China's nine-year compulsory education system covering primary and middle school must remain free and be non-profit making, according to a law passed by the National People's Congress on Novermber 7, 2016. Photo: AFP/Nicolas Asfouri
China's nine-year compulsory education system covering primary and middle school must remain free and be non-profit making, according to a law passed by the National People's Congress on Novermber 7, 2016. Photo: AFP/Nicolas Asfouri

Many Westerners have a misguided or oversimplified perception of Chinese students as highly disciplined but uncreative math-whizzes. Yet lack of creativity was not the biggest problem I encountered during my year of teaching English in China. If you are considering teaching abroad in China or are interested in comparing American and Chinese education, I offer up this list of the challenges I faced in the Chinese classroom.

Let me start with the caveat that Chinese schools are as diverse in terms of resources and methods as American ones, so my experience may not be true for everyone. Furthermore, as a foreign teacher, I was treated more as a special guest than a full faculty member, shielded from the inner workings of the school. There may have been programs or initiatives to address these problems that were beyond my awareness.

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I taught at a low-resource public middle school and my friends who taught at wealthy schools or even vocational schools had a slightly different experience. Nevertheless, some things are common to the Chinese school system in general. Grades 1-9 are compulsory, as is English language learning from third grade on. It is even one of the three core subjects tested on the College Entrance Exam. Students must test into school at every level, and harder-to-get-into schools have more resources. So, the quality of elementary and middle schools you attend affects your ability to test into a good high school, which in turn affects your ability to get into a good college. Test scores are the sole determining factor; there is not much of a holistic process as there is at most American universities. This test-based system, combined with China’s immense population, lead to a number of challenges in the classroom for which I was not quite prepared.

As the only foreign teacher at my school, it was my job to expose the students to American culture (in fact, for many students I was the first foreigner they had close contact with) and to provide a fun, relaxed class for practicing oral English, while their core English class taught by a Chinese teacher focused more on reading and writing. To this end, I taught every single class of seventh- and eighth-graders in the school for 45 minutes each, either once a week for the former or once every two weeks for the latter. In total, I taught 20 classes of 40-50 students each, reaching about 900 students in total. The other teachers at the school were primarily responsible for about two classes each and saw them every day, so they at least have the chance to foster personal student-teacher connection. Nevertheless, here are some of the challenges I faced that I believe were present for the non-foreign teachers as well:

Lack of Resources for Students with Special Needs

Among my 900 students were three hearing-impaired students, each in a different class. I discovered this not by reading an IEP or by being informed by my supervisor or colleagues, but by calling on them on the first day of class and having their classmates jump in to say, “She can’t answer your question; she can’t hear you,” as she shyly moved her hair aside to show me the hearing aid attached to her ear. Flustered, I moved on for the time being, and asked my colleagues after class how to address a deaf student in an oral English class (we were not trained for this in my brief orientation period before becoming a teacher). My colleagues’ advice amounted to “just ignore them and let them do their own thing in class,” be it doodling, day dreaming, or feeling lonely and left out. I tried my best to make accommodations anyway, giving them handouts that matched my lecture, including drawing games mixed in with speaking ones, and being patient when asking questions, but I still felt helpless to help them.

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Even simple vision correction is a problem as many students who need glasses either don’t have them or don’t have the right prescription. My American colleagues and I were shocked to see students snatching the glasses off the faces of their peers and looking through them upside-down and backwards in an attempt to see the board. My carefully-planned Powerpoint presentations suddenly seemed tremendously ineffective.

Huge Class Sizes with Major Variations in Ability

As the daughter of an American high school math teacher, I am very familiar with the term “differentiated instruction” and hoped to embody it in my teaching but found it to be very difficult in a class double the size of your average American one. I know I keep bringing up the class size but it really does make a large difference. Every time I got 40 pre-teens to sit down and be quiet (no easy task), there were still five more being disruptive. I had students who had still not fully mastered the English alphabet sitting next to classmates who could speak in full paragraphs about their love for Doctor Who. As much as I wanted to give extra support to the former while engaging and challenging the latter, I was always too busy reprimanding the kid behind them for roughhousing with his neighbor or speaking while I was speaking.

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Students are Afraid to Give Wrong Answers

My biggest frustration during that year of teaching was that I couldn’t get the student I called on to be the one to give the answer. If she was unsure, rather than guessing or listening to my hints, she would stare down in shame until her classmates started shouting the answer. I believe that the classmates had good intentions, trying to help their friend save face and shield her from embarrassment and possible punishment, but it meant that no one felt comfortable feeling out an answer or had the patience to dig in the depths of their mind to find it. If they didn’t know it right away, they wouldn’t get a chance to answer at all. I wanted to foster an atmosphere where students knew it was better to guess than give no answer, but I just couldn’t break them of the habit of answering collectively.

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Students are Mentally Exhausted

The school day for my middle schoolers began at 7:30 am and ended at 5:30 pm. No, that’s not including optional extracurricular activities. They have a number of breaks for choreographed stretches and eye-exercises, but even their lunch break is not like the free-for-all recess of my youth. Rather than running around outside playing games like tag and kickball, there are more structured stretches, they do their homework and recite passages of the textbook one-on-one with their teachers, and after they eat they get to put their heads down on their desks and nap. In the evening and on weekends, many students take supplemental classes and tutoring sessions in order to stay competitive or at least not fall behind. Even on vacations like National Week and Chinese New Year, they are burdened with heaps of homework and more extra lessons. It’s no wonder then that when they reached my low-consequence class, they had no mental energy to expend on opening their minds to a new culture and language and rather acted out in an attempt to let loose.

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In general, I felt like the school and system fostered an atmosphere where students were divided into smart kids and “dumb” kids – those worth helping and those not. Just like Jack Sparrow’s pirate code, those who fall behind get left behind. My colleagues expressed the notion that with limited time and resources, it was only realistic to focus on the kids who were most receptive. I know from experience that trying to engage every single student only left me feeling burnt out and ineffective but I’m still not convinced it was wrong. Although it may be a challenge to give every single student a quality education in the face of so many difficulties, I believe it is a challenge worth striving to overcome.

Carly O'Connell

Carly O'Connell is a young professional in the D.C. metro area who has dedicated over half her life to studying Chinese language and culture. During college, she participated in an intensive language immersion program for a semester in Beijing and upon graduation she spent a year teaching English in Changzhou, China. She's visited over 15 different Chinese cities.

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