China, Teaching, University Teaching

The Positives

The end of the semester had come! With a great sigh of relief, I end my teaching duties and take up some lighter administrative work for the next month in combination with some Chinese language classes.

The relief is not complete because major changes are in the works for the program I originally came to Xi’an with. My colleague and I have been strongly advocating for the program to be transitioned to something less staff-intensive, as there seems little benefit for the university otherwise. I feel extremely conflicted about my actions at times, sometime regretful and indignantly defiant at others. I was accused of ignoring the program by someone far from it and told that “we should work to solve problems, not just give up.” Insert ironic laugh here.

I recently had the chance to return to south China for a conference and followed it with a few days in Zhuhai. It was an interesting time of reflection and evaluation. It was very heart-healing to be so warmly greeted by old students who met me with cries of “Are you coming back?!?” (See, you haven’t always been a terrible teacher!) Former colleagues seemed genuinely eager to chat with me and all expressed regret that I’d left but hopes that I was enjoying my new life in Xi’an. It was a little hard to find ways to politely and briefly express my year. It was like returning to a place where there existed a happier, better version of yourself, where you wonder what you’d have to do to get that “you” back.

Back in that environment I did feel like I had grown positively in some ways. My Chinese, though by no means great, has improved a great deal. Taxi drivers and I can have very nice long conversations these days. All small stuff, but terribly satisfying to be able to do at all. I can be independent in a way that I wasn’t in Zhuhai where I had some wonderful friends and colleagues who carried me through many situations—a blessing, but dangerous if always available. That does not mean that I can solve major problems (like the Internet being down for a week!!!). Next week, I am going to start a four-week summer Chinese language program. I’m a little nervous, but know that I’ll feel better for having made a concentrated effort while I have some extra time.

On the job front, I will be staying in Xi’an next year to work as the assistant director of the American culture center. We finally got news that all the paperwork has been approved just a few days ago. I’ve genuinely enjoyed my work there this past semester and hope that next year will be more of the same. I also have the nicest boss in the whole world. I am so grateful to work with/for him! I also get to stay in my comfortable apartment next year, in my nice neighborhood (still with a empty guestroom waiting for YOU to come visit!) I get to enjoy four more seasons of the lovely Xi’an weather, exploring more of the city and eating more “delicious snacks.”

So in terms of the traditional definitions of comedy and tragedy, my year has been a comedy—starting high, coming low, then rising again to end high. Though, in the modern usage of the word there had been very little about it that has felt comedic. All’s well that ends well? We’ll see . . .

China, Teaching, University Teaching

Spring Status Report

Reading between the lines you might have noticed that I don’t seem to enjoying my new job as much as I expected I would. That is very true. I thought this job was going to be amazing. It’s not. I managed to survive the fall semester and went home for about 6 weeks. Good timing.

Right before I was supposed to come back to Xi’an, I found out that another position I’d applied for last year with the same university had suddenly become vacant. I’d been very interested in this job, but I’d received a formal offer for my current job long before the other job even finished reviewing applications.

The job is for a very interesting government-sponsored American culture center that is made in partnership between a Chinese and an American university. If you are aware of the Confucius Institutes in America, this is like an American version in China. The job is part administration and part teaching; I’ve long thought that educational administration would be where I would end up eventually.

I was very eager for something to make the spring semester more bearable. As it was going to be extremely difficult for the university to fill this position in Xi’an for the spring, I threw my hat in the ring as a possible solution to the problem. I thought that I could work part time for the culture center while still teaching my classes. Fortunately the powers-that-be agreed and I came back to Xi’an feeling like it would probably be a better semester as a result.

I’m happy to report (and my family can confirm) that on the whole things have been going much better. Though covering both positions can be a bit busy at times, on the whole it’s satisfying to work hard. Or at least harder. And I don’t have as many empty hours to agonize about my students who drive me crazy. Again, much better overall.

Now we’re reaching that awkward part of the spring where all eyes are turning on what will happen in the fall. There is a possibility that I could stay in the culture center position next year, but the university in the States has to make a decision about that. They just did a large external candidate search last summer and are not really interested in doing it again, but there may be other considerations.

I really truly do not want to stay in the original teaching job. It makes me feel like such a failure that I want to leave. And I hate that I feel like I’ve been so unsuccessful with these students. I honestly don’t know what I should be doing differently. On paper the job is so good, but the day-to-day experience has just been very sad and frustrating. It’s a well-paying job, but I’m not sure my sanity is worth some extra money in the bank.

I haven’t really applied for other jobs, which is kind of a negative, but am not going to worry about it too much at the moment. I do have one interesting possibility back in south China (Oh no! My hair!), but am also waiting for final word on that.

So the summary: things weren’t too hot before but recently have been better. Yay! It’s nice to be able to give an essentially positive report.

