TEFL in East Asia Part Two: Revenge of the TAs

This is part of a new series on teaching English as a foreign language in East Asia. Now that I have almost three months under my belt in Shanghai, it’s appropriate that I start to compare my new experiences with those of my 2012-2013 stint in South Korea. This is part one. For the other parts, once they are published, click here.


A close second in the difference category between China and Korea: teaching assistants.

In Korea, the expectation was that in the foreign teacher’s class, the students must speak only in English (‘English Only, Please!’). They were remarkably strict about this policy in most hagwons. I was known for giving detention for speaking Korean in class. That’s the whole point of having a foreign teacher; if the class is only taught in the local language the faux-immersion of English class is completely impotent.

In China, I have a teaching assistant in many of my classes. In the classes with a lot of small students, I might have two TAs. They are there to translate, help with classroom management, and mark some homework that needs to be written in Chinese. It’s helpful to have someone to bring little kiddos to the toilet, especially when they are three and might not be able to pee alone. But the downsides are immediately apparent; the kids don’t have any pressure to speak in English Only. They speak Chinese all the time. I can’t really crack down and make my classes English Only, because it would be confusing to them. I certainly can’t give detention for it. In all levels, the students speak Chinese far more often than they ever would have dared in Korea.

A worse situation with a TA came up last week when I was covering a class. A teaching nightmare: 16 five year olds in the wrong course level (too hard), taught in a dark room thanks to our interactive whiteboard, with no windows. The TA set the tone by literally snatching the remote for the air con out of my hand at the start, insisting, “I’ll do that.”

From there, he yelled angrily at students. He contradicted my lesson instructions, in Chinese! He insisted that I should do what he said, and yelled and yelled and yelled and interupted me constantly. I told him more than five times to stop, but unfortuantely didn’t know his name (he didn’t bother introducing himself). The air had completely gone out of that dark little room, and my attempts to play games brought still more yelling and eye-rolling.

The only person in that room who drew a true Teacher Voice out of me was him. “Just stop it!” I eventually snapped.

“They’re fighting!”

The two boys were practically playing patty-cake.

Listen No Name. I’ve seen first graders actually fighting. I’ve broken them up with my own hands when they started punching at the eyes in the hallway in Chile. I’ve put my own body between a teenaged bully and his target, daring him to hit me if he was going to hit anyone.

This is not. Not. Fighting.

“This is my class. I will manage it.” More eye-rolling. The class never recovered.

No Name was eventually thrown out of my class during the break by my director. But by then, the whole thing was off the rails. And I spent the next four days questioning my abilities and tolerances as a teacher. But I’m no greenhorn. I know he was overstepping his role.

This situation would never have arisen in my Korean school. And for that, there much the better. Teaching Assistants may give a bit of peace of mind to the parents and peering grandparents, but they can at times defeat my entire class.

Yesterday I had a TA who didn’t even look up much from her iPhone during the class. She didn’t move around to help the kids or do much except interrupt me toward the end of class when she realised she had not yet photocopied the homework. And you know what? It was the best young elementary class I’ve had since moving to China. The kids listened to me, really listened. There were no troubles with discipline. We got through all the book work, and did a whole other handout. Everybody, even Winnie, got a sticker!

I wish that I could have the same situation as in Korea, and not have to worry about the TAs. Of course, many of the TAs are great! They are helpful when they are needed, and they stay out of the way when they aren’t needed. I caught one of my favourites, a quiet young man in his 20s, helping a student to ‘fly’ off the stairs to bathroom in a private show of friendship and responsibility. He doesn’t know I saw it. Still, I wish he was a teacher and not a TA.

Next time: Part Three, or High Stakes Testing

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