The Alien Environment of a Foreign Teacher
What is the regular foreign English teacher's daily teaching life like in China? Well I really couldn't say. As far as I know, I am the most unorthodox foreign teacher in the most unorthodox Chinese School in China. That does not mean that my students are any different from students in any other school. Far from it.
|Books upon books upon books.|
Their day begins at 6:30 am when they assemble in their classrooms. For the next 45 minutes they must read and practice English or Chinese. A teacher is in attendance, but does not teach. After this class they go to breakfast, after which, First period lesson commences.
Lunch follows period four and can last (depending upon the constantly changing schedule) for up to three hours.
After lunch there are three periods followed by supper which theoretically lasts for approximately one and a half hours. Grade Three students (Final Year high school) are required for the last 45 minutes to be in class, and it is not uncommon for some teachers in Grades One and Two to require the same.
After supper, students study until approximately 9:30pm (Grades 1 and 2) or 10 pm (Grade 3). They may be given extra lessons, trial examinations or other work, and occasionally treated to some type of social activity such as a movie.
Class sizes in my school can range from 60 to 75 students. They wear and do what they like. They might sleep if they are tired (It doesn't matter!). They might talk during the lesson (It is normal!).
|Seventy-five students per class, heads down working hard. This is the 'usual' image of a classroom|
They might drop their trousers (I have seen it first hand) in hot weather and sit in their underwear (I did not notice!). They might throw things at each other or out the window (They are very naughty!). They might be disruptive in a number of ways (You should just ignore them!). There are however two things that they will not do in anyone's class! They will neither ask nor answer questions (They are not very active in class!). And let's not forget the eating and the spitting! (It is not important!)
|This is the usual scene in my larger classes when we are doing activities rather than being 'taught'. This class eventually dropped from 73 to 25 students.|
The two most irregular features regarding the foreigner English teacher's classes in this school are that firstly, I have my own personal classroom (It is mine - not theirs!); and secondly, that although there were 1100 students in Grade two in the 2003/2004 school year, I only taught around 200-300 of them, because I threw the rest out.
OK! So I'm exaggerating a little. Most of them could not handle the discipline and chose not to continue their studies. Foreign teachers are strange people. They don't let you do what you like, if you spit on the floor they make you clean it up with a wet cloth; they make you wipe your feet when you go in the room - AND - they make you SPEAK ENGLISH!
In fact I have faced not only a lot of opposition in the school from the administration and teachers, but quite a lot of students absolutely "hated" me, including one person in this happy little group. It is to this person's credit that they persisted in their work despite personal feeling, and by the end of the year, we both came to enjoy each other's contributions to class. I have in fact had several students apologize to me for their previous feelings, even though I was completely unaware of those feelings. Without any nasty intent in the comment, far too many students are spoiled and racist. (Foreigners are all liars don't you know? And they steal Chinese children!)
My brother and I spent months fighting with the school over the 'mentality' within the school toward 'Oral English'. Because Oral English was not an examinable subject, the usual Chinese expression applied - "It doesn't matter! It is not important!" Couple this with the perception that the mere presence of a foreigner imbues students with a magical ability to suddenly speak English, then combine that with a general lack of discipline and add a dash of "Oral English classes are a fun time", and the end result is that while the foreigner can turn up at every class and collect his/her salary at the end of the month, in the end, students make absolutely no progress.
Even English Majors at University have trouble stringing coherent phrases together let alone speaking complete sentences. "How are you?" is responded to with "How are you?" "How old are you?" is replied to with a statement informing you that "I am sixty years old!" To the question; "How do you think of football?" I reply; 'With my brain.' And the most common question is "What it is?".
|This room was clean before the movie was shown. This is also usual - except in MY classroom.|
Students will ask a string of related closed questions, without listening to or comprehending the answers. Example: "Do you like fish?" - 'No I don't.' - "Oh really? So what is your favourite fish?" - "I don't eat fish. I don't like fish. I don't have a favourite fish." - "Yes I low (know)! So how often do you eat fish?" (Speech therapy has a high priority in my classes)
What is so disturbing about this state of affairs, is that the teachers have an incredibly strong grasp and understanding of English grammar, and some of their worst 'conversational' students, write such good and interesting stories. BUT they can't speak more than one or two sentences.
