This guide is designed to inform you about cultural differences you may encounter working at a Chinese school, and what you can do to engage with them in a productive manner. The focus will primarily be on classroom management and how to work effectively with your Chinese colleagues. As in any country, schools in China vary widely in terms of quality, funding, governance, results, resources and general student ability – even between schools owned by the same company.
It is therefore difficult to account for every eventuality but there are some universal truths that you can prepare for. Knowing what to expect will allow you to hit the ground running! Making a good initial impression will give you a great foundation to build upon and hopefully lead to a rewarding first year as a teacher in China. So grab a coffee, and read on…
Similar in some respects to the British concept of an old boys’ club, or the Russian concept of blat, is the Chinese concept of guanxi. It is often translated as “relationships” but that doesn’t really do justice to the wide ranging cultural implications that guanxi describes. Guanxi largely originates from the Chinese social philosophy of Confucianism, which stresses the importance of associating oneself with others in a hierarchical manner, in order to maintain social and economic order. Particularly, there is an emphasis on implicit mutual obligations, reciprocity and trust.
At its most basic, guanxi describes a personal connection between two people in which one is able to count upon another to perform a favour or service, or be counted upon themselves. It is customary for Chinese people to cultivate an intricate web of guanxi relationships and reciprocal favours are the key factor to maintaining one’s guanxi web, while failure to reciprocate is considered an unforgivable offence.
Now you may be thinking, how does this apply to me as a teacher? There are going to be times when you need assistance from your Chinese colleagues, be it something relatively mundane like translation or something more serious such as assistance with classroom management. I’m not saying that you need to be constantly proffering your colleagues with bribes, that’s not what guanxi is although there are people who abuse it in that way, that is a conversation for another time. Simply put, if your co-workers perceive that you do not pull your weight and do not contribute your fair share to the daily operation of the school then they won’t feel obliged to help you when you are in need. You may argue that it’s in the remit of their job description to aid you with certain tasks but that isn’t going to be enough if you are considered a person that cannot be relied upon.
The Chinese won’t expect you as a foreigner to be as involved with, and knowledgeable of, the concept of guanxi as they are themselves but it is worth being aware of the effect it has on how the Chinese perceive interpersonal relationships. Show that you are putting in the effort and that you can be relied upon and your colleagues will do the same for you. Keep them informed about what you’re doing and the progress your students are making and keep accurate records. When national holidays come around take note. During Mid-Autumn Festival for example, people traditionally give mooncakes to each other, this is something simple you can get involved with that will endear you to your colleagues. Another key concept that comes into play here is mianzi, or face, very important to the Chinese and something I will discuss in more depth later. ‘Gei mianzi’ is to give someone face or show them respect. To accuse someone of losing face is a serious condemnation in China. Be complimentary to your colleagues and superiors and it will not be forgotten.
Guanxi can also extend to keeping you up to date with the school schedule. Schools in China are notorious for leaving sweeping announcements on timetable changes to the last minute, leaving you standing in an empty classroom wondering where your students are. You’ll find that if you practice good guanxi this won’t happen as often. You will be seen as an equal partner and worthy of being kept in the loop with developments at your school, which will make your life much easier when it comes to planning your classes.
As a foreign teacher in China, as in any country, you may at times struggle to win the respect of your students. The young age of most foreign teachers, stereotypes, prejudices, the language barrier, and the sheer novelty of being taught by a foreigner can all affect your students’ behaviour so it is essential to be able to count on your Chinese colleagues should you need their help.
In the long run maintaining good guanxi can benefit you in a number of ways. It can lead to larger bonuses, glowing job recommendations and favourable contract negotiations. It can lead to great experiences you might not otherwise have been involved with such as invites to social events with your Chinese colleagues. Being invited to another teacher’s wedding, for example, makes for a great social and cultural experience. The notoriously complex web of bureaucracy that makes up the visa application and registration process that all foreigners in China have to complete can be navigated more easily if you are on good terms with your superiors. They will in turn feel more inclined to make an effort to expedite the process through close cooperation with any contacts they may have within China’s regional immigration authorities.
The Chinese Classroom
Theory and practise are two very different things. While a TEFL certification and any other teacher training or experience you may have are undoubtedly useful, when entering the classroom in China one may encounter some rather unique challenges. You will see that your experiences of a ‘western’ style classroom, be that from a student or teachers perspective, differ greatly to what you will see in the classrooms of your Chinese colleagues. This matters for your classes as your students will be used to a certain style of teaching, and while I am generalizing somewhat, it is accepted that the Chinese teaching style is far more teacher centric than that employed in the English speaking world. You may well find that your students will initially struggle to come to grips with your teaching methods if you run a more student focused, interactive classroom. This is not to say that you should abandon your own teaching methods. After all, if you did what would be the point of having a teacher from abroad? Chinese schools want foreign teachers not only for their native speaking ability but for their expertise and varied knowledge. What follows are some suggestions on how to incorporate some Chinese teaching methods into your classes for your benefit.
