Saturday, June 23, 2012

Zhu Wenyu

Was he a good teacher? It is a decent question to ask. As I think back I replay memories from 12 years ago - a full cycle of the Chinese zodiac - to remember as clearly as possible what set him apart.
Zhu Laoshi (Teacher Zhu) was my first Chinese teacher when I arrived in Taiwan, and it must be said that before he taught me, I didn't have much desire to teach English; when I returned to New Zealand I accelerated my graduation and was chomping at the bit to teach it. Had I just had an affinity on my own or was he really the catalyst that I claim him to be?
When I think back to him, I'd often think how most good teachers begin: talented but without the refinement of time and skill. He had his methods - interesting (but often inefficient) methods. His passion and compassion were easy to spot. He knew how to engage but not to teach skill. That might be harsh. Even the best teachers, without guidance, don't necessarily know how to do the basic function expected of them: to impart both skill and knowledge. And how long was I in a mode of teaching that, though entertaining, though knowledgeable, though confident, was not meeting that basic expectation either.
My first class in Taiwan was difficult. I'd arrived a week previously and had stayed in a club mate's family home but had struggled to understand them and be understood. In other words I was not a high level student. But come the placement test, I proved what a great test taker I was, and placed myself one level short of the top. While doing the test I knew what was going to happen and in the first ten minutes of the class, I showed the massive gap between me and my classmates. Deep-ends do help with the ol' swimming skills though, and it's that which gave me enough to survive. What allowed me to splash was his handling and my classmates' grace. The compassion and patience was immediate from the first day.
And he loved language. I didn't know if he was a literature buff, not that it's necessary, but he "got" language too. And that is something I got eventually. He may not have taught me the skill of using Chinese in the most efficent way, but the concept of language and the relation of words, idioms and grammar came clearly through his lessons, even without teaching them explicitly. Once I got it with Chinese, when I came back I cracked the back of English grammar on a piece of refill. The mystery of language became better than a mystery: It became a puzzle.
I liked puzzles. I don't know if he did. I approached teaching in the same way he did. With compassion, patience, energy and openness. It is the foundation of all good teaching.

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