Can you say “thorax”?

Following my recent redirection into teaching, I have been substituting as a second language English teacher at a bilingual kindergarten. It is a 7 week gig courtesy of the restrictions COVID has placed on the poor teachers who have not been allowed to return to China since they took leave for their Chinese New Year holidays – 5 months ago!

Fortunately for me, but sadly for the real teachers (and possibly the students too), it does mean I have a job!

I am teaching 4, 5, and 6 year olds. 5 classes a day:
> A one hour class of K2s (the 5 year olds)
> Followed by a one hour class of K1’s (the 4 year olds)
> Followed by a one hour class of K3’s (the 6 year olds)
This is followed by a much needed three hour lunch break. Yes! Three hour lunch break!!

Its time enough for me to have a decent lunch, then go home for a much needed shower, and possibly even catch a revitalizing nap before the 1.5 hour session with the K3’s in the afternoon…

I’m pretty much sweating through my shirt by 10am! 
I get a full on work-out when marching around a classroom like an ant, or buzzing like a bee five or six times before the lunch break.

Any song that include the words:
> Can you stretch up high?
> Can you touch your toes?
> Can you turn around?
> Can you say hello?
are as challenging for me physically as they may be for the 4 year old’s linguistically!
Here’s that song: You can add it to your morning exercise routine!

My step-count is up at 6,000 steps by lunch time. Some of that achieved by jumping around like a grasshopper. I will have done about 5 hours of customer facing time by 4pm. I have not been this active at work since doing field work in the mountains of the Yukon 12 years ago.

I realized after the first week that my knowledge of kindergarten teaching was extremely limited. I thought that by being a parent of a 4- and a 6-year old, I would have access to kindergarten education at my fingertips…but that’s simply not true.
The only kids word game I know is “I-spy” and the only craft I know is making paper airplanes…That is not enough for 5 lessons in one day! How do you fill the remaining 4 hours and 45 minutes!

I’m having to familiarize myself with craft work that includes paper plates, toilet rolls, glue sticks, glitter, and those little metal clips you use to attach two pieces of paper together so that you can spin the one piece of paper around…you know the ones: they are called “split pins”. I had to look that up, here is a sample:

Split pin caterpillar artwork copied without permission from

I have a new found respect for kindergarten teachers and the time and effort they put in preparing for classes and getting it right.

Trying to make sure the lesson is age appropriate, relevant and pitched at the right level is challenging. I found myself asking these questions:

  • What parts of the English language does a 5-year-old Chinese speaker need to learn?
  • How do you build on what they may have learnt when they were 4?
  • How do you make sure you don’t pitch them something that they only need to learn when they are 6?
  • How do you integrate English phonics, vocabulary, writing skills, craft skills, colors, shapes, numbers, games and free play into the lesson and keep them interested and entertained for the entire hour?
  • And how do you keep to the weekly theme of insects, or transportation, or zoo animals or “around the world”…while doing all of the above?

Does a 4 year old really need to know that the middle section of an insect’s body is called a thorax? Probably not, but it’s good exposure, and the ability to break up parts of an insect into numbers helps the kids to learn to count, and pronounce the letter “x” and the “th” sound …At least I think that was the point of that exercise. I don’t think I have spent too much time talking about thoraxes after 40 years of speaking English, and I’m into insects.

Talking about insects does mean I can spend at least ten minutes standing up and acting out the following:

> 2 antennae (fingers pointing out on my head)
> 3 body parts (pointing at my head, torso, and legs)
> 6 legs (shooting my arms out 3 times)
That’s more exercise for me at least.

There are about 20-25 kids in each class. The range of learning ability and grasp of the English language varies massively within each class. Some kids are fluent in English, even at 4 years old (as much as a 4 year old native English speaker may be). Amongst these are some incredibly bright and enthusiastic kids whose hands shoot up at every opportunity.

There is then a set of quiet kids who understand what I am teaching them but don’t say or participate much. But judging by their worksheets they know exactly what is potting.

Then there is the set of kids who don’t speak a word of English and don’t seem interested in the lesson at all…These are the hardest to teach as its tough to engage with them.

Amongst the middle group there is one particular 4 year old boy who does not speak a word of English, but he is engaged in class. He likes to come up and speak to me in Chinese during the 5 minute milk and bathroom breaks…
He looks me straight in the eye, and speaks to me very sincerely.
With my limited Duolingo (Great App!) level Chinese skills I do my best to understand what he is trying to tell me.
It’s either: “Have you tried the milk in China? It’s not too bad” or 

“As a kindergarten teacher, I think you may be in way over your head”…:P

PS. Of the 6 western teachers at the kindergarten 3 of them are called Ian. One can’t help but think that some of the kids are going to grow up thinking that all men are called Ian.

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