The key is routine and repetition, which are fundamental elements of how classes in China are constructed. Classes begin with a formal greeting whereupon the students will stand when their teacher enters the class and greet the teacher with lǎoshī hǎo. The teacher will then greet the students in return before giving them permission to be seated. To help your students feel at ease it is helpful to incorporate elements from their regular classes such as this example. You can word your own short greeting in English and have your students stand when you enter. Whether you keep it quite formal or more relaxed is up to you but it is worth having something in place. Being taught by a foreigner can get students quite excited and if it isn’t held in check classroom management and respect for your authority can suffer, so it helps to keep certain routines in place!
Another system often used in Chinese classes to help maintain order and incentivise students, and something that is often used in UK primary schools, is the scoreboard. Keeping a tally of points on the blackboard with the class split up into different teams, with points awarded for good work and taken away for bad behaviour, is something students respond very well to, particularly in the younger grades. How far you go with it; whether it carries over between classes or if there are prizes available for the best team at the end of term, is entirely up to you. What is key is that your students will be familiar with the concept from their regular classes so you can seamlessly incorporate it into yours, with your own personal touches, and see immediate positive results in your students behaviour. Be strict with taking away points for negatives and make sure to keep scoring consistent.
You can also bring in traditional routines from your own childhood such as registration at the beginning of class, or “calling roll” if you’re American, with every student standing to report “Here!” when their name is called. This may not be something your students have seen before, but it is simple to explain and another thing that they can count upon happening in every class. It can help a lesson to get started smoothly and the students settled as they go through familiar processes before you get onto the core material of the day.
With all of the above, it’s of course a good idea to check with your Manager that such techniques are welcomed- only because some schools have alternate policies.
When you enter the room your students must recognise that you are there to teach, not entertain, and that it is time for them to focus and the lesson to begin. It seems terribly old fashioned to think this way, but if you are confronted with a situation where students are getting unreasonably excited simply by your presence it is useful to establish some rules and routines. Misconceptions and stereotypes your students and colleagues may hold about foreigners can make it difficult to win their respect. Many foreign teachers working in China do complain of a lack of respect compared to their local counterparts. The more your class feels like what the students consider a class, the more studious they will be. Your Chinese colleagues will subsequently acknowledge this as well.
Who’s in charge here?
Within a public school/ core education, students remain in the same classroom throughout the school day and subject teachers come to them (save for a couple of exceptions such as P.E and music). Each class will have a teacher assigned as their tutor who is responsible for general class admin and behaviour. A tutor will often follow their class up through the grades. All classes will also have a student assigned as a bānzhǎng (class monitor). It is important that you identify who this student is, being aware that the bānzhǎng could be a different student every day as class tutors will often set up a rotor so that the responsibility changes hands over the course of the school week. Their responsibilities can include keeping track of the behaviour of their classmates, leading the class in recitals, the class register, and overseeing chores like cleaning the classroom. For you as a teacher, the bānzhǎng can be a useful ally and can assist you in a number of ways. Depending on the character of the student they can command genuine respect from their classmates and at the very least fear as they are able to report incidents of bad behaviour to the tutor. Obviously this system is open to abuse so that is something you have to keep an eye on!
At the end of a lesson if their are any students you want to report to the class tutor you can have the class monitor make a note of their name and offence on the class register. Most schools will have a system of paperwork in place to log the attendance and behaviour of their classes over the course of the school day. This document, which I’ll refer to as the ‘register form’ here on in, should be presented to the teacher by the bānzhǎng to complete, usually at the end of class. You may find that the monitor has made notes on it during the lesson if they saw something not to their liking which you can leave or adjust. Obviously any report you make needs to be taken down in Chinese script, so if you want to dictate something how much you’re able to convey depends upon your Chinese language skills or the English skills of the bānzhǎng.
Most schools encourage their students to take ‘English’ names to make foreign teachers lives easier, however writing these will be meaningless to their Chinese teachers so unless you’re confident in your calligraphy, in which case you need not worry, you can at least point at the student you want to report and the monitor can take down their real name. Many schools’ class registration documents will include a column for the express purpose of reporting behaviour, allowing you to list the names of students worthy of praise, those who’ve let themselves down, and a general level of overall class performance. It will often be assumed that you, as a foreign teacher, are ignorant of the existence of the register, so it may not be offered and the students will fill it out themselves, potentially failing to report incidents that occurred in class. Request it, use it, and you’ve gained one more useful tool in your classroom management arsenal that will show the students you are aware of Chinese classroom procedures and are serious about keeping higher ups informed of their performance.
