A Year of Firsts
By: Saskia Kroesen, WorldTeach China Volunteer
My year in China has been a year full of firsts: my first year no longer a student, my first time moving to a foreign country alone, my first time living alone, my first time in Asia, my first time trying all sorts of delicious Chinese foods— the list goes on. But the first that stands out most is definitely my first time being a teacher. Sure, when I applied for a position with WorldTeach I was aware I would be teaching classes for the next year, and yes, during orientation while learning techniques on how to be a successful teacher I also knew that all of this was for a reason… but it was not until that first time I was standing in front of 60 students, their bright eyes looking up expectantly at me, did it hit me that I was, in fact, a teacher. All those firsts are milestones, but they are comparatively small: they only impact me. Being a teacher changes you in a way, I think; that moment you realize you can actually influence these kids lives, even if it is just a little bit.
Every day I feel extremely fortunate to be where I am right now. I wanted to be in an environment where I was experiencing the China that most tourists don’t see. WorldTeach gives volunteers the choice of living in an urban or a rural area. My placement in Huarong, a small, rural city in the north of Hunan province, is exactly what I asked for. I am the only foreigner in the city—and in our county. Even after 8 months of living here, the people in my town have yet to get used to me and I still create a big scene without really wanting to. Though arduous and frustrating at times, you can’t really blame these people— if I saw another foreigner walking around Huarong, I would stop in my tracks, stare with my mouth agape, and wonder what on earth this person is doing here, too! Being “The Foreigner” can be isolating, but my students make up for any hard day I’ve ever had in China. I am 110% convinced I have the best students out of anyone else probably in the world. I teach the entire 10th grade in my school, 18 classes total, adding up to about 950 students, who are the sweetest and most hardworking little 15-year-olds anyone will ever meet. They never fail to make me smile. My students are mostly from the countryside and their parents are farmers or work far away in factories while they were raised by their grandparents and now live on the school campus. For many of my students, I was the first foreigner they had ever seen with their own eyes. This simple fact has been helpful since my students are so eager to please me, and I very, very rarely have any behavioral issues.
Watching these kids, who are in school 7 days a week from 6:45 am to 9:30 pm, have books piled a mile high on their desks, rarely get more than 6 hours of sleep, have so much pressure put on them, yet are still happy and energetic, is inspiring. My students will never know how much I love them and how much they have affected me. They always greet me with beaming faces when I walk into the classroom—sometimes followed by applause (still, after 8 months…). I hear their yells of “MS. SASKIA, MS. SASKIA!!!” from the top floor of the building when they see me walking by outside or from across the street when they see me in town. I love their enthusiasm when I ask an easy question in class and everyone raises their hand and gets disappointed if I don’t pick them, their little gifts of candy, snacks, toys, and little notes or postcards that they write me, their love for singing and listening to songs, their close friendships within each class, and especially their hard work. These kids (with English names such as “The Breaking Sky”,”Sydney Rain”, “Koala Wind”, “Blawor”, “Everything”, “Superman”, “Happy Bird”, “Winner”, “Lazy”, “Hungry”, the list goes on) are so incredibly special and yet they know as well as I do that they are just 950 of the millions of amazing students in China. Still, they are MY students, and I feel like I have found a glittering treasure in the big blue ocean.
Everywhere I go and everything I see, I now carry my students with me, always thinking of how I would tell them about this or that, how I can make this or that into a lesson, how much my students would enjoy it. Being a teacher, I’ve discovered the influence I have on my students over both small things, like taking a risk by raising their hand, and big things, like their growing global understanding. That is an enormous, precious thing to be able to do! The year is already coming to an end, and I’m sad thinking about leaving my school. It will be very difficult to say goodbye to my students. I truly I hope I see them again soon.