Posted by: thelocaldialect | September 27, 2008

High School

My Chinese high school students think they’re pretty bad ass. You know, they sleep in class. They neglect their homework. They chat with each other and sneak snacks while I’m not looking. They snicker at my accent and probably make jokes about my clothing or my hairstyle (what can I say, I’m not really into Hello Kitty). Several of them have the practiced ambivalence that I remember from my own high school years, the distain, the “are you actually asking me to answer that question you crazy person?” look. On Wednesday I had the delightful experience of collecting their homework, only to discover that in a class of 15, only one student actually did the homework. “So you’ll all be taking zeroes, I suppose?” I asked. Now when I was in high school, taking a zero was a scary prospect. Sure, you’d get a couple of kids who would take zeros because they were way beyond caring, but a whole class?

It took bit of restraint for me not to go off on them, not to say “look you little shits, I was cutting class and getting high behind the bleachers before you were even a twinkle in your baijiu-guzzling father’s eye, and I still managed to return to biology lab and run electrophloresis gels without it being a buzzkill. My boyfriend and I would procure “library passes” during theatre class and take off in his car (we could drive! you guys can’t even walk off the campus without being stopped by guards) and drive to go get bagels and hot-box his Oldsmobile (sensing a pattern?). And yet, despite getting up to all kinds of no good that year, my senior year, I managed to graduate with a straight A average and get into one of the better colleges in the country. So when an entire class of you losers is suddenly too cool to hand in your homework, I am not so sympathetic. Being a complete academic failure is sometimes rebellious, and sometimes, when you actually try but just can’t figure it out, its even forgivable. But usually its just lame, especially when a whole class of 30 kids is somehow too cool for schoolwork.” Suddenly I understood how my teachers must have felt when we, back then, were convinced they were so uncool, lame even. I imagine Mr. Whetzel ranting, “look you little shits, I went to Woodstock …”

However, this rant forgets an important fact: this is China, and in China grades don’t matter. Or, I should say, no grades matter except the all important college entrance exam grades. My students have a trump card that I never had, and that’s the fact that their high school transcripts will never grace the desks of any college admissions office. Even if they completely sleep every period, never turn in a homework assignment, and give me blank midterms, they can still go to college as long as they pass that all important “gaokao.” While I’d always been semi-aware of how the system works here, since I started teaching again I had to re-confirm this fact with my husband several times, as I found it fairly astounding that grades just … didn’t matter.

“So let’s get this straight,” I said. “Their grades don’t matter?”
“Nope,” said my husband. “Not a bit.”
“So they can, say, fail math completely and no one cares? What’s the point of even having grades?”
My husband pondered this. “There really isn’t any point.”

But lets back up for a minute. My students, unlike my friends and I, lead highly regimented lives. They are in school from 7:00 a.m. to about 9:00 p.m. and since they live on campus, and are only allowed to go home on the weekends, most of their free time is spent at school doing school related things. The power in their dorms is turned off at 10:30 p.m., so they only get about an hour and a half to themselves each night, and that’s IF they’ve finished all their homework during the mandated study halls. While my friends and I had access to cars, got out of school at 4:00 p.m., and could stay up until 2:00 a.m. if we really wanted to (at least I didn’t know any parents who cut the power in their family homes at 10:30), and had access to all sorts of recreational “activities,” my students do not have this luxury. Their lives consist of school and more school.

Considering the two conditions above, the fact that 14 students out of 15 would just not do the homework is slightly less shocking. Whether I like it or not, my students see my class as a kind of freebie. My subject will not appear on the college entrance exam. And while a good deal of my students do aspire to studying abroad in America (it is an International AP program), being filthy rich their parents will simply buy them spots in second rate “Cooperative Programs” if they can’t get into a real school. They are not overly concerned about the effect my class will have on their future. I will probably fail half of my class, but despite this they will still be promoted to the next grade, or in the case of the seniors, graduate and go on to college.

This puts me in an interesting position. Afterall, if you spent practically every waking moment at school, thinking about school, in class, or with classmates, you would probably go a bit stir crazy. I know I would. You would probably sleep in class. You might chat with friends. You would most certainly neglect the homework which you deemed unimportant in order to chat for an hour before lights, chat about boys, or pop stars, or movies. You might even cop an attitude with the teacher not because you hate her or her class but because you’re in a crap mood and want to go home but you won’t get to, not for another 5 days. So in that regard, I can sympathize, although I certainly can’t just sit back and allow them to blow off my class, even if I do understand why they’re doing it. That might make them hate me, just a little (because they know, as well as I do, that it would be quite easy just to let them sleep and eat and chat), I’m being paid to teach them, not to babysit them. However, I have come to realize that while I certainly got into more trouble and maintained better grades than the majority of my students, it was, in retrospect, probably because I had the freedom to ditch school that I valued the time I was there that much more. Well, that and the fact that grades mattered.


