Those Who Can. Teach

China Travel Blog

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I was in China to teach English and American History to Chinese university students. There are several aspects of the contract I signed which made me question my suitability to complete such a task. Firstly and most significantly is the ability to teach. I have never received training and neither was I required to complete any such course. The second reason I had doubts was the lack of formal American history knowledge that I possessed, which would teaching this at university level very 'problematic' at the least. Although I could learn, how useful could the university library be as a catch-up tool of 300 years of history? Thirdly, by working at a university I was to be exposed to intelligent thinkers, men and women wanting to question and squeeze as much knowledge and wisdom from me as possible. How quickly would they discover that I could not give them as much as they required,  a potential fraud, and would this affect the respect I received from my students and others alike?

I thought all these questions would be answered prior to my arrival in China, but I received no email, letter or phone-call, which did nothing but perpetuate my thoughts about where I was going to live and what I was to do. I made further assumptions about the work I would be conducting. Given my limitations as described above, I believed that my capacity at Hui Hua College would be one similar to that I experienced whilst in seminars at Manchester University. Whilst in Manchester we had seminars for all our subjects which gave us an opportunity to discuss and think about various topics at length. The advantage of these seminars is that class sizes were between four and ten. I expected to be involved in seminars at Hui Hua; teaching and leading discussions in small groups. I also believed that there would be a set course or a plan with some guidelines as to what I would be teaching and what was expected from me.

How wrong I was!

Not just wrong, but wrong about everything. Firstly, and much to my relief, I was to be a foreign English oral teacher, and not the American history teacher I had initially feared. Secondly, and to my greatest surprise I was not going to be conducting any seminars, but classrooms full of students! Thirdly, I was given no advice, support or guidance by the university. The only recommendations I received came from my colleagues, which largely consisted of websites to visit and comments such as 'its easy', 'just play games' and 'they love DVDs'. 

I was very surprised by the attitude of the university and disappointed by their lack of direct support. I was not told what I should teach them about, how I should teach them and what I can not talk about. I was just left to my own devices. This does have its advantages, but for me it meant I had to think hard about what to teach my students. I was inevitably left with my greatest asset and teaching tool: British culture and myself. This is what I would teach my students. I was no history or politics teacher, I only had to give students an opportunity to hear me speak and let them speak themselves. How difficult could that be?

There are a plethora of websites available for foreign teachers. All these websites make being able to think of activities very simple and not time consuming. My favourite was with its list of topics and lesson plans which could be easily adapted to suit the requirements of my students. Others include usingenglish, englishmedialab and Dave's Cafe.

Add all these websites together and what you have is the ability to produce lesson plans without much effort. However with me its not always that simple. I was keen to think of new games, alter activities and ice-breakers so that they would be suitable for large classrooms and be appropriate for my themed lessons. For some reason I would spend five hours preparing for my lessons each week, sometimes longer, so was confident that I had produced teaching material that would be interesting, helpful and which gave my students an opportunity to speak English.

My teaching job in China required me to teach less than 16 hours per a week! I had a total of nine classes, with each class lasting approximately 1hr 45minutes (towards the end of teaching I discovered that I was supposed to be aiming to keep my lessons at 1hr 30minutes). My students were not English Majors. Instead I had the unfortunate pleasure of first year maths students (six classes in total), two tourism majors (second year students and with a much stronger command of English), and an International Business and Trade major (some of whom had excellent English skills).

My first week of teaching does seem like a long time ago now, but it was probably my most important week. Sensibly, I asked all my students to give me their names giving me an opportunity to conduct registers in the future. I was also well aware of the importance of first impressions and how I should come across. From nowhere it seems I developed the ability to control my students' behaviour by commanding them to stop talking (and it working). I was speaking like a professional orator, and felt a strong sense of power and a position of authority that I have not yet experienced. My words were listened to and it appeared that I was earning the trust of my students. I could not have wished for a better start.

I had a total of 361 students. My largest class consisted of 54 students and the smallest 29. The classrooms were not of a high standard. To begin with the university still makes use of blackboards in its classrooms and the desks and chairs were stuck to the ground which made any group activities very difficult to manage.

Every one of my students has an English name. But by listening to my students names, all I can think of is what poor imaginations we have! Perhaps we can take some suggestions from them?! Stream, Listen, Courage, Cherry, Lemon, Benny (for a female), Star, Patience, Fairy, Bubble, Swallow, Pansy, Sweet, Lotus, Really, Stout, Queen, Seashell, Water, Feel and Beggar. What makes this funnier is that these are the names of students in just one class.