Campus Life, China, Educational System, Teaching, University Teaching

End of Semester Madness

Immediately following my birthday was the last week of the semester. Everyone is frantically marking papers, final exams, and tabulating grades while still giving classes.

Fortunately it’s a universally understood thing that there won’t be much in the way of teaching in the final week. Movies or conversation are the norm. That’s if the students show up at all as final exams might be scheduled during class time.

I had thought that I was on top of everything and would finish in good time, but as the week went along I realized I was hopelessly behind and would really have to scramble. This culminated in an almost all-nighter on Thursday night. I went to bed around 4 AM, not having had to stay up that late for work since I was in graduate school. Friday was a mad dash and I just barely finished. It wouldn’t have been possible without that late night.

That night we went out to hot pot to celebrate, and then came back and slept the sleep of the well deserved.

Campus Life, China, Educational System, Teaching, University Teaching

The Other Chinese Student: The Opposite Extreme

Having reflected on some of the less charming behaviors of Chinese students, I would like to honor my promise to balance it out with telling you the best things about them.

The best thing about the other type of Chinese student—the opposite of the first Chinese student—is that they are motivated and ambitious. Our little BNUZ is just the first stepping stone in their journey. These kids are going places. Seriously.

I cannot tell you the number of students who are actively preparing for the GRE, the TOEFL, and IELTS in order to go abroad for graduate school. Those who are not going abroad are attending extra courses on the weekend, leading school-wide volunteer organizations, participating in Toast Masters, double majoring, and doing overseas volunteer trips. One student went to Serbia over the summer for an academic conference. Another went to Australia for a volunteer organization and will go to Kenya for the winter break. Though I despair over the behavior over the majority of the students, there are those other students who make it all worthwhile.

There are students who I would hope to meet in the future in the States, finishing their MA, their PhD, working, settling down, getting married etc. Others I would hope to hear about their progress by email. There’s that sense of potential about many of them. And it’s these students who make it worth it, especially when I have opportunities to develop more personal relationships outside the classroom. They’re great. Really and truly.

This is one thing that is such a contrast with Georgia. In Georgia I had little hope for even the brightest of my students. The furthest most of them might get was the capital, where they would hopefully finish university and be able to find some sort of job. Others you could just tell were bound to stay in the village for the rest of their life. Not that staying in the village is a bad thing, but I feel that more often than not it’s usually due to lack of other opportunities rather than true desire to stay.

So I’m happy for my Chinese students who are taking advantage of opportunities or making their own opportunities. I’m glad that they are working hard in university, preparing for their future. I’m especially glad that I got the opportunity to be their teacher, because otherwise I’m not sure I would’ve returned to China for a second year! A handful of excellent students can go a long way towards making up for an otherwise indifferent bunch.

Campus Life, China, Cultural Differences, Educational System, Teaching, University Teaching

The Chinese Student: Final Behaviors of Note

Okay, let’s wrap this up. The final three behaviors of note:

#9 – Not taking notes

It’s very strange as a teacher to be explaining important vocabulary, cultural information, and grammar points for up to 90 minutes and not have a single student taking any of it down. My words just disappear into a void. Most discouraging. Especially if I teach the same class multiple times in week.

I should just record myself and play it back to the class while I put my feet up.

#1O – Cheating Creative Cheating

Chinese students are seemingly inveterate cheaters. I prowl the classroom constantly during any quiz and I am forever spotting those little finger movements that indicate looking something up or the head-on-chest syndrome for furtive under the desk cell phone usage. And there is always a slight background buzz of whispered conversations and consultations no matter how much I demand silence. And when I declare the quiz over and papers to be handed in the real cheating begins as students frantically copy from each other. All their efforts to deceive me and get a better grade makes me wonder why they don’t just pay attention and do a little studying. Gee.

Sleep without detection!

Sleep without detection!

#11 – Sleeping

Probably the first Chinese behavior that struck a nerve was the sleeping in class. This drove me nuts last year, but I’ve become more desensitized to it. Such that I almost forgot to mention it. Yes. Chinese students will sleep in class. Full on head-down-sound-asleep in class. Local Chinese teachers have told me that they don’t care if students sleep in class. I sputtered incredulously when I heard this. What? Impossible! A little nodding off is one thing, but full on sleeping is another. In the words of my students, “I cannot accept it.” Yes, I will wake them up with a knock or two on the desk and a cheerful “good morning.” If I have to be there teaching them, they have to at least pretend to be “learning.”

Campus Life, China, Communication, Educational System, Teaching, University Teaching

The Chinese Student: Behaviors 6-8

Having read my last three posts that discussed some lovable and quirky behaviors of my Chinese students, some of you might be questioning my decision to teach at my current position. I mean, surely if it’s that bad, I should just move on, right?

