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Teaching large classes in China

There seems to be a sea of faces when you stand before a class of 65-70 students and at first it can seem a little daunting but you soon get used to it. However, there are certain factors which can make teaching such classes very difficult indeed, such as chatter and all the sundry distractions the students get involved in. Below is a list of my experiences with a little advice to consider.

Ground rules:

When I first started teaching in China, I didn’t set any ground rules. In fact I wouldn’t have even called them by this name if I had. I later did introduce some ‘classroom rules’ which were essential to enable me to teach. I did this because of the sheer number of students who were either playing with their phones (including watching films), reading magazines or trying to sleep. I had made up my mind from the outset that I wouldn’t permit the use of mp3/4s etc and mobile phones in the classroom; however mobile phones can be a tricky one because often students will use them as dictionaries to look up words. I also stated that there should be ‘no reading of books or magazines’ except English ones and the other rule was ‘no sleeping’. These rules I have managed to stick to; any others might be impossible to apply with consistency. Of course the students still try to flout the rules on a daily basis, even right under my nose but they don’t get away with it.

Chatter:

Chatter is a phenomenon of classroom life in China, in all but a few classes. One the great difficulties faced by an English teacher is that many of the students will talk with their neighbour asking such questions as “what did he say?” Of course they won’t say it in English but in Chinese. Some of course are talking about anything but English and it is very difficult to know the difference between the two. The volume of chatter can be become intense in a class especially if you are addressing individual students. I tend not to stay at the front of the class to talk to individuals because most times I will not hear their replies; this is because they don’t speak loudly enough. The difficulty is that the students don’t want to listen to anyone else talking English, so they embark on their own conversations and with so many students it can be difficult to know exactly who is talking. I’ve come to realise that there are times when you need to let them chatter, such as when you are writing on the board; a totally silent classroom is nearly impossible because if you demand this, it will occupy so much of your time and energy and also the students will come to resent you.

There are two times when I come down very firmly on chatter: 1) when I am talking to the class and 2) there is just too much noise – this will generally be when I am talking one to one. On one occasion with a particularly noisy class I made them sit in total silence for five minutes and I was silent too – they were quite shocked by this tactic. The thing to remember in China is that people expect to talk over others. The most difficult thing to get used to is when you are in conversation with another in any situation and someone else will butt in about something totally different, and without waiting for an opportune moment or for permission. It happens all the time in shops, post offices, when you are buying tickets or food. The most bizarre thing is when you’re in the dentist chair and someone else will come and talk to the dentist wanting advice about their teeth. In other words, they just barge right on in – in the UK we call it rudeness!

Class discipline:

The best thing about teaching Chinese students is the general respect they have for the teacher, even though they don’t often respect the need for quietness in class. Most students are very polite, never rude or abusive to teachers. What’s more, in over two and a half years I never had to intervene in a fight or even a serious quarrel between students. The only real undisciplined behaviour is their inability to not talk after being told and for some, their inability to pay any attention to the teacher but then that will be common in any class. The essential thing to remember is that you are talking to them in a language most of them don’t really understand, even if spoken to slowly. There is no emphasis in the education system in China regarding oral English, only on grammar and vocabulary; so too many students don’t learn to speak and therefore do not understand what is being said to them. You might be appointed as an oral English teacher but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the school is really interested in their students speaking English. The fact is that students are not tested in oral English. What matters are their tests and they are not tested in speaking English; even many teachers can’t speak English well. It is no wonder that the attention of the students will frequently wander if they don’t understand what is being said. I should point out that I do write most things on the blackboard, especially the main questions I am asking but it will make no difference.

Saving face and shyness:

One of the things you soon learn in China, is about ‘saving face.’ This is a long-held tradition and I don’t know the full depth of it but to put it simply, it means to avoid not being seen to make a mistake or be in the wrong. Chinese people do not like to feel that they have made an error and so to ‘save face’ they will find a way to pass over what has happened. Not only this but people will go out of their way to ensure that they don’t cause another to ‘lose face.’

Coupled with this is a characteristic shyness which many Chinese people exhibit, especially girls, so there will be a great reluctance to speak up and offer any response to questions. Therefore in a class of seventy kids it can be impossible to get one of them to put their hand up and give you the answer. The only thing they will do is shout out, often when you are not looking, and then when you ask who was responding, they won’t admit to it, even if they were right. You will find no enthusiasm in Chinese students for expressing what they know and any information has to be extracted from them, like a dentist pulling teeth! This can make life extremely frustrating for the teacher.

