We invited four different teachers, in a variety of educational sectors in different parts of the country, to give brief perspectives on the opportunities and challenges of teaching in China. These should be seen not as scholarly articles or definitive statements but as individual reflections on long-term experience that may yield insights helpful to others. The four contributions were written independently, and the authors are unknown to each other.
Together these four authors have over 60 years of experience in China.
Teaching English at a University
Called to China as a witness for the Lord and as a university teacher, like many others, my challenge was how much I could talk directly to people about him. In my twenty-year stay in China, there were seasons when it was difficult to speak out directly but other seasons when I could. In the seasons where it was possible to speak, discernment or hearing from God at key moments was the most important factor.. But in those times when I could not speak directly, how did I fulfil my calling to be a witness for him? As teachers we can give input into students’ academic, personal, and social lives and become valued, professional, staff members.
Teachers need to be professionals rather than preachers. Academically, universities and students value teachers with professional excellence—excellent subject knowledge and methodology, good preparation, marking homework, answering questions both in and out of class—rather than those who talk about God. In the Confucian value system we teachers are respected, and students generally want to learn and spend time with us. However, I found the biggest challenge was that most Western methodology uses discussion-based activities at some stage. However, students from a Confucian background are used to a more passive style of learning. Initially they may be shy and worried about communicating, but respect and desire to learn ensures that if we create a safe environment, give background information, use good teaching practices and encouragement, we can get them to overcome their barriers. For example, using groups of six with a group monitor helps students in discussion-based activities to overcome their anxiety of joining in. Academic excellence is important as we witness for God; talking about God but not showing excellence does not honor him.
We can make a significant impact on the lives of our students both academically and in broader life. Giving extra time to students not only develops their academic skills but also relationships. “Office Hours,” when students signed up to talk to me, were a good way of answering queries, addressing problems, and helping students develop into mature and responsible adults but also gave me defined boundaries. In many of these meetings, students opened up and shared personal problems, not just academic issues, giving opportunities for us to talk in a deeper way. Students valued my time and asked why I gave it to them.
I also enjoyed fun times with students in small group “English Corners,” and we had wild times of cake-making and cooking as well as movie and games nights in my apartment. These times were special and opened up all manner of conversations and led to friendships as well.
In addition, we can contribute to our colleagues and the universities. I was asked to attend many university events including judging competitions such as speech and dancing as well as movie dubbing with colleagues and students which provided the opportunity to speak in a more relaxed atmosphere. Other events that gave opportunities to mix with a wider range of people included baking cakes for International Fairs (and watching people eat them!), attending dancing shows, being present at meals, giving seminars and lectures to teachers, and introducing movies to students. In my experience, attendance at university events helped local colleagues and enabled me to build deeper relationships and friendships. Refusal to do these things is not a good witness. In my time there, the best conversations I had with people were at some of these events or as a result of meeting a person at one.
In summary, working as an excellent university English teacher enables one to contribute to students’ overall development and make friends and relationships for life. St. Francis of Assisi indicated we should preach the gospel at all times, sometimes using words. As a university teacher that is an appropriate saying.
Laura Woodman (pseudonym) has taught English for many years at a major Chinese university and has been involved in supporting other teachers in China.
Teaching Science at a University
How can foreign academics have an influence while teaching in China? The most obvious opportunities in professional contexts are in promoting professional ethics, introducing theistic worldviews, and simply demonstrating care for students.
Most teachers deal with plagiarism. Knowing what plagiarism is, why it is wrong, and how to avoid it are key skills for anyone in academia. Before students’ first written assignment, I explain how plagiarism is equivalent to lying, cheating, and stealing. I also tell my students what the consequences will be if they are caught. I teach them how to reference their sources and give them opportunities to practice. The students learn not only the style of the bibliography or references section but what statements should be referenced and how to paraphrase and summarize the source without changing the meaning. However, there are always those who copy anyway. Their excuse is usually, "I can't write as well as they can." Some students are afraid of getting a bad grade because of their poor English. However, for other students, getting caught is the first step in understanding the seriousness of plagiarism. For those students who really understand, it can be transformative.
