Teaching in China – watch out!

Living in China can be a stressful experience. Responding to the demands of a foreign language, different ways of behaving, food, sights and sounds, making new friends and homesickness are all difficult. However one stress that can worsen, and even overshadow, all these others is the stresses of teaching.

If you are going abroad to teach at a Chinese University it is more than likely that you have done a TEFL or a CELTA course – this course, unfortunately, will not prepare you for the real experience of teaching. It doesn’t help you handle the difficulties of the work place, the indirect, at times dishonest, manner of the departments and universities you will work with, the disorganisation, the corruption and the lax educational standards.

On top of all that is “the worst” bit – the students. Obviously, the students are varied like all people, but on the whole they are great and can become good friends. However, if you are not prepared for how to teach them you might end up hating your classes.

In my observation the main thing that people do wrong is arrive with the wrong expectations of the students and university. They then get frustrated that either the students do not magically fit those expectations, or they are unable to make the students match those expectations.

I am going to try to describe some of these common expectations, the truth of them, and how to adapt them.

All countries are different, and although it is difficult not to be critical, please note that I write the following not in order to condemn the differences apparent in the education system, but to help you adapt to it.

Common Expectations

Expectation – Students can answer questions about thoughts such as: “How much do you think TV and movies affect your opinions and beliefs? Please explain.”

Truth – Students are able to answer these types of question but not in isolation.

This question relies on previous critical thinking, a firm grasp of vocabulary, a supply of examples ready to give (in English), awareness of the abstract idea of different things effecting individual thoughts.

Studies have shown (Li li, 2016) that critical thinking is not seen as a part of language instruction in China. In my own observations thinking in English of any type, let alone critically, is very rare among students who will normally not use English outside of the classroom. This means that most examples would be Chinese language examples, which may not have been critically reflected on at all. Vocabulary, therefore, is often simply memorised in isolation and knowing the relationship between the words ‘opinions and beliefs’ would not be easy for students. Finally, abstract ideas are not commonly used in Chinese education, which tends to bolt onto concrete examples – you can see this in their classical poetry which repeatedly uses concrete imagery to express abstract ideas and emotions. Even when classes are conducted in Chinese, such as their mandatory Marxism classes, abstraction is still an issue for them.

Adaption – Focus on the parts of questions and build up to them, from very structured to more open. I’ll give some ideas for this question.

First vocabulary – important to address right away, so that everyone is following the basics. Change the question to opinions or beliefs, the nuances of the words would be too complex for all but the best. Let’s say beliefs. Then elicit their understanding (they will be able to provide definitions). In pairs provide structured questions which highlight the most important aspects of belief for your topic. For example: do you believe that television violence creates real violence?

Critical thinking – I would ask them to write down a belief regarding a topic. Then show them a video about the topic. Then ask them to write down the video’s belief. Asking them to discuss how the beliefs were different, and if they can think of examples when the video’s/their belief is true or false.

Abstract thoughts – I would then give an example which would answer the final question explaining how my beliefs were changed by a TV or Movie. Then I would ask if their beliefs changed after watching the video. I would then ask them to think and write down an example of a video that either changed their beliefs OR made them stronger.

The Question – then in pairs of groups I would set them the question. I would also give them a series of other questions that could fill in for a conversation if that doesn’t happen naturally. For example: “Do you think family effects your beliefs more?”

Expectation – Students have an innate respect for teachers and learning.

Truth – simply not true.

Levels of respect here are far below higher education that I have experienced in the West. You should see yourself as a high school or middle school teacher rather than a lecturer.

I have observed University classes led by Chinese teachers in which students will talk to each other, play on their phones, have headphones in, do other work, and openly sleep. The Chinese teachers do not react and will often let it happen – often only responding by speaking louder. In your classes the students will do the same thing.

Additionally, they will not see you as a “real” teacher. They will often talk to you (in person or via messenger) in inappropriate ways which can be hard to respond to. Students will frequently tell you you are handsome or beautiful, they will tell you they “love you”. If they are begging for something, like they want a good grade even though they haven’t attended any of your classes, they will say things like: “I love your class, you are such a good teacher”. This begging is rife, “oh if you don’t attend our event, we won’t be able to do it.” “If you don’t pass me, I won’t be able to graduate”. They can also be very “huffy” in response to your telling them off, they will give you dirty looks, mutter to their friends, act like life is so difficult etc.

