One of our first-year classes in full finery

Recently, teaching has been more enjoyable than ever. This is certainly not due to the departure of my 3rd-year class, which was always a delight to teach. Rather, the first-year students have been making visibly significant progress, allowing for more extended conversations outside of class and greater complexity in in-class activities and discussions.

I’d also like to think that I’ve improved as a teacher over the course of this year, although I’m not sure if that’s actually the case. Certainly, I have a greater knowledge of the complexities of English grammar, a knowledge that, though picked up on-the-go and through use, has undoubtedly helped me explain complex grammar points with greater clarity – and find more creative exercises to target specific problems.

I’ve also learned to think and react more quickly. When I first began teaching in 2010, I had much greater difficulty coming up with on-the-spot definitions, explanations and answers to students’ questions (though, at Shida Fuzhong, there were few in-class questions ever asked). Over the past two years, however, I seem to have turned into a walking dictionary, although the occasional question still requires me to answer “let’s talk about it after class.”

Now that I feel much more confident in front of a class, and have classes full of eager, excited students to boot, I can also engage in a much broader range of projects and activities than before. At Shida Fuzhong, the students’ lack of enthusiasm – or even attention span (not to mention the size of the class) – effectively prevented me from doing anything involving working in small groups (which devolved into chaos within seconds), worksheets separate from the book (which would rapidly crowd the classroom’s skies with flying paper as a full-on battle between Chinese and Japanese planes commenced above the desks) or anything involving writing, answering questions or discussion on the students’ part. As you can imagine, this made lesson planning rather difficult – which had the side effect of forcing me to improve my lesson plans and fine-tune them for this generation of determinedly bored and jaded students. This year, with great students, I’ve been able to try a much broader range of activities, many of which have met with success. And if they haven’t, it’s not a major problem here in Rebgong. Simply pull another activity out of your pocket and keep going.

teaching (with Brooke staring disapprovingly?). Photo credit = student

However, my apparently improved teaching and increased teaching freedom this year have been counteracted by one simple, yet essential factor in Chinese high-school education: the gaokao. Last October, I was sitting in my office when I received a visit from one of the school’s assistant headmasters.

“Have you started teaching the gaokao yet?” he asked in a friendly tone, his Chinese taking on a pleasant, musical quality, without any edge or bite.

“I’ve done some gaokao-related activities,” I said. “I’ll start doing more practice gaokao work in December.”

“That,” he said in a slightly more menacing tone, “does not exactly answer the question. I’ll repeat: have you started teaching the gaokao yet?”

“Well…a little”, I said, “but I haven’t done much.”

“I’ve heard,” he responded, his voice now hard and unremitting, “that you have barely taught any gaokao. The students are going to take the test this spring! From this day forward, I want you to focus on the gaokao, and the gaokao alone.”

And that was it. From that day in October until my students graduated last week, the gaokao was the central focus of nearly everything we did. Or at least most of the things we did. Even if we didn’t do gaokao work every single day of class, I certainly had to focus on this questionable test the vast majority of the time.

And it certainly is questionable. The gaokao is riddled with questions about archaic grammar rules and obscure constructions that one rarely encounters outside of Medieval ecclesiastical texts and overly Romantic poetry. Inverted sentences, unusually contorted clauses and a whole host of colloquial expressions of politeness, affirmation and refusal are waiting to trip up the already nervous students. Additionally, the test is known for being riddled with simple grammar mistakes, such as pluralized adjectives and abstract nouns (“creativities”, “boredoms” and “frighteneds” were all on a recent practice exam) and subject-verb disagreement. Throw in a whole range of cultural reference points that my students simply do not understand (the test is designed for Han Chinese students, and thus often assumes a native familiarity with Han culture, landmarks, history, etc.) and you have a terrifyingly awful two-hour concoction of madness that is, along with tests in other subjects, the sole factor in college admissions and, to a great extent, the determinant of their life trajectory.

Teaching the gaokao was truly daunting. How to make this subject matter interesting to the students, while providing enough in-class practice time to familiarize students with the test format and sections? How could I transform something truly terrifying, something that the students have been preparing for since primary school, into something interesting and possibly even fun to learn about?

Fun was nearly impossible; I went for “interesting”, taking both the word’s positive and it’s Quakerly meanings. Sometimes, “interesting” signified something genuinely worthy of fascination or focus; other times, it represented something questionable. Lesson planning for the gaokao was a great challenge. Rather than teach every grammar point in the book, I decided to focus on vocabulary and strategy. By teaching how to read, write and listen in the respective sections of the gaokao, I managed to transform these sections into a kind of game, a competition, which kept a degree of pressure yet decreased the consequences and stress. We talked endlessly about “tricks”, “shortcuts” and “easy ways out”, even ways to “beat” the test itself. This language of secrecy and trickery also, I think, also helped make the test seem more like a game, and made the students more intrigued and engaged in class.

I’m not going to pretend I’m a great teacher (spoiler alert: I’m not), or that I was the best gaokao teacher they could have had, but I’m happy with my third-years’ progress this year. And when they take the gaokao this week, I’m going to be there to cheer them on (or, at least, when they go into/get out of the test; cheering inside the test rooms, or even nearby, is certainly strictly prohibited).

And this is the greatest contribution to my sense of improved teaching this year: I simply love being with the kids. When walking into a classroom, I instinctively break into a smile before they can even open their mouths to shout “good morning, Teacher!” And upon hearing that, my smile widens; my enthusiasm grows and I remain a caffeine-addled joyously excited dancing monkey (in a good way, and a singular primate in my knowledge of English grammar) for the remaineder of the period. This is the single greatest difference between my teaching at Shida Fuzhong and here in Rebgong. For when entering a classroom to teach, your attitude means nearly everything. Attitude makes the difference between a slow but wonderful class and a class that is incredibly frustrating. Attitude determines your breaking point, your point of anger and frustration, the point where your mind shuts down and your emotions take over your teaching for you. I learned this repeatedly in nearly every class last year, most often to my detriment. But this year, even when explaining a grammar point for the fifteenth time, I consciously try to maintain a positive attitude and distance myself from feelings of frustration and antagonism. I don’t ask myself why they don’t understand; I ask myself how I can explain something differently or what I can do to help them understand. I refuse to get angry or lose hope. For these are kids I truly care about, kids who deserve whatever I can give them (and far more), kids who deserve the most positive learning environment possible. And as a teacher in remote town on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, a teacher in the Number 2 school where few others seem to care about their work or students, a teacher who many likely think are foolish for not beating his students, what more could I hope to create?

And on that note, I want to finish by wishing all of my third-year students good luck on the gaokao this week – they’ve certainly worked hard enough for it. I’ve told them that when upset, worried or disheartened, they should simply remember the mantra from the movie 3 Idiots – “all is well” – and keep it in their thoughts. I hope that those of you reading this blog will keep my students in your thoughts this Thursday through Saturday as they take the test that will, for better or for worse, in one way or another likely define the rest of their lives.

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