Letter from China: “Hello teacher”

A note from the author:

I have been living and teaching English in Beijing, China, since June 2011. I regret that I haven’t written more about my experiences here, but often didn’t know what I should write about, or what readers would be interested in. So, I would like to begin taking questions from readers about what they would like to know about China. While my Chinese language ability has improved a lot over four-plus years, it is a difficult language, and while my Chinese is well beyond survival level, I’m sorry to say it is still short of fluency. I continue to study some every day, so hopefully that problem will be rectified within a few more years at most.

I’m starting out with some questions a People’s World editor sent me: “What are public schools like in China? Are they very strict? rigid? or not? What subjects do they teach at different levels? Is the curriculum filled with “propaganda”? How do they compare with American schools, in your view? Tell us about your school.”

When I first arrived in China four years ago, I taught in private for-profit schools, with heavy class schedules concentrated on the weekends. You have probably heard about “tiger moms” as a Chinese phenomenon, and there is a lot of truth to this notion of Chinese parenting.

Over the past two years, I have transitioned to the public school system (free from K-12, as in the U.S.), which I prefer for several reasons. One is that classroom behavior is better, as public schools are more structured, and I suspect some students view their private weekend institutions as being “not real schools.” Another reason I prefer teaching in public schools, I must confess, is that public school teachers receive much more vacation time than their private counterparts (for example, one month for Spring Festival, also known as Chinese New Year; and two months summer vacation).

Chinese schooling is very competitive, and many parents seem intent on filling most waking hours in study of one kind or another. This is true of schools also, where, for example, students are given large amounts of homework for vacations. Also, typically, many vacation days must be “made up” by, for example, extra Saturday or Sunday classes.

Strictness? I don’t know of any concept of after-school detention, or in-school suspension as we have in American schools, much less corporal punishment (as still exists in more than a few rural schools in the U.S.). Student behavior is, in accord with what many Americans would probably expect, generally much better than in American schools from my experience. There is a culture of respect for teachers. Large numbers of my students politely bow their head and say “Hello teacher” in Chinese when passing me in the hallway, something I never experienced in the U.S. Of course, they are still kids, and discipline problems do exist, mostly not paying attention, talking when they should be listening, off-task behavior, throwing things (paper, plastic bottles), pretty much the kinds of things you’d expect. Consequences are typically things like making a student sit alone rather than in a group, making a student stand in the back of the class, requiring a student to write a short essay about their misbehavior, or (most frequently) scolding (I’ve seen a few students reduced to tears).

School subjects are not too dissimilar from American schools. Students study English, Chinese, geography, physics, physical education, music, political science, etc.  Students have a longer school day than American students, typically from around 7:30 a.m. to after 5 p.m.

China’s President Xi Jinping was recently quoted in the Guardian as saying, following his much-touted recent visit to the UK, that Chinese students should have more free time, and more time to play. I agree with this, and hope that suggestion will be translated into practice in the future, although the aforementioned “tiger mom” culture seems pretty firmly ingrained here.

It is commonly believed in China that American schools are better at teaching creativity and critical thinking. While I think many Chinese have an overly glowing view of American schools (as well as other aspects of U.S. society and culture), it is true that much of the learning in Chinese schools seems of the ‘rote learning variety – lots of memorization and repetition.

Is the curriculum filled with “propaganda,” as Americans are led to believe? Certainly in China students are encouraged in the official views of patriotism, socialism, etc. As American schools teach a view of history and society consistent with official U.S. ideology regarding capitalism, foreign policy, etc., so do Chinese schools teach a view of history and society in accord with the official views of the People’s Republic. China’s Young Communist League has a visible presence on campuses, and many teachers are party members as well (I know which ones because they often wear red flag sickle-and-hammer lapel pins).

When a major anniversary, such as the victory over Japan in World War II, is observed in China, it is reflected by school activities (a film about the victory against fascism, for example), and it is common to have slogans such as “Socialism is Good” and “Long Live the Victory over Japan and Fascism” colored onto a chalkboard at the back of the classroom.

One last thing I’d like to add on a positive note. The cafeteria food! It’s both healthier and, in my opinion, much tastier, than what you find in U.S. school cafeterias. Furthermore, food services are not outsourced to private corporations, as is typical in America. Breakfast and lunch are free to all students and staff. In the U.S., of course we have free and reduced lunches based on income (though this program is often attacked by right-wing politicians), but in China, it’s universal.

Send me more questions about my experiences in China via contact@peoplesworld.org – put “Question for Brad Jansen” in the subject line. Or, post a comment below.

Photo: School children, Guangming School, China. IvanWalsh.com/Flickr/Creative Commons