The day I worried about all semester finally arrived today. I went to room 307 like always. I set up to teach and waited.
11:00: no students. 11:05: no students. 11:10: no students.
By 11:15, I started packing up. Wednesdays I teach 50 minute classes, so I felt I had done my duty to wait for more than 20% of the class time. I waited on students who never came.
Some friends have asked me why my classroom was empty. Here are the reasons I have learned, surmised, or otherwise intuited during this semester-long battle.
- My university has no attendance policy. I can’t make attendance (or participation) count for any portion of their grades. This would help a great deal, considering that language learning requires a significant time commitment and, if I am to help these students make the expected gains in language acquisition, it would help if I could somehow give them something in return for their time investment. But I can’t and many of us have complained, but evidently the word from higher-ups is that it’s cultural (which I think is somewhat true and somewhat hogwash).
- The Chinese educational system is front loaded. By the time students are accepted into a university, many of them think they can relax. The climactic event for every college-bound Chinese student is the gaokao (高考, higher education exam). I know from tutoring 9-14 year olds that much of their late childhood to adolescence is spent preparing for this ONE exam. Because everything before this exam was so stressful, most students relax in college. Their future is already determined by where they’re going to school. Whatever they learn is almost irrelevant. (Seriously, though, for a detailed overview of how the gaokao works, check out this Australian article.)
- I currently teach students with the lowest English level in the second semester of their freshman year, so most of them are not horribly motivated… Even if they were excited about their first semester, they know how things work now, so they know what kind of effort they need to give to get what they want/need to pass.
- Some Chinese students are excellent at looking busy. (This is not a stereotype; it’s my experience.) When I give a task, sometimes they won’t give any affirmation. I check for understanding with a few of the better students to see if they are on task. Then, if they need more explanation, I give it. And I HAVE to tell them how much time I’m giving them because if I give too much time, they’ll just sit there looking like they’re still working. Meanwhile I can go around to each desk and see whether or not they’re actually making good use of the time. Usually they’re not. (Even my better students last semester did this!) It’s drilled into them and I think it’s actually a manner of self-preservation because they know if they look occupied that teachers won’t bother them or give them something else to do… (This last bit of knowledge comes from a colleague of mine.)
- It’s late in the semester and they are likely preparing for other assessments. This means that in the order of priorities, my class gets bumped even lower. Another colleague told me this as a legitimate reason for why my classes have low attendance. That appalled me.
- It was a warm, sunny day today. So not even I wanted to be inside, really, but it’s my job to be there, so I was. Even though no students were.
- Next week they take the English speaking exam. So I suppose they think they’ve learned everything I could teach them already or that it’s too late to try any harder. (This is me trying to put myself in their shoes. I know it’s basically impossible, but I tried for empathic reasons.)
That’s all I’ve got. I teach tomorrow and Friday, then I proctor speaking exams all next week. Then there’s one more week of teaching left (and it’s all exam prep, so it’s nothing thrilling).
I survived the empty classroom. I didn’t cry like I thought I might, which is a big step up from earlier this semester.