Spoiled and Confused — China’s new urban generation (Viewed as Single Page)

This guest post by Chris “Foreign Monkey” Bewley first appeared as a four-part series, which started on May 25, 2011 as Spoiled and Confused — China’s new urban generation – Part 1

Chris Bewley has taught English as a foreign language for the past 10 years all over the world, including Japan, Korea, Mexico and Brazil.


When I first arrived in China as an English teacher, I had lofty scholastic goals: I wanted to try a creative variety of class activities and apply a broad spectrum of teaching methods that my students could benefit from to make them competitive in academia and, later, the international job market.

Almost 1 year later, my primary responsibility as a “Foreign Expert English Instructor” has been distilled down to little more than babysitting a bunch of spoiled, undisciplined children who for the most part want nothing to do with English.

At my crowded primary school in a small, semi-urban city in East China, there exists what I have coined the “20/20/20” split in each of my classes (60 kids per class): 20 eager/20 indifferent/20 bad. Basically, I’m teaching 20 while trying to control 40.

To make it fair for everyone, I have to dumb-it-down/ fun-it-up every class. Instead of actually teaching, I find myself playing games with them and jumping around for them like a monkey, which is the only way to retain their attention.

On the positive side, of the eager 20, there are several extremely smart students who I expect one day to be quite successful in what ever they do. Unfortunately, whenever those eager 20 are trying to learn, the other naughty 40 will try just as hard to spoil it for them.

In the past year, I’ve had only a handful of students ever raise their hand and ask ME a question about the English language. That’s 1,200 students/week x 30 weeks, which equals 36,000 (thirty-six thousand) chances for a student to raise a question, but only five ever have. On the rare occasion that my students do ask me questions, it’s usually regarding the price of my clothes or how much I get paid.

Criticism about my lessons that I have received from students, parents and Chinese teachers alike includes “it’s too difficult”, “it’s not fun enough”, “there’s not enough participation/activity,” but never have I ever heard that my classes are too easy, which in my opinion they most certainly are.

By now, I have figured out that English lessons in (urban) China are just a show; a clown show; a monkey show – starring myself as the foreign monkey.

For parents’ week last month, whilst dozens of “concerned” parents and school administrators observed my classes for 5 days in a row, rather than actually teach their children, I just played a bunch of silly games and sang some songs with them, and, guess what? That made all the parents really, really happy!

Most recently, I found myself having to literally, physically, throw out my Chinese teaching assistant (a recent college graduate with no classroom experience hired right off the street for a minimal salary) to avoid a mutiny from within.

You see, she absolutely refused to discipline the rowdiest students, and did nothing to help control their deafening volume when I was trying to teach.

A quarter of China’s rural youth overweight!

When I approached her about this, her response was: “you are not a real teacher!” I imagine that this assistant was once (11 years ago, to be precise) a spoiled, indifferent primary school student herself; how sadly ironic that at age 21 she still indentified with the students rather than with me, the teacher.

China’s universities are being touted with utilitarian promise, a promise that trickles down all the way to the elementary school level. The Chinese’s fear of poverty has undermined intellectual diversity; plagiarism and cheating are rampant and go unpunished, reading books is not encouraged, greater importance has been placed on math than any other subject starting in the earliest years of child development, and there are no other languages other than English offered until university.

English “industry” in China is what I call “C.O.O.C”: completely out of control! There is literally a new, privately run children’s English “school” popping up on every other corner every other week. Nor is it an industry that has grown in a healthy, steady way from its infantile beginning; it is a product for infants in hyper-drive.

A perfect parallel to this is the car situation in China, which is also out of control.

I hate to say it because it has become an international cliché, but, truly, nobody in China knows how to drive or even park properly. Automobile ownership in China has, along with its economy, bloomed at an alarming rate in the past 5 years, resulting in massive congestion everywhere from the smallest towns to the largest cities.

It’s obvious that the people who own these cars use them primarily as status symbols rather than for necessity; it rarely rains in my city and there are no hills, yet every single day, 6 times a day, hundreds of parents dropping off/picking up their children in new, black Audis will cause an hour-long gridlock directly
in front of my school rather than be seen walking or riding a bicycle.

Please don’t get me wrong, I am not a “China-hater.”

Colorful street life, extremely friendly people, great food, affordable massage parlors, a handful of good friends both Chinese and foreign, and a decent income have been sufficient to keep me reasonably comfortable.

