“Teaching English students the Chinese way? Whose idea is that?” I thought to myself. But in the meantime I was thrilled that I had this opportunity to be involved in this programme and to teach English students in a typical English school, which is situated in the beautiful countryside. I was excited but nervous at the same time. I will be teaching Science to English students the Chinese way. How wonderful! However, I did not know how English students would perceive us--- a group of Chinese teachers from China. I also felt a sense of responsibility to represent the Chinese way of teaching in a very positive light. What a task!
My teaching timetable was set against a typical Chinese school timetable, starting at 7am and finishing at 7pm. This included the national flag raising ceremony, morning exercise, eye exercises, extended evening self-study sessions, and classroom-cleaning tasks carried out by students. However this timetable was already a modified and compromised one, as many Chinese students finish their evening revision sessions at 9pm. I wondered how my English students would cope with these long school days.
My Chinese school was inside an English Secondary School, where Headteachers, teachers and students were very welcoming to us. Every student we came across on the campus would greet us in the Chinese language and their friendly and respectful attitude towards me made me feel relaxed and at that point I was ready to teach them the best I could.
My science lessons took place in a science laboratory, where fifty individual tables and chairs had been positioned in lines and rows. It was a typical Chinese classroom layout but the room was long and narrow. A class of fifty students would sit in this room and I was wondering if students at the back would see my writing as they sat so far away.
I considered my first lesson a success as students were very engaged in observing my demonstrations, taking notes and were well behaved. This is what I would expect in a Chinese classroom using the ‘teacher led’ teaching style. It is supposed to be authoritarian and formal, where the teacher stands in front of a class and explains the textbook, and students sit and listen. Students stand up to greet teachers as they walk into the room, and sit quietly afterward taking notes and doing exercises. Unfortunately, my honeymoon period didn’t last long.
A student, who sat at the back of the room left his seat for tissues while everybody else was quietly working. I was surprised that he left his seat without permission, but I did not take any action. He left his seat for more tissues a second time and other pupils started to giggle. “Something is going on” I thought to myself. As I walked towards him, I realized that he had spilled his tea on the floor and he was using lots of tissues to absorb the liquid.
“Are you having a cup of tea in the science laboratory, Joshua?”
“No Miss Yang.” he replied, with one of his size 10 feet placed on the top of those thick tissues he had laid on the floor.
“Where is the cup?” I asked.
“What cup? I haven’t got a cup.” he said to me.
I looked around and found the cup was inside the sink next to him. I picked it up, and I was surprised. The cup was even hot! It was empty but still hot, would you believe? Joshua must have made this tea fresh before he entered my lab. Where did he get the hot water from, I wondered?
Not surprisingly, I could not get a straight answer from him, nor from his friends. I therefore explained to him the Health and Safety regulations in science laboratories, which did not permit eating and drinking, and I was satisfied with his attitude.
But it wasn’t long before Joshua brought another cup of tea into the laboratory again. This time he did not try to hide it from me. He is quite a tall young man and as he strode towards his seat holding his favourite cup of English tea, it was very obvious to me in his attitude that he did not care and he was testing me as a Chinese teacher. I could not allow him to carry on behaving like that and I had to stop him. It wasn’t easy for me, as he started to talk about his culture. “Having a cup of tea is our English culture, Miss Yang”, he said cheekily.
Having contacted his mother, the ‘tea’ issue was finally resolved, and I was very pleased with his mother’s supportive attitude. I cannot forget this unique experience. I thought it was cheeky of him trying to disguise his misconduct under the cultural umbrella, nevertheless it was rather endearing of him to teach me English culture during my Science lesson. I now still appreciate his gifts of tea from Waitrose with a witty note saying: “To Miss Yang: a debate on tea continues……” It will always remind me of that moment in the classroom.
My English students in the Chinese school found extended evening study sessions challenging, as they are not used to these long hours of schooling. Instead of being engaged with homework, revision and private studies like Chinese students do, they found every opportunity to get out of the classroom for breaks, and it was a real battle to keep them on meaningful tasks throughout the entire two hours period.
One night in the middle of the extended evening revision session, a girl became upset and started to cry. Her tears washed her make-up away and the mascara was partially dissolved staining her skin around her eyes. Two of her friends were sitting next to her giving her comfort.
I approached her and asked: “Annabelle, what’s the matter?”
She continued crying. One of her friends asked me: “Miss Yang, could I take her out of the classroom for a little while? She is too upset to be here.”
I agreed. Two of the students took Annabelle out of the classroom. Before I realized, a few more girls rushed out of the classroom. Finding too many seats left empty, I asked my colleagues to watch the students and went out to fetch them.
There were six girls sitting underneath of the stairs, including Annabelle, who still looked upset. I sat down on the floor with them, and asked Annabelle if she could tell me the reason for her tears. One of the girls sitting next to Annabelle answered me swiftly: “Miss Yang, it’s Zayn.”
“What? Who?” I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about.
“Miss Yang, he is a singer in a boy band.” Annabelle said.
“Oh, I know the band. ‘The Beatles’!” I felt so proud of myself as I, a Chinese person knew the name of a British band. I could be better connected with the girls if I knew their pop culture.
“No, Miss!” One of the girls shouted. “They are too old for us.”
“Oh!” I paused for a second, giving myself time to think. “It must be ‘Take that’!” I congratulated myself. Aren’t I a well-informed Teacher of Science from China?
“Nooooo! Miss Yang.” Another girl said disappointingly.
“It’s ‘One Direction’, Miss Yang.” Annabelle replied quietly, still with tears in her eyes. “Zayn is my favourite. I purchased the tickets a while ago to see their show and I was looking forward to it. But he has left.”
“When is the show?” I asked.
“This weekend, Miss.” said Annabelle.
I felt sympathetic towards her, as she could not see all the members of the group singing on stage anymore. At the same time, I felt embarrassed about myself, as I had given away my age and age gap to the girls just by naming the wrong British boy band. Furthermore, I found it difficult to understand such emotional behaviour over a ‘pop’ band. I certainly had no such experience when I was a young girl, as there were no ‘pop’ bands during my teenage time in China. The Cultural Revolution songs performed by the masses were my kind of ‘pop’ music!