Chalk dust in China
(China Daily)
Updated: 2006-06-02 06:34

The high school affiliated with the Renmin University of China (Renda) is one of the most prestigious schools of its kind in Beijing.

Two years ago, it started a new "A" level course under the auspices of the "Cambridge International Exam" board, to train good students for entrance to top universities in the United Kingdom, United States and Canada. My mathematics-teaching career in China started when the course began.

As a new foreign teacher in the school, the first noticeable culture difference is that all the students wear white tracksuits with red horizontal strips along the arms. This is a big contrast to Ireland and the United Kingdom where black uniforms, white shirts and school ties are the obligatory school attire.

It soon became apparent that there is a good reason why a tracksuit is the chosen outfit at the Chinese school. On my first day there, I was amazed to watch all 4,000 students doing morning group aerobics to the sound of Chinese marching music for 20 minutes on the school sports field.

Such a large-scale group activity is unheard of at home. Watching them, I tried to imagine my former UK students from an inner city school in Manchester standing in neat, straight lines, running on the spot and doing stretching exercises at 10 am. There would have been a riot in the school if the principal had suggested such a thing. Fifteen minutes of exercise would have been considered extremely "uncool."

Standing in the vice-principal's office, I looked through the window and watched Chinese students running from their classrooms to take their positions on the field and knew I really was in a different world.

Originally from Northern Ireland, I arrived in Beijing after teaching mathematics for a year in Thailand. Before that, I taught in a private boarding school in Switzerland for three years.

I will never do this again, I told myself as I left my final placement school.

Badly behaved students were just too stressful to cope with. The job in Switzerland appeared out of nowhere in a UK newspaper advert. I didn't look back. My time there was interesting but after three years, I felt like I was treading water. China had always appeared to be quite a strange place those pictures of the mass rallies in Tian'anmen Square (during the late 1960s) with tens of thousands of people frantically waving their little red books. I often wondered what could have possessed them.

What would teaching in China be like? I questioned, as the jet airplane powered its way across the huge Asian continent from Bangkok. Rumours and reports of the Chinese placing high value on education were common at home, but were they true?

Would the students be willing to work or simply stare blankly at the blackboard, send SMS messages in class and "forget" to do their homework?

As I walked past the tall, beige pillar that marks the entrance to the school on my first day and walked along the elm tree lined avenue into its centre, I did not know that I was entering into what appeared to be an education wonderland - a secret world that select foreigners get to see.

After a few days of teaching there, it quickly became apparent that I could not have found a better school to teach at anywhere. The students were polite, courteous and diligent. They listened intently in class, took notes, asked intelligent questions and (wonder of wonders for me) regularly submitted their homework.

I was amazed to see that the classroom monitor would even collect exercises before the beginning of each lesson and leave them in a neat pile on the corner of my desk. The days of collecting books by myself and listening to excuses about unfinished homework were gone.

All the classrooms not only had the standard blackboard and chalk, they also contained an overhead projector that could hook up to the Internet and display pictures on a retractable white screen. The Internet was instantly available to both teachers and students at the click of a button. One day, in physics class, I displayed a website about the famous Irish physicist Robert Boyle. I asked if they know that he was part of a family that had 12 children. The students' blank faces spoke for themselves.

Perhaps this was not a good time to mention China's one-child family policy, I thought, and moved on to Boyle's theory of gases.

In the past, I had been known for making my students laugh in class with silly stories about maths and physics. After a few weeks teaching in Renda, I realized the best method to get my students to laugh was simply by trying to speak in Chinese.

Apparently, the accuracy of my tones left a lot to be desired. In comparison with my poor Chinese-speaking skills, most of the students were light years ahead of me in their mastery of English. One girl even appeared to speak English better than me, often suggesting a word or phrase when the word or phrase I was looking for eluded me. Another student used to worry me with the intelligence and insight of his questions. He always understood everything, but usually wanted the theory developed into another area, which we had not covered, or was not even on the syllabus.

Unfortunately, in my second year, the grade averages of the new class has declined drastically. It is now not uncommon for several students to get zero per cent in some of their tests. Class discipline has also begun to slip because of this lack of ability.

Compared to the work schedules in the United Kingdom, Chinese teachers have it easy. When I first arrived in the school and saw my timetable, I thought that they didn't trust me and had given me a deliberately light load. It was a relief to discover later on that in fact, 12 teaching hours a week was in fact normal for the school. I thought back to the regimen back home 30 scheduled hours a week plus several cover periods to take care of classes of your ill colleagues who were off sick.

Last year, I read an article describing a TV programme about to air called, "Classroom Chaos." A teacher had smuggled a small, digital camcorder into various, random UK schools and recorded anything that she thought worthwhile. Apparently, some classrooms were more like war-zones than centres of learning. The students were abusive, desks were regularly overturned and fights often broke out.

I smiled as I read it and thought back to my teacher training days in Manchester. I know exactly what you're talking about, I said to myself, but I have escaped to another world.

(China Daily 06/02/2006 page14)