But in the end, I have to ask myself: what am I here for? Because it’s obvious that China doesn’t want me to actually teach anybody anything.


Chris Bewley has taught English as a foreign language for the past 10 years all over the world, including Japan, Korea, Mexico and Brazil.

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28 Responses to Spoiled and Confused — China’s new urban generation (Viewed as Single Page)

  1. merlin says:

    Yes I know what you mean. The end product can sometimes be the same. In US, I see how the job you have is based on who your parents know and a little about your skill. In China, it’s about how much you can pay for a position.

    I was never bullied because I was the war hero. The cancer survivor. The meds were a pain in the can, and staph infection lost part of a lung. I pushed on only to end up working min wage jobs at the local supermarket, at a snack bar, as an office janitor, as a summer school teacher assistant. My mind began racing with dreams to travel the world, to have a bright future, a sense of adventure, and to have a happy independent life. Ran here only to run into the GREAT WALL of reality. The girl is lesbian. The job was a bust since the policy changed after the olympics requiring everyone to hold a BA (which I only had the AA and 2 years of computers under my belt). I ran to Shanghai for opportunity only to be cheated on my rent from my roommate (she lived free and I paid entire rent without knowing it for a year), and cheated at the job I acquired (he never paid me any wage, never helped with the visa, and ended up asking to borrow money). Now my current predicament is thanks to the previous guy, my resident status is…*cough*. At least I’m slowly gaining control of my life again. The lady I help in the house business teaches me the trade and for my extra hand she offers me meals and sometimes lets me crash in the living room with her rabbit. I dont WORK since my status doesnt allow it, and I can handle the bunny since I grew up in Iowa. I moved out of my apt and will have a new one very soon.

    These are misfortunes, but they are also what makes life an adventure. I just hope the adventure doesnt end with me laughing while on a plane back to the states with a red flag in my ID book because honestly I will be laughing at the irony of it all. Instead I see myself hopping a raft and sailing to Thailand. As 1 guy in HK said, “That’s too outrageous like a Jason Bourne movie”. Well, I came this far, and frankly I dont want to turn back. Call me stubborn, but my can is on fire and the only way is to push forward. If it comes to it, I will do it.

    Life is too short to walk backwards.

    • Merlin,

      Life is too short. When so many possiblities exist, we should have at least a thousand years to see what happens. However, I shudder to think what I would look like at a thousand.

  2. Merlin says:

    Honestly…they need to change the terms from ENGLISH SCHOOLS to ENGLISH BABYSITTERS. I mean…seriously toss the boring books and minor entertaining things. Take kids to the zoo, to Mcdonalds for ice cream, to the park to play Tag or something. Just…the more china modernizes the more the society transforms into an American copy (which is essentially what China wants to do is copy America in every way, shape, or form).

    • Merlin,

      Good idea, but the public schools in the US don’t have enough money to do this and the liability insurance is too high. However, high schools near Disneyland have grad night each year so let the party begin.

      • Merlin says:

        Yes, that is 1 major difference between US and China. Liability insurance. Also the large number of private education centers in China I believe is larger than those in the US and I’m going to assume at least half of them are truly overpriced. The mindset is different. Going to a private eng center is a badge of honor and prestige. Going to a private learning center in US not so much. In my own views if you need a private tutor to help you study, it means you cant understand the material in the public school OR you are the class clown focused more on gaining attention than paying attention.

      • Merlin,

        You said, “In my own views if you need a private tutor to help you study, it means you can’t understand the material in the public school OR you are the class clown focused more on gaining attention than paying attention.” I agree. In the US, there is a stigma attached to students that need extra help to overcome a handicap of some kind.

        In fact, in America, a student that carries books around and actually asks questions in class may be ridiculed and bullied. While in public school in California, our daughter was threatened to stop asking questions and working so hard because the teacher graded tests on a curve and her score was usually the highest. The students that did not study wanted the top score to be lower. One boy took her glasses off her at lunch and stepped on them to intimidate her.

        One boy in 7th grade threatened to kill her if she didn’t stop earning high grades on the tests and asking questions. Fortunately, he made one of his threats in English and the teacher caught him when he snuck up behind our daughter in class and pretended to shoot her in the back of the head with an imaginary pistol. He had been called into the office and warned to stop prior to that incident. The district expelled him for that last threat. We then decided to sell our house and move to another school just in case he might return to follow through on his threat.