Students in other classes have names such as Lucky, Moon, Hope, Pretty, Summer, Jelly, Bright, Candy, Black, Yo Yo, Slove, Dream, Smile, Light, Apple, Wing, Sky, Happy, Stone, Small, Shadow, Heaven, kite, Snow, Classical, Moonlight, Child, Better, Grass, Root, Village, Shaly, Joy, Toy, Purple, Angel, Plum, Goofy, Seven, Eleven, Beautiful Great, Shipping, Wayline, Silence, Tipsy, River, Nature, Tank, Andy (for a girl), Queenie, Zambia, Fish, Rain, Orange, Pike, Golden, Wave, Arrow, Story, Fanny, Ronaldo and Backham.

My students were all of varying ability. Despite being wonderful students, listening attentively and having an attendance of on average 90%, my maths students did struggle. Their knowledge of English is weak, which made teaching and explaining tasks difficult at times. Even when I remembered to speak slowly there was no guarantee I would be understood. Fortunately, I learnt to adapt my teaching skills, and my English-Mandarin dictionary proved useful in my lessons. Although I understand the importance of some majors having English lessons, I failed to see the value in providing English to those students whose majors do not have an English focus. every student at every university must study English, which is largely a waste of time given they are unlikely to improve with only a few hours each week of the subject. My time would be better spent helping those who needed and wanted to improve their English, which I never felt I was doing in my capacity as an English oral teacher.  

During our first lesson together I got all my students to spend 20 minutes writing a journal about their time at university and their level of English. I read the comments of all my students. There are some, perhaps 10% at most who believe their English has got better since attending university. 30% think it has got worse whereas the rest believed their English level has remained the same.

Reading through the comments the students wrote me, and which I asked them to write anonymously, it was evident that there is a dramatic similarity between all of my students. Namely, the lack of confidence they have with their English. They have a fear of speaking English, some openly detest the subject and question the need to learn it in as part of their non-English major. There were many students as part of their messages to me crying out for help. Comments such as 'please help me to improve my English' and 'what can I do to be better at English' were commonplace. I had one student who describes her dejection at not being able to switch to an English major, which was/is very good, and her hatred for her own major. I realised very early on that I would have a mixture of enthusiastic students willing to learn and practice their spoken English whilst at the same time potentially having students not willing to talk and make my life more difficult.

Fortunately, the students who fell into the latter category did not attend my classes. Largely my classrooms were filled with students eager to learn, and I felt they were expecting and hoping that I would be able to help them achieve their goals. From my early observations and classroom tasks I realised that teaching English to non-English major students would be extremely difficult, and potentially problematic.

It was lucid to me that the biggest obstacle I had to being a successful teacher was bridging the confidence gap that existed in every students' head. If I set a speaking activity, they would fail to do it properly, not out of disrespect for me, but for fear in their own ability. I would talk about a subject and ask them to talk in pairs about their views, to practice conversation techniques and on some occasions to mine words to each other. The first few weeks such rudimentary tasks proved difficult. Students were more interested in hearing me speak, largely because their previous English teachers, namely at middle school and high school, did not speak any English.

A few weeks into my teaching I had begun to see a slow improvement in my students' speaking ability. They were speaking more, interacting with each other. On many occasions I had to stop them from speaking as I wanted to move on to the next task. It was not always the case however. The boys in my class English was below that of everyone else. I would walk around the classroom listening to the students speak. The boys would always talk when I was standing over them, but would fall silent once I turned my back. I seldom had the same problem with girls.

My weekly classroom topics were based on the following:

Introduction. Talking about myself and getting to know my students. I assessed their Listening, speaking, reading and writing skills, and realised speaking and listening was the weakest aspect of their English.

Education. I moved on to talk about university. The students were keen to know more about university life in Britain. I was very frank with them. I probably made them envious and angry (you will discover why later in blog).

Holidays. I talked about Australia and New Zealand, plus I showed them pictures from my travels.

Easter. I tried organising an Egg hunt, which worked for some lessons as the eggs they were supposed to find were pulled down from walls (they were finding A4 pieces of paper with printed eggs).

Chocolate. Opportunity to talk and give opinions.

Women. I wanted to talk about more controversial subjects, so women seemed appropriate. I hoped to liberalise their thoughts and show them the differences between countries in West and Asia.

Work. I wanted to give something to my students, and thought the best way was to guide them looking for work. Many have never worked, but I wanted to show them how difficult it is. They wrote excellent covering letters and learnt interview skills.

 Mobile phones. Taught tx msg lnguge, which not did work as well as it could have done.

Olympics. A really fun lessons. Role plays, acting and games, with a small amount of learning directions



Tests took up approx 5 lessons.


In the lessons themselves I would principally use conversations, role plays and student presentations as part of my teaching. They worked well, plus I wanted the students to like me, so would do anything to stop them from becoming bored or uncooperative.

I had only two disappointments teaching.

