How teachers manage themselves in Chinese classes

For second language learners, Mandarin Chinese is one of the most difficult languages to learn. The other side of the same coin is that Chinese is also one of the most difficult languages to teach. 

After years of teaching Chinese to non-Chinese speakers, I have recognised that effective learning takes place in, and is affected by, constantly changing structures, which, as Chinese teachers, we can bring into our Chinese classes. These structures are dynamic, operate on different levels, and take on different directions. These structures are the mechanisms that make Chinese classes engaging and influence students’ performance both inside and outside of classroom.  

However, these structures are not a given. Chinese teachers must first of all manage ourselves well, managing our different roles in Chinese classes.

Roles, structures and dynamics in Chinese language classes

In classrooms, Chinese teachers are more than teachers. They are also information flow controllers, instructors, facilitators, timekeepers, emotional supporters, classroom managers, listeners, evaluators, and so on. 

Correspondingly, in addition to Chinese learners, students’ roles are receivers, consumers, participants, contributors, creators, performers, and also listeners, evaluators, and so on.

To have effective structures in place, Chinese teachers must consciously adopt different roles throughout the lesson, sometimes more than one role at a time. Teachers’ roles in turn will determine students’ roles. And as a result, dynamic learning structures are taking place. 

Below are two examples. 

Information flow controller & receivers

Teaching Chinese is chiefly to present a certain amount of linguistic information for students. How much information is presented per lesson is critical. Therefore, information flow controller is a major role for Chinese teachers. Correspondingly, students are receivers of the information. 

Chinese teachers need to strike a balance to make sure that students are not overwhelmed or exhausted by too much information, neither bored or distracted by too little information. 

This is a teacher-to-students structure, where the Chinese teacher being the centre of it. The direction or the information flows from the teacher to each students.

Timekeeper & performers

Another major role for Chinese teachers is the timekeeper. And students are performers.

This is during class activities, when the teacher sets up a limited time for students to engage with each other to do a targeted exercise.  The students are performers, in the sense that they need to perform a certain task. When needed, students can walk around the classroom for the maximum benefits. The teacher is to keep the time, while keeping an eye on the progress of the activity and an ear for students’ performance. 

This structure is a students-to-students structure. There is no centre in this structure. The direction or the information flows from students to students. The Chinese teacher is merely an outsider, who can assist when required. When the time is up, or the activity is concluded, the teacher will inform students and move on to the next step. 

Learning Chinese and developing soft skills

Chinese teachers can bring diverse roles and structures to classroom, change the learning mechanism, and engage students more in the process of learning. Highly engaged students not only have outstanding language skills, but also foster a set of soft skills. 

For example, when the teacher is only a timekeeper during a class activity, where students walk around and communicate with each other, students not only practice listening and speaking Chinese, but also building up social skills. If the class activity is to accomplish a task assigned to each group, students must collaborate with others. 

There are different kinds of class activities, including problem-solving activities, group discussions, individual oral presentations, and role plays. All activities have their unique structures. Once in a different structure, students’ learning strategies will change, so do their approaches to others. And there is always pressure to complete the tasks. Therefore, how to work with others and how to work under pressure are just as important as practice Chinese.

Through conscientiously utilise these structures, Chinese teachers can make learning Chinese more than learning a language.


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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