        However, she refused to be bullied and did not stop studying. She was accepted to Stanford after she graduated from high school. No one else at the public high school she attended in California got into Stanford form her graduating class.

        In fact, while I was still teaching high school English, a student came to me after class one day and asked if I would write a recommendation letter for him but also never tell anyone at school. He had applied to become an Eagle Scout and said if the other students found out, his life would be miserable. I wrote the letter of recommendation for this A student and didn’t tell anyone so he wouldn’t have to suffer for being a good person and a good student. In America, the gangster and criminal is often made into a hero while people that read and study are ridiculed.

        This form of intimidation is so bad in many public schools that we could not post grades unless the names of the students were replaced with an ID number of sorts. It seems students at both ends were mentally tortured. If a grade was really low or too high, both students paid a price. The student earning a low grade would be made to feel as if he were the village idiot while the student earning the high grade would be made fun of in another way.

        In America, students that actually study and read at or above grade level and do not hide these facts are often called insulting names such as “Geeks” or “school boy”, which is said in an insulting way as if you have a genetic flaw for not being a cave man type. While I was still teaching, I had many students in my class that would rather fail than be seen walking in the high school hallways during the school day with a book of any kind in their possession.

        However, in China, parents see private schools as a way to get ahead so their child has a better chance to score high on the national exams that are used to decide who goes to college. In San Francisco and the Bay Area, there are many Chinese families and there is a cottage industry of private schools that serves this segment of the Bay Area Chinese population. Visit any of the China towns in San Francisco (there are three or more in San Francisco besides the one that attracts tourists) and you may see a few of the store fronts for some of these schools. For sure, if you use Google, you will discover a few that way. Since many Chinese work in Silicon Valley industries, many of these private schools may be found there too.

        Hanna in her guest post from China writes about this. She says, “The child has to finish the school homework to 10 pm at night five days a week. Then after school, the child goes to the special training to develop other skills such as piano. This is not about what the the child is interested but it’s what the parents decided based on what they believe is necessary. What we learn in China is that the children have to attend eight different hobbies classes. There’s no free time.” Hanna wrote a three part guest series on the topic and in her posts, she explains the reason for all the competition in China at http://ilookchina.net/2011/05/29/modern-chinese-parents-and-children-part-13/

        Chinese culture views what it takes to gain a successful education differently than most people in the West that are not Chinese.