I would like to clarify that I am discussing the rather far end of the Chinese student spectrum. You’ll be glad to know that once I purge myself of all the negative student behaviors I see and experience, I plan to follow with posts discussing the best things about my student, because there are, of course, many good things about my students. So don’t despair! I do not plan to wallow much longer, just long enough to surprise and hopefully amuse you with my stories of teaching in the trenches of China—a country with an educational system quite different from our own.

So! On to more student wackiness.

Behavior #6

The Chinese student is not well versed in the procedure for passing in papers. When the teacher requests students to pass in their papers, most students hold their paper up in the air and wave them for the teacher to personally collect them. The Chinese student is apparently loath to hand their paper off to anyone else. Which is curious because usually they encourage their classmates to look at their papers, especially at quiz time.

God forbid they pass their papers down the row so that the teacher can collect each rows’ assignments at one time. No, the teacher must walk up and down, leaning across several students to get the outstretched piece of paper being held at full extension by the student on the very end of the row. Teacher begins to feel like a spinning top as he/she whirls around and around responding to the cries of “Teacher! Here!” from all corners of the classroom. Though the teacher might try to train students to pass their papers in in an orderly fashion, the success rate remains low.

Behavior #7

For any given assignment, the Chinese student may choice to write their assignment on a number of paper types and sizes. Though many students will turn in assignments on paper of an acceptable size, other students seem to take pride in using the smallest pieces of paper known to mankind or being strangely thrifty by reusing previous assignments.

In China, based on this teacher’s experience with students, there does not seem to be a standard type of paper used for school assignments. In America, 8 ½ x 11 inch lined paper is the standard; I would not think to turn in my homework on anything else. I would not use cutesy little notebook paper the size of a Post-It with bunnies and Chinglish. I would not use paper that looks like it came from a refrigerator To-Do list. I would not use the back of my last homework assignment. I would not rip one piece of old notepaper into four pieces to share with my friends, none of whom came to class prepared. Though I included “acceptable paper choices” into my first class introduction lesson this semester, it does not seem to have stuck.

Am I off base here? Overreacting? Shouldn’t university students give some thought to the presentation of their work and follow any instructions given by the teacher? Sometimes I feel like I teach primary school, not university.

One more related behavior that I believe supports my portrayal of this particular breed of Chinese student—the student who comes to class with no textbook, no paper, and no pen. Behavior #8. And when the teacher asks him/her what on earth they plan to do in class without those essential items, the student rarely has an answer. Sitting in a classroom does not a student make. Period. Full stop.

Campus Life, China, Communication, Educational System, Teaching, University Teaching

The Chinese Student: Behaviors 3, 4 and 5

In my last post, we discussed the Chinese student’s curious use of eyeglasses. This was within the context of being asked to answer a question. Upon reflection, I realized that I had passed over some behaviors that may be of interest to those not acquainted with the Chinese student.

It is worth noting that the teacher must call on an individual student in order to get an answer. If the teacher is foolish enough to ask a question to the class at large, he/she should not be surprised at the deafening silence which will be their only answer. Silence and 80 blank stares. Ease or difficulty of the question is not the relevant factor, as you might expect. Easy questions get as little response as difficult ones do. This is behavior #3. Never volunteer for anything.

If your class has a few motivated students, they might—very quietly, under their breath—answer the question, but you often won’t be able to understand what they said. It will be said too quietly in a noisy class or everyone answered at the same time, effectively cancelling each other out. The teacher will ask them to repeat their answer, but the same problems will often reoccur. It becomes like a bad call and response sequence: What’s the answer? xxxx. What? XXX. WHAT? x. It’s not nice repeating stuff. Students get irritated if they have to repeat too many times. Teachers also get irritated and either manages to read someone’s lips or gives up and calls on an individual student to answer.

This issue could be resolved through the simple classroom management tool of having students raise hands to answer questions. However, the concept of raising hands is completely foreign to most Chinese students and they will not take to it. No matter how hard you try to make them. This is behavior #4: Non-existence of hand-raising. I believe it to be closely linked to behavior #3. If you never volunteer an answer, it follows that there would be no need for a system to orderly hear the answers.

Calling on individual students to answer is then the accepted (and expected) way of running class. When you call on a student, there can be a delay as students process the name. Was that my name? Was that my friend’s name? Chinese students take good care of each other and will wake up their slumbering classmate if their name is being called.

In China, a student is expected to rise to answer a question (behavior #5). I find this a very time consuming behavior as it seems to require a lot of shifting of bags, books, and water bottles. Something inevitably falls and is picked up. When the student is finally on his/her feet, they’ve maybe forgotten what they are supposed to be saying, so the teacher will need to repeat the question. And if the student’s answer is just “Sorry, teacher” or “I don’t know” it just seems like a lot of wasted time and effort as they reverse the process to sit back down, metal water bottles clanging and pens pinging off the floor.