After months of telling the administration that most students should not be doing our classes, and listening to the same tired old lines like "You should teach them songs and games!", we decided to break our contracts and leave. At 5 pm one Sunday I informed the school that I would be gone by the following Saturday. At 4 pm the next day, I was advised that I had my own classroom.
|The average class size. For the final 3 months, this is how and where most classes were held - on the balcony. The largest class had 35 students - the smallest had only one.|
It took me a full month of scrubbing the floors on hands and knees to be able to think of it as a 'clean' classroom, and all the students from every class were eager to come. Attendance however was determined by whose name appeared on my list of students who had spoken even one sentence in class. After four months at the school, only 375 of my 1200 students had spoken any English, and 90% of them had been forced. Can you imagine spending 45 minutes getting just 10 students to speak one line of English?
With the commencement of the new school year in September of 2003, we got a new school principal (CEO), and in October he informed us that our services were a waste of time and money and that we should leave. The specific date was not provided, so we took our time in making our arrangements.
Then I received word that the school wanted both of us to complete our contracts, and wanted me to stay on and sign for another contract. It appeared that if the foreign teachers left mid contract, it would ruin the reputation of the school. My brother found an excuse to leave, and I determined to remain only for the current contract.
|Bare bellies are a common sight in China. It is how men stay cool - and sometimes how they show their strength.|
Then it was announced that the Government was changing the rules to make Oral English examinable, and suddenly, Oral English became important. Whereas formerly, my treatment of the students was contrary to Chinese culture and unfair to the students thrown out of class, suddenly, I was a very good teacher who was ensuring that students received the highest standard of teaching and attention.
In February of 2004, armed with the power that the new situation gave me, I set to work teaching the students 'The mechanics of Conversation.'
The international English Exam (IELTS) requires students to be able to engage in group discussion and provide informative answers and explanations. In short, they are required to justify their opinions. I had one third year university student call looking for help because she had to do a group discussion, and not only had she never spoken English to anyone, even in Chinese she had never engaged in a group discussion. I told her there was only one thing to do: 'Talk and keep talking'. Mind you, her pleas for help were relayed via one of my boarders. She had no wish to actually speak to me in English.
Despite their writing abilities, few students can hold the simplest coherent conversation, and I have concluded that the reason for this is that generally speaking, Chinese people don't engage in 'informative' conversation. I can just hear some of the reactions to this statement, but my conclusions are supported by the opinions of a variety of Chinese people with whom I have spoken on the matter.
|Every opportunity is taken to teach the students how to converse on ordinary everyday events.|
Second Semester 2003/2004, I spent eight weeks teaching students about the mechanics of conversation. Speaking in Complete Sentences, reflecting content, anticipating questions, providing informative answers, the difference between open and closed questions, asking multiple and/or informative questions, and the difference between 'talking' and 'communicating effectively'. They were intensive theoretical and practical classes that opened up a whole new world for many students. Students who considered themselves 'poor at English' discovered that they had abilities of which they were formerly unaware, and many a competent student 'found their voice'. I will relate here, three of my most memorable moments that semester.
1. The private 15 minute lesson.
During one particular lesson I spent 15 minutes concentrating on one practically 'mute' student, teaching him how to anticipate questions. I commenced with 'What is your name?' to which he replied "Bill Smith". I made him repeat the answer as a complete sentence. I asked him what he thought would be my next question. He did not know. I had the other students gathered around and asked each of them to guess what my next question would be.
|The boy in red on the right has learned that he can speak English and has even reluctantly taken charge of a Class Discussion.|
Of course there were a variety of responses. He chose one question and gave the answer. "Hong Hu". I made him restate the answer as a complete sentence. "I come from Hong Hu." Then I made him answer both the asked and unasked question as one combined sentence. 'My name is Bill smith and I come from Hong Hu". I continued with this strategy until he had answered the one asked question and 5 other unasked questions.
The following week we had a visitor to our class. A female teacher who wanted more practice. Someone asked me who she was and I said that since she was sitting right there in front of the student asking, that that student should ask the question of the visitor.
This started a chain of events that led me to ask the student from the previous week, to ask the visitor a question. A little later I prompted him to ask another question. Subsequently he asked another three questions and joined in the conversation. You could see the sheer delight on his face, and he kept looking at me with obvious pride and a sense of achievement.