  3. Merlin says:

    The little kids I taught….all from rich upper class…I felt like I wanted to bungee from the 22nd floor window. The first lived near Xintiandi. Had private elevator. HUGE apart. My first real paying gig since the other guy never offered me squat and kept me in his talons by leading me on with promises of this or that without ever trying to help me with a visa or anything else. Anyways, the recruiter said the kid was 6 and said they dont work with anyone under 6. YEP!! Not that hard to fake out a recruiter. So I’ll get back to that. Ok, so I’m there admiring the exquisite design of the building, the crystal chandelier in the lobby, the desk person that has to press a button to open the nicely designed door. Im thinking “Holy Shit I must be going to meet the prince of Mongolia (or some country)”. Gold plated elevator doors and wow. The family is pretty…modern. Mom that is stay at home and cooks and cleans. Dad that works business in day, comes home expecting dinners on table, and then crashes on the couch in front of the plasma (unfortunately not middle class Al Bundy hand on crotch routine that would’ve sent me spiraling to the floor in laughter). Older sister either highschool or university locks herself in her room doing girl stuff. And the little boy…not 6 but 5 just in kindergarten not even learning his math. In school they got him on ABC’s and he can only get halfway through the alphabet yet mom wants him to read books about the Ugly Duckling. 15 minutes in and Mom comes in. Tries to help the situation. Finally she gets a board game we can play, a version of Chutes and Ladders. Halfway through the kids “1, 2, 3,” when he moves the pieces changes to “Yi, er, san,” and I gotta remind him this is ENGLISH not CHINESE. Winner got candy. It was ok. At least it killed time which made me happy because honestly I came with books expecting somebody that could at least have enough comprehension of english to tell me their favorite movie or music or something. Kid got tired of it fast, so mom sent him off to play with his Tonka toy truck while mom whipped out her books (about the same as the ones I brought) to practice her engish. End of the night, sent me home 150rmb richer. I had a strong urge to go to Xintiandi next door and grab a burger from KABB, but instead chose a cheaper option knowing that anything at KABB and my 150 would be gone in 1 bite. Next day, family moved to another city because the dad got transferred and uprooted his whole family.
    The other kids I had, at first I liked them. Koreans. Way out in Pudong in Jinqiao district (rich area) where it’s damn easy to get lost~!! The person told me this time the kids were brother/sister and were much older. I came more prepared this time with my deck of Uno cards figuring I’ll have to turn to games to kill time…end up being more like a babysitter than a TEACHER. The mom was VERY nice. Had a study and the kids had their books. They attended a foreign primary school, so their teacher was a foreigner. They could read, and so first thing we did was they read what was their homework…I figured that way they could practice their skills and get their homework done. After that, we went through the book and I asked them pick out their favorite story and read it to me. It started off easy, but as usual with brother/sister in an American consumerism style family naturally tend to do…they start reading at the same time and then comes the insults. At least mom was nice enough to drop off some juice for us to drink. Pay was 200rmb. Better than the last yes, but still that equals 100/kid which is less than the other. I’m not complaining because the mom bought some activity books which made life a hell of a lot easier. They’d go through the activity books and they loved them for the first half hour. After that, we’d play their version of Uno….which is I throw a card down and they try to find the same number. 6 year olds…have to improvise to make the complex game FUN. But again…few times later…you’d find one bitchin out the other in Chinese and then running under the table. And the hilarious part besides the teacher smacking his head on the table thinking OMG, was that they are KOREANS throwin chinese insults at each other!! Well…as the days dragged on…the activity books slowly lost their golden glory. The fun connect the dotted numbers, or word searches grew dull. Even negotiations of “get to this page and we’ll play cards” came up negative. I did a last ditch effort to make an activity. Grabbed paper one day and they had crayons told them we’re doing art! HO ho…my last ditch effort had mixed results. The boy loved it drawing spaceships and stuff sayin “Teacher Teacher!! This spaceship is gonna blow the poop out of this one!” The little girl just sit there having a stare down contest with a blank page. I suggested draw a nice house…maybe for Barbie. 5 seconds a box with a triangle appeared and DONE was the reply. Wow never realized Barbie lived in such…uh…elegant mansions. Sadly this is where it became time the girl got up and ran out to see what mommy was watching on tv. 10 minutes later she comes back in with her art box from school and drags out the scissors. Let the nightmare begin!! First it’s a fight to see who gets the sharp deadly scissors. Then the study turns into an artists craft room with small paper clippings strewn about the room. Time was up by then and mom opens the door and me in a panic quickly tries to clean up the mess.
    Pizza just couldnt stop the stress that day. Had to reach for the Pepsi in desperate despair which I tried kicking in the US since it’s high sugar and high fructose syrup content is what’s growing stomachs and creating Diabetes across the US. Apparently the threat of possibly causing harm to my health was not on top of my page that day as long as I could calm the stress fearing the next week and what to do for a “lesson plan”.

  4. Merlin says:

    Chris’s experience actually reminds me of the kids I taught privately last year compared with the older students and adults. The adults actually WANT to learn and will sit there and chat with you. Although it’s kinda hard finding a conversation topic I think since I’m only 24 and they’re 45. Although 1 guy was great. He had a little daughter he love so much always takes her to Disney movies, so we got along ok. Played Uno and he loved it. The 4 University students I worked with also were great. I really did get down with the grammar to help them not just improve their pronounciation, but from what I’ve seen chinese want to be like the foreigner. Speak almost fluently with perfect grammar. Nobody wants to be another Jackie Chan. They did good, and for the 2 that could only say HELLO and BYEBYE I kept it at snail pace even though the guy that ran the show wanted me to move faster and teach things way beyond their comprehension. I still talk with 1 of them. Helped me get a QQ account. 😛

