Friday, March 27, 2009

Questionable Teachers and Bewildered Parents

I've been meaning to write this post for quite some time, but had put it off for other seemingly more "urgent" topics and activities. Now two events made me feel this topic's own urgency: First, one of the most popular questions asked, and the very first answered by President Obama during his unprecedented on-line town hall meeting yesterday was about education. Second, I just got some frustrating news in an email from my older sister about her son, my hip-hop nephew.

My 15-year-old nephew, nicknamed Doggy, is in his final semester of middle school in Chongqing. During my visit last month, I had several chats with him. Below is a conversation from my notes.

My nephew Doggy, who loves street dance

Doggy: I don't really know a lot about America, but I feel American education must be better than ours.

Me: Better in what sense?

Doggy: At least it won't all be about coping with exams.

Me: You mean all your school does is to teach you how to deal with exams?

Doggy: Yes! Do you want to see our class schedule?

(The following is his daily class schedule this semester:

Monday - Thursday:
5 morning classes from 8 am – 12:10 pm;
3 afternoon classes from 2:30 – 4:50 pm;
evening class from 5:50 – 8:30 pm with only one 15-min. recess

5 classes from 8 am – 12:10 pm (same as other weekdays);
3 classes from 2:00 – 4:30 pm;
30 minute exercise;
evening class from 6 – 8:30 pm

That's over 12 hours a day in school, five days a week. This over-loaded schedule is aimed at achieving a higher fraction of winners for the forthcoming high school admission exam. How merciful that the school gives the students 10 minutes off the evening class on Friday. On weekends, most of the students are also forced by their parents into fee-charging after-school lessons.)

Doggy: Tuesday is the worst day: Four English classes in a row in the morning, and two math classes in a row in the afternoon.

Me: Don't the teachers worry that students can't digest that much? Four classes in a row for one subject is ridiculous.

Doggy: The English teacher is our Dean, he has the power to do whatever he pleases. The math teacher is the head teacher for my class, she loves to play spy games. She hides behind the window glass and peeps, then suddenly pushes the door open. Or she pretends to walk away but suddenly turns around. Hey, the trick often works! She can usually catch several students talking.

Me: What does she do to those students?

Doggy: Punish them.

Me: Does she teach well though?

Doggy: She teaches okay, I guess.

Me: Do you like math?

Doggy: I hate math the most.

Me: Why?

Doggy: Because the teacher hates me.

Me: How does she hate you?

Doggy: The way she stares at me is as if I'd killed eighteen generations of her ancestors. When I bring a bottle of ice tea to school, she says it's alcohol. I ask her to smell it, it's not alcohol. She seizes it anyway to drink herself.

Me: Then don't bring ice tea to school.

Doggy's mother: That's what I said.

Doggy: Once I was a few minutes late for class, the teacher made me stand through the entire afternoon. I had to take course notes in standing up, it was really hard. I stood through the entire afternoon and thought that was it. But the next morning, she ordered me to stand again, through the entire day!

Me: Well, if this is true, you should tell the principal. Corporal punishment in school is illegal even in China.

Doggy: (precociously) What a naive idea to tell the principal. You don't know how dark China's schools are! My teacher will only make my life more miserable.

Do you want to hear something funny though? Once, the teacher ordered a girl in our class to stand outside the door for no reason. She said the girl was allowed to come in to sit down only if she got her father to accompany her to class. The girl stood for an hour, and couldn't bear it any more, so she called her father on her cell phone. To her surprise, her father told her to ignore the teacher and simply go in and sit down, "See what she can do to you!" So that was what the girl did. The teacher shouted at her, "Who let you come in and sit down?" "My father," the girl replied. The teacher was very angry but couldn't do anything (laugh).

Me: Well, I guess you could do the same then.

Doggy: No, because my mom doesn't help me! She always says the teacher does this for a reason.

Doggy's mother: (sigh) But what else could I say? I can't encourage him to fight his teacher.

Doggy: My best friend's mother is worse. She calls the teacher often and tells her, "Don't hesitate to beat up my son if he doesn't behave! Teach him a lesson anytime like you would teach your own child!" So my friend got corporal punishment the most often. Once he couldn't bear it any longer and ran away from home. His parents were very scared. After they found him, he made his mother promise not to call the teacher again to punish him.

Me: Did she promise?

Doggy: Yes. But she didn't stop calling the teacher until my friend threatened to run away again. And the teacher didn't stop punishing him. She just got into the habit of corporal punishment, and that was how we lived through the first two years of our middle school.

Me: Is it because you and your friend like street dance that the teacher doesn't like you?

Doggy: My friend doesn't dance. He has a bad leg.

Doggy's mother: Actually that boy has very good grades. A smart boy. It seems the boys were treated badly because we parents did not get the teacher's hint early.

Me: What hint?

Doggy: To give her expensive gifts. She likes that. When she was getting married, she repeatedly reminded the whole class her wedding date and asked us to tell our parents. On the wedding day, more than half of my classmates and their parents went, every family bringing gifts or a red envelope [of cash].

Me: Did you go?

Doggy: No, my friend and I didn't go. All the girls did. Some of the boys too.

Doggy's mother: That's another reason why his teacher doesn't like him. It is my fault too. Once, the teacher called me to meet with her in a hospital to talk about Doggy. It was weird, why meet in a hospital? It turned out her mother-in-law was hospitalized, but it wasn't a big deal disease or something. I realized only afterward that she wanted me to bring nutritious stuff for her mother-in-law.

Me: Did you?

Doggy: My mom didn't that time. But she did give my teacher money during my second year, and it bought me peace for one semester.

Me (to my sister): Is this true?

Doggy's mother: Yes. Then I didn't have money to give her the following semester, so everything started all over again.

Me: I can't believe this.

Doggy's mother: It's actually quite common in today's schools.

Doggy: The teacher has been a little better this semester. She didn't punish us as often.

Me: Why?

Doggy: I don't know, maybe because she's married and had a baby? Maybe because we have grown up and might actually take revenge on her?

* * *

Postscript: It wasn't like this in my own school time, in the 1970s. The worst thing a middle school teacher did to me was ask me to write an essay so that he could recommend it for some sort of writing contest. Instead, he took that essay and said it was written by his daughter and got a job or something for her. In my high school the teachers worked really hard to teach us science and literature instead of political propaganda, especially my math teacher, who risked denunciation to give me advance math lessons in his apartment after school. I know I have written about China's morality crisis, and I am sure not all teachers are like this, but I still want to ask, What's wrong with this generation of teachers?

(More about teachers tomorrow)


alfaeco said...

Oh God! That is truly terrible!

If too many teachers are like this I really fear for the future of the country.

Youth is the future, and teacher are their guides. With such guides, how will the future be?

Another terrible effect of the disfunctionalities of the current socio-political system

alfaeco said...

Fortunately that Doggy seems to be a tough boy.

He seems to be made of good stuff, as we say here.

I like him.

Thanks for insightful post :-)

Xujun said...

Agreed, Alfonso, the dysfunctional education system definitely is part of the problematic social-political system. I hope there will be a reform in this area soon.

And thanks for your kind words about Doggy. I'll tell him what you said. :-)