Friday, January 21, 2011

On Teaching and What I Learned From Betel Nut Bruce

Dad and Betel Nut Bruce, cooking Christmas dinner, 2001

I recently listened to John Hardy’s TED talk on building a Green School in Bali. There wasn’t anything I didn’t love about this talk- a retired jewelry maker from Canada watches Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” and finds the inspiration to build Green School in his adopted homeland. Not only is he reforming the way classrooms are designed but he’s reforming the way the whole business of education is approached. I won’t tell you all of the things he said, but I’ll include the link here in case your interest is piqued. I could write a whole blog about what I loved about this talk but I’m going to leave it for now, because I’d like to learn more about the Green School before I blog about them.
Anyway, it got me thinking about my teaching career and I think I have one really good story about why I’m inspired as a teacher and I thought I would share it with you.
I first got into teaching for the sole purpose of paying off my Canadian Student loan. I flew off to Taiwan to join my sister at a Taipei Language school. Should be easy, right? Teaching English. After all, I was outgoing, and I spoke English. What else did I need? My sister was thriving there and everyone who worked there told me what a brilliant teacher she was. (And she still is.) But for some reason, I fell flat on my face straight out of the gate.
My first observation was horrible. And then there was the day I screwed up and taught the wrong pages. Then the gossip started, and my boss walked up to me one day and told me that I would be observed everyday until I improved because “Your teaching is so bad.” No joke. I ended up crying in a very stinky Taiwanese bathroom stall during the ten-minute break.
Some of the Western teachers had taken a disliking to me too. They hid the homework I’d marked, threw away my attendance list, stole all of my whiteboard markers right before class. One teacher even put glue on my doorknob. Apparently they did this to the new people. But I was the new person for six months. And I admit, one evening after a particularly bad class I completely lost it, went to the pub and got very drunk. And in my drunken wisdom I made a deal with myself that if I were still the world’s shittiest teacher in three months, I’d go back to Canada and work at McDonalds to pay off my student loan if I had to.
And then I was given an adult’s class who clearly didn’t want me as their teacher. They’d requested another male teacher, Brad, but the secretaries had lost their request form and so there was a flap and a flurry when I walked through the door. I was twenty-four at the time, and one male student , nicknamed Betel Nut Bruce because what was left of his front teeth had been stained dark red from years of chewing betel nut, decided I must actually be twelve and obviously a teacher that looked so young couldn’t be a good teacher. He took it upon himself to be the leader of the class to get me replaced- ten minutes into the first class.
So I bent over backwards for this class. I gleaned every book I could trying to make things interesting. I was focused on fun activities and less on their language acquisition. But nothing was working. Betel Nut Bruce spent his class time sitting in front of the secretaries, arguing with them that the students should at least get a discount in their tuition fees because I simply wasn’t Brad. Every so often he’d walk in, interrupt my class and update the students in Chinese and storm out again. The other students were letting it go, but Betel Nut Bruce was determined that either I’d go or they’d get their money back.
Two things happened at this point: I decided to stop listening to all of those who were trying to micromanage my teaching, and figure out a way I was comfortable with teaching this material. I was guilty of trying to do too much and I wasn’t leaving time for the students to get the hang of things before we moved on. So I simplified everything.
The second thing was, I lost it with Betel Nut Bruce. I absolutely hated him and was happier when he wasn’t there. When he did attend class, I picked on him. When he couldn’t answer correctly, I chastised him for spending too much time sitting in front of the cute secretaries and not enough time in class with the books.
“How are you so convinced I’m a bad teacher when you don’t even attend the class?” I snapped at him one evening. I was going down here, I might as well go down with guns blazing.
I opened his book.
“See? You haven’t done any homework either. And you blame me for not being able to teach you English.”
I didn’t care if he understood me or not, and he had to get my harsh words translated, but funnily enough, my bitchy jabs had the opposite effect than I thought it would: Betel Nut Bruce started coming to class.
Close to the end of the session, (and I was counting the minutes until this class was over, believe me) Betel Nut Bruce came to see me after class. He was obviously going to fail and he knew it. He’d paid full tuition for a class he barely attended and now as his friends all moved onto the next level, Betel Nut was going nowhere.
As a teacher, it appeared had the power here, but truthfully, I couldn’t send him on; He hadn’t given me any gas to fuel his vehicle to the drive up to the next level. I went through the book with him, and tried to explain the topics of the lessons. And the more we flipped pages, the more I realized I hadn’t ever sat down and really looked at the textbook as a whole- only at the pages I had to teach that night. Betel Nut had been right. I’d been a crap teacher. I hadn’t been looking at the units of the book or the points of the lesson- I’d been looking at how to survive the next two hours with these people, week after week.
So we sat for two hours and went through the book, and by explaining to him, I taught myself how to lesson plan for the future. But Bruce didn’t notice. Instead, he offered me a big apology, said he was wrong about me, and would I consider being his private teacher?
Hell no. After this class was over, I never wanted to see him again. No! No no no no, never ever and a big fat no, hell to the No a thousand times over, I would never, ever teach Betel Nut Bruce again. Good riddance.
And then came the hangover of Beetlenut Bruce’s visits with the secretaries: He’d made my life a miserable hell for the past two months and given me the reputation of being the worst teacher that ever set foot in that Language school. In fact, I started losing classes and at one point I was teaching six hours a week. Not enough to get me by in Taipei let alone pay off any student loans back home. Things were looking pretty dismal.
But Betel Nut Bruce kept coming back, asking me to be his teacher. I told him I was too busy the first few times. But then I realized I’d have to swallow some pride. I was broke. So when Betel Nut came by one afternoon and asked me again, my pride broke down and said yes. But my pride also told him double the price I usually taught at. Shockingly, he agreed.
