I remember the first morning teaching at Sias. I woke up early with those first-day-on-the-job jitters. I was so nervous and didn’t know what to expect. I kept telling myself to calm down. At this time, I had four years of teaching experience under my belt, and over ten years of experience in higher education; there was no reason for me to be afraid. After all, how different could teaching in China be? The answer I learned quickly: VERY!
Some changes I noticed immediately, like the physical classroom environment; others, I noticed over time, like the changes I had to make in my teaching strategies.
China has a communal culture. This means that the goals or needs of the community are more important than individual needs or goals. This cultural difference greatly affects the classroom: it’s both a blessing and a curse.
A communal cultural mindset can benefit the classroom through the use of group work. Unlike American students, who abhor group projects, Chinese students work well in groups. They genuinely want their classmates to succeed in their studies, so they are willing to spend time explaining and helping each other understand complex topics. Group work also gives students an opportunity to process information in a relatively safe environment. Chinese students don’t like to be called upon to answer questions individually in front of the class, especially when they haven’t had time to fully process the question asked. (This is their second language, after all.) So, group work gives them a chance to process questions and explore their thoughts before answering them publicly.
While communal culture benefits the learning environment, it can also be a curse. Since students want their classmates to succeed so badly, they often “help” one another earn a better grade. This form of helping we would call cheating in the States, but here, it is genuinely viewed as helping. Therefore, I’ve had to change the way I assign and grade assignments. For example, I take up phones during writing times, and I require students to handwrite their essays during class time instead of for homework. This can be difficult and extra work for the teacher, yet once you find something that works well for you and your students, it is easy to fall into a routine.
When I taught in the States, I was very much a lecturer, especially for my World Literature classes. I remember coming to class with a list of key points to discuss and a stick of chalk, and I had many lively discussions with my students about the literature in this fashion. However, this method does not work well with ESL students. It’s just not fair. (Oh, how I wish I knew then, what I know now.)
Our students have varying levels of English. Some can carry on a conversation in fluent English without a Chinese accent; some have a large English vocabulary but struggle to pronounce the words correctly, and still, there are others who have difficulty understanding every other word said. Yet, I’ve noticed that most students can read fairly well in English. Therefore, I use a PowerPoint or an Elmo (document camera) in every class. I type out clear directions ahead of time and have them on each slide, so that if they are struggling to understand what I am saying they can at least read it or take a photo of it and run it through a translation APP on their phones. In addition, I try to define unfamiliar terms by breaking them down the word into smaller parts (prefix, base word, suffix) and eliciting responses to the parts of the word they do recognize. Using pictures or photos of objects in the slideshows can also help students gain understanding quickly when introducing new terms or ideas.
While I did encourage and guide class discussion when I taught Stateside, it wasn’t something that I relied heavily upon when teaching. Yet, when teaching Chinese students, pair and group discussions/activities are something I use in every class. I try not to lecture longer than ten minutes max. At this point, I like to break for a group discussion or activity. This really gives the students a chance to process, explore, or apply the concept taught in a safe space. Like I mentioned before, Chinese students work very well in groups, and it’s a safe place for them to learn together. During this time, I pace the room, checking in on various groups, helping them and answering questions when necessary.
Overall, I feel I have grown as an educator during my time in China. While it is difficult to make certain changes, it’s all worth it when I see the gleam of realization in my students’ eyes.