Adaption – Fortunately this is easy. It comes down to ground rules and keeping to your standards.

In your first class establish those rules and clearly indicate punishments (a seating plan might help with docking points) then stick to it strictly for at least a couple of weeks. If you’re not certain about the rules, you can spend the first class/half teaching and observing them as they are, and then give the rules you think they need.

With their personal communications separate out your private life (using Wechat) and work life (Using QQ) – see our guide for details on theses apps. If they say things which make you uncomfortable just tell them not to say things like this, they will be a bit embarrassed but won’t carry on. With the flattery and begging, again, tell them that it is inappropriate – it always works well to say “in the West this would be seen as terrible behaviour” – and inform your Chinese co-teacher about them, so that if anything does happen you can say you flagged it up.

Expectation – The university will basically be a professional institution.

Truth – Oh deary me.

Unfortunately on a systemic level what passes for professionalism here is very different to what you might expect. Individually staff can be great, especially the teachers who can be passionate, committed and just as frustrated by the students and the system as you (side note, try not to listen too much to foreign teachers talking about the “Chinese” teachers, if you want to know the truth ask to observe their classes).

Organisation can be terrible. At the end of this semester we were told that the department would give us our textbooks a week before class, so that we had ‘plenty of time to plan’. Hmm. Given that the textbooks are normally useless, this is not so great – we asked for them right away and got them though. Things being last minute is completely and utterly normal, things bounce up and down the hierarchy till they get to the one person who might need to know: the teacher. Utterly pointless meetings will spring out of nowhere, deadlines which are set nationally suddenly loom over you.

Communication can be awful. Unionisation is basically non-existent here, therefore, they are used to treating staff however they like.The thing that makes you different is that you’re harder to hire. They famously have a thing called “saving face” which, in this context, means it is very difficult to admit blame. This will lead to evasion, dishonesty, and outright lies. They won’t mind so much embarrassing you though, not least because there is a tendency for all foreign teachers to be tarred by the same brush. We had a “meeting” this year where we were ALL dragged in and told off because two people had been late for classes – afterwards we explained that it’s normal to discipline people in a small meeting with a neutral witness; they looked like we’d just discovered the wheel.

Corruption/cheating is everywhere. I was told once by a high up member of a key department I worked in last year, that parents of students will visit the head of the university, get down on the ground and beg for their child to pass when they have failed, and it happens. Other teachers have told me about how “some teachers” will change marks after receiving bribes. Nothing is internally or externally moderated, aside from the paperwork, and so an individual teacher only has their own integrity to go on. You will get asked to change marks, or ensure that people pass at some point.

Adaption – phew. Take a deep breath.

Organisation – be highly organised yourself, with your planning focus on the final exam/assessment, and do not rely on the textbook – often it is no more use than to give you topics. You have to adapt to the Chinese style of communication, this means pushing. It is very difficult for them to outright say no, so if you repeatedly ask (politely) and demand things, they will normally give in to you. Don’t worry about offending them, it is more than likely they think less of you anyway as a foreign teacher. Copy people into emails (another novelty) and make sure you get things in writing, if a verbal promise is made to you it means nothing and we’ve learnt this the hard way.

Corruption – well, this is a biggy. You basically have to accept that you are in a corrupt system which devalues itself, and will make you realise that your students’ degrees are worth no more than the paper they are printed on. You then have to recognise that your actions cannot affect that system. In your marking be rigorous and explain your criteria. If you want to teach a bit of academic integrity choose one element (e.g. plagiarism) and teach it as part of your class. The other thing is that it gives you leeway, you don’t have to stress yourself too much, because you can – in essence – make up the results (not that you should). .

Phew, that was a long post – if you gave me a drink and let me go I would never shut up. If you want or need any specific advice, have any questions, I enjoy this stuff so drop us a comment!

– Jonny


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