One Easy Step to Foolproof Humility


You wanna know how to get humble quickly? Teach English as a foreign language.

The instant you step into the classroom and open your mouth and are greeted by blank stares from at least half of the class, you will feel like a failure. After all, communication is one of the most basic things in life. You learn to talk in your native language when you’re so little that even jumping is an accomplishment. Speaking is something we all do as easily as we breathe, and we just assume that people will understand us and know what we’re saying.

All of that changes when you move to a foreign country. Suddenly, your language is no longer the dominant one, and the people who speak it may have never even seen a foreigner before, much less heard the strange accent with which you speak. And your vocabulary–when you think you’re using simple words–may be even more of a headache. Simple idioms that everyone uses where you’re from (think “happy as a clam” or “so far, so good”) may (and probably will) stymie foreign speakers.

Add the language barrier to the fact that you’re unsure of what you’re supposed to teach and when and suddenly your stress levels become much higher. If you’re like me, you’ll worry about whether your lesson plans can possibly be organized enough for the students to know what you want them to do, if maybe you should have covered other aspects of argumentative essays in your last PowerPoint (which, by the way, I EXTREMELY dislike using. . . but it saves me money on giving out handouts. . .). You’ll wonder if they will end their semester knowing only vaguely more about writing than they did when they went into it. But since there wasn’t anything more you knew how to do, you figure they’ll probably know a little more. . .and you haven’t ruined their English speaking skills yet, so maybe it was all right. Although some of them still struggle with subject-verb agreement and using articles.

When you begin grading their papers for the semester, it’ll be even worse. You’ll constantly doubt whether you gave a fair grade–maybe so and so really deserved an A, and you gave an A-. Or maybe you’re being too easy on everyone and should give more B- and C grades. On top of that, you feel like you really should give everyone comments on their paper to tell them what you liked and what needed improvement, but then on the 90th paper (out of 110) you have only five minutes before the next class starts so you throw all your careful grading out the window, slap a grade on it, and move to the next. Surely they value actually having a graded paper returned to them instead of one with lots of comments but no grade or one returned a week later!

Anyways, I only have around 60 papers left to grade before 8:00 a.m. tomorrow, when I’ll have another 110 (handwritten, no less!) slung at me. Yes, for finals here (which are 50% of their grade, no less–how am I ever supposed to grade THOSE fairly??), they have to write an entire essay in an hour and a half. Thankfully, they’re generally short essays. And all my objective fairness doesn’t really matter anyways–I can only give 20% As, even if there are more students who deserve an A. But that’s China for you!

Pray for me–I’m off to grade papers! (And I’m sure I’ll become more humble in the process.)

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10 thoughts on “One Easy Step to Foolproof Humility

  1. Pingback: 2015: Year in Review | Milk and Pickles

  2. Scott

    I’m actually about to start my first graduate class next week on TESOL, so I appreciate you insights into teaching English abroad. Did you get a TESOL certificate? If so, what program did you go through?

    I waver between being hypercritical and being way too easy on people (I usually give the highest one or two ratings when I fill out a survey, no matter what), so I have no idea how I’m going to grade fairly!

    1. Hi Scott! I went through the CELTA course (it’s run by Cambridge university and they have courses all over the world), and got a CELTA certificate. It was quite helpful for knowing what to teach and organize lessons and stuff.

      The way I try to grade fairly is to find a grading rubric online and stick to it as closely as possible. That way, if I have to take off points, at least they know why I did!

      1. Scott

        I’ve heard good things about CELTA. Did you feel like it adequately prepared you? Had you had any teaching experience before.

        Duh! A rubric. I have a lot to learn about teaching, haha.

      2. I think the CELTA prepared me pretty well. Obviously they can’t teach you everything in a four week course, but it definitely helped me know more about lesson planning and stuff. And I’d only had experience teaching violin before, so nothing huge!

  3. RC

    You know, I really appreciate these insights into what it is like to live where your form of communication isn’s common, and is maybe even rare or non-existent. Thank you, Annika! 🙂

      1. RC

        I don’t think it sounded too much like complaining. You have a light tone and add humor to your writing which helps. 🙂

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