2. You're the Boss!
|This little feisty lady in red put me in my place well and truly|
As group discussion work evolved, one class in particular took to it with a relish. On one occasion I put a particular girl in charge, and while she was eliciting responses, a student made a few serious blunders. I had been sitting on a desk and leaning against the window. I stood up, and approached the group.
As I began to inform the student of her need to rephrase her statement, the girl in charge said: "Excuse me, I think you should just sit down and be quiet and just let us talk!" My mouth fell open! "Yes Ma'am!" I replied with a salute, and returned to sit in silence on my desk. I have never so much enjoyed being put in my place.
3. I need a translator
I have already mentioned the two boys who meet me at lunch time, so that they can get a little more speaking practice while they walk me home. One such day they found me speaking English with a Chinese woman. When they turned to leave, I told them to remain.
This lady asked me many questions about my life at school, and the possibility of doing a summer camp. Throughout the discussion, she had difficulty understanding me. The boys began to interpret for me. When she left, I put my arms around their necks, pulled them into a huddle and said: "Do you know who that lady is?"
You should have seen the looks on their faces when I told them that they had just been translating English into Chinese for the Head of the international English language School. They were so delighted - and I was just so PROUD of them!
My dogged determination to get the students speaking and conversing in English as opposed to 'practice' saying English sentences, has paid off handsomely.
|Taken the second last lesson for the year, students opted for just reading magazines and newspapers.|
As stated already, they have excellent teachers, and despite what most students will claim, their English is not poor, just unused. As any person who has ever learned a foreign language knows, it is not what you know in your head that counts, but the ability to say it fluently.
For some students, my teaching has added nothing to their 'knowledge' of English, it was just the catalyst for gaining the confidence to start using what they knew. Naturally they make lots of mistakes, which on occasions reduces me to hysterics.
The funniest examples can not be printed here, and have led to 'defacto' lessons in sex education. You might think it easy to explain to someone that they should not say 'I just like to go home and play with myself', but even when they see the equivalent Chinese expression they are left in the dark.
Without venturing into this particular realm, I can give you some examples. For instance, 'The Duck of Bridgewater' instead of 'Duke' of Bridgewater and Australians like to eat 'Ships' instead of 'Sheep'. I admit of course that I have also made some pretty good mistakes in Chinese. I use to say to people 'My breasts Australia' instead of 'I come from Australia', because I put the wrong accent on the words 'come from'. I have also been guilty of telling someone that 'my penis has gone to Nanjing', as a result of confusion between two similar sounding words.
The most disastrous misunderstanding occurred during a discussion on the Iraq war, when one student stood up, and as far as I was concerned, informed me that he wanted to go to the toilet.
|While travel might be interesting, he really wanted to read about the war in Iraq. "I just want to go to Iraq and kill as many American soldiers as I can".|
Pointing toward the door, I said, 'Go!' There was quite a bit of confusion and anger before it was finally understood that he was saying, 'I want peace!'
This boy to the left was visiting me at home and as I had a number of magazines and newspapers from Australia, he asked if he could take something home to read, particularly if it was on the Iraq war. When I asked why he was so interested in war, he replied, 'I want to go to Iraq and kill many American soldiers!'
Despite their love of NBA and all things American, students 'know' that America is an imperialist war loving country that wants to rule the world, and that one day China will be strong enough to defeat it. Then the world can speak Chinese instead of English.
The first time a student said this to me I burst out laughing. "You can't even understand someone who lives one hundred miles away, what makes you think Chinese could replace English as the common language of the world?' I asked. He just smiled.
Many students desire a career in the army as they consider that China is currently a weak country that must prove its might, hence the need for Taiwan's return. Some want to join the party and work for the good of the country.
|The future Chairman of China. That is Student Wang's dream. AND he says he won't be giving me an open ended passport.|
Between the historical necessity of 'keeping one's mouth shut' and nationalistic pride which will not acknowledge China's faults and failings, many young people have never heard anyone say anything negative about the country, society, politics or the party.
When you combine this with their new found freedoms and modern ideologies, you end up with a situation I faced in class. One group of students told me that they intend to set up their own political party to give the people an alternative that would bring them more rapidly into the modern world.
It was my duty to advise them that this was not only illegal, but would lead to either their deaths or imprisonment. I have in fact told many students, that the most effective way to bring change to China, is to join the party and work their way up through the ranks. It may be slow, but it is definitely safer, and much better for the country than another revolution.
