Teach­ing in China

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

China Pictorial (English) - - CONTENTS - Text and pho­tographs by Michael C. Hil­liard

Ispent 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.

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 con­fi­dent they knew, their re­sponse would still be “Ting budong” (“I don’t un­der­stand”), or a fran­tic glance to a class­mate while des­per­ately whis­per­ing, “Ta shu­osha?” (“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. High­school 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.

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

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

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