In the sciences, different worldviews can be presented about the origin of life or the universe, evolution, or environmental protection. I strive to keep the content professional and to present a variety of opinions. Although I present theistic perspectives, I do not tell the students which position I personally agree with. Often students have never considered anything outside the Marxist worldview they have been taught since childhood. They attempt to translate the latest political rhetoric from the Chinese Communist Party, and it is a challenge to help them deepen or broaden their thinking. Since ethics is not widely taught in science departments in China, the language and concepts are quite new to them. Usually, I ask them to discuss the different perspectives and then write about their own worldview. I have learned not to have a debate or opinion survey where the theistic worldview will simply be discounted because so few of them believe God exists. Instead, I circulate to ask and answer questions as they discuss the different viewpoints in small groups. In the process, I can challenge simplistic answers, correct misunderstandings, and help them to articulate their ideas more clearly.
In general, being a kind and conscientious teacher who genuinely wants to be fair and unbiased can go far in a Chinese context. Most foreign teachers spend time with their students outside of class, whether by holding visiting hours at home, in an office, or in a classroom; going to the canteen with them for meals; or going shopping or to events together. In the classroom, I strive to treat all the students equally and give everyone a chance to participate, without embarrassing those who are afraid to speak in front of the class. I take pictures of the students on the first day and work hard to learn their names, whether they have English names or not. "He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out" (John 10:3b). Many students have been deeply affected by the simple fact that I consider them valuable enough to know them by name.
Grace Haynes (pseudonym) has taught Science and Scientific English for many years at a major Chinese university.
Character Instruction in a High School
I had just moved to China to teach English at a large, new, government high school in a wealthy area. I could not read Chinese and could speak only a little. Reporting to work after Spring Festival, I heard the principal make a public announcement over the campus speakers. A colleague translated for me. Among the general announcements, one thing stood out: the principal commended the honesty of two senior high students who found someone’s wallet and returned it to the authorities. I recognized that he valued and encouraged moral character, something that I had already wanted to include as a supplement to my conversation classes. I made a list of 49 character qualities, and when the principal visited our office, with the help of a translator, I introduced an idea.
I explained that I had heard his announcement and was impressed by the young men’s honesty. Showing him the list of character qualities, in both Chinese and English, I asked permission to supplement my lessons with conversational topics based on these qualities. If he gave his approval, would he then circle the 20 most important qualities for me to introduce.
Within days the list was returned with twenty character qualities circled, so with the principal’s authority I began to implement my idea. That first semester, I taught 40 different 10th and 11th grade classes bi-weekly, each class with about 50 students. In addition to standard conversational English, each lesson had a character quality theme such as attentiveness, obedience, truthfulness, determination, diligence, honor, contentment, cautiousness, initiative, virtue, wisdom, justice, and mercy.
Several months later, the principal asked me to return to teach in the fall even though he knew I was a believer. Later I asked him if I could teach the meaning of Christmas and Easter. After a little thought, he said, “Yes, this is Western culture.” It is important to understand that the regular moral character themes are what make sense of these special holiday lessons.
Character instruction is simply teaching people how to love others in everyday, practical ways. I have found that students love hearing character illustrations in the lives of historical figures, the animal world, and stories. They particularly like to hear my own personal character stories, whether good or bad—but mainly my failures! This highlights, of course, that character training must start with me and my own example.
At the end of the year, as I test my students on what we have been studying, I explain that every day we face character tests without warning. Often we fail, and should then take responsibility for this and seek to change. It is at these times when students realize their character failure that they may ask themselves, and maybe even the teacher, “How can I have good character and break the bad habits that I know are wrong?” There may then be an opportunity to explain that we all need a change of heart and tell where this can come from.
