I am learning about Chinese classroom management one awkward moment at a time. I always knew that my educational background has been anything but traditional with regard to stringent rules and structure. I went from a Montessori school where we sat on the ground and called our teachers by their first names, to an all-girls school where our discussion was not only encouraged but as I remember difficult to harness. Next, it was on to Wooster where my Philosophy classes were often conducted in circles and I actually took an open book final exam on top of a building just because my professor said we could “go anywhere!” While I know that this is a special collection of experiences even in the US, when I’m teaching students pushed through the infamously strict Chinese education system I am occasionally genuinely flabbergasted.
For example, I was taken back the first time that I asked a student a question and they abruptly stood up and said “Teacher, I do no know,” and quickly sat back down. A little honored and yet a uncomfortable I thought, did you really have to stand to say that? If I ask a student to report on something, or give a speech, it takes on a nature of a diplomatic speech rather than casual explanation. There are usually about five sentences leading up to the meat of the speech somewhere along the lines of, “Today, I stand before you today, to tell of something of great importance in my life. I am honored to tell my opinion in your presence…etc.”
Yet perhaps the most obvious difference in conduct is that of pardoning oneself to the restroom during class. I don’t believe that I asked to use the restroom in high school and I most definitely did not in college. But these students can’t seem to break the habit. Despite my pleas for them to just go when nature calls, they will still appeal to me to grant them permission, often with way too many details supporting their request. For whatever reasons (water, kitchen sanitation, or real physiological differences) it is fair to say that my students frequently suffer from stomach problems. I know this because they tell of their discomfort during class. Perhaps the saddest example was one young looking Sophomore girl who suddenly jumped out of her seat. She ran to the front of the classroom arms extended and presented a note to me using two hands (which is considered respectful). The note read, “Teacher, I have diarrhea. I must go to the washroom now!” For God’s sakes go, I thought! Considering that I had to use spell-check to find the correct spelling of “diarrhea,” I am sure she spent two minutes in agony while she looked up the word in her dictionary and wrote it down. I kept a straight face and of course encouraged her to run!
I suspect that some of these awkward moments are also because they are being cautious because they do not know what a foreign teacher expects. I suspect that things will improve as we get to know one another. None the less, next semester I’ll lay down some rules. No telling the teacher when you are going to the bathroom NOR what you are going to do there.