Top ten ways students can make a Chinese teacher mad

In western countries, it is tough to teach teenage students Mandarin in a traditional high pressure Chinese style. Perhaps it is not only Mandarin, but every subject. 

In 2015, BBC produced a three-episode documentary, Are Our Kids Tough Enough? Chinese School, which showed us five Chinese teachers teaching 50 British teenagers in a way common in China. The result was mixed. Many teenagers found it difficult to adapt to the Chinese methodologies, while Chinese teachers complained that the classroom was always chaotic.

The documentary explains that, in China, Chinese teenagers grow up in an education system infiltrated with traditional Chinese values, for example, respect your teachers, behave in the classroom, do your homework, and get ahead, which are re-enforced in the society through teachers, parents, competing fellow students, and a lack of comprehensive social welfare. Once in Europe, Chinese teachers brought the same expectation to their classes. When facing students who did not behave as they were expected to, simply because they did not hold the same values, the teachers got upset. 

Similar scenarios also happen in Mandarin classes in the western countries. Many students couldn’t sit still and listen. According to the stories other Mandarin teachers shared, some students did not even bother to take out their Chinese textbooks. 

Below is my top ten list on how teenage students can drive a Mandarin teacher mad.

#10 Skipping classes.

#9 Always being late to class.

#8 Forgetting their Chinese textbooks.

#7 Either talking to other students or daydreaming.

#6 Not participating in class activities.

#5 Getting all the Chinese characters wrong at dictations. 

#4 Using Google translate when writing an essay.

#3 Making the same mistake a thousand times.

#2 Not doing homework.

#1 Saying that it is useless to learn Mandarin.

These problems are partially due to cultural differences and different upbringing environments. Fortunately, Mandarin teachers are rarely defeatists.

Very often, after the initial failure of upholding the classroom discipline, many teachers try to inject some fun into their classes using cultural activities, such as watching Chinese films, making traditional Chinese food, or playing traditional Chinese games. In fact, making dumplings is a very popular activity in Mandarin classes worldwide. It is often called “a taste of Chinese culture”. 

This is a learning psychology at work. Teachers don’t really believe that cultural activities can effectively arouse students’ interests in working hard on their Chinese language training. Rather, teachers hope that students will be willing to learn once everyone becomes closer, as we generally respond well to people who are nice to us. It is a good strategy to bring students closer. However, we must be aware that it is at the expense of wasting class hours, which can be used at doing something directly related to Chinese language training. Indeed, no teacher can afford to do these activities all the time. The best they can do is to sprinkle some occasionally to mitigate the hard work they require from the students. Such as the teachers in the BBC documentary, they invited students to make dumplings once and introduced them to a traditional Chinese puzzle game. As one of the teachers put it, these activities were meant to build better relationships in the class and hopefully to bring out better academic results.

Relationship building is also a type of emotional incentive, saying let’s be nice to each other and work together. It is better to frighten students with some possible future loss, such as, “you are not going to get a good job if you don’t study Mandarin!” 

At the end of the documentary, these teachers had a modest success at improving students’ grades. And there were some students believing they did better under the Chinese teaching style and wanted to know more about China.

Still, I think there must be an alternative way. In Chinese teaching and learning, teachers need to invent new activities which are both relationship building and directly contributing to general Chinese language proficiency. 

In the film Dead Poets Society (1989), there is an idealised teacher, John Keating, who knows how to touch students’ hearts and conducts great lessons. What he does in the class was very simple, standing on the desk for the purpose of seeing things differently. It is much simpler than spending hours trying to cook roast lamb. And after class activity is to read English poetry in a cave, so related to the subject. 

Perhaps Mandarin teachers can learn something from Keating, even though he is only a fictional character, thinking beyond the food and paper cutting, and find a different way to connect with students and engage them in learning Mandarin. 

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