led to endemic corruption, with high-ranking Party members profiting enormously from economic reforms. There was a general feeling of “malaise” among many Chinese in the late 1980s that fueled the protests.

Deng Xiaoping (L) and Hu Yaobang (R). Image source.

Third, I explained why these demonstrations were so threatening to hardliners in the Party. For one thing, Deng Xiaoping may have been feeling vulnerable because his popularity was already in decline. He had also been the victim of political attacks during the Cultural Revolution, which may have made him leery of the student demonstrators. The growing participation of workers in the movement was especially alarming. Workers were theoretically the base of the Communist Party—their discontent undermined the Party’s credibility. Plus worker unrest could threaten China’s economic growth. Finally, the demonstrations unfolded at a critical time. Several Eastern European countries had just experienced serious domestic challenges to Communist rule, which served as sort of a cautionary tale to hardliners in China. And Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to China in the middle of the crisis guaranteed that the world’s attention would be on Beijing. All of these factors led Deng Xiaoping and other hardliners to declare martial law and forcefully end the protests in early June.

The last part of the talk described China’s efforts to erase the memory of Tiananmen Square. This spring, we will undoubtedly see numerous examples of the Chinese Communist Party censoring references to the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. This effort has been going on for years, and with some success: in People’s Republic of Amnesia, Louisa Lim describes her surprise to find that many current college students in Beijing are unfamiliar with the famous “Tank Man” image. She also describes the Party’s strategy of using economic growth and stirring up nationalism to legitimize Communist rule and preclude opposition.

Honor guards attend a flag-raising ceremony at Tiananmen Square in 2017. Under President Xi Jinping, China has ambitiously pressed its advantage almost everywhere at once.

Flag-raising at Tiananmen Square, 2017. Image source.

I ended the talk with a slight note of optimism. In spite of the Party’s efforts, information about Tiananmen does break through the wall of censorship. Every year, images circulate on social media—even in China—that draw attention to the events of 1989. Chinese censors will certainly be active this spring, but it is just as certain that Chinese citizens will continue to find ways to remember Tiananmen.

Marking 25th anniversary of China's Tiananmen Square takes creativity

Covertly remembering June 4, 1989 (89/6/4) at Tiananmen Square, 2014. Image source.


Stedman Teaches History–and Football–at BC High

Some weeks ago, One Thing after Another received a friendly note from alum Bernie Stedman ’08 who now teaches history at his alma mater, Boston College High School. As is often the case, this blog could not let Stedman get away without an interview, especially after it reviewed his Rate My Teachers ratings. Stedman kindly acquiesced, and what follows is the result.

Q: One Thing after Another recalls that you were simply a history major as an undergraduate and that you were not involved in the secondary education program at Saint Anselm College. Were you always interested in teaching, or did you head in that direction after graduation? In other words, how did you become a teacher?

A: I can say that I knew I wanted to become a teacher pretty early in my freshman year. I had always entertained the idea, as my mother, uncle, and grandfather were all teachers and, obviously, the notion of summers off was tremendously appealing! But I would say that during my freshman year I experienced a confluence of finding a strong interest in studying history as well as feeling the pull towards a career in teaching. However, I found that pursuing education classes would diminish my experience in history, so I chose to fully invest myself in a history major and take some education courses when I could spare the time.

Q: Boston College High School is a prestigious institution. How did you position yourself to obtain a job there?

A: I count myself blessed to be a part of Boston College High School. Obviously, I feel that my being an alumnus of the school had a great deal to do with my being able to secure an interview for the job opening, but I also benefited from having been a history major. Since BC High is a college preparatory school, it often focuses on finding candidates who majored in the field they teach and who have had at least some experience in the classroom. Fortunately, I had been a substitute teacher in the Quincy public school system for a couple of years, so I had both the degree and the classroom experience. In addition to that, I had been coaching football and basketball during my time as a sub. Many educators view coaching as an extension of the classroom, and in this particular case I believe the school was looking for someone with experience in both coaching and teaching.

Q: In the school directory, you are listed as a Social Studies teacher, but you got in touch with our department because you are teaching a new course on World War II. What does your teaching rotation look like? What is your favorite class to teach?

A: At BC High, teachers have a lighter course load (four total classes) than most school teachers who typically have five classes. This year, I am teaching a senior elective on WWII, two sections of US History AP (which consists mostly of juniors), and one section of freshman world history. I generally ask to have three different classes because I enjoy having students in different class years. My favorite class to teach is US History AP because I have always been partial to that field, and the course is made up of high-achieving students who are very committed to doing well. This dynamic affords me the opportunity to teach it as a college-level course and put a particular emphasis on the material itself. This was the environment I experienced  at Saint Anselm College, and it’s why I loved studying history.

Q: One Thing after Another’s sources, which are omniscient and omnipresent, indicate that you coach football for Boston College High School. Coaching is a form of teaching; do you find much crossover between instructing students in the classroom and on the football field?

A: I take great joy in coaching football for many of the same reasons that I enjoy teaching US History AP. It is most definitely an extension of the classroom and a form of teaching. And, like US History AP, it is full of kids who are devoted, and willing to work hard and learn. That creates an atmosphere that cultivates strong bonds between you and your students, which is the basis of good teaching. One of the challenges of coaching football is to stress the importance of the teaching dynamic in such a highly competitive environment. Many coaches are not teachers by trade and so it is all the more important to be a classroom teacher on the field in order to maintain the culture and identity of the school. This is a challenge and a task I take very seriously and enjoy very much.

Q: To what extent do you believe your liberal arts education and your major in History helped prepare you for your current position?

A: I would not be in my current position without my liberal arts education. All of the abilities I possess that make me an effective teacher I owe to my education. The ability to think critically, analyze material, engage in discourse, and see situations from different perspectives are skills that my liberal arts education honed for me. I always try to put these at the forefront of my teaching because these are paramount. This is what I try to impart to my students more than details and material from class, because I feel that without the ability to think, write, and speak, knowledge of history, literature, or religion would be useless.

Q: According to Rate My Teachers (yes, we have stooped so low as to check that site), your students think the world of you, and in their inimitable way, their comments indicate that you are hilarious in the classroom. Why do you think you’ve made such an impression on your students?

A: When I teach, I always try to remember the teachers who made me want to be a teacher, and I simply try to emulate them in my own way. At the risk of embarrassing Professor Dubrulle, he was one of my primary inspirations. I always admired the way he was able to incorporate who he was into the material he taught, so whenever I took one of his classes, it felt like something other than a professor conveying material. There was always a richness to lectures because it was obvious that he loved what he studied and what he taught. I try to be the same way in my classroom. I try to incorporate who I am into what I teach so that the subject matter and the exercise of studying history can be more rewarding for both me and my students. I always try to remember the sage advice a teacher gave me: if you are not having fun and sharing a few laughs every now and again, then all you have is history, and most teenagers don’t want that.

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.