Teaching in China

June 12, 2016: A classroom full of students who keep their spirits high as they prepare for their grueling final year of high school.

I spent two years teaching at a high school in China. Although I’ve since moved on to a different position, the time I spent there was unforgettable. 

Like most jobs, teaching has both good days and bad. Sometimes all of your classes go well and you feel like a rock star, and other times you can’t wait for class to finish and the day to end. But if you endure the bad and put in the work to grow and improve, teaching offers rewards that few other experiences can match. 

My first few weeks in China were an exciting blur. 

I first dropped in on Guilin for three days, where I received a brief introduction to living and teaching in China before being whisked off to Xi’an. The day after arriving there, a van picked me up from my hotel and took me to the outlying district of Lintong in the northeast corner of Xi’an where the terracotta warriors were discovered. I was dropped off at the gate of an apartment complex that would be my new home, just a short walk from the school where I would teach. Not long after lugging my bags up the stairs to my apartment on the fifth floor, I was invited to join several teachers and school staffers for my first meal, a Chinese-style dinner—a large, round table with a Lazy Susan piled high with a dozen or more dishes over the course of the meal. Before I knew it, I was walking into my first class. 

I’d been forewarned that class sizes in China often range from 45 to 60 students or more, but my previous experience was mostly one-on-one tutoring or small groups. So my first time solo in front of such a big group had my heart pounding. The wide eyes and wider smiles that greeted me did a lot to boost my confidence. 

For non-permanent teachers, the first few weeks or months at a new school are known as the “honeymoon period,” and it’s especially pronounced in ESL—all the students are still fascinated with having a new foreign teacher and on their best behavior. 

My experience was no exception: At first, my students always seemed excited to see me. After class, many would crowd around me and ask for autographs. Once, a particularly thoughtful student even acted as a bouncer for me and held back the crowd so that I could get to my next class on time. I was inundated with small origami gifts and notes, and other teachers told me that the students were all talking about me in their other classes and posting about the handsome new foreign teacher on the school’s website. The celebrity treatment was a surprise, but it made me think I must be doing a good job. 

But, sooner or later the honeymoon ends. While some classes continued to go well, particularly the ones with advanced students or eager learners, others would at times devolve into barely controlled chaos. I learned that keeping a class’s interest for an entire 50-minute period was usually a herculean effort of creativity and classroom management, and I realized I would need to step up my game if I wanted to have an impact and be successful. 

Part of the difficulty was related to my inability to speak any Chinese at first. In the short time between deciding to go to China, arriving and starting to teach, I’d learned the basics of Pinyin (romanized Chinese writing system) and a handful of words and simple phrases. Back then I could count to ten and say words like “mom,” “dad” and “bread” in Chinese, but more complex things, like asking directions to the bathroom or instructing a student not to be disruptive in class, were still largely beyond my reach. 

June 17, 2016: Self-portrait of the author with his high-school students during the last week of classes.

While many Chinese students are fairly competent in basic English reading, writing and grammar by the time they reach high school, their oral English skills are often lacking. Many schools can’t afford foreign teachers, and many families can’t afford the expense of private English lessons. In many parts of China, there simply aren’t enough foreign teachers available, even for those who can afford them. For students at my school, one of the top-ranked schools in the area, having a foreign teacher was a sign of prestige, and most had never had a foreign teacher before. In English classes taught by Chinese teachers, Chinese is spoken more often than English. It shouldn’t be surprising that students suddenly thrust into their first-ever class entirely in English sometimes find it hard to pay attention. 

Often, particularly in the beginning, if I asked a student a question in English using words that I was fairly confdent they knew, their response would still be “Ting bu dong” (“I don’t understand”), or a frantic glance to a classmate while desperately whispering, “Ta shuo sha?” (“What did he say?”) It took time for me to find effective ways to help students realize that they could communicate in English better than they might have thought. I spent a lot of my evenings and weekends coming up with new games and group activities, planning lessons that incorporated movies and music, testing things out and making adjustments as time passed. 

Another difficulty I discovered is that high schools in China can be really tough on students. Most seem to agree on that. 

A typical day’s classes might start at 8 a.m. and continue until dinner at 6 p.m., with a break for lunch at noon. Even after dinner, students return to their classrooms to work on homework for several hours, often under the supervision of a teacher. By the time students reach their senior year, it’s not uncommon to stay up well past midnight to work on homework and study to prepare for the dreaded gaokao—China’s make-or-break college entrance exam, where a few points one way or another can be the deciding factor in which universities will accept you. 

The pressure can be incredibly intense. Discipline from parents and teachers is often harsh, even if it’s meted out with the best of intentions. Signs in school hallways stress that the only path to success is to get up earlier and work harder. The weight and stress of it all can be enough to break someone. 

Despite it all, I was continually amazed at the perseverance and heart in so many of my students. When facing so much pressure, it’s easy to become frustrated, angry or depressed, and some do. It’s not easy to dig in your heels and keep pushing yourself to work harder day after day. High school experience in China may be a battle, but I was impressed by how many students kept fighting. Not just fighting to do well in their studies, but to maintain a positive, hopeful outlook on life. Meeting so many talented students full of curiosity, warmth, passion and courage was inspiring. It was their heart as much as anything that made me decide to continue my contract for a second year. 

I loved my students and bragged about them every chance I got. I was privileged to be able to teach and get to know them, and I have no doubt they are going to make the world a better place. 

The author is a senior training specialist at Objectiva Software Solutions. 

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