Teaching English in Shanghai and problems being a foreign educator in China

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For Teachers with experience in schools in other parts of the world, there are some things that stand out immediately in the Chinese classroom. Perhaps the most obvious one of these is the lack of consequences of a child “fails” a grade. From what I have come to understand is the policy of the educational administration of Shanghai, “holding back” a child based on lack of achieving a minimum passing score is not done. This could be a problem of scale. With so many children in need of education in this country, there may not be the resources to cycle students through the same grades. Regardless of why, these kids are ushered on to the next grade whether or not they have garnered the requisite knowledge that is meant to be endowed during the course of that year’s schooling.

As a one-time occurrence this is not tragedy, and in some schools this kind of situation may be remedied with extra attention from the teacher to the struggling student as well as having the child spend time outside of school with a tutor. In this way, the child in question may actually benefit from the methodology of the schools here regarding failing grades; given enough support, a student can catch up with the rest of the class and save him or herself the need of repeating the entire school year as would be done in America. Thus, this facet of education in Shanghai can be seen as depending on the context of each student as to weather it has a positive or negative outcome.

However, if this promotion despite failing situation is repeated for two, three or four years in a child’s educational career, that child becomes burdened with a handicap in the form of a knowledge gap that, if visualised, would look more like a chasm. At that point, theres little to be done but focus on all of the child’s time on recovering the ground that has been glossed over by the student’s lack of comprehension – a lack that stems directly from the failure to identify and deal with the problem at an early stage. I have come across a couple of kids with this problem, and they are intelligent children who have a desire to learn. The problem lies in their English language comprehension more than anywhere else. They tend to be good at math like their fellow students, with the only exception being word problems the meaning of which they have trouble grasping. As students in a program that teaches all of the aforementioned subjects in English, the only hope the kids have is for their English to be rapidly improved with a committed effort both on their part and on the part of their parents, teachers, and anyone else who takes a guiding role in their life.

For teachers who have students such as those in their classrooms, my advice is manifold: first, never take for granted that the student in question understands what you are saying, always check with them – and that does not simply meaning if they understand but actually checking their comprehension of the knowledge itself. This needs to be done multiple times throughout every lesson. Second, make sure to give extra attention to the students with such handicap, explaining things as many times as necessary and in words that might be easier for them to understand. While it is the goal to get their English level parallel to the other students in the class, it is a process that takes time, patience, and hard work.

Some one-on-one time will help them along this road. Taking a smidgeon of class to insure they understand the premise of a lesson is quickly rewarded in their output and performance, not to mention in their understanding that you, the teacher, are in it with them. Finally and if you deem it necessary, advise the parents of the child that he or she would benefit greatly from an outside tutor in English. While this might be beyond the means of some families, their are alternative ways a committed family could get their child learning English outside of school. Overall, the extra effort required of the teacher to bring such students up to par is well worth it when considering the impact such effort could have on the children’s lives.

Another big difference I have noticed regarding the function of a classroom in Shanghai is the lack of discipline policy similar to what I was used to dealing with in mainstream education in America. There, a graduated regimen of punishments is meted out as the misbehaving student continues to break the class rules culminating in a visit to the principal and possible suspension from school. Here, however, I’ve found that such disciplinary program, if it exists, is rarely enforced. Teachers are expected to deal with their students’ behaviour problems in the classroom, with punishments such as standing them in the corner or taking away their break between classes. This can occasionally work, though there is bound to be one or two obstinate students who consider such minimal punishment as a fair trade for the joy they get from disrupting a lesson and getting the laughter of their peers.

Of course, having had experience in some avant-garde private schools in America, this lack of disciplinary policy resembles nothing so much as the ‘positive discipline’ concepts used by some of those kinds of schools. The concept of positive discipline is essentially that students who ‘misbehave’ or ‘act out’ should not be punished but rather constructively critiqued and given endless opportunities to adjust their behaviour.

This kind of disciplinary policy is a wonderful way to spare the negative feelings that traditional discipline created in children, and I am all for it in context where small class size and a committed community adults help to make it efficacious for the behaviour issues. Nevertheless, in some other contexts it makes classroom management difficult to maintain. One strategy I have found to be useful is to offer a carrot in place of the stick of traditional punishment, and to wean the misbehaving youths off of their tendency to act out by offering them rewards for good behaviour. As with not holding students back, this form of discipline management has positive and negative sides.

There are a number of other aspects that should at least be mentioned in this post related to educational differences foreign teachers might find while teaching here in Shanghai. Students here are, in general, more respectful of teachers than in many other places and teaching is a position of social respect. This is due in part to the long tradition of education in China, dating back to the beginning of Chinese dynastic history and the permanence of such teachers as Confucius and others. For much of its history, the main chance of peasants to rise to a successful position was through the imperial examinations. This exam took a huge amount of studying and as prerequisite, and those who passed were highly valued and enjoyed a good bit of prestige. Thus knowledge, and the teachers who pass it, on, are highly regarded as a tradition here in China. This can be seen most readily by the practice of “Teachers Day” here, for which there is no corresponding holiday in America. Beyond such historic recognition of the teacher, it is enough simply to enjoy the difference now in the present.

Not just teachers, but education is also highly valued in China, and it seems as if the average Chinese student has alot more expected of him or her than their counterparts in some other countries. These high expectations are a blessing as well as a curse, since they tend to drive the students here to excel at the subjects they are told to excel at while not leaving them much time to explore other avenues of achievement or get in touch with their creative sides. While this insure their success in school, it does not necessarily assure them success in leading a happy life. Nevertheless, they excel at academics unlike many other countries children.

Another important note to consider is the method of social organization prominent in China. While some countries have historically stressed individually at the expense of community, China has traditionally reversed that emphasis. This creates a largely harmonious classroom in which great things can be accomplished as a group though it many have its drawbacks as well.

In both of the last two differences above, one can see that the practices are neither necessarily better nor worse, but simply different.

Overall, teaching in China is a hugely rewarding experience that offers many opportunities for enriching one’s own life and the lives of children. The differences encountered are opportunities for growth and deepened understanding of this rich and unique culture in which we are living. While this post can only mention some of those differences, there are many more that all of my fellow teachers have surely experienced. Though it may sometimes be hard to adjust, just remember: it’s worth it.

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