  5. N.W. says:

    While I didn’t agree with him that teaching in America is hard because the students are just like the ones that Chris describes, I did agree with him that Chris’ complaint may be more of a “developed country” symptom. And yeah, what kid loves every subject? Honestly, the art of teaching is to be enthusiastic about everything that we teach and to pass that on to the students in a developmentally appropriate, and entertaining manner. Let’s not forget that laughter increases oxygen to the brain. Not such a bad thing when you need those little minds to be alert for long division. I’m not saying that Chris isn’t taking this into consideration. He seems like a pretty funny guy (he’s also kind of a whiner). It’s not always easy to relate to students, especially when there is a language barrier. Not every student shares a passion for what the teacher is teaching. Sometimes I have to remember that if they aren’t in love with what I’m teaching, it’s probably because they are normal. I hated both English and History as a kid. All the love I have for those subjects now will never change that I hated my seventh grade History teacher and fell asleep in his class, or that the only time I ever hated my English teacher and got in trouble in class was during English grammar (which is really funny to me now because I love linguistics). Oh well. I didn’t want to start preaching about teaching. I’m glad after reading Chris’ blog, that I’m not teaching in China.

    • N.W.

      I agree that this may be a symptom of a “developed country”. I wonder how long they will stay developed. After all, the Roman Empire was developed and look what happened to it.

  6. stacy says:

    Student misbehavior = student disengagement. Not surprising, though, considering you have sixty kids in a class. That number alone shows that no one has seriously thought about how to effectively teach a new language to these students. The ideal class size for a language is six.

    The behavior does sound like how American kids act. If you taught older kids in China, I’m sure you’d find them to be more able to manage their own behavior and conscious of being respectful.

    Good luck and hang in there. Oh, and to make your life easier, just give them the songs and games that they want. Teaching is all disillusionment.

    • Stacy,

      True, student misbehavior does equal disengagement but in every class there are students that arrive ready to learn and it is the responsibly of the teacher to teach those students regardless of the behavior of others that sounds “like how American kids act” (which is true—the average American kid is disengaged).

      Chris Bewley wrote that a third of his students were eager to learn. Instead of giving the other forty the songs and games they want, he should find strategies that feeds the wild beasts and keeps them subdued while he teaches the real students making up a third of his class. Possibly, if he has a teacher assistant, he hands off the forty to her or him so the assistant keeps the drones occupied while he teaches the golden third.

      When I was a teacher, that was always my goal and every day when I drove on campus, I had to remind myself that there were eager students in every class I taught (much less than the third Chris has—more like 5% or less) and I worked hard to maintain control over the disengaged while teaching the engaged.

      In fact, Chris’s real class load is twenty and the other forty are his challenge to keep occupied and distracted so he can teach those that are there to learn.

      In addition, I agree that 60 is far too many to handle in one class. However, I knew a Canadian teacher that went to Japan for a few years to teach classes just as crowded and he loved it and did not want to return to Canada with much smaller class loads since Canadian kids may be as bad or worse than the average American kid that makes up the majority of disengaged in American classrooms.

  7. Sandy C. says:

    From looking at the video of the teacher in the classroom, it’s really evident what’s going on. The teacher is having the kids do what’s called a call and response activity where they repeat a sentence in English over and over again. That’s such a dull way to teach this concept. The least he could do is bring some strawberries and share them with the class or involve them in more engaging activities like TPR or something. No wonder the kids aren’t interested in learning English. It means nothing to them. I don’t know if that’s footage of your friend but he has a lot to learn about teaching. Making learning fun, engaging, and personal is the way thst you get the kids to learn quickly and you get the motivated. it’s sad to see him standing up there like that…what a waste of energy. The classroom is bare, no books, no student work, no bulletin boards, nothing posted on the walls…this would be unacceptable at my school.
    Did this guy go to teacher’s college? He really should have… As much as some people criticize teachers for having pensions etc., some of us work really hard to make school a memorable experience. Sounds like they need to get some more teacher training out there in China…so sad to see an empty classroom, fun of bright kids looking bored doing meaningless activities

    • Sandy,

      The video was something I found on YouTube that seemed to fit the topic. It wasn’t from the teacher that wrote the post.

      In addition, it might not be a good idea to have kids eat strawberries in China since farmers use human waste as fertilizer and water from the tap isn’t safe to drink unless it is boiled first, which means you should boil the water used to wash the fruit and vegetables then let the water cool first before carefully washing. Most people do not eat raw fruit or vegetables in China unless they cut away the skin first and rinse it afterwards or eat at a restaurant certified to serve foreign customers, which means the restaurant has the necessary equipment to purify the water and properly clean the fruit and vegetables.

