TEFL Success Stories – Part 28

Ben – China

Sixteen students are absent from my grade one lesson. Almost half the class. This is by no means a common occurrence – there’s no place for truantism in China’s rigidly disciplined school system – yet they seem to think they can get away with it during my lessons because to them I’m simply not a teacher. I’m a Foreign Teacher, an entirely different species, and what I say or do just doesn’t carry the same weight as my Chinese colleagues.

“They are not here,” pipes up one of their more outspoken classmates “because they think your lessons are not very interesting.”

“Do they do the same in your other lessons?” Even as I ask, I know I’m flogging a dead horse and that this line of reasoning will get me nowhere.

“Haha. It is not allowed.” By now I’ve become accustomed to this particular variety of humourless Chinese laughter; it says, “Don’t ask such a stupid question.”


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Another of the more vocal members of class 6 joins the discussion:

“Your lesson is not very important to us. There is no exam.”

As hard as this might be for me – their caring, sharing, progressive teacher – to accept, in a way it’s actually true. No exam means that my Spoken English course will not contribute to their all-important final grade, and therefore will have absolutely no bearing on their chances of getting a good university place, and ultimately a job. To these students, grades are everything.

“We must study English well; it is vital for the development of our China”, I have been told. But bland platitudes like this aside, and despite China’s current obsession with adopting English as de facto second language, when it comes to the crunch for most high school students – not to mention their parents – the only thing that matters is a percentage score on a piece of paper.

Every student in China is required to study English up to and including University level, and standards in reading and writing are often very high, especially in schools like mine – this is one of the provincial education bureau’s ‘key schools’ for English teaching. Grammar, vocabulary, sentence constructions; the traditional aspects of language learning are taught and tested thoroughly and by rote – perhaps not the most pedagogically useful of methods, but at least it helps pass those exams. The spoken and communicative aspects of the language, however, are almost never assessed. Even though there are some very talented students simply begging to be challenged and inspired in their English classes, my lessons will always play a poor second fiddle to grammar rules and textbook work.


“You’re not like other Foreign Teachers, Mr. Ben. You don’t want to play games.”

This frustrating situation is what an American colleague of mine has described as the dancing monkey syndrome. Balanced precariously between valuable educational resource and cut-price entertainment service, the role of the Foreign Teacher is not often clearly defined by the institutions that recruit or employ them. This is a situation which isn’t helped by the flooding of the circuit in recent years with young, unqualified teachers who see an ESL job in China as a stepping-stone to an expenses-paid holiday in return for sixteen periods of hangman each week – acting the fool and playing the dancing monkey to keep the students happy. While I see nothing wrong with that in itself – China needs all the help she can get when it comes to English, and it’s certainly great experience for anyone considering a teaching career – it leaves in the minds of my students a confusing and conflicting impression of the purpose of the Foreign Teacher.

The schools themselves don’t help matters either. Competition in the education sector is strong, and having a pet Foreigner is a very prestigious mascot for a Chinese school. Middle-ranked schools especially feel they have to set themselves apart from local rivals, yet in the race to attract us the schools are tripping over themselves.

I am left largely to my own devices when it comes to teaching. On one hand this is no bad thing – complete freedom in the classroom to teach whatever and however I see fit, with no textbook to slavishly follow is, I’m sure, a situation that many teachers would envy – but the flipside of this is that my classes just don’t fit into the larger scheme of school life. Since coming to China I’ve taught classes of up to 60 for only a single, 45-minute period each week. You don’t have to be a maths teacher to see that this doesn’t amount to a lot of contact time per student, but this is all the timetable space the school have been willing to make available for what is – so they claim – one of their most important subjects. Not only that, but my classes are regularly moved or cancelled at no notice to make way for something eminently more important – like yet another set of exams. To add insult to injury I’m not even on the timetable as an English lesson. I’m a ‘Foreign’ lesson.

Neither are many institutions especially rigorous in their recruitment. The luckier ones get to work with organisations such as VSO or the British Council, who guarantee a certain standard and commitment from the teachers they provide, but this route is not open to every school – in most cases only to those, such as key schools, which already have a high calibre of student. The remainder, being almost too eager for their own good to employ a Foreign Teacher, seem to operate a no-questions-asked policy. I’ve even come across non-native speakers employed as English teachers; in many cases all that would seem to be required is merely looking Foreign enough.

As a result of all this, the students – too used to a rapid turnover of dancing monkeys – have decided not to co-operate. In short, they don’t want my carefully crafted, inspiring, life-enriching lessons; they want a clown who plays hangman. At times I have felt like a wasted resource.

Outside the classroom – as a novelty, an interesting Foreigner to talk to, confide in, ask for advice or just to make fun of – they love me, but as a teacher they’ll never truly like me.


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