  1. Wow, I had no idea Japan wasn’t the only country with this system. It’s frustrating to put so much effort into a class and get nothing back, hey?

    There’s a slow change happening here with more and more schools going to an entrance test or suisen system. That’s where your school grades, your school involvement and recommendations from your teachers are combined to decide entry into school.

    Does your school pander to the kids? I taught at an elite school in Melbourne where we weren’t allowed to use negative statements AT ALL in relation to the kids. ‘Hasn’t handed in any homework’ becomes ‘Next term we will focus on achieving personal goals including prompt completion of homework assignments.’ @_@

  2. Hey there! When I taught at a private junior high here where the grades from my class didn’t matter I just skipped on the homework. They had so much already and so I tried to make my class as enjoyable but useful as possible. That being said, when I taught at a public jhs, I had some grades where the kids just didn’t care no matter how “enjoyable” I tried to make my classes. But there were also some who appreciated the change from the regular study grind.

  3. I wish there was a move to change the system here! Although I can see why the system is not more subjective, with corruption still so rampant. I imagine if college entrance was based the way it is in America, on grades and recommendations and essays you’d see the best schools simply packed with rich kids. Its much easier to slip mediocre students through the cracks when there are no hard and fast “rules” which regulate which students get in and which students stay out.

    Our school does pander to the students somewhat, as it is not a cheap program. That said, Chinese parents are extremely strict when it comes to school, and a lot of them would rather us be harder on the students than softer. There are a lot of very unrealistic expectations floating around as well, some perpetuated by the school. For example, I am teaching AP English Language and Composition this year … if anyone is familiar with the AP program, you’ll know its desiged as college level work for American high school students. Now my seniors are decent students, but their English is nowhere near American college level. It is in fact so far from that that even the very idea of having them take the AP exam is fairly ridiculous. And yet somehow the principal and other Chinese teachers think this is a reasonable goal. This exam requires them to do things like analyze why Thoreau uses allusions to Greek mythology in his essay about an insect war. The material is ridiculously over the heads of 17 year old EFL students.

    Christelle — I have taken the “make the class as fun as possible” approach in the past but the school in this case seems to want me to make it more serious. Since a large portion of their day is spent in English class and their parents are paying over $15,000 (yeah, dollars) a year for the program, there’s a lot of pressure on them to perform and on us to get them to perform. That’s the paradox. The kids don’t care about their grades but the school cares about the grades we give them. So its quite a tricky spot for us teachers.

  4. Interesting, I didn’t know that grades didn’t matter, even though everyone knows about the life-determining importance of the gaokao.

    The Chinese education system simply ruins people, I’ve come to believe. I’m an uber-geek come to Beijing to form a start-up with a Chinese friend, and our employees, while being very hard workers, are completely uninspired. These are graduates of Tsinghua and other top schools, but there is no spark of the techie culture I love in the US, where we work hard in order to do something really ‘cool’ to impress the other nerds, and we have too much pride to do a poor job that (gasp) others might see!

    So, my problem, I wonder if you have it, is, if it is impossible to create a spark in these kids, although you can explain all day the causes for their being that way, where does your own passion on the job come from?

    • Hi John

      Yes, I tend to agree, in a way, that the education system ruins people. When people back home talk about how great Asian education systems are and talk about pushing towards a more test based approach, I wonder if they are out of their minds. While I often defend China on many accounts, even to the point of having been called a China apologist, one thing I find indefensible is the way the education system systematically destroys any semblance of critical thinking, creativity, and individualism in the students here.

      As for creating a spark — it is very hard, but if you get the students young enough you can catch them before the spark has been extinguished, so to speak. These kids, like all kids, are born with a spark, they thirst for knowledge, they want to explore their world, and delight in learning. The system will drain them of that, but if you can become a strong enough influence in their lives, you can make a difference. It feels a bit subversive sometimes, but you just have to keep challenging them as long as you can, as long as they will accept the challenge. Some will be a lost cause, for sure.

      Having hired loads of young Chinese college graduates I know exactly what you’re talking about. At that age they are pretty much beyond hope, but occasionally you’ll run into a diamond in the rough if you keep your eyes open.

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