Friday, September 15, 2006

Me In The Middle [School]

Okay, not a clever title in the slightest. Would you feel better knowing that I stared at a blank subject line for like 20 seconds before just choosing that stupid one? ... Well okay then.

I realized just now that I have spoken about how sucky teaching in Chinese public middle-schools is, but I didn't say much about the schools themselves, or the kids in them. So here goes.

The schools are just buildings. These ones are relatively nice since I think they're private schools to some degree. There is a kid in one of Alistair's classes who is from Dalian, and another who is from Shanghai of all places. They stay in dorms or something. So I suppose these schools (one school, two 'branches' - north and south) are relatively good academically.

All the kids except the grade 1s (grade 7s) wear uniforms, which are pretty relaxed. They have a red, black and white jacket, black pants and have to wear a white shirt of some form. I say 'some form' because some wear dress shirts, others wear polo shirts, others t-shirts, and almost all of them have logos or other colours on them. They can wear any kind of sneaker, though. They also all have short hair. I have a few kids whose gender I can't distinguish in the slightest. I have no idea why they're completely de-sexed. I have seen this with my EF students, also: school's started, and their hair is chopped. Not all of them, but quite a few.

Each class has 50-60 kids, in 6 rows of 7-10 kids. The kids never move between classes; teachers come to them. Their desks are pretty small, and are actually just tables. They look like nightstands draped in blue table-cloths. At the front of the room is a raised platform of concrete where the teacher sits/stands behind a lectern. In half my classrooms, the backside of the lecterns are used as refuse bins and I'm forever tripping over plastic beverage bottles. If there is a chair behind there, I move it. EF teachers don't sit ever, unless we have a VIP and then we sit because it's culturally intimidating to be speaking down to a single person, so you sit to be at eye level.

Anyway, next to/behind the doors (which are really wonky wooden doors that were stolen from my grandparents' outhouses, I'm sure) are a handful of mops. The concrete stairs are always wet before a class, because students aren't just students. That would be wasteful. They're also all custodians. They're responsible for their class as well as cleaning the entire school. I saw two kids out in rusty metal window-guards/cages washing the outsides of windows the other day. ... on the third floor. Between classes, they're wiping down bannisters, scrubbing by hand or mopping the stairs, floors, walls, railings and anything else that can be made damp. Of course, most of this is ineffectual since 700 kids running up and down stairs and hallways just makes the floors worse.

At 5pm, all the kids empty into the school's courtyard where parents/guardians have brought them something to eat. They then return inside for more school, meals in hand (sometimes in pots and pans). Vendors also appear to sell food for kids whose parents are working or whatever. They're in school from before 7 in the morning until 8 or so at night. Sometimes later. They only have four classes in the morning and four in the afternoons, but they have mandatory study periods prior to and after school. They pull compulsory 12 or 13 hour days, most of them.

Oh, inspections. At random times, an inspector will come in and all kids will slap their hands on their desks, palms down. Their nails are then inspected. Shit is bestowed upon those whose nails are not deemed to be on par and they're sometimes asked to leave the class. Where they go, I haven't the foggiest, but most I never see again. (kidding) I think there are also hair checks, but I haven't seen those. They have gym class to megaphone-voices on poles in the yard, work-camp style.

As I've said before, they're programmed. Chinese kids don't learn by thinking. They learn through memorization or sequence. They don't know the days of the week, really. They only know their order. If I say "Monday" they'll rattle off "Tuesday! Wednesday! Thursday!" etc. at the top of their lungs. Also, everything is "beautiful" or "delicious". I told my students that I went to Qinhuangdao on Tuesday, and was asking why to elicit some thought-out answers. In every class, I've gotten "Because it's beautiful." but only after beating on them for an answer. ........... I really wish I could erase the words "hello", "beautiful", "delicious" and "I'm fine, thank you" from their minds.

Many of them are dense as hell. As I said, it's not their fault. They learn by rote and mindless repetition. Asking them what they like will elicit only the vocab they've been taught. They don't even like those things usually, they only know the words and know that if someone asks you what you like, you say "basketball", "ping-pong", "badminton", etc. Parents care only about marks and pushing them harder. It doesn't matter if they don't understand something, they just want their children to advance, be seen as better than someone else.

Keeping order is pretty easy. God bless shame cultures. "You. What's your name?" (Questions are answered standing up, by the way.) "Come write it on the board." Then send them back to their seats. They stay silent the rest of the class. It's an asshole move, but I really don't take crap from these kids and if they irritate me, I have them stand up and tell me something. It's fool-proof because those who misbehave either know the stuff backwards and forwards, or have no idea what's going on. So you either engage them, or embarrass them. Regardless, they realize that they're not immune from being singled out.

The sad thing is that I really only teach 3 or 4 kids out of 55 in most classes. Some of my classes rock. All the kids want a chance to answer, or one-up the last responder. However, being a caring and driven teacher will get you nowhere in these schools because you have 45 minutes once a week to teach robots something outside the box. It doesn't work, so all we do is build an illusion of it working by pulling Charlie Chaplins up on the concrete podium and having them make English-esque noises. I use the blackboards a lot since it wastes time. Brainstorming colours or hobbies or modes of transportation? Have the kids write them out. More time used up. Blag, blag, blag.

It's really quite senseless, but I have to be there. I do what I can for those who want to learn. I give them new phrases and vocab, as well as plenty of opportunist language: sit down, okay, come on up front, describe it for/to me, I don't think so, almost but not quite, you're close, etc. Phrases that are not target language phrases; things that are said all the time in a classroom but have no bearing on the focus. Most of them, however, don't learn squat.

I think I have a reputation with the Chinese teachers, one of being a hardass and non-accomodating. None of them try to watch my classes - I've turned many away at the doors to their own classrooms, waving my hand in their bewildered or uncertain faces. Not to be mean, but to keep the class mine and not theirs. Teachers influence things in the worst ways: they give the answers, they berate students for wrong answers, they tell the kids to shut up if I want them to be shouting out ideas or answers, and their presence just plain puts the kids off the idea that English class (once a week) is different and that they can act differently and think.

So yeah... that's the story of the middle-schools. The end.


Anonymous said...

Hello Patrick, how are you? I am fine. I thought you should know that last night I ate a beautiful and delicious... uh ... asphalt (with ketchup).

Ok, now that I've gotten that crap out of the way and sent your blood pressure up a couple of notches...

Sorry to hear you're helping to program a bunch of robots, but glad to see you're at least putting your own twist into the circuits. Make sure "eh" becomes a regular part of their vocabulary, they revere hockey over all other sports, and a toque is handed out to each robo-student before every class. Oh, they should also know what a two-four is before they go to the next grade.

Way to kick the other teachers out. Your class, your rulez.


PG said...

Hey! I was impressed when you started working at Entrust, but now... Jeepers! You're a PROGRAMMER! Just like me!

Soons, you may even become an ENGUINEER!!!

;-) Focus on the kids that can learn, man. Make a difference!


Wayward Mind said...

I'll never be an engineer. Fancy calculators (such as those wielded by you, God) foil me at every turn. ;)