5 Ways that Teaching in China is Different

No matter where you were raised, if it wasn’t in China, I’m pretty confident that your educational system was quite different than China’s.  In a country with over a billion people, competition for places at the best colleges and with the best companies is fierce.  That, coupled with the vast differences in resources from wealthy urban megacities to struggling rural farming villages, means that the government has created strict regulations and mandates to try to ensure that all students receive the same level of education.

Does it work?  Well, no, but they do seem to try very hard to make sure that students in rural areas have a fighting chance.

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China is becoming an increasingly popular destination for foreign teachers.  Most come to teach English, or English for a Specific Purpose, as I did.  Most teachers are young, inexperienced and looking for adventure. For some, this is their gap year before or after college, for others, this is their way to get out of their stuck-in-a-rut life.  Surprisingly, most teachers have no real classroom teaching experience (but they have a shiny new teaching certification from an online program!)  If it sounds like I’m being critical, I’m not.  Not yet.  Wait to judge me until after I tell you how horrible the vast majority of foreign teachers are. In my opinion, many of these teachers do more harm than good.

Now, let me just say that this isn’t true about all foreigner teachers living in China. I met some great ones who genuinely cared about their students and colleagues.  Aside from my fellow Peace Corps volunteers (who I, quite partially, felt that the majority were both good teachers and well intentioned) most foreign teachers were just using theirs schools to get year-long Chinese visas so that they could travel around the country (missing classes to do so) and sleep with local women.  They were an embarrassment to the countries that they represented and I was shocked that most of their schools put up with their awful behavior.

As my students love to say, “Every coin has two sides” so I suppose I should mention that the teachers usually receive very little, if any, training once they arrive.  They’re thrown into their local communities without being able to speak the language.  They are maybe taken to the local tourist sights but they aren’t given any cultural training.

I know this because I was asked by the provincial government to train their foreign teaching interns.  For my first semester I was given exactly one day in which I was to cover cultural difference as it relates to teaching, best practices of foreign teachers that are useful to new teachers, and general health and safety.  No one in my class of 40 interns had ever taught a class and not a single person had been to China before. A few had never been out of their home countries. By the time they left my training I could see that their heads were about to explode. For all the reassuring I did that they would have a great experience, I was afraid that a few of them might call it quits that night.

So, that leads me to this post.  If you’re reading it, I hope that you’re considering traveling abroad to teach English, or perhaps you’re already there.

I don’t claim to be an exceptional teacher, but I did do a lot of research into the topics that I’m about address.  In fact, I spent three months last summer in Chengdu training incoming teachers of all backgrounds- from PHDs to recent college graduates. Even the most seasoned among them found that they had a lot to learn because teaching in China is so unique. So, if you’re a complete novice but want to give teaching a go in China, you absolutely should.  Just make sure to do your homework first.

5 Ways That Teaching in China is Different From Your Country

1. Standardized tests rule the day. You might never have heard of the gāo kǎo 高考, but soon it will consume your life. This is the US equivalent of the SAT or ACT but in China it’s the only thing that matters when determining which colleges students will be accepted into.  It’s only given once a year, and the pressure is intense.  High school students spend all of their time preparing for this one exam by taking extra classes, studying before and after classes and doing preparation tests.  This is thought by some to be the great equalizer, allowing rural and urban students the same shot at getting into an illustrious school.  Unfortunately for the teacher (and student really) it means that school administrators push the importance of teaching to the test.

The gāo kǎo is the pinnacle of all standardized exams, but students face them at all ages and in all grades.  Once they finally get into college, they still have many more standardized tests to get certified in every possible subject from English to computers.  It’s completely normal for college students to have exam prep courses every semester for yet another test that they have to pass.

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Teaching high school students to sing Christmas carols- and not a single student objected

2. The culture respects teachers. Thanks to the Confucius influence throughout history, teaching is considered a noble and highly respected profession. Teachers are often addressed with “lăoshī” or teacher, in their title.  Everyone from my friends to my favorite fruit vendor referred to me as “lăoshī” (actually, it was Cai Yang lăoshī since my Chinese name is Cai Yang) as a sign of respect.  Make sure to do the same to your colleagues, especially if they are older than you.