Firstly, was the lack of attendance by some students. I know its a university and students are free to do what they choose, but my tourism and business majors did not attend my lessons as I would have liked. I got perhaps 50% turnout and when students invest so much money to pay for me teaching them they should at least make the effort. This is juxtaposed with my maths students who always attend my classes and who are less likely to use English than my other students. Instead of 361 students, most weeks I would be teaching closer to 250. It sounds less impressive.

The second disappointment I faced was more serious and really highlights the attitudes of many Chinese people, which I believe will be very damaging to the future economic progress of the country. I was required to give an examination to my students. This in itself did surprise me. Here I am at university, and I have the authority to conduct tests on 361 which will decide if they pass the year or not. Well, I was not going to be the evil teacher so I was going to allow everyone to pass, whether they had good English or not. I made the decision that to attend the exams they would automatically get 60%. 60% is the pass mark.

I had one-to-one conversations with all my students. The process, as you can imagine, was long, tedious and predictable. The students could choose the topic they talked to me about. Most talked about their home town and how beautiful it was, using the same vocabulary. The better students were more inventive and able to respond to the questions I asked them (I had one girl talk about the show 'Friends').

Having completed this activity, which I thought I would never achieve, came the following week's test which was a group presentation. For five minutes I wanted the students to talk, about anything they liked. They could dance, sing, act or anything they pleased. This turned out not to be successful as many of the presentations were not five minutes, and some of the weaker English students spoke only a few sentences despite me asking for an equal contribution. All of these things I can accept. They are a reflection of their confidence not just with English but in general. Most students I could not very lucid, but I still gave them high marks for their performance.

On my last day of exams, I gave up my own personal time to watch the presentation of five students who decided not to turn up to the presentation. I threatened them with failure if they did not show up. This was the International Business and Trade Major, where English is supposed to be important. As they lined up, I noticed something very wrong. Four of the boys were different to who I had conversations with the previous week. 

As you can imagine, I was shocked, then angry. I took their cheating and deception very seriously. A few hours later they realised their error and apologised. It also emerged that one of the students had a different friend line up for the conversation and presentation, i.e. he cheated twice!

Not surprisingly, I failed the cheating students. I also made them do a presentation which they did very well. The highest mark from one of my other students, their classmates, was 96%. The university is also in the process of making its decision as to an appropriate punishment. Some say they will lose the ability to get their BA on graduation. Some of my students were on the verge of criticising me for taking action and not doing enough to ensure the university treats them fairly. I am unsure what the final punishment will be, but as many of the other teachers tell me, cheating is very common, especially in higher education.

Ricky for example used to work at Tinghua university in Beijing, perhaps China's leading university. He informs me that cheating in tests is normal and ignored. What is more astonishing is the so-called thesis that students at all universities write. Every student, from the best at Tinghua to the less intelligent students at Tinghua has to write their thesis (which they hand in after their graduation). These papers are NOT written by themselves. They simply copy other academic texts and claim it as their own. It is plagiarism on a colossal scale and one which is approved at every level. If its not shocking already, the university lecturers/dissertation supervisors encourage and give guidance on what and how to plagiarise and whether the work produced is plagiarised too much.

This happens at every university. No incentive exists for students to produce their work independently.

China is world renowned for its cheap imitation goods, perhaps it should be known by something else too. If its businesses can get away with intellectual property abuses and make millions of Yuan in the process, what message have the students received? 

Its for this reason that I was so unsure as to what punishment I should give my students. Whether I was right in informing the university I am not sure. All I wanted was a message to be sent, which sort of happened as every class was given an announcement not to cheat. I could not believe that university students needed this message, but as I have grown accustomed to saying, 'This is China'.

I would like to say that I have been a successful teacher during my time as a teacher. If I compare my students now to when I saw them in February I can identify an improvement. The tasks I set now get the students talking and using new vocabulary. They will understand the games that we play, my explanations of various topics related to my lesson themes and how I want them to behave. They also feel confident and relaxed in my classes. As I walk to and from my classes I am regularly having to say hello, wave or smile at the many students I meet. It makes for a positive classroom atmosphere, and it makes me feel appreciated.

What I could not have accounted for is how much the students mean to me. I am so keen for them to improve not just their English but their future prospects that I will do anything possible to help them. One way I have done this is 'English Corner'. I spent up to 7hrs a week giving my time to students. Essentially EC is a chance for students to ask us questions and to receive any additional help. Not surprisingly, the Olympics was a popular question to ask us. so too were questions about British culture. Every time I was asked a question, I could give an answer. It made me realise just how much I know. Perhaps I am wise and able to give my students the knowledge they crave. Maybe I underestimate myself, and is this the reason I am able to gain the respect of my students?

