In Ashley Zhou’s words:

Middle school was subjectively the worst time of my life. Raging hormones, growing pains, and obnoxious boys plagued my daily existence. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that my students are going through the same trials and tribulations. I liked school, but I still remember the agonizing way time seemed to be elastic, like taffy, and stretch indefinitely until it seemed the hands of the clock on the wall were completely immobile. For my students at Dandelion, their day extends even longer in either direction: they’re up before six in the morning because they have to run nearly two miles every single day and then they’re in class all day until their school day ends at 9:30 at night—at the earliest.

And every single school day, I occupy several hours of day. Every morning, wedged between a hustled breakfast and the first official period of the day is Morning Reading. I’ll pull aside the students from Class 1 or Class 2 that their English teacher has identified as the “weakest” students, them jostling and casting sly smiles as they leave the classroom, giddy with the privilege of having class outside. Similarly, these students spend their daily regular English class periods huddled around a picnic table with me, and the “best” students in the class get an opportunity to practice their conversational skills with me once a week. For certain English periods, my teaching partner and I take over the entire class, and I teach a full Oral English period alone once a week. Then every night, I take the last block of time before bedtime, from 8:40 PM to 9:30 PM.

It’s a lot. For the students and for me.

It takes energy to be enthusiastic at all times, to smile and encourage, even while maintaining control over a class of thirty-six who seem at once full of unbridled energy and also on the verge of falling asleep. It takes energy to strike the balance between keeping the class engaged and conveying the necessary information, between preventing one part of the class from being bored and the other from being rowdy, between covering new material and making sure the entire class has caught up. And English class is in English, so communication takes on the form of slapstick body language and exaggerated facial expressions and carefully accentuated intonation. It’s not easy learning another language. Even though I’ve had sporadic exposure to Mandarin throughout my life, it still takes time—a millisecond pause too long, perhaps—to translate from English to Shanghainese to Mandarin before I can shape my lips and tongue into the words I wish to speak.

It helps that I spend my time with them when I can: I eat my meals with my students, laughter and stories and music filling those brief half-hours of respite, practice One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful” during club time, play basketball between classes, and join them in their other classes, like Music and Gym and Art. Being at Dandelion means juggling a variety of roles. Teacher, tutor, mentor, student, friend. Finding an equilibrium can be difficult, the risk of dropping balls always present. I can tease the students outside of class, joke with them, but in class, I need to command respect.

But it’s worth it. It’s worth it when confused eyes light up with understanding. It’s worth it when students choose to stay half an hour, an hour after class to continue learning. It’s worth it when students tell you they’ll miss you over the weekend. It’s worth it when they tell you they love you.


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