Last semester, I was asked by the headmaster if some administrators and teachers could watch one of my classes. I agreed, and three days later some twenty or thirty faculty and staff watched as I taught vocabulary in a language that few of them could understand. Three days later, one of the assistant headmasters who had seen my class came to my office bearing a paper entitled “Comments and Criticisms”.
“This first section,” said the assistant headmaster as I read, “is what you did well. You’re a good teacher, and use a good mix of activities in class; the students like you.”
I read: “Jonas is a very colorful (精彩) teacher. The class included many different types of activities and the teacher used several different methods to help students understand vocabulary words.” The paragraph continued in the same vein; I started worrying about the “criticisms” in the title. Where was the “but”? What had I done?
“But”, he said after a long pause, immediately putting me on edge, “there is something you need to work on.”
“What?” I said.
“You need to pay more attention to the gaokao in your classes,” he said. “These students will be taking the test in one and a half years. It is very important for their lives, and it is your job to prepare them. We’ve brought you some materials you can use in your class.”
“Although his classes are very colorful”, I read, “they do not adequately focus on test preparation. More test preparation materials will be provided to the foreign teachers, who in turn must focus more directly on the gaokao at all levels.
This is the degree to which the gaokao, or national college entrance exam, determines what is done inside the Chinese education system: in a classroom of first-semester second-year students (the equivalent of 11th grade in China’s three-year high schools), I was being criticized for not directing my focus towards a test which was still eighteen months away – during the one period of class which was observed. Needless to say, the test controls nearly everything that happens at school. It determines administrative priorities and goals, with effects that ripple down to control over who is allowed to enter (or who is made to exit)our program. It determines many students’ motivation (or lack of motivation) to learn English, a subject which – if one wants to enter a Nationalities University – is not counted as part of the final score. It makes Chinese high school a place of unbelievable intensity and pressure and obsessive-compulsively singleminded focus – a place where distractions and alternatives and ideas and thinking for oneself are not really allowed, let alone valued.
With the test six weeks away, my third-year (senior) students are understandably worried and stressed. Students who are planning to enter a Nationalities University have been a nightmare in class; having realized that English isn’t important for their chosen path of testing, they have decided to mentally absent themselves from my classes and focus their attention on the subjects that will count. While I have sympathy for the pressures they are under, I demand that these students remain participants in class – and, due to the test, often passively refuse, creating an ongoing struggle which drains much of my energy. These students have told me explicitly that they would be paying more attention and being more active in class if not for the test; I remind them that I am teaching them a language which is useful beyond the purposes of test-taking, but this line of reasoning usually goes nowhere. They are part of the system; I am not, and will never be bound by it’s strictures. They, not I, are the ones who have to take the test. They are the ones who will have to live with their decisions and consequent results, enjoying the fruits or suffering the consequences. I am outside – a spectator, admittedly one who is particularly involved for a foreigner, but still only watching.
The school held the second of four practice exams this past weekend. Despite two new test sections of increased difficulty, my students did unusually well, with two individuals scoring over 100 points (unheard of in this region). When I told one of the assistant headmasters, I had the privilege of watching him break into a little jig, arms and legs flailing wildly in excitement and unadulterated joy. So powerful is this test, I thought, that it can make even Chinese headmasters dance. Wherever we may be, we are but puppets; the test, the education system, the social and historical and cultural context in which we live – it controls us all as effectively as if someone were physically pulling the strings. What have we become when we are so bound and gagged and manipulated by the forces that surround us that we have forgotten who we truly are – and what we truly value as people?
But regardless of who or what we are, I will always remember this headmaster as a surprisingly good inadvertent dancer. From now on, I’ll make sure to present such surprisingly excellent news more often.