Because I arrived in Dalian a mere two days before my teaching job started, I must say that many of my cultural experiences and epiphanies have happened at schools. Of course, there have been highlights during my four weekends (i.e. days off) here thus far — going to a Chinese bath house, drinking (gambei!) locally brewed beer with new Chinese friends, dining in a Chinese teacher’s home with her pajama-clad family, my Saturday meet-ups with a Chinese girl about my age named Grace — but I will write about all of those later. For now, I hope to give you a glimpse into the world of China’s youth.
The first difference I noticed between Chinese and American secondary schools is the basic teacher-student relationship. The teachers play much more of a parent-like role. There’s scolding that may result in tears, occasional physical punishment, and tell-it-like-it-is yelling on a nearly daily basis. But I also see teachers stroke kids’ hair, hug them or even kiss the top of their heads when they seem them in the hallways.
Along the same lines, the students’ 9-hour days are stacked with chores. Two students from each class (I’m assuming this rotates) are in charge of sweeping and mopping the hallways and classrooms, of serving all the students in their section lunch, and of carrying anything and everything for their teachers (this includes teachers’ personal trash, heaps of homework and books, etc…). At most of the schools (I teach at five of them), two other students bring me lunch and take the dirty dishes when I am finished.
Another aspect that is unfathomably different than the U.S. education system is the openness and accessibility of everyone’s grades here. Teachers ask students to organize all tests, papers, and homework in grade order, with the highest scores on top, and thus passed out first. Each assignment is passed out (in front of the entire class) in order of the best to the worst, causing students to constantly size each other up. This harbors intense competition within the classroom (which makes group activities a cinch — every group wants to win and is therefore engaged in the lesson).
Despite this competitive nature that most every student has, the truth is, the cream of the crop has already distanced themselves too much for the others to catch up. Wealthy students (or those with the pushiest parents) enroll in supplementary lessons on the weekends, namely in English, math, and Chinese. I would say between 60 and 70 percent of all the students I see on a weekly basis (about 1,000 kids between the ages of 11 and 15) have at least a few weekend lessons. On top of scholastic lessons, many are also enrolled in some sort of music lesson or organized sport. It was almost disheartening when I asked “Are you glad it’s Friday?” today in my classes, and most students groaned and said “no.”
“I have many lessons and will do my homework at the weekend,” one said.
“I want to sleep in bed all day,” declared another.
Those who can understand me are talkative and love to share their plans, their thoughts, and anything else they’re capable of saying. Those who cannot simply stare blankly at me, no matter how slowly I speak and no matter how many words I put on the blackboard (they’re all much more advanced in written English as opposed to comprehension and speaking levels, so this should help). No matter how many times I ask, “Do you understand?” as slowly as possible, they will not speak up. If I call on them to answer a question, their eyes will blaze holes into their desks. Anything, anything, to avoid speaking. And since I have 50+ students in a class that lasts only 35 minutes, taking time to wait for them to formulate a response (if they are even willing to try) can really slow the lesson down. This is the greatest challenge — figuring out what level to teach to. Some have the English level equivalent to my German level (I took German for three months a year ago); others are essentially fluent. Do I try to bridge that gap and encourage the students whose family can’t afford hours of intensive English lessons on the weekend to participate in my measly class; or do I focus on those who will most benefit from having a native English speaker in the classroom in terms of comprehension and retention?
All in all, though, teaching has been a very positive experience for me. I always laugh with the students (sometimes at my expense — but I’m good at that), and I’m getting used to being accosted at my desk at the end of classes by the over-achievers asking prepared questions. “Can you tell me about the differences between Dalian and Washington, D.C.?” And I can’t argue with being showered with cookies and cards and comic books from the suck-ups. There are a few students who won’t shut up no matter what I try. On my birthday, I actually made the worst students stand at the front of class and sing me ‘Happy Birthday’ by themselves. That worked, but unfortunately that method had an expiration date.
Speaking of my birthday, I’m old now. And it is after 10 p.m., meaning this oldie needs to tuck herself into bed.
Next post: Highlights from weeks 1 and 2