It might surprise many to know that many students do not recognize China as a 'communist' country, only that it has a 'communist' government.
|The boy wearing the white shirt and sitting on his own in front of the desks, is the once 'mute' student who discovered his voice. During this week's lesson he was the discussion leader.|
Whilst I am not 'allowed' to discuss politics or religion, I have no hesitation in talking about anything that grabs their attention, or about which they are eager to speak. I remember in the early days of the Iraq war, one student told me that when he grows up he intends to join the army, become a general, take the Chinese army to America, and kill George Bush. I told him that George Bush would probably be dead by then. He said that he didn't care, he would still go and crush the Americans. 'I hate Americans!' he declared, and looking me directly in the eyes (culturally difficult to do), he continued with 'ALL Americans!'. I responded by telling him that that was OK. After all, I am Australian, not American. It was like someone had punched him in the stomach. He had meant to insult me!
Now if you find all this somewhat of a shock, the best is yet to come. One of the first culture shocks I encountered here, was seeing students constantly holding hands, embracing each other, lying in each other's laps, and being physically intimate with each other in a variety of ways, none of it immoral I might add.
|In China you rarely see male and female contact. It is a cultural shock to see boy/boy girl/girl intimately tactile.|
It was not the intimacy itself that was shocking, but that it is all between members of the same gender. This photo is really quite innocuous and can be viewed as one wishes. It could be considered that it presents a 'distorted' or 'out of context' picture.
|This is one of the most common sights in the classroom. Chinese people are quite unconscious of how 'intimate' their physical friendships appear.|
But it is not unusual to see boys sitting together cheek to cheek, or leaning against each other in a way that we in the west might consider inappropriate. Just today in class, one boy was laying in the lap and arms of the boy behind him. Another trio were all holding hands. All of them are aged between 16 and 17 years old.
They will shower, sleep and go to the toilet together; hold hands and engage in an intimacy that we would consider to be either sexual in nature or immoral.
|Eleven red roses from my best student ever. The roses symbolise love and eternal friendship. Delivered mind you at 5:45am on the day I was returning to Australia for holidays.|
But I doubt that even one of them could begin to understand why anyone would think that they were lovers, and this, provided that they could understand such a concept as homosexuality. The same applies to the girls.
Their understanding of all things 'sexual' is either non existent or extremely limited. One group of boys at my home one day began to giggle amongst themselves, which was fair indication that they wanted to discuss something embarrassing.
When I finally told them not to be afraid or embarrassed, and that nothing would surprise or shock me, they raised an issue that did both shock and embarrass me. They wanted not only a descriptive explanation of my 'private' parts and sexual history, they wanted information on the topic of 'self pleasure'.
While I had given them the 'all clear' to discuss whatever they wanted, I never expected that boys their age would not even have come by such information via 'self' discovery. Fortunately, as a foreign teacher I can always retreat to, 'I am not allowed to talk about this subject'.
|Boys will always be boys whether playing cowboys and indians (or is that Chinese and Americans) or just practising with makeshift basketballs|
When we first arrived in China, we were told never to discuss, Taiwan, Japan or religion. The most popular question apart from 'Do you like football?", was 'What do you think about Taiwan?' I dutifully obeyed my instructions, and always advised the students that I was not permitted to discuss the matter. One day I asked my brother why this injunction existed, and he informed me that he did not know. Then I asked him "What is Taiwan? Where is it? Why are students so interested in it?' You see, until we did an internet search that day, neither of us had any knowledge about Taiwan.
|Magazines and Newspapers from Australia are actually unwitting and unconcealed contraband that was passed through customs. Students are well aware of their governments control of the media and often ask me to research information for them on the internet.|
Second Semester 2004, I found the subject an excellent one for use in Group discussion work, and in the process, discovered what students really thought about a range of things.
|Top L-R: My Three Sons (Boarders) Zhang Ming Xing - Xie Qin Chao and Zhan Yan. Bottom: Friends of Qin Chao sitting in the pond at school.|
Some of their beliefs include that forcing Taiwan back to China will prove that China is strong; that allowing Taiwan's independence will cause China to 'lose face'; and that the American government is encouraging Taiwan to go to war with China.
One week I asked the students to study two sentences written on the Blackboard. These sentences read:
'Governments who are led by the nose by public opinion are irresponsible' - and - 'Governments should not listen to protesters'.