      We took a risk and ate some grapes once in southeast China we bought from a street vendor, and still got sick even after washing them in boiled water that had cooled. Spent lots of time in the bathroom before recovering. The grapes did taste good but won’t do that again.

      In fact, the video may have been taken at one of the private schools teaching English and the teacher probably was never trained as a teacher but had a college degree from the US or England and found a job in China since it is mandatory in China for all public school students to learn Chinese so parents put them in private schools to speed things up.

      A recommended book is “The Last Days of Old Beijing” by Michael Meyer. He lived in Beijing and taught English at a local public grade school instead of one of the private schools, which are not supervised and where hiring practices may be loose.


      You may also want to read this post from Tom Carter to gain a better understanding of what’s going on in China regarding the teaching of English in these private schools.


  8. Matt M says:

    The author of this post has a point.

    Perhaps he’d be happier teaching college students.

    In college about 50% of my students understand that I am fervent believer that the Es in college stand for Education and Edification — rather than Entertainment and Easy.

    I hope the author realizes it’s not the childrens’ fault their education system is so fucked up. From their perspective his passion or dedication is somewhat anomalous. The children really do not know how to act when they see a teacher care so much. Mob mentality also takes over in classroom behavior.

    Finally, those parents who applaud… What kind of education did they have? Stern cold teachers with buzzcuts drilling them in Mao Ze Fucking Dong Thought. Honestly, anything at that point is worthy of applause. Hell, these parents probably think such private school lessons by Foreign Experts are some kind of highly modernized Western form of education theory (“Very modern!”) that explains why Americans are so creative, outgoing, and strong/big.

    Little do they know that we stoop this low in order to make a point — a single point most Chinese teachers would make their students spend the next 24 hours memorizing.

    • Matt Muller,

      During the Cultural Revolution, there wasn’t much of an education system in China. Then when Mao died in 1976, his dogma was removed from the schools and the “Little Red Book” and what you call “Mao Ze Fucking Gong Thought” was repudiated and abandoned. The teachers that survived returned to teaching without Mao’s influence.

      My wife still honors the teachers she remembers that struggled to teach and those teachers did not have buzz cuts (I’ve met two of them and they were both women).

      During the Cultural Revolution, the schools were turned over to the students and the teachers were denounced and punished by those students. Many teachers committed suicide (estimates are about two million suicides among China evicted middle and upper middle class, which included teachers and professors at all levels of education).

      In fact, during the Cultural Revolution the country was turned over to the teenagers, the illiterate, and people living in poverty while doctors, landlords, business owners and those that were college educated (meaning all teachers) were treated as if they were second class citizens or trash to be crushed.

      For example, during the Cultural Revolution medical care was free for those that were illiterate and lived in poverty while educated Chinese and those from the middle class that existed before Mao came into power had to pay and it was not cheap. Since my wife’s father was educated, when one of their four children got sick it could cost a month’s wages just to see the doctor and peasants that wanted to do the job instead replaced many doctors. Imagine an illiterate butcher operating on you instead of Western trained surgeon. This happened a lot during Mao’s 26 years ruling China.

      When Deng Xiaoping came to power after Mao died, he repudiated revolutionary Maoism and took the dogma out of the schools while putting teachers back in charge. During the Cultural Revolution Deng Xiaoping dared to speak out against what was going on and to punish him, his son was tossed off the top of a three-story building by members of Mao’s teenage Red Guard and the Red Guard was not the People’s Liberation Army (the PLA). Deng’s son survived but was paralyzed from the neck down. Deng learned the hard way to keep his mouth shut and wait until Mao was gone. Deng Xiaoping, if you don’t know, was the Chinese leader that replaced Mao dogma with capitalism and opened China to world trade.

      When Mao died, 80% of Chinese were illiterate and only 20% could read. Today, more than 90% can read and the public schools do not push Communist dogma as it was promoted during Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

      Any parent in China that is forty-one or younger was not subjected to what happened during Mao’s time, which means most of the parents that Chris is dealing with probably grew up without experiencing any of Mao’s Revolutionary thought and are a total product of a Western, capitalist consumer lifestyle.

      Not wanting China to be ruled by another Mao, in 1982, Deng Xiaoping guided the writing of a new Constitution that has term limits and an age limit for how long a politician can hold a political office. Since Mao, China has had several presidents since China’s president may only serve two five-year terms and must retire at age 67. The 1982 Chinese Constitution even has an impeachment clause.

