Full disclosure: the author of this post is a Chinese language teacher in the United States.
I have written on this topic before, but the New York Times has published another fascinating article on Chinese language teaching in the US, and the experiences of Chinese teachers who come from China to the US for the first time to teach their native language.
“My life in high school was torture, just studying, nothing else,” said Ms. Zheng (pronounced djung). “Here students lead more interesting lives,” partly because they are more involved in athletics, choir and other activities.
“They party, they drink, they date,” she added. “In China, we study and study and study.”
High school may be where the most severe gap between Chinese and American schools exists, but having worked in both systems, I wonder if the best way to run an education system isn’t somewhere in the middle of these two. The Chinese system, aside from being a bit inhuman, does nothing whatsoever to foster well-rounded kids or help them develop their social skills. The American system, on the other hand, tends to produce kids with an excess of social skills and a dearth of academic abilities. Given the sharp contrast here, it’s not difficult to imagine the culture shock Chinese teachers face when they move to the States:
In interviews, several other Chinese teachers said they had some difficulties adjusting to the informality of American schools after working in a country where students leap to attention when a teacher enters the room.
Ms. Zheng said none of her students had been disagreeable, and Samantha Weidenmaier, an assistant principal at the school, MacArthur High, said that in Ms. Zheng’s classes “the respect levels are kicked up a notch.”
Still, Ms. Zheng said she believed that teachers got little respect in America.
“This country doesn’t value teachers, and that upsets me,” she said. “Teachers don’t earn much, and this country worships making money. In China, teachers don’t earn a lot either, but it’s a very honorable career.”
Zheng makes a great point here. We can’t blame the flaws of the American education system wholly on its informal atmosphere or its emphasis on extracurriculars. The fact is, very few of America’s outstanding students go on to teach in public schools (or even private schools), and why the hell would they? Generally speaking, teaching jobs offer terrible wages, schools provide little to no training or support for their teachers, and while the vacations are hard to beat, working hours when school is in session can be brutal. This is all true in China, too, but the upside is that saying “I’m a teacher” often garners respect, whereas in the States it’s just as likely (if not more likely) to garner contempt, derision, and pedantry. “Those who can’t do, teach,” as the old joke goes, and teachers in the States are frequently forced to deal with parents who assume that they are stupid, incompetent, and “out to get” their children. Parents in China thank you for teaching their kids, but parents in the US lecture, demand, and blame you for their children’s failures real or perceived ((Of course, this is a generalization. Many American parents are great, and there are certainly Chinese parents who do these same things too.)). It’s no secret why American schools constantly lack teachers.
Continuing in the NYT article:
Ms. Zheng said she spent time clearing up misconceptions about China.
“I want students to know that Chinese people are not crazy,” she said. For instance, one of her students, referring to China’s one-child-per-family population planning policy, asked whether the authorities would kill one of the babies if a Chinese couple were to have twins.
I have found this to be a remarkably widespread and virulent misconception. I’m not sure where it comes from, but I have read dozens of student papers on China that explain how the One Child Policy means the Chinese government will summarily execute any children you have after the first one. I get these papers even after we’ve covered the One Child Policy in class and I’ve stressed repeatedly that the government is not in the business of murdering children. It’s frustrating, and it’s probably also pretty horrifying for native Chinese teachers when they inevitably discover it.
That afternoon, Ms. Zheng taught classes at Central Middle School, drilling 22 eighth graders on how to count to 100 in Chinese and explaining some Chinese holidays before turning her back to write a Chinese tongue twister on the board.
Out of the blue, a girl with long brown hair asked her classmates loudly: “Where’s France at?”
“In Europe,” a boy with baggy jeans called out from across the room.
“France is not in Europe,” another boy said.
Ms. Zheng just kept writing Chinese characters on the board.
This scene will sound familiar to every American teacher, but it’s hard to imagine in China. I’m not referring to the geographical ignorance, but rather to the widespread belief among American students that silence on the part of the teacher — especially if the teacher is writing on the board — signals an invitation to engage in private conversations.
This sort of thing is something American teachers quickly learn to manage (or are ultimately destroyed by). But it strikes me that “classroom management” probably isn’t even a topic of discussion at most Chinese high schools, where students don’t tend to speak up much during class for any reason, let alone to disrupt it. For Chinese teachers moving to the States, it must be very difficult not to take this kind of behavior personally, not to take it as a slight against China or Chinese.
Education is a valuable tool for intercultural communication but it can just as easily lead to frustration and disillusionment if one isn’t careful. The article doesn’t really discuss it, but I suspect many of the teachers the Chinese government sends here aren’t getting proper training or adequate preparation for what they’re going to face in American classrooms.
And teaching Chinese might well lead to more trouble than teaching some other random subject. Many Americans (and more than a few Chinese) believe there is something ineffable about Chinese that makes it impossible for average people to learn. Remarkably, this phenomenon exists even among students who are learning Chinese and have memorized characters or distinguished tones (for example) successfully in the past. In my scant year of teaching Chinese, I have had multiple students tell me that they’re not physically capable of reproducing characters. They have functional hands and no problems with English writing, so the suggestion is obviously preposterous, but it seems possible to them. After all, it’s Chinese. Some people, probably even most people, just can’t do it.
New on ChinaGeeks
A word of apology for the recent lack of posts, as well as the rather slapdash one you see above: May is the busiest time of the year for my school, and my workload is compounded by the beginning of work on a new ChinaGeeks-related project. I can’t reveal any more than that at the moment, but we’re hoping to keep pushing the boundaries in the wake of becoming one of the first bilingual bridge blogs on China. (All praise due to China Dialogue, who’s been doing it for years on environmental issues, and of course Global Voices Online, the ultimate super bridge blog.)