I have found that this approach has sometimes been challenged by humanistic Westerners (“Whose definitions am I using?”) or by Chinese (“Why do we need Western moral character taught in China?”). However, moral character is an international language, part of general revelation. No one can seriously question statements such as: “Every wife wants a loyal husband”; “Every engineer must be responsible when designing a bridge”; “Every doctor must be truthful in his or her diagnosis”; “Every judge must apply justice in an equitable way to every person.” Moral character is encoded by our Designer into everyone’s conscience.
Since those small beginnings, with the approval of the authorities, I have given this kind of character training to many students in different parts of China. Recent changes, however, mean that there is greater suspicion of such ideas from foreigners; as always, each situation must be handled thoughtfully to know how to best serve students while honoring the authorities.
E. D. Wang (pseudonym) has taught English and character development in high schools in different parts of China.
Teaching at an International School
In 2003, I started teaching at an international school in a Chinese city of several million people. The school I served at had an American curriculum with an international focus. Most of the classroom teachers were American and a majority of the students were from South Korea. Parents of the students had come to China for various reasons. Little did I know how much I would learn here and be impacted by my experience teaching in this country. I was a confident 20-something-year-old who thought I might be overseas for a couple of years making a difference in others’ lives. Instead, teaching at an international school and living in China taught me much about myself and how much I needed to grow.
Teaching at an international school in China made me a better teacher.
I honestly thought teaching at an international school would not be too different from my public school position in small town USA. I thought I could simply teach in the way that I always had. I quickly realized that my Indiana jokes did not make sense to my students from Brazil, the Netherlands, or South Korea. I needed to change my wording and cultural references for my students. I also needed to rethink how to incorporate my cooperative learning activities with a student body that was used to a great deal of lectures and individual assignments. Although my colleagues thought I was doing well in the classroom, my heart was struggling to connect with my diverse group of students. Teaching at an international school in China helped me see that I needed to see each student as uniquely made with specific needs and skills.
Teaching at an international school in China gave me a better ability to adapt to different environments.
Through service projects, sports tournaments, and class trips, I was exposed to an assortment of delicious meals, amazing architecture, special customs, unfamiliar dialects, beautiful music, and more. All of this might sound romantic; however, time after time I was placed in situations that would stretch me. I ate meals that were the farthest thing from a BLT. I took Chinese language classes at my school and had to fumble my way through countless conversations. I met people from all walks of life who did not look like me, think like me, act like me, or smell like me! All of this has helped me learn how to see the beauty in our differences instead of fearing them. I am now able to better be the person I need to be to fit in distinct settings. This has allowed me to serve more people and contribute in ways I never thought possible.
Teaching at an international school in China made me see that I have plenty to learn from the Chinese.
My Chinese colleagues often praised me when I did something well. Whether it was an important school-wide presentation or something simple like telling a joke—praise was not uncommon. This was not because I was accomplishing so much, but because I made great friends who knew how to encourage instead of critiquing like I often did. My Chinese colleagues were humble team players who put the needs of others before themselves. Additionally, their work ethic was exceptional. They helped motivate me to give 110% in all of my endeavours. We had a sense of community and accomplished tasks to achieve the school goals. I learned a tremendous amount from my Chinese colleagues that carries forward to today, and I will never be able to thank them enough.
Mark Wickersham is the middle school principal at Evansville Christian School in southern Indiana, U.S. He taught in Indiana and South Korea before serving as a coach, teacher, or principal in China for 13 years. Find Mark’s latest posts at http://mkwick.blogspot.com or contact him by LinkedIn.
Mark Wickersham is the middle school principal at Evansville Christian School in Southern Indiana (United States) where his wife, a 19-year Middle Kingdom resident and ESL instructor, corrects his grammar. Mark taught in Indiana and South Korea before serving as a coach, teacher, or principal in China for 13 years.... View Full Bio