Teaching English in China is w-a-y- different from USA

[2008] I’ve finished 4 full weeks of teaching Elementary school age kids I don’t know what I am doing. I spoke too fast, used too large words, and covered too many topics. I was given a schedule and told virtually nothing else. Save for one American’s input I was left adrift not knowing the names, ages, or learning level. Some classes are w-a-y too large.

The children are wild and disorderly for everyone, not just for the new teacher, but these are Saturday and Sunday classes so it is hard for me to be strict. One 9 year old thought she could chat in sign language all through class; I scowled and signed an angry NO and that stopped.

Then, they have no section numbers, no list of students. I did find out which Chinese teacher would be on hand but they had little to say and I felt like a fifth wheel. In China generally the teachers are harsh and autocratic. I suppose with 1.3 billion people you have to demand more of students but leaving them in a take-it or leave-it position is not fair, esp. for a private school.

One of the chief problems is that American teaching processes are different from the Chinese so the immediate reaction is that we are doing something wrong. Chinese schoolrooms are highly structured – there is little feedback from children individually. Children shout out their vocabulary words, which has two effects – it relieves kids’ continuous desire to talk and yell, and allows the ones who are not learning to snooze or daydream in peace.

So faced with this I dragged out a DVD of “Beethoven”, a comic kid’s movie to show on a friend’s computer. It was a huge success. The several hundred hours of DVDs prepared carefully at home almost never worked, so I have had to improvise a great deal. This movie gave us all some breathing room. It shows a typical American family in their home; a local vet is stealing pets for chemical experiments and eventually the family exposes him. It offered spoken vocabulary not often taught or heard in their regular school work. It has an upbeat happy ending where Right wins over Evil – a requirement for kids’ viewing.

One of the teachers that works with me refused to see the end of the movie fearing someone would blow the dog’s head off. This woman visibly shakes when I am in the classroom so I must leave when she begins and she stumbles if called upon to interpret. I feel the hour is wasted. The two other Chinese teachers do very well though. Barbie translates well which allows the student to hear the material twice – once in the English, and then the Chinese explanation. I created a list of new words (cool, cute, crazy, and bully) which is supported by the movie’s subtitles in English.

There was some negative feedback about “paying to see a movie” but what parents and often staff fail to realize is that English pronunciation is so poorly taught everywhere that the results of any conversation are largely unintelligible. An America movie allows them to hear a variety of voices – male, children, female, in context. So we got past that objection. Most American movies shown in Inner Mongolia are violent, not nice family items like this, such as Star Wars and The Terminator. No wonder they think we are nuts!

Fortunately we had the finest equipment of any school in the city. With a computer I can show power point through an overhead. There is a DVD player in every classroom and a top grade printer and a scanner works well. The school gets all its paper stock and cartridges free from a grateful vendor. We even have a music program with 3 electric pianos and an electronic keyboard.

But, I have some serious questions about just how much good can come from a 7 day week. The bright kids and the autodidacts will excel anyway. But 8 year old Linda is a case in point coming to her tutoring sessions visibly ill, sneezing and coughing. Besides being a threat to others, she is exhausted and worn.

Can all of China have a generation of kids like this- overworked, worried and disillusioned? Already China has the highest rate of youth suicides in the world, the preferred route being farm poisons. Could I and my American friends be contributing to that? The push for education borders on panic

For the most part the Chinese have barely steeped into oral waters. Much of the material they used in the past for all age groups has no central mission and the pronunciation guides enforce wrong vowel sounds, which is the core of English. A long list of 1,000 English words that the Chinese student should memorize listed “reporter” and “reported” on separate pages, seemingly unaware of the connection. Simple, easily defined word roots can flower into many other words, adjectives, nouns, whatever – but I saw no guide to that.

And because of their inheritance from Hong Kong, most of the textbooks are British, who will say “whey-ah” meaning “where” and that combined with a Chinese accent leaves us clueless. More modern materials are in demand but Beijing does not allow much produced in the USA to arrive here, even if it is not politically a problem.

School management skills in a controlled society are not needed because everyone at the top makes decisions, but the results are poor and accountability absent. Now they need these skills. Instead of Peace Conferences the USA would be better served to sponsor training courses in school management.
What I consider the best use of my time is my weekly movies – I had 7 the first Friday and 9 this past week. I serve yellow popcorn made in a wok (not the best idea) with iced tea made from Louisanne tea bags with no ice. With the English subtitles everyone learns at least something. Next week JAWS – or perhaps you prefer the French title, “Les Dents de la Mer”?
Check out the currently controversial book Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother by Amy Chua


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