I would attend English Corner every Monday evening. I was asked by my students to attend, and in the end I became the only foreign teacher there. Sometimes I would have ten students turn up, on other occasions I might be on my own with 30. I got a great buzz teaching in this informal setting, but it was mostly be doing the talking. As well as Monday evening's, I would do my best to attend English Corner at lunchtime too. Essentially it is the same, except the students tend to be English major students. Only five teachers made the effort to attend on a regular basis, Steve, Rob, Ruth, Ricky and myself.

There are other, smaller ways in which I helped my students, and it is a great pity that I have to do it. There is no careers or counselling service. I was perhaps the closest the students came to that at times.

Another thing the students do without are decent places to live. For four years students will live in the same dormitory with up to six people. They are small and cramped, with no desks inside. You would find more space on a single decker bus. Students share a bathroom with everyone else on the floor, and these are often dirty, smelly and unclean areas.

Furthermore, the students are locked inside their rooms at eleven o'clock and electricity is switched off shortly after that. They have no access to any kitchen. There is no clubbing or drinking like I had anticipated. The students are also expected to devote all their time to studying. I had up to eight hours a week at university, the students here will, on average, do that in one day. They work hard. Very hard.

Despite what I think are inferior living conditions, dangerous for their health as well as unpleasant, the students still have time to smile, give you time if you need help and even cook in your apartment. I have had students help take me shopping, find glasses and get my watch repaired. On my occasions I have let students cook in my apartment, and I have give my time to give advice on a one-to-one basis as well.

I feel I should do everything I can do help the students at this university. Some of it is guilt. I had a wonderful three years in a great university and received so much support from friends and university alike. Here, my students have nothing. The students I meet everyday only have their friends. I want to do what I can to help them, and ultimately my message is to leave China and see how we live in the West. The majority of my tourism majors for example have never been to Beijing, yet it is only two hours away on the train.

There are 10,000 students at Hui Hua College, and a significant number of them are poor students from farming communities. I have heard stories of some whole villages paying to put a single student through university. They are also charged an astonishing $2000 annually to attend.

The students here are happy, despite what I have written. For the first time in their lives the students have freedom to do what they want, be independent. They strangely also say they have too much free time. Whilst in High School for example they were at school seven days a week, working every available daylight hour. Of course some are not, and it is those who I worry about. Those who feel disillusioned and unhappy and with nobody to help them think differently. They do exist. Suicides are very high in China.

As I finished teaching, it became evident just what I meant to my students. The number of thank-you's were tremendous. My efforts were apparently appreciated by my students and the university. I turned down an offer to teach next semester.

The students here I spoon fed everything. There is no independent thought and encouragement to analyse and criticise. The students have all gone through and largely sucked in the propaganda from the PRC machine. It works most of the time. I never felt that this was a place where students are able to be as productive as they ought to be. Their knowledge comes from books that are old, full of generalisations and inaccuracies. I had no need to feel worried about my students and being identified as a fraud. Rather, I became a fresh face, full of ideas and challenging orthodoxies. In some ways I was an incendiary figure with my comments, but always attempted to balance my political and social views with a Chinese counter-argument. I won't say them here, its not important.

I will conclude this very long blog with some final thoughts. Teaching is incredible. I had an amazing semester teaching, and learnt many things about myself, what I can achieve and who I want to become. I could not have done this anywhere else and got paid for it at the same time. I also began to understand how lucky I was to have the mind I do and the family and friends that support and encourage me in everything that I do. Plus I have been able to live like a King, eating out everyday, occupying a huge apartment and earning a salary more than the professors working at the university!

 I gave all my students my phone number. I received many Chinese text messages, which I have never translated, but also some English messages too. below are some of the text messages I received and some other messages too. I have corrected some mistakes and left others:

happy to recognize you. happy to have such a handsome and energetic foregin teather. too much happy.

what i just want to say is thank you. it is you who taught me how to learn englsih. it is you who taught me that if youwant to make a success you should do from the bottom. i know shi jia  zhuang is not the ideal place but you dont mine. thank you to teach me how to write CV. you like a brother to help us. i feel sad because of your leaving. i will remeble you forever. wish you be happy in your new job. Fighting!

god led u to my life, I had known that one day u would say goodbye to us, but i have a lot to say, maybe every precious thing is not for long.but just be natural!I hope u feel that your stay here is very rewarding,and remeber that u ever had a friend in China.

Happy Dragon boat festival.

Have a good children's day.

Wish you happy mother's day

Did you know there was an earthquake?

work harder and practice more. your hardworking will be rewarded by God one day. God is equal to everyone!

it would do much good if we started useing the term 'guide' or 'adviser' instead of 'teacher' for those who help learn foreign language

i think playing football can lose weight and basketball can help me much taller

im proud of Diana. i think she is one of the richest, most glamarous and socially powerful women in world

we must take actions to stop the destruction and beat them. we have some heroes, especially a small cripple girl.

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