      As for, “Little do they know that we stoop this low in order to make a point — a single point most Chinese teachers would make their students spend the next 24 hours memorizing.”

      Let’s not forget who took first place in the 2009 PISA test in all areas while US students ranked 17th place. The PISA also tests critical thinking, problem solving and the ability to work together in teams–it isn’t all about memorization anymore. China is working hard to update teaching methods in their schools but it will take time. Shanghai is where the changes started and we are already seeing the results with the 2009 PISA.

      This link will take you to the PISA rankings

      Click to access 46643496.pdf

      For more information, here’s a link to a piece in the New York Times:


  9. This comment first appeared for Part 4 of this four-part series.

    Chris, since your classroom experiences in China matches what so many teachers experience in classrooms across American, the UK, Europe and Canada; I wonder if being a developed country and having a large prosperous middle class earning too much money is a bad thing.

    Maybe having more people struggling to earn enough to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table might lead to parents making sure their children work harder in school so they don’t starve and become homeless.

    A friend told me that after McDonalds opened several outlets in the Chinese city where he teaches English, his job got much harder. The kids got noisier, have trouble sitting still, paying attention and learning, which pretty much describes many American kids.
    Maybe we should ban fast food and liquid sugar, and force people back to a whole foods diet and drinking water only where they are never full of food because it costs too much to overeat.

    It seems the common person loses all common sense once he joins the prosperous consumer oriented American style, debt-ridden, car owning middle class.

  10. This response first appeared for Part 1 in this four-part series.

    When I first read this series before posting and scheduling it, I thought, China is becoming more like American everyday. The children Bewley describes sounds like many of the kids in the US. If I had not known he was writing about China, I’d have thought it was taking place in the US.

    I’ve been thinking about your 20/20/20 ratio and how lucky you were to have at least 33% of your students that were interested.

    My experience as a classroom teacher for thirty years
    in the US was worse.

    It would have been great if a third of my students had been interested in getting an education. I was lucky to have 3%.

    This response first appeared for Part 2 in this four-part series

    The more I read about your teaching experiences in China, the more it sounds like my thirty years of teaching in California’s public schools—mostly at a high school but I did teach fifth grade and at a middle school for a few years too.

    You wrote, “In the past year, I’ve had only a handful of students ever raise their hand and ask ME a question about the English language.”

    I taught English, journalism and reading and had the same experiences. Few students ever raised hands or asked questions about the work and the failure rate often was between 30 to 50%. Most of the time when someone did ask a question it was about my private life or another topic in an attempt to distract me from the job of teaching, which was the lesson.
    Instead of dealing with the cause of the failure at home, the common complaint from the parents of those failing students was “it’s too difficult”, “it’s not fun enough”. Then many studies show us that the average child in the US spends about 10 hours a day dividing his or her time up between watching TV, playing video games, social networking on sites such as Facebook, sending an average of 50 text messages a day, etc.

    The same studies show that the same average American child reads less than 30 minutes a day but does not tell us what he or she reads, which is probably instant message from friends that has nothing to do with education and school other than complaints about boring teachers that don’t play the part of the monkey in a circus act.

    This response first appeared for Part 3 in this four-part series

    “reading books is not encouraged, greater importance has been placed on math than any other subject starting in the earliest years of child development”
    Unfortunately reading books among the under 40-age group is suffering in the US too. Most book sales and readers appear to be over the age of 40 so the publishing industry is desperate to find a way to get younger people to enjoy reading books.

    At least in China there is a focus placed on math.

    In the US, the only focus from the average parent is to encourage the average child to have fun and follow his or her dream as if the dream is everything and there is a guarantee that it will come true.

    In today’s America, many children grow up without the Cinderella concept that the coach will become a pumpkin at midnight and the horses will turn into rats or mice. Instead, the perfect prince is already waiting with the perfect job that will fulfill all a child’s dreams and wishes as if God includes a warrantee at birth.

    While I was still teaching English in a California public high school, we were urged to stop using red ink to correct papers since it might cause a student to feel depressed and to use another color such as green since it was considered a more positive color.
    In addition, it was suggested that we not tag homework as “work” because the word “work” had a negative reputation among many of America’s children.

    I never did figure out how to respond to that one and fool my students that work could be fun and kept on calling it homework.

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