A teacher who speaks and sees differently

Updated: 2011-10-02 09:05

By Zhao Ruixue (China Daily)

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A teacher who speaks and sees differently

JINAN - Findlay A. Nicol, a 67-year-old Scot, had no intention of living in Jinan, a city he hadn't even heard of about 15 years ago. But he did.

Nicol was teaching Latin and Greek in a Scotland school when he was offered a job to teach in Shandong Economic University for one year in 1997. "Some of my friends who visited China in the early 1980s told me that I needed to bring many things with me because I couldn't buy those things in China."

Even though Nicol had no idea of what kind of city Jinan was, he decided to give it a try, because he thought if things didn't work out he could always return to Scotland in one year.

Things turned out to be totally different than what Nicol had imagined. The result: he has been enjoying the city and his work both for 15 years.

"When I came to Jinan, (I found that) the city was more Western than I expected and China was not as poor as I had imagined," he says, adding that a friendship store which was only for foreigners impressed him deeply.

"I feel I am very lucky. I enjoyed the job very much and I enjoyed Jinan very much. So when I was invited to teach for another year, I said okay."

During his 15 years in Jinan, Nicol has devised his own teaching style. Teaching methods vary according to the targets, he says. He puts emphasis on creating "non-threatening opportunities" for students who want to improve their spoken English to enable them to speak out bravely.

Inviting students to his home has now become a regular affair for him. "They are my guests. When your guests come to visit you, you don't tell them what to speak about. You talk about anything that you are interested in," Nicol says. "In a situation that there are no comments on their English, they will make an effort to speak the language."

This is also why Nicol suggests Chinese teachers change their teaching method by shrinking the size of their classes. "Some of my Chinese colleagues who teach English have a class of around 1,000 students. With such a large class, you can't have a chance to speak English."

Nicol encourages his Chinese colleagues to be patient and not to always correct the accent or criticize their pronunciation. But with English major students, he is stricter with his teaching method. If they make grammatical mistakes, he immediately points them out.

"As an experienced language teacher, I do think grammar is important in writing," Nicol says. "Many teachers teaching English, especially in Jinan, don't have real experience of teaching. They do know something is wrong, but they don't know how to explain it."

Nicol is not only an experienced language teacher, but also a good language learner. And he is good at integrating learning with teaching. He attended the "intensive" course in Chinese in Keats School, the only Chinese language school in Kunming, Yunnan province. He was inspired by the Chinese learning courses, which "taught" him how to teach his Chinese students English.

"The students (in Keats School) come from many different backgrounds and have many different goals but all of them have to spend their time there speaking (and writing) Chinese. I think this style of instruction has much to teach us when we think about better ways of teaching English! "

So in Nicol's classes, nobody is allowed to speak Chinese. If students cannot express themselves with one example, they are asked to try another example until they make themselves understood.

Another reason for Nicol's popularity among his students is that he is more of a kind-hearted "grandpa" to them. Whenever he learns that some students cannot afford tuition because of financial constraints at home, he helps them overcome the temporary difficulty and continue with their college education.

But ask Nicol about his altruism, and he will say it's "nothing special".

Besides teaching English, Nicol is now also the English Language Consultant in Jinan, and writes and helps edit English stories for some magazines. He has been honored with the Qilu Friendship Prize twice for his contribution to the development of teaching English in Jinan.

The Qilu Friendship Prize is the most prestigious award the Shandong provincial government gives to expatriates who have made great contributions to the province.

Though Nicol has spent 15 years in Jinan, he is not sure how many more years he will be in the city. But he is sure that his days in Jinan have in many ways been the happiest of his life.

The thing that has impressed him most in Shandong is the way people in the province celebrate Spring Festival. "I have spent several Spring Festivals with friends in the countryside and there the customs vary even from village to village and each place is devoted to its own way of doing things," he says. "The desire of the families I have stayed with to include those of the family who have passed on their celebration is very touching.

"That might simply consist of including an extra bowl of noodles or jiaozi (dumplings with minced meat and vegetables) for them and involve rituals to encourage the spirits to come and join in. I didn't see this as in any way 'ancestor worship' but rather a very natural human desire to remember loved ones and think of them fondly at a time of celebration."