I cried in the hallway at work Friday afternoon. I hadn’t meant to. I was walking to get some lunch after teaching two particularly straining classes. I teach from 9-1, pretty much straight through, on Fridays. It’s exhausting.
That morning I had made it to work early. I had a cup of coffee and walked to my classroom where I found one student. This is a class with a roster of 20. One student sat there. I came in, set down my things, and went about preparing to teach. Chinese students are usually late in general, all students are usually late for 9 a.m. classes, and both of these especially apply to Fridays, so I took my time in setting up to teach.
One more student came in the room. And that was it: just two out of my twenty students showed up for class.
I wrote at the beginning of this semester (not even a month ago!) about the low-level students I have. I’ve heard about the difficulty in motivating them to attend class, turn in work, or ask questions. Well, those things are happening now. And it’s really painful.
I taught the two students who showed up, even though my lesson plan was for at least 12 students. I let them ask me lots of questions and ultimately I let them out early because we flew through the material. I had to teach another class right after that (eight students showed up for that one). I got back to my office at almost one o’clock, grabbed my wallet, and started for the door because I was hungry. In the hall, as I passed by a group of colleagues chatting, one asked me if I was okay. I hesitated. Then I said, “no,” and started to cry.
I lamented not being able to teach what I am supposed to teach to the students who need to learn it. I complained about not being able to use the material I prepared because teaching two students is nothing like teaching twenty. I cried because I missed teaching the students I had last semester who really wanted to be there… My colleagues were supportive and offered their empathy as I sniffled into a few tissues. One later brought me some chocolates because she had been in the same situation before.
But it’s enough to make a teacher crazy. I don’t have anything I can hold over my students. No attendance policy, no points for attendance or participation, nothing. The university’s thought on this? They’re adults, so they should be responsible for the material. But that’s laughable. First year university students in China are FAR less mature than their counterparts elsewhere in the world.
The way the Chinese school system is designed, children seem to go through life from birth to age 18 in pursuit of the Gaokao (高考), which is the higher education exam. They choose subjects of interest early, and most parents push their children to pursue areas of study that might result in a higher paying jobs, rather than where the students’ interests or talents lie.
The students need to get high paying jobs because they’ll be expected to support their parents eventually, as is custom in China. And, due to the One Child Policy in China (which now allows two children per family, by the way), many of these students are their parents’ only child. They are the only ones who can support their aging parents. And they have to support their parents because no one else will, not even the government. They are expected to do as the parents ask because the parents raised them, paid for their education, and expect to be cared for after retirement.
The students in my classes are used to their parents waking them up and taking/getting them to school. They’re used to teachers telling them what to study, when, how, and for how long so they know exactly what they need to know to succeed on a test. They are addicted to technology, but don’t know how to harness the power of that same technology. They don’t know how to find information that isn’t in the first list of search results on Baidu (Chinese Google). They don’t know because they weren’t trained to know.
I can’t make them come to class or do any homework I assign. I can’t do anything other than show up to teach them five days a week, for a total ten hours each student, and hope that they’ll be interested enough to come.
Continuity between lessons? No, I can’t teach like they’ve learned what I taught them before. Most of them won’t have attended the day before. Most of them won’t have done the homework. Most of them won’t even care.
Yet I care. Oh, how I care. I cry because I care and because I want to help them learn. It’s agony, though, and I have to protect myself better now that I know this reality. I will continue to show up five days a week, but I will have lower expectations. I will reduce the need for prior knowledge for classes so lessons are so-called “stand alone” lessons. I will soldier on knowing that the eight ball looming behind me is larger than it appears in the rearview mirror.