Tomorrow is my last day of teaching at Zhong Hua Elementary School. It’s been an amazing, challenging, transformative year. The impact of this year has become more and more apparent in these last weeks of teaching. Way back in September, us Hualien ETAS attended a workshop where one of our TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) advisors invited us to share our challenges and frustrations about teaching so far. A lot of us shared our doubts that we were actually having a positive impact on our students and our schools. Our advisor, herself a former Taiwan ETA, told us that self-doubt is an inseparable part of teaching. She said teaching is often a thankless job, and we probably wouldn’t know our impact until the last day of school, when students, some you would never expect, will come to use and say thank you for being their teacher.
It sounded like corny, wishful thinking, until this month. My sixth graders graduated last week, so I wrote each of them a card. The day after I handed the cards out, one of my sixth-grade girls gave me this:
Sitting at my desk, reading this, I began to tear up. Her words validated all my efforts this year. I can try my best to show my students that I care about them and that they matter, but it’s hard to tell if those messages are getting through. Unless a student says it as clearly as this student did. Other students gave me hand-written cards too. It may seem small, but I know I did something right if I’ve inspired these kids to go out of their way to write in English and express themselves with new language.
In this last week of teaching, I’ve also learned that kids express their appreciation in less obvious ways. I’ve gotten a lot of whiny, “你為什麼回美國?” (Why do you have to go back to America?) which I understand as a child’s form of a compliment. Fourth graders have stopped their regular shenanigans to gather around me and ask me questions about my life in America. One of the girls in my afterschool tutoring class wrote on the black board before class, “Teacher Emma, where do you want to visit?” ‘Visit’ isn’t one of their vocab words, which means she had to do some extra research to ask me that question. This past year of teaching has taught me that time, attention, and effort are the most meaningful gifts a student can give you.
Teaching was a completely new, challenging experience for me. I desperately wanted to know that my presence in the school was actually beneficial to the students’ lives, that this year wasn’t just about me and my ego. I was constantly struggling to balance the school system’s expectations of test scores and grades with my goal for my students to have fun in English class. I had to balance my roles as a teacher and a friend to my students. The majority of the time, I didn’t know if I was doing anything right. Maybe my students would just remember me as that weird foreigner who years ago tried and failed to get them to use English. But the actions of my silly, smart, amazing students these final weeks have shown me that for at least some of them, I helped them love and use English. I showed them that foreigners aren’t so scary, after all, and they can talk to them in both English and Chinese. This knowledge brings meaningful conclusion to my year, and I can leave Taiwan knowing my time was well spent here.