It is important to remember that you, the teacher, are ultimately in charge of the class, so while it might sound silly, you cannot let the bānzhǎng overtake you as a point of authority. If the student assigned to the class monitor role is particularly enthusiastic in their role you may need to reign them in. Usually tutors will choose dependable students for the role, but power can corrupt! If this is the case you can take the register away from the student if you feel it is being abused and subsequently report them to their tutor. Knowing that they have failed in a position of responsibility will ensure that the student is repentant. The bānzhǎng and the register are best looked on as a useful resource that can help you quickly report any incidents within an accountability framework employed across the school, but your first course of action should always be to try and resolve any issues of classroom management you are facing yourself, within the lesson.
Going further up the hierarchy the next person you can talk to is the class tutor. If the language barrier is an issue you can ask one of the Chinese English teachers to translate for you. If you’re reporting a behavioural incident keep anything you have to say concise and stick to the facts, leaving unnecessary emotion out of the equation. If somebody dismisses your concerns on the grounds that the students are just over excited by the presence of a foreigner and they don’t mean any harm, remind them that you are there to do a job as well and they wouldn’t like it if something negative was happening in there class. The concept of guanxi comes into play here and will influence how far the tutor will go to support you. They may even wish to talk to the student’s parents. It’s a good idea to go back to the tutor a week after speaking with them and ask what action they have taken on your report.
Remember, don’t only come to your Chinese colleagues with negatives, take the time to tell them if you’ve had a particularly good lesson and celebrate students who have done well in your classes.
If you are experiencing a serious classroom management issue and you have spoken to the tutor more than once and are concerned they are not doing enough to support you, you can take your concerns to the Head of Year or the Head of the Foreign Teacher Department if that is how your school is structured. Again, keep things diplomatic and reasonable. The tutor of the class in question will not care for you having gone over their head and it should only be done in serious cases as it will probably mean that in future relations will be strained. The Chinese can be very indirect and try to avoid open criticism, even constructive criticism, as much as they can, so talking to someone’s superior will be viewed as a relatively serious action.
All of this leads us rather neatly onto the concept of face.
The sociological concept of face is, like guanxi, an important feature that affects social and workplace relationships in China. Also, like guanxi, it is worth understanding so that you can work with or at the very least identify its effects. The overall idea of ‘face’ can be divided into two forms: lian is the confidence of society in a person’s moral character, while mianzi represents social perceptions of a person’s prestige. It is important for a person to maintain face within Chinese social relations because face translates into power and influence and affects goodwill. A loss of lian would result in a loss of trust within a social network, while a loss of mianzi would likely result in a loss of authority. Mian is gained through success, trough wealth, power, ability and by establishing social ties to people of prominence. Lian is enhanced by acting in accordance with moral standards and avoiding transgression of social codes. Face is something that can be given and taken away, it can be won and lost.
As a teacher you need to be aware of the above when interacting with your colleagues and your students. If you praise a student for particularly good work then you have given them face in front of their classmates as you are acknowledging their academic ability. If you severely admonish a student for poor academic ability then they will lose face. It is important to remember that your students are studying a second language that is very different to their own. For example, Chinese has no tenses. Be understanding with those who struggle initially and deliver any constructive criticism you may have in a way that does not show a student up in front of their classmates. Such delicacy however is not required in instances of bad behaviour where the student has acted in a way that ought to cause them a loss of face.
Interactions with your colleagues will obviously be more complex, but the same general approach works. There will inevitably be times of acute frustration, but again remember that while an overt display of displeasure might be cathartic in the short term the loss of face it causes the accused might negatively impact guanxi with your co-workers in the long run and do more harm than good. Take a more diplomatic approach initially and voice your concerns in private, giving your colleague the chance to address the problem and save face. The key to all of this is discretion and subtlety. Foreigners are stereotyped as being more overt with displays of emotion (and lord knows China can certainly be maddening!) so if you do turn up the volume you’ll be playing into the stereotype. Subvert expectations and try to understand and approach situations as the Chinese would, discretely voicing concerns rather than immediately going for the jugular. Escalate things in a reasoned manner if a problem persists. Saving face can be a frustrating thing to deal with as it can lead to situations where problems aren’t addressed in an effort to protect reputations. Accountability can be absent and responsibility avoided, but at least having an understanding of the social rules at work in the background can help you to approach a situation in a constructive manner.
Finally remember to take note of how you yourself are perceived. You may not think it applies to you or particularly care,but your actions and demeanour will affect how you are perceived by your students and the people you work with. If you act in such a way that leads others to believe you lack face, that you are shameless or overly hostile, you will find yourself treated with disrespect and indifference. To be meiyou lian (“without face”) is one of the most serious condemnations that can be made of a person. Do not let this be you! Strive to display your teaching ability and that your are of good moral character with an understanding of Chinese social custom. Cultivate good working relationships with your colleagues and your students.
Read our Guide To Cultural Differences here.
Written by Dan Humphries, Teaching Manager
After completing his degree at the University of Southampton, Dan lived and worked in Guangzhou and Foshan for 5 years, teaching across a variety of schools.