“Now today we will have the Nichole Laoshi teach us our art lesson again.” The young Chinese woman who teaches art to the forty-five 3rd graders who are currently looking up at me, their excitement almost erupting out of their faces, introduces the lesson. “Now, I know you like the Nichole Laoshi very much. So, how do you show her that you like her - you sit still! She speaks English and it is difficult for you to understand, but I do not want to hear ‘shenma yisa, shenma yisa’- No! You will be quiet. You will sit still. You will listen. You will not talk.” She looks at me. Her tone changing from the staccato berating tone she had just used over the loudspeaker system attached to her belt to a lilting one. “Okay, you… (beckoning gesture with her hands)… you.”
The previous situation greets me every Monday morning when I go to work at a local primary school as an art teacher. Like many of the previous fellows, I got a couple of side jobs while in Nanjing. So, for the past three months my role as a teacher at Nan Da Fu Zhong has been accompanied by a role as an English tutor, a test-prep teacher, and as a primary school art teacher. While initially I attained the extra-employment opportunities merely as a way to supplement the living stipend, these opportunities have expanded my understanding of the Chinese educational system and, through comparison, have made my time at NDFZ more interesting.
My knowledge of the Chinese educational system has increased most dramatically due to my aforementioned job as an art teacher once a week. For these forty-minute classes I prepare a Powerpoint slide. I demonstrate the tasks as mandated by the art book I have been given. And then I sit. The Chinese art teacher in the room with me will walk around and ensure that the children are working. If a student is disruptive, she thumps them on the head with a rolled up workbook. If a student isn’t drawing well enough, she will rip out their paper, crumple it in front of them, and tell them to start over. The students never talk. If they have questions the will furtively look around and (maybe) will raise their hand to ask their teacher. Even in an art class, which I assumed would try to maximize creativity, the students are chastised for “doing it wrong.”
I intellectually knew that Chinese classrooms were very regimented and structured, but I didn’t understand the extent of that structure. Students, in all classes, are considered good students if they go an entire class without speaking and quietly doing their work. The knowledge of the educational system in China has helped me see the value in what I do at NDFZ. Even if all I do as a teaching in a given day is make them to independently talk once; even if all I do is allow the students a space in which to approach learning differently, I have still benefited the students.
In addition to not fully comprehending the regimented nature of Chinese students, I underestimated the amount dedication and hard work that Chinese students put in outside of class to succeed in their regimented educational system and prepare for their future goals. As a tutor, I have been able to witness this dedication directly. My tutee’s name is Allen. She attends Nan Wai, the most prestigious school in Nanjing. The first thing she told me was that she was going to go to college in the United States and eventually be a doctor. Since then we have gone through the various tests she will need to take in order to accomplish this, the various scores she will need to get on those tests, and we have even done research on some U.S. universities. She is in 7th grade - the same grade as my youngest classes. I cannot imagine any of my students being that motivated about anything, much less English and more school. My students all seem to dislike school, my 7th graders especially. They absolutely refuse to sit and listen to any new information. They talk constantly through all of my classes and put in the absolute bare minimum of work. They never do their homework.
This is in complete contrast to Allen. When I meet Allen every Wednesday, she is sitting at her desk with two piles of homework. First, I ask her about the stack that she has spent the last hour and a half doing. Then we talk about the second stack – another hour and half of work. It is always the same: worksheets, route memorization, and at least two hours of work every night. I initially thought that my students, as they do not attend that school, had less homework and less pressure to attain the high standards set for them. However, my students say they have the same amount of homework each night. No wonder they frequently don’t have time or desire to do the homework for a class in which they don’t receive grades. Knowing about all of this work has helped me be more comfortable with the level of work my students complete and has helped me set more achievable expectations.
My third extra job is as an IELTS prep teacher. For two hours every Sunday morning, I teach roughly ten students the skills they will need in order to score well on the International English Language Test. We discuss things like the environment, technology, fashion, and education. They give impromptu speeches and gladly do all group work I assign them. The class represents everything a discussion based English conversation class could be. We converse. All of the students are engaged and want to be there.
This experience has made me appreciate the structural difficulties Nan Da faces as an institution. There are so many students at NDFZ, and in China in general – they really can’t offer smaller classes. No, all of the students do not want to be in my class. Some of them would prefer to be studying for their math exam or getting some of their three hours of homework done so they can play basketball after class instead of going right home. Some of them don’t want to go abroad. Some of them wont need to be proficient in speaking English. Some of them just want to pass their final exams (on which there is no oral component). The students in my IELTS class pay a lot of money to have extra practice in listening to and speaking English. The fact that NDFZ offers the same class to their student free of charge – despite the difficulties of having a conversation class with 25 students, some of whom don’t want to be in the class – is really beneficial for the students.
In conclusion, these extra jobs have really added to my understanding of Chinese educational culture and helped my time in China be better. My NDFZ job, while far from ideal, continues to add to the general feeling of contentment that I feel in China.