(11/11) 慢慢練習, Keep Trying, Slow and Steady

Recently, I’ve been trying to slow down. I’m what you might call a “fast-paced” individual, that is to say, I generally move throughout my day at a rapid pace. This “gogogo” mentality can be positive sometimes because throughout the course of one day, I can often accomplish many things and still have energy to go for a run in the evenings after work and classes. However, it can be a bit of a hazard when biking through the city or running in traffic. I also tend to inhale my food which frustrates my friends who discover that by the time their food has been served at a restaurant and they’ve started to eat, I’m done with my entire meal. I’ve found that I spend the vast majority of my time looking towards the future and forgetting to stop and appreciate moments as they come. So in order to remedy this problem, I’ve decided to slow down and document moments of my day and take some time to reflect on these moments.

I started out this week by reflecting on with my commute to work. When I tell Taiwanese people what school I teach at every day, their initial reaction is always, “喔太遠” or “Oh, so far!” It is true that my school is definitely the farthest of any ETA from Hualien city and as a result, I need to be out of my apartment on my way to school before my roommate is even awake. I typically spend my morning calculating exactly how many minutes I have until I need to be out of bed and out the door, and deciding whether or not I can risk a 3-5 minute detour to 711 to stop and buy coffee before I need to be at the train station. Once I arrive at Xincheng, I bike like a maniac to school and constantly check my watch in order to get there before 8:15, even though this endeavor depends entirely on whether or not my train arrives on time. While this daily routine may improve my math skills, I forget to stop and look around which is a shame because I have a spectacular commute. This week I decided to turn things around by taking in the sights on the way to work.

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The view looking out from the Hualien train station.

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A peek at Toroko Gorge from the Xincheng Station

I also wanted to stop and document the stunning backdrop of my school, which is just on the edge of Toroko Gorge. I often take this for granted and forget how lucky I am to look out of my classroom every day to this.

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View from the second floor classrooms

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A side view of my school on a sunny day

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A view directly from the English classroom

While I was in the mood for reflection, I decided that it was time to stop and reflect about what my actual purpose as an ETA is in Taiwan. It’s easy to lose sight of the impact ETAs have on the community we briefly become a part of throughout the year when everyday becomes a mundane routine of waking up early for work and planning lessons to teach English. In a workshop this past week, two of our advisors asked us what our mission as an ETA in Hualien was. After a heated argument between all ten Hualien ETAs that lasted for at least half an hour, we finally came up with a definition. “As Hualien ETAs, we become a part of communities that we will both carry with us and leave behind. We seek to build lasting relationships rooted in understanding. Together, we believe in learning through a sharing of culture.”

I have recently discovered that I cannot measure my success as an ETA by how well my students do on tests, or how much their English language improves because this isn’t a fair evaluation. My elementary school 富世 lacks many of the resources larger schools have and my students often don’t have the means to go to after school 補習班 (remedial) english classes like some students in Taipei or even Hualien City. Additionally, my school has different priorities than many of the other schools in Taiwan because the curriculum emphasizes a celebration and preservation of Toroko Indigenous culture. While this sometimes takes away from English class time, this is an important part of the identity of my students and therefore learning about Toroko culture through Toroko language classes and traditional drumming and singing should take priority over English language fluency. However recognizing this makes it difficult to understand how I can contribute to my school community in a meaningful way.

I was asked in my last Fulbright report to say how I wanted my students to remember me after I was gone. After some consideration I decided that I wanted my students to remember me as a teacher who cared about their lives both inside and outside of school, and a teacher that motivated and inspired her students to pursue their passions and care about learning. I’m the first ETA to ever be placed at this elementary school, and therefore my students, much like me, don’t know exactly what to expect from me. Many of them come from difficult family situations. I discovered this when I ate lunch with the first grade class and asked them about their families. At least half of the students told me that they lived in a single family home and didn’t have either a mother or a father, and afterwords their homeroom teacher explained that their parents had died or walked away from their families. Other students bring extra lunch food home every day for their families. Many students rotate between the same three or four outfits every day.

That being said, in my entire life, I’ve never had students who were so excited to see me every day. Every time I leave the office I have to physically brace myself for the attack of the 1st and 2nd graders who come running from every direction and tackle me in a massive group hug. These are the students that I don’t even teach because they haven’t started learning English yet. I’ve developed a special handshake with each of my forth graders and each time I see them in the hall they immediately get into handshake stance. My students have so much spirit and energy, and I hope that they can see how much I want them to succeed and care about learning.

One day in my extra help class after school, I was teaching my students English words for careers. The textbook chose the words, “doctor, teacher, nurse and police officer” for the students to learn. The lesson we were supposed to teach was, “Is your mother/father/brother/etc. a doctor/teacher/nurse/etc.?” After going around the room, every question asked was answered with a resounding, “No, she’s not” or “No, he’s not.” Demi and I switched to Chinese to learn what their family members did and one boy said that his father worked at 711. Another girl finally exclaimed, “My mother, father, brother, and sister all work cleaning houses and I don’t want to do that when I grow up!” Demi and I struggled to find words and quickly asked, “Well, what do you want to do when you grow up?” She didn’t have an answer which surprised me because when I was her age I spent countless hours daydreaming about all of the different things I could do when I grew up. Other students reacted similarly until one boy said, “I want to be an astronaut!” After a few moments other students started to contribute their answers, and the mood quickly lightened in the classroom.

I want my students to know that I support them and that I want them to believe in themselves. I can sense that many of them have a bleak outlook on life. It is true that they have to work incredibly hard and opportunities aren’t presented to them in the same ways they are for other students. But they can still accomplish great things both inside and outside of their communities and I want them to know that, as do many of the other teachers at 富世. Therefore, I don’t view my purpose so much as to make my students fluent in English and to help them to test well because I know I will not be able to achieve this goal in the course of one year. Instead, I think my purpose is to make my students excited to learn and to care about their successes. I want them to see English not as a subject thats important for them to know but as a tool of communication they can use talk to other people like me about who they are and why they themselves and their community is important.

It’s already November, and already 1/3 of my Fulbright grant has passed. Although the days seem long and I sometimes find myself counting down the minutes until I can get home and into bed, the weeks are flying by and it’s important to stop and think about what I can do in these next few months to fulfill my purpose. I’m working to strengthen my relationships with both my students and my coworkers, and I am also working hard to improve my fluency in Chinese to better communicate and understand the people I interact with. As Taiwanese people often tell me, Its time for me to “慢慢練習” which literally translates to, “practice slowly” but I take to mean, “keep trying, slow and steady!”

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