Naturally some students agreed and others did not, but interestingly enough, some students pointed out that as 'absolutes', these statements were wrong.
Once the discussion was underway, I pointed out that those who agree with the statements are declaring that the Government of Taiwan ought not to let public opinion 'in favor of reunification' sway the government's mind and purpose. They did not particularly like that concept. The opposing students however had a good laugh at their expense.
But then I turned the sights onto the opposition group. I informed them that the first statement was made by a Beijing Government Official (Qiao Xiaoyang) to the government of Hong Kong, which meant that they were standing in opposition to their own government. While they did not find this so funny, the first group did.
In addition to generating discussion and debate, the purpose of such lessons is to make the students think about the ramifications involved in making 'definitive' statements.
By way of example, one week, the students decided that 'protesting against a government' proves that the government is wrong, bad, and in need of being replaced.
From this it was agreed that the Taiwan government needed replacing, and that the American, Australian and British governments likewise were wrong, bad, and in need of replacement for their involvement in Iraq.
But when I then pointed out that people in Hong Kong were protesting against the Beijing Government, and that by extrapolation this meant that the Beijing Government was wrong, bad and in need of being replaced, suddenly the students began to 'change their opinion' as to what protesting against a government really 'proved'.
|No pussy footing around for the non politically correct Chinese. Start 'em young - that's the way to go!|
My students have begun to 'think', rather than 'react', so much so, that one class in particular had a debate on the issue of Taiwan's return.
The change that has come over those who have stuck it out and treated Oral English as a serious subject, has been dramatic. They have begun to find courage, they have begun to find things they want to talk about, they have learned to discuss and justify opinions, and above all else, they have begun to 'think'.
Unfortunately time and space constrain me to bring this article to an end even though there is so much more that I would love to write.
By the time that this article is published in September 2004, I will be getting ready to commence first semester for the 2004/2005 school year. This year I will teach the grade One students and I hope that the recent changes to the law with regard to the examinability of Oral English, will result in a 'change of attitude' in the students.
|The two boys either side of me regularly meet me at lunchtime to walk me to the front gate of the residential complex so that they can score a few extra minutes of English Practice.|
If they and the school are able to approach conversational English as a serious subject, then I will remain in this school until there is not one grade or student left that is tainted with the former prejudices, excuses, laziness, and bad behavior that have been so prevalent to date.
As far as I am concerned, if I am wasting my time with the students here, I may as well waste my time and energy in a big city with all of its' attractions AND get paid twice the money.
In light of the new laws, there can no longer be any justification for the usual excuses I hear for student's poor performance and attitudes. If all goes well, I will be teaching upwards of 1200 students spread over 20 classes, and if I am successful, I intend to remain in this school for three more years. My desire is to make this the Number One school in China for producing English Speaking Students.
I hope that you have enjoyed this article (rather than being offended by it) and I hope that you have gained some insight into what a foreign teacher faces here in China. This article was finally completed on July 18th during the Summer Course for Teachers. One of the American teachers here for the summer is so despondent that they are seeking to leave ASAP. This life is not everybody's cup of tea.
The moment someone sees a camera they all want their photos taken. What is worse, is that additionally they all try to 'pose' for the photograph.
I had my camera in my pocket this day and seeing two boys leaning against each other, I pulled out my camera to take a photograph. I instructed those who realized what I was about to do, to be quiet and not let on, but of course they just had to let everyone know. As the flash went off, these two were in the process of preparing to 'pose'. The end product was a little too rude for the editor to allow the photograph to be shown here.
So many times I have had the chance to take very good natural shots, only to have them spoiled by 'posers'. I tried to take a video of a 4 year old boy who was copying what I had written on the blackboard. I was in the middle of a conversation with his father when I noticed what he was doing. As soon as the father realized what I was about to do, he called to the boy to turn around and face the camera. The video was useless, and worse still, was that the boy was now conscious of both the camera and further attempts to video him.
- In 2010 at Magic City Morning Star News I published 19 Chapters of my book 'Finding Myself in China'. They are listed at the above link.
R.P. BenDedek is the pseudonym of an Australian who has been teaching in China since 2003. In addition to contributing to Magic City Morning Star News as a columnist, he is also currently assisting the Editor of this Newspaper.
2004 Stories from China
Additionally, BenDedek is the author of 'The King's Calendar: The Secret of Qumran' at www.kingscalendar.com