Getting Educated – A glimpse of the worst school in China

Continued from here.

It was the right room alright. I stood outside of a locked door, behind which my schedule told me I should have begun class ten minutes earlier. I had no choice but to wait there where my co-teacher had shown me, alternating between examining my class schedule, the number above the door, and wondering if it was all a big elaborate game to mess with my mind. I had noticed that was becoming a trend whenever the school administration was involved.

I had no way to ask anyone if they knew where my class had been moved, nor would a teacher have known where I should be. Teachers and students lived in different worlds normally, even if they occupied the same classroom but from what I had seen in the halls, there were few teachers who lived in the same world as one another.

“Hello? Are you Casey?” a woman’s voice called in hesitant English. Obviously I was, she knew it, and she continued without waiting for me to answer. She waved a hand, gesturing me to follow. “Come with me.” Plans had changed without me knowing as I had heard they would. Relief flooded through me that someone was taking charge.

We walked quickly in silence. I only spoke English and she was not confident enough in her speaking ability (despite probably having been an English teacher at the school herself). I glanced at my watch; the time read 8:46. I was late, almost hopelessly. I wondered how long the classroom had been changed to an entirely new building and why I, as the teacher, had not been informed. The students obviously had.

I followed her down the three flights of stairs and up the three in the other building. My heart was racing as we walked onto the third floor past the dingy, footprint-covered walls. My unnamed assistant waved a hand, indicating to proceed through the thin wooden door that appeared to have been punched several times. A quiver of nervous exhilaration churned my stomach. After all, I was excited for my first day at a job which was unlike any I had performed before; it would be much more public and closely watched. I would be leading a class in just a few moments.

I had created my own lesson and reviewed it several times the night before as well as on the bus ride over that morning and it was simple enough. My goal was to get to know them and have them get to know me. It would be an entertaining, simple introduction lesson to have fun and get the students accustomed to a foreign presence. Nothing simpler than putting myself out there, I said to myself. Right? I steeled myself, put on my best smile, and pushed open the door.

Immediately, thirty six pairs of eyes locked on me. Several students giggled.

“Hello, class!” I spoke loudly, my grin still unforced.

The “hello” from thirty six mouths echoed my own exactly. Every unblinking shark’s eye met mine as they repeated, the tones and the duration of the word was mimicked exactly in higher girls’ voices.

“Sorry I was so late! How are you today?” I asked. It was more habit and nerves acting up than that I actually knew what I was saying. I saw them moving their mouths, not understanding, but still making the silent attempt to exactly imitate my apology. A handful of the mouths attached to those cold, unblinking shark-eyes were quick enough to deliver a memorized, “Fine, thank you, and you?”

My guide from earlier waved goodbye, shut the door, and disappeared back down the hallway without another word. The mood in class changed as would an unseen current under miles of ocean. It felt ominous.

“How about we start class? I will be your teacher. My name is Casey.”

Several students had picked up their cell phones from their desks and were typing what must have been very important messages. I was barely started with my introduction. I must have been boring them already. The smile slid from my face.

“Please get out a piece of paper. We have a lot to make up for after the delay. Don’t worry – this won’t be for a grade, they’re just questions for me to get to know you all.”

A girl stood in the second row and spoke loudly in Chinese. I did not understand. The class, including the girl, burst into raucous laughter. She sat immediately as if she would be camouflaged once she rejoined the others and I would forget on whom I should pin my humiliation. I felt like a fool.

“Since this is English class, I expect you to use only English. Only English!”

Several, for lack of a better word, cackled. Headphones went to ears and the three boys were already playing cards in the back. Several had lit cigarettes. My mind reeled. I felt a trickle down my cheek and my back was already covered in sweat.


An hour and a half later, I stomped through the disgusting, footprint-covered walls of the hallway. Truant, filthy boys jabbered insults and laughed with their friends after calling out “Halloo-what-are-you-a-doing?” I felt like black-bearing my way through the halls, swiping the smaller, weaker students and teachers out of my way with the anger of one who has been awoken from deep slumber. I was pissed.

In all my years of attending public school and substitute teaching in the States, I had never been so humiliated and infuriated. I felt as one who finds out his elderly grandmother has lost her life savings to a con artist with an insurance scam. I felt crazy and outraged. Those insolent teenagers! No wonder the class had been called Preschool Education English. I had been standing in front of over-sized preschoolers. I might have been young at twenty five, but by God, I was an adult and their teacher. Those stereotypes of polite, diligent Chinese students, silently hard-working, had failed me.

