KSarahOstrachSarah Ostrach was a Junior Girl in Girl Museum’s¬†Education department before she began teaching English in Beijing. With Sarah’s permission, we’re reposting a recent blog post she wrote about her experience in China.


I said to her, “Even if you get first in your [English] class, it’s no good if you can’t speak [English].”

True, but not the most encouraging words for a student to hear.

I had an interesting discussion with the mother of one of the girls I tutor. The girl, thirteen, is not a gregarious conversationalist. She is quiet by nature. She doesn’t have many friends. Her classmates seem silly and immature. They are happy to ask her for help–which she willingly gives–but not as often happy to spend time with her otherwise. As if studying English weren’t difficult enough, let’s add the age-old struggles of adolescence. Especially the struggles that so often attend smart and quiet students wise beyond their years and isolated as a result. If she isn’t a clattering chatterbox in Chinese, what makes us (her mother, me, –herself–) think she will find it easy to express herself in English?

She scored 118/120 on her English exam–first in her class. But there are other students who speak more and better than she does. Her mother tells her the top score is not enough. She feels like she isn’t improving after every single session with me. She sits quietly for a moment then leaves the room crying when she can’t clearly describe what Gandalf looks like and why hobbits don’t need to wear shoes. And that’s when my heart breaks. And it continues to shatter as her mother tells me more of what I’ve slowly been gathering on my own.

I don’t have a teaching certificate (yet?) and I have no training to deal with a teenager’s emotional struggles other than my own adolescent and language-learning experiences, both drenched in tears. Two years in Chinese classrooms and living rooms, however, have taught me what I believe will be my most resolute assertion as a teacher:

Confidence is the key to success in learning.

Without confidence, we do not take risks. Without taking risks, we do not make mistakes. Without making mistakes, we are not corrected. Without being corrected, we do not learn right from wrong, more effective from less effective, appropriate from inappropriate. I’ve always tried to see making mistakes as a positive opportunity to learn and improve.

Of course it’s unsavory to make mistakes on the final exam, but homework and classwork and practice at home should be the time to fall down, dust off, and learn not to trip over that bump in the road again. Ms. Figert knew all too well the severity with which I attacked my math homework and the dogged earnestness with which I dragged my half-open eyes into her classroom 30 minutes before the first period bell would ring, begging her to explain why my answer wouldn’t match the back of the book. I know I romanticize the desperate exhaustion I felt sweating over a graphite-smudged piece of loose-leaf at 11:30pm the night before. But that’s why I was up early the next morning–to learn from my mistakes. I simply could not rest–despite Ms. Figert’s admonitions–until I knew why I was wrong. And I knew I would get an answer; an explanation–but I never expected nor did I ever receive an accusation of fault. Criticism never escaped Ms. Figert’s lips when speaking to a student who struggled with effort. (Those who struggled through a lack thereof may have fared differently…) I was never afraid to show Ms. Figert my homework’s incomplete or wrong answers. I was upset with myself and frustrated, but never afraid of being made to feel inadequate, ashamed, or somehow lacking as a human being.

My student cannot and will not improve her oral and written English until she is unafraid to open her mouth or commit her pen to a piece of paper and simply let the words tumble and stumble out. There is a time and a place to point out a student’s errors. I have learned tonight that now is not that time. I will correct her subject-verb agreement once she is confident enough to carry on a full conversation–albeit full of confusing disagreements and mis-gendered pronouns. I urged her mother to do the same. Despite having a free and easily accessible source of practice, my student refuses to speak English with her mother, who admitted to me that she often corrected her daughter’s mistakes during their discussions. She also admitted feeling that watching English tv and movies with her daughter feels like a waste of time–her daughter can do that on her own. And with a foreign tutor in the house, that just about solved everything…right? But she was open to discussing her daughter’s lack of confidence and receptive to the idea that it should be the focus of our lessons more so than grammar and vocabulary.

It’s moments like these, when I give my thirteen-year-old student a hug as she sniffs back her tears of adolescent angst and frustration, that I am grateful nearly beyond words for the love and support and positive reinforcement I received from my family, friends, and teachers when I was growing into myself, learning that just because the other students would rather hang out with my homework than with me, and studying a language. I can’t imagine achieving what I have whilst being faced with the negative narrative of demonizing errors that my students face at home and in the classroom every day for well over a decade. I am awed by their persistence and their resilience while my heart simultaneously aches.

Before leaving my student’s living room, I patted her leg and then the couch.

Is this a classroom?


Is this a desk?


Am I your teacher?


You can be stressed in the classroom. You can get frustrated at your desk. But here, this is a couch. This is comfortable. Our time together should be comfortable. If it isn’t, you need to tell me. Can you do that?


Can you smile?


Ok, can you smile next week?

Yes. with a watery grin.

Nobody should cry when discussing hobbits or wizards. Nobody should cry when learning.


Sarah’s blog about her time in Beijing can be found at¬†https://queserahurrah.wordpress.com/.

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