It is to be expected that education in China today should be centrally controlled and authoritarian. Cireena Simcox has first-hand experience to prove it.
It was a rainy Saturday afternoon in a grey, concrete city in China. I was sitting at a round, wood-veneered table across from Tom, my 14-year-old-student, and the space between us was covered with pieces of computer paper. On one side of these pieces of A4 were the neatly formulated lesson plans which were supposed to account for every moment of the two hour one-on-one lesson we were having together.
We hadn’t got off to a good start, Tom and I. I teach adults, I don’t teach kids. More relevantly, I don’t teach kids who can’t name colours, recognise ‘wh’ questions or answer in anything but mangled monosyllables. So I was furious when Tom turned up on my schedule as a VIP student. (VIP students are the ones who can afford the hefty fees for individual lessons at the franchised ESL school where I work.)
I had originally come to China to work at a local university in 2006, and I enjoyed it. The night before my first semester began I was given a printed sheet of paper with some room numbers on it and the information that I would be teaching a course called ‘Western Culture’ (from the Greeks to Thatcher in one semester!). No books, no resources, no plans, no mission statements or course aims. I was in my element.
If my students were gobsmacked by a teacher who sat on desks and jumped from chairs, who had pink hair and a nose ring, who took entire classes out into the grounds to play Red Rover and Tug o’ War, this was nothing to how the teacher felt confronting university students who sat in neat, silent rows. They were grown men and women who had 10 pm curfews in their segregated dormitories, who had never been clubbing or pubbing or done research on the internet and who dissolved into nervous giggles the first time they were addressed as ladies and gentlemen or were forced by the increasing numbers to sit next to someone of a different gender.
Our mutual education of each other became an exciting process and the foreign language faculty started to produce mavericks – a type unknown in China – but, more importantly, thinking people who could express themselves in English.
I think ours also became the only university in China in which certain classes were thrown open to the general public: office workers, taxi-drivers and government school teachers had started coming in from the city in such numbers that, while the vice chancellor officially turned a blind eye, the departmental head finally sanctioned the ‘visitors’. Of course I don’t kid myself that the powers that be did so in the cause of education: I had segued into writing courses for local businesses and organisations. It brought in unprecedented revenue.
I left after 3 years. It was a difficult decision, but I was faced with a moral dilemma – certain practices, combined with the marginalisation of women, were forces against which, although one puts up a good fight, one cannot as yet win in China. I remain confident, however, that changes are happening and that my students are, each in their own way, one day going to take an active part in making a difference. Some have already started.
The only other opening for me in China was to join one of the ubiquitous English schools that have proliferated since the turn of the century. This is where I’ve spent the last 18 months – finding the belts and buckles on my straight-jacket being notched up with each passing month. That is how I found myself face to face with Tom.
When I looked through the door and saw a fat, unprepossessing and patently bored kid gazing vacantly out of the window and absentmindedly shredding his cuticles my heart dropped. When I grasped the doorknob and entered, saying “Hey, Tom, how are things?” I was met with a blank uncomprehending stare. I was ready to march straight back out again and demand that someone else – someone who was used to teaching at this level – should take over. But it was Saturday, our busiest day, and that wouldn’t get me anywhere. In something approaching total panic I crossed to the whiteboard and wrote my name.
I’m considered a pretty bad teacher in this school. I was contracted to design adult courses and implement them but it seems that my language – English – is not ‘suitable’. I don’t use acronyms. I eschew the word ‘robust’. Worst of all, I won’t use the textbooks.
In the schools like this one, mostly franchised from the UK or America, teaching must be done according to formulae. Each new teacher is introduced to a set of graded books for each rigidly controlled level. A certain number of pages must be covered in each class. A certain number of ‘activities’ must take place. Pre-formulated questions must be asked.
The textbooks are filled with pictures of white kids doing suburban things in a first-world setting. The vocabulary relates to food no Asian kid is familiar with and activities like hiking or camping which seem pointless to the average family here. To them the only people who sleep outside on the ground are homeless vagrants.
For the older teens there are chapters on bungee jumping or paragliding in which no sane Chinese kid would ever indulge. This is understandable, firstly because they are not allowed to do anything except study, eat and sleep and secondly because their sense of responsibility to family precludes any kind of risky behaviour on the part of the single, precious offspring.
The classes in most ESL schools take place after normal school hours and all through the weekend. Processions of exhausted and bewildered children are ferried in between homework, extra maths classes, extra calligraphy classes and more homework.
I have no idea what particular SNAFU landed me with 14-year-old Tom. Like his classmates, Tom had been learning English since his first year in his government school. Like many of his classmates, he has no aptitude for either scholastic or sporting activity. Nor any interest in either. From the very beginning I knew I was unsuited to be his teacher and I decided that after this one two-hour session with him I would demand his removal from my student list and never teach a child in this school again.
By the end of the session, though, we were having a good time together, my young VIP and I. All the printed worksheets prescribed by the powers that be ended up face down on the table. Their once-pristine reverse sides were covered in pencilled drawings – of huge waves with buoyant surfers riding their crests, of giant sabre-toothed sharks cruising the depths beneath tiny wooden boats, of giraffes peering improbably and despairingly out of the depths of jungles and of Winnie-the-Pooh snoozing with a honey-pot on his distended tummy. In one a Japanese flag covered a baseball diamond, while in another a tiger’s head was surrounded by a mixture of Chinese characters and badly-spelled English words.
Tom may not be anyone’s idea of an English speaker but he taught me, giggling, that the Japanese are never going to topple the Americans from the world rankings in baseball. I have also completely understood why he rejects the English word ‘tiger’. His word is the correct one – it’s based upon the fact that the markings on the large cat’s forehead perfectly resemble a particular Chinese written character.
I wanted somehow to make this time meaningful, and was fighting the urge to throw my arms around this young boy who now had a flushed, pink face and sparkling eyes. I knew that, within minutes of leaving, his face would settle back into the sullen lines and shuttered gaze with which he kept the world at bay. I searched through the piled magazines and brochures on the floor and handed him some downloaded photos of various huge reptiles ingesting mice and deer and even (his favourite) a human torso.
“Want to take this with you?” I asked, offering him the human torso one.
For a moment he looked excited and reached for it but then, with obvious reluctance, he shook his head. I understood. What would he do with it? His parents, who probably knew every inch of his English text book better than he did, would know that man-eating snakes don’t figure in his lessons. The teacher he was going to for the next two hours might not be able to assert parental rights to go through his belongings, but would demand to see what the foreign teacher had given him. And he wouldn’t be able to hide it in the school dormitory where he sleeps six nights of the week like most Chinese kids of his age.
When the lesson ended we did an awkward semi-dance at the door of the room and stood there, shuffling for a moment until I said, “Well, cheers, mate. Good to know you,” and strode purposefully out of the door.
My last sight of Tom through the streaming panes of the staffroom was of a fat, unprepossessing kid dressed in a black track suit. He was slouching through the rain holding an old-fashioned black umbrella by its wooden stock. His head was down, his shoulders slumped under the weight of his black back-pack and dejection hung round him like a cloud. I hoped that after his extra maths lesson and his four hours of homework, he would go to bed dreaming of steamy jungles and translucent waves, of Winnie-the-Pooh and giraffes . . . but I doubted it.
He reached the end of the square and blurred into a stout, black blob. ‘Damn this rain!’ I thought, palming my eyes with the heels of my hands.
I never went to demand his removal from my student list.