Homework:

Don’t set it! I have an average of sixty-five students in each class and fourteen classes a week; that’s over nine hundred sets of homework to mark and believe me, they will need some marking. The only homework of sorts I did give, was for the students to write a story but only a small percentage of each class did and it was almost impossible to correct the errors because the grammar was too bad and quite often it was impossible to know what was being said. I simply chose the best and told the class the following week. On another occasion I got the students to write the plot for a movie and select the characters, having first got them to decide on a title; I then selected the best one and wrote out a short script for them to act out in class. Unless you are lucky to have really small classes, I strongly suggest you don’t do it.

Knowing what’s going on:

With such large numbers in a class, it can be quite difficult to know what is going on with each student; some will be paying attention but a lot won’t. One problem is that they pile their books on their desks which act as a partition between them and the teacher. Yes, you can see their upper body but not what they are doing on their desk or under it. Only the direction of their gaze will give some clue. Because of this I often walk up and down the aisle to check what they are doing. Quite often they will be doing their homework, which I will tolerate providing it is English homework. I have got past the phase of expecting everyone’s undivided attention but I do like to pick on those doing their homework by asking them questions.

Use of blackboard:

In most Chinese classrooms, all you’ll have to work with is a blackboard and some coloured chalks. As mentioned previously, I tend to write nearly everything on the board, especially questions but even this often does not help. It never ceases to amaze me how many students cannot actually see what you write on the board because of their poor eyesight and they will still sit at the back. It is amusing to watch some students using reading glasses held back to front in an attempt to see the board. Some of the students simply leave their glasses at home or in the dormitory and others don’t have any because their parents cannot afford them. There are no free glasses for kids in China.

English names:

I decided from the outset to get the students to choose English names. This makes life so much easier and having an English name can be valuable later in life for them. I printed out two sheets of English names, one for boys and one for girls; I then got them to choose their name and put their Chinese name against their chosen English name. However, this didn’t stop some choosing their own names, such as: Yummy, Heaven, Black, Innocent, Autumn, Flower, Dracula, Satan and Hitler! I did point out that some names are just unacceptable but others I could not object to; except to tell them that if they are to tell their name to another, especially a foreigner, they probably  won’t be understood. Also I don’t try to remember everybody’s name, except the classroom monitors, a few exceptional students and those who attend my English Corner.

Outdoor activities:

During my first year and in the midst of summer, I decided to  try some out door activities with some classes but it was largely a disaster. The kids are not used to being taken outside during class time, except when the school leaders orchestrate it. So when I took the kids in the playground, they were almost uncontrollable, even with the help of one or two of the students assisting me. The only thing which might have done it was a megaphone and a whip! What’s more it was totally impossible to get a boy hold to stand close to a girl or vice versa, when I asked them to form a circle. Probably if the school chiefs knew that I had taken classes outside, they’d have had a fit; it’s not something that is done, except at PE time.

Keeping cool:

Controlling such large classes can be a real challenge, especially if you are not feeling on top form. There have been many days when China has frustrated me so greatly and as a consequence I have gone into the classroom feeling less than at my best. I have to confess there has been a few times when I have lost my temper in the classroom – not because the kids are misbehaving but at their inability or unwillingness to answer even the simplest question. These kids know loads of grammar and vocabulary but often can’t put a simple sentence together verbally. Yes, I know that teachers are not supposed to lose their cool but I would challenge even the most experienced teacher to calmly deal with what China can throw at you and a classroom of seventy chattering children. Oh and that reminds me, it is not the done thing to send an errant student to see the head teacher because that is seen as failure on behalf of the teacher; so it’s up to you how you deal them. In fact, it is very unusual for the school to punish students for their poor behaviour because their parents pay for the kids to attend the school and the school does not want to fall out with the parents. Fortunately the great majority of children are well-behaved but for me it is the one or two who demonstrate a belligerence, which are the most difficult to deal with. If I do confront a student who refuses to co-operate, I generally send them out of the classroom and often they will then disappear but as my wife would tell me, “You try too much, don’t take teaching here so seriously.”

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