Since teachers are so respected, it’ll be unlikely that a parent challenges your teaching methodology.  In fact, in some schools, parents aren’t even allowed in the classroom and certainly aren’t allowed to provide feedback to the teacher.  Think how wonderful teaching might be in the US if you didn’t have to deal with parents pressuring you to give their child an A or objecting to something that you taught in class.  Oh- and did I mention how well behaved most students are? We seriously need to teach our children to respect teachers the way they do in China.

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I was a guest at a high school – until they decided that I needed to teach that day’s lesson on US geography!

3. Long hours & weekend classes. Teachers everywhere work long hours. Yet, I don’t think most high school teachers will have class from 8am to 9pm. Some teachers in China do. They also might have mandatory class on weekends.  Take my friend’s daughter’s schedule as an example.

IMG_1135 editedYaYa, a precocious 12 year old at a private school in rural China regularly has class 7 days a week.  Her schedule changes depending on the day of the week, but it’s common to have class either until 7pm or 9pm at night.  The students and teachers are given the obligatory lunch and nap time break (yes, that’s common in China- adults need naps too) from 12:00- 2:30pm.  YaYa takes the public bus home to eat lunch with her family and rest.  Twice a week, she also has to practice her English reading skills with me while all she really wants to do is sleep.  She then gets back on the bus and returns to school until dinner. Depending on the day, she’ll either eat dinner in the cafeteria and then have evening class, or return home for the night.

Weekends are a lighter load for her.  She has half a day on both Saturday and Sunday, preventing her from being able to travel or sleep in.  When she’s not in class, she’s taking piano and painting lessons and studying under the supervision of her family.  Rough life.

Now, imagine being her teacher.  If you have class until 9pm, you have no time to prepare for the next day’s lessons. So, typically you teach straight from the book.  Your class is boring and not very interactive. You do the same thing that you did the year before because you’re tired and don’t have the time to innovate.

Luckily for us, foreign teachers don’t tend to work these type of hours. Our schedules are lighter than our peers, especially since we generally don’t attend the numerous staff meetings that take place during the week and we don’t typically run the test prep courses. In elementary schools we’re also not their primary teacher, but often rotate into various classrooms for 45 minutes each.  Be sympathetic to your colleagues and stick up for them when your students tell you how boring their classes are.

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I’m standing up on my stage- it’s all about me in this class!

4. Student Centered vs. Teacher Centered. The set-up of a Chinese classroom says it all. When you enter the room, all of the desks are in neat rows, lined up facing the front. At the front of the room there will be two required elements- a podium and a stage. In China, the role of the teacher is to speak and the role of the student is to listen. This is the reality of what your students will have faced their entire lives, so if you come in and try to challenge that fundamental belief, it might be shocking at first. Even simply asking them a question that requires them to use critical thinking skills might be a challenge.  They’re hungry for a change, but it could be hard at first.

Remember that in a teacher centered classroom the teacher speaks. Even if it’s a language class. I found it really hard at first to get my students to actually practice what we were studying.  They are quite familiar with the repeat-after-the-teacher exercises but creating authentic dialogue is a struggle. Try different methods, get creative, and don’t give up!

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It’s so cold that I’m teaching with my jacket and gloves on.  You can also see what supplies I’ve brought since the class doesn’t have any AV.

5. Lack of resources. Don’t be surprised to walk into your classroom on September 1st and find that it’s 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Just wait until the winter when you have to teach with your jacket on and can see your breath. Aside from the far north of China, most buildings won’t have heat or air conditioning, so get used to being uncomfortable.

Likewise, most rooms don’t come equipped with the kid friendly décor and other touches that we find so common in Western Schools.

Private schools would be the exception here.  Some private schools are very well funded (read: expensive tuition) and do make sure the environment is conducive to learning.

But if you’re in a public school or most underfunded universities, a big part of your job will be to make the environment suitable.  Can you have class outside, in the shade, on a brutally hot day?  What tools can you bring in to assist with their learning? Does every student have a book, or do they use one text and photocopy it?  Making the most out of what you have will be an essential skill.

These are just a few of the differences that stand out to me. What stands out to you?









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