This semester I'm teaching a new ESL class for Chinese immigrants. They work in a Chinese restaurant in a nearby town.
After the first two classes with them, I wondered why I was walking on air. Driving home, I realized it wasn't my teaching methods or the minds of my students that had me so thrilled about this class; it was simple flattery. In faltering English, every one of them thanked me after class. They were sincerely grateful, and showed it every minute of class by being deeply engaged.
I thought of the backwards-baseball-cap guy in the back row of my Creative Writing class this semester, how he keeps a whispered running commentary going to the young women on either side of him. He actually snickers when I enter the room. So far, I've tried to staunch his behavior by calling on him repeatedly, which shows him up as unprepared, but doesn't seem to discourage him.
So I know the next step's coming, and I dread it because of the chain of time-consuming defense on both our parts that it will set off. I'll first ask him to change his seat and shut up, and then I'll probably have to kick him out of class permanently. He'll then go to the dean and complain, and then I'll have to defend myself. The administration is always understanding about this, well-acquainted with the large percentage of traditionally-aged students in this state university who aren't ready for college and have no clue what they're doing there. But it's just a bother, and complicates course-preparation with strategizing, usually on my drives to campus, setting up bad associations with going to work.
I was mentioning my new ESL class to my writer's group the other day, commenting on how wonderful it feels to be thanked at the end of class, and a woman said angrily that one third of the top students at our leading colleges are Asian. She wasn't mad at the Asians, of course. She was miffed at the lack of respect for teachers US students have, and assumed that this is the reason for the statistic.
I reminded her of Peter Hessler's wonderful book Rivertown, in which he cites his Chinese students' facility at rote learning, repetition, and copying. He contrasts it with the individualism we encourage in this culture. These culturally-based talents in Asian students happen to facilitate ready adaptation to a new culture as well as the classroom. Just as Hessler's Chinese students picked up and responded to poetry faster and more avidly than his American students, my Chinese students pick up fluency of phrasing faster than any other group of students I've worked with. Their culturally-based talents for keen listening and repeating or mimicking enable them to pick up the rhythm of speech so quickly it's uncanny.
And so I think the statistics of Asian achievement in US schools aren't based just on their cultural reverence for teachers and learning. It's that plus the talents their culture has conditioned in them, and surely other factors I'm not yet aware of. But this makes it no less thrilling to be thanked every day at the end of class. Something so simple as "Thank you teacha" makes me newly aware of all that's missing in my relationship with native-speakers in the classroom. Or maybe I'm just burned-out and it's time to retire.