My blood pressure had only dropped slightly by the time I went to my next class. I came back from it in a much worse way.

In Casey’s next post, he will revisit three golden rays who redeemed an entire school of miscreants and how sometimes life mimics art in a bad way.

About Casey

Casey arrived in China almost by accident in the fall of 2009 to teach English. Since then, he has enjoyed a new-found respect and interest for its people, food, and culture. He returned to teach English this fall and will provide a layman's impressions of everyday life in China.
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10 Responses to Getting Educated – A glimpse of the worst school in China

  1. xl says:

    That attitude from the students is indeed surprising…..but maybe it’s because you’re a foreigner, they know you won’t discipline them the Chinese way (i.e. yelling/lecturing, calling their parents, etc), so they feel like they can treat your class as their one blow-off class.

  2. Casey says:

    Very true!

    I soon learned to yell and lecture them. Taking cell phones from students who had been using them lead to them crying (which made me feel tyrannical) or stealing them back (which embarrassed me instead). The one thing that worked was bringing in their head teacher and that only worked as long as she was present. That was just an obstacle I tried to ignore since I had no other means of dealing.

  3. Kimberly says:

    Casey, great story! I can’t wait to read the next installment. I’ve taught at two different universities in China, with two very different groups of students. Although my classes have never been quite as bad as the one you were faced with, classroom management continues to be a challenge at times. I had one day a few weeks ago where I was fuming after a classroom incident… I feel your frustration!

  4. Yaxue C. says:

    The Chinese school system sorts students into the “good” pile and the “bad” pile and does so every early on. It is a “Chinese characteristic” and a deeply flawed one in the way the system uses its educational resources, its disregard to each child’s individuality, and how it reinforces what is good and what is bad among the children themselves and in the society at large. But anyway, for a teacher, when it comes down to a school or a class, you pretty much know what kind of students you are getting. The vocational schools have probably the “worst” pile there is after the universities, colleges, three-year associate programs and everyone else take their pick based on scores of exams.

    It’s not comforting at all for me to see, in certain fundamental ways, things have not changed that much from my time (that is, a thousand years ago!). I remember in high school, our class, several hundred students strong, was divided into three categories: the Fast Classes (not-so-coded words for good classes), the Intermediate Classes, and the Slow Classes (the bad classes). The kids in the Slow Classes were basically delinquents, and the way they were labeled and grouped made it only worse. They regularly chased their teachers out of the room, English teachers in particular (there were no foreigner teachers at the time), made young female teachers cry, put a bucket of water on top of the door so it poured down on the teacher when he or she walked in…. No amount of tyranny worked, which, as you can imagine, was not lacking….

    ….Although no one tried Monsieur Clément Mathieu’s method who gets them to sing songs like, in the French movie Les Choristes:

    Caress on the ocean
    Carries the bird, so light,
    Returning from snow-covered lands
    Fleeting air of winter
    In the gray dawn of the east
    Find a path to the rainbow
    It will fine itself in spring
    Calm on the ocean

    Look forward to Monsieur Casey’s next installment…

  5. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    So it is a self fufilling prophecy? They are labelled “bad” and they act “bad”. As we say in English “Give a dog a bad name”,,,,,,,Very sad!

  6. Baobo says:

    What would Mr. Chips do?

  7. Hugh Grigg says:

    I heard of a foreign teacher who brought in a super-soaker and just sprayed misbehaving students with water. Might be worth a try

  8. Pingback: The Little Class that Could | Seeing Red in China

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  10. Lizzy says:

    I also teach in a vocational school….but i have to say in my school the students are not the worst. Actually the teachers and the school itself is horrible. As a foreigner you are on your own. Nobody will help you with anything e.g. administrative work etc. and at the same time the expectation about the teaching of the foreigner is exaggerated. Female teachers gossip to students and just lecture and shout. Students can not fail an exam if you still fail them you run risk to become fired! Scholarships are to those that have good relationships which are the ones with money. Poorer students that are really clever end up being sent back to the countryside where they have to start working in a factory…..i have been shocked about stories and things going on in this vocational school. Not even mentioning how unfriendly most of the Chinese teachers are!

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