For two years, my Wednesday nights were dedicated to Betel Nut Bruce, who eventually became known as “Bruce”. He got a nice new set of teeth and traded Betel Nut for simple cigarettes, but he wouldn’t smoke during our lessons (It’s too expensive to smoke when I’m with you- I’ve got to make good use of this time,” he told me.) We read books, we chatted, we talked about love, and our consistent lack to find any of it for ourselves. For my birthday, He bought me my first mobile phone in case he had to cancel classes. I never brought it with me and so Bruce always had to meet me upstairs at the Starbucks on Badeh Road for class.
He introduced me to hot pot, ordering only the things I was willing to eat, his pot filled with congealed pigs blood and intestines. He would drive me home on his scooter after class and show me parts of Taipei that had changed since he was a kid.
“Here, I used to play in a rice field. Now it’s Sogo department store.” It was hard to imagine that it changed so much.
One Saturday he took me to Tanshui and showed me a Taoist temple that was built under a mountain. We ate ice cream on the walkway overlooking the ocean. “That’s my home right over there,” I said, pointing out to sea. “It’s amazing to think that the other side of this water is touching Canada.”
“Let’s get a boat, you can take me there. I’ve never left Taiwan in my life.” Bruce admitted.
Our lessons hit a stale spot. I felt I’d reached a level where I couldn’t teach Bruce anymore, and Bruce was stuck in the idea that I was the only one who could understand his English. I thought long and hard about this problem, and so I went to our Starbucks lesson one afternoon and told Bruce,
“I can’t be your teacher anymore.”
Bruce looked at me with panic in his eyes.
“But you are the only one who can teach me. You are the only one who understands me.”
“See? This is the problem.” I told Bruce. “You only talk to me. So this is my ultimatum. If you want to keep being my student, you’ve got to go to Canada and stay with my parents for a month.” Single guy with no girlfriend living at home with his parents, he could afford it.
And so our next month of classes was taken up planning his trip. He could go for ten days, he decided. This way if no one understood him, he’d only spend ten days in hell, rather than a month. He’d have to change from international to the domestic side of the airport in Vancouver and this terrified him. I drew him maps of the airport, We'd practice role plays of the questions they’d ask him during check-in, explained how customs worked, even packed his luggage in the form of a list of things he’d need to take with him. And then I sent my student away, like a mother sends her child off on the first day of school. I held my breath until I got the phone call from my mother, that Betel Nut Bruce had arrived safely and was sleeping in my old bedroom in Canada!
Bruce came back ten days later a changed man. He’d found confidence wandering around the little village of Naramata. People out gardening waved and said Hello. And he understood them! He stopped for small talk, not realizing that this was normal in a town like Naramata. He thought my parents had told everyone to talk to him. When he discovered people were doing this because they were friendly, he couldn’t get his head around it. So instead, he let go and decided to enjoy it. He went "small talking" every day, chatting with anyone who'd listen. They all told him his English was excellent, and he proudly made sure all of them knew who his teacher in Taipei was, not realizing at all it was himself he should thank for all the hard work he'd put into learning this convoluted language.
Bruce told me his airport transition was euphoric for him, having spent much of his flight over the Canada fretting over the language barrier. But when he got momentarily lost in the airport and could ask for help, and subsequently understood the directions and the check-in procedure at West Jet, he realized his English skills were good enough and his world completely unzipped. Beetlenut Bruce had gone international!
My Dad had a business trip to Alberta and Bruce was all too happy to tag along, driving through kilometers of BC forest and into the prairies. My Dad gave him a baseball cap from his business and the two of them stopped in Banff to see the famous landscape of Lake Louise. I have a picture of the two of them, in matching hats, arms around each other, my dad smiling, and Bruce absolutely beaming. (It's in a box somewhere in storage. If I find it, I'll post it.)
He told my Dad on that trip that he knew he’d made my life a living hell back in Taiwan, and he’d always felt guilty for it. It’s why he agreed to the hefty fee I charged him (And subsequently tried to reduce months later, But Bruce wouldn’t hear of it.) Bruce told my Dad I’d changed his life. And he had certainly changed mine.
Bruce left Taiwan as my student and came back a member of my family. Years later, he came back and spent three months in Canada, studying English, living with some friends of mine as he attended a Language school in town. He even spent his first Christmas with us (Picture above.)
But I didn’t tell this story to point out one of my success stories as a teacher. In fact, I hope Bruce never reads this story because really, I owe him a whack of tuition for lessons I learned from him.
The very first lesson being that I should never write off a student, no matter what the case is. Bruce, taught me how to be a teacher. I didn’t know how to approach learning or lessons before I met Bruce. Often teaching someone is the little part, it’s the breaking down the barrier to get to that teaching is what makes someone a successful teacher. And I had written him off, not realizing that out of all of the students, he was the one who needed my help the most. Had I written him off completely, Like my pride had tried to do, I would have been the one who missed out on all of these lessons learned, a good friend, and a good story.

I'm proud to say that when I gave my notice three years later, the manager of the adult department told me it would be a great loss to the school.
"Not many female teachers come to Taiwan to teach," He said. "And of those who do, only a fraction of them can teach as well as you do."

Phew! Thanks for teaching me how to teach, Bruce!
Bruce in my Dad's hat in Banff, Canada. 
Link to Tom Hardy's TED talk at


  1. One of my favorite little stories is now officially recoded!

  2. Wow. Thanks for sharing such an important life lesson.

    Shannon (friend of K.)

  3. Glenn read this first and said I must read this 'amazing story'. What a terrific learning experience for all and a most enjoyable read. Thanks for posting it.

  4. Aww thank you both, so much! It is an amazing story. On many levels. I'm glad it happened to me! Perhaps there's a movie in it somewhere.