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Alexandra Sieh
Alexandra Sieh

“Hello, everybody!”

Five beaming girls cheered back. “Hello, teacher!”

Surrounded by six- and seven-year-old girls, I checked our phonics homework for the past week. Despite my best attempts to establish boundaries — this half of the room was for teacher, and that half was for the students — it didn’t matter. My students didn’t give one fuck. They had their homework, and damn it, I needed to check it right now. As I did, they bounced eagerly at my side.

“Wow,” I’d say. “Look at all of these ‘long i’ words, Olive!” *giggles* “Oh my gosh, Alice, your writing is so beautiful!” *big smiles*

Then came Miss Claire’s turn.

Claire, the youngest of the crew, had been struggling since Day 1. She was five when she started — too young to be expected to start a second language. Each semester, I’d see small gains, but largely, she sat silently coloring during class. I would suggest she repeat a class, but her father insisted: “We like you. We’ll just work harder.”

And so they did. Because that day, Miss Claire came to read.

Her notebook in hand, she hopped confidently to my side.

“Teacher,” she said, “my homework.”

All of us just stared.

Before this moment, she had never spoken above a whisper. Yet here she was, reading her own homework out with no prompting from me. I checked it as she read, utterly shocked, and drew a cute little animal below the “Great work!” she’d earned. Then she gathered her things and went back to her seat, smiling.

I couldn’t believe it. Was this really my Little Claire?

Now, when I first started teaching in China, I was overwhelmed. The task of teaching Chinese students a second language seemed daunting — who was I to think I could do this? What part of my journalistic career prepared me for a classroom of mischievous little munchkins, all whispering Mandarin to each other during breaks?

There was nothing to do, though, but try. There was no training — just me showing up every day, doing my best to see some progress in my students. At the end of the semester, I’d take stock of what worked and what didn’t. Slowly, I gained a handle on things.

What I wasn’t sure of, though, was if I was all that effectual. Most of them were at an age where progress was hard to see. Were they really learning anything?

That day, though, was a big sign of progress. Like a proud mama, I stood gushing about Claire’s progress to our course consultants at the front desk. “Seriously, though,” I continued, “she was so confident! She just stood there and read. I’ve never seen her this way before!”

My five little ducklings had followed me out there. While I rambled on about Claire’s performance, the course consultants smiled, watching the girls play close behind me.

“Your students really seem to love you,” one manager said.

“Well, maybe,” I replied, herding the little ladies back to class. I wasn’t ready to go that far.

But as Claire read better than I’d ever seen her do before, I started to tear up.

Maybe I really was doing something right.

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