Musical Chairs: Dealing with a Classroom Seating Dilemma


The 20-minute scramble and panic in between classes is immense.  Students race frantically from room to room, snatching up a chair and moving it from one classroom to the next.  Some politely carry their school furnishings while others lazily drag them along, the metal legs screeching agonizingly against the hallway floor.  Not surprisingly, the misused ones lose a screw or two along the way, sending the seat flopping backwards or leaving one of the legs behind.

The abusing students groan then disappear into another classroom to exchange their broken item with a sturdier one.

            Even after the bell rings, a few stragglers are still searching for seats.

            This chair dilemma started three weeks ago with the arrival of  2,000 freshmen students to our campus.  Our one classroom building, which opened 3 years ago, was built with theater-style pull down seats and long desktops in a number of rooms but others still have movable desks and chairs.  These are much like our US grammar school furniture.   The desks have an underneath compartment for storing books.  The wooden chair seats and backs have double bar legs attached by screws. This old-style equipment was brought over from the old classroom building (now a dormitory) after years of use so you can imagine what shape many are in.  Not great.

            At first, the scramble to find seats was a small annoyance.  Usually, it was just a matter of walking next door and grabbing up an extra chair from the back of another classroom.

            But three weeks later, after more chairs have broken up, it’s become a real pain.  Students are rushing up and down floors, gazing hopefully into the back of lecture halls to find a few usable stray chairs that might be around.  In many cases, they don’t find them.

            I encountered this very problem last Monday afternoon in my 2:40  class.

 The 3rd floor is filled with classrooms of desks and chairs.  Entering the room at 2:30, I began writing the lesson directions on the blackboard. The students shuffled in to find places to sit with several rushing outside from time to time to pull in a chair from somewhere else. 

            The real problem came when the bell rang and 4 of the girls were standing at desks at the back of the room.

            “Try the 5th floor,” I told them.  “Look at the back of the rooms.  They often have chairs.”

            Giggling with embarrassment, the girls ran out as I started the lesson but they returned within 1 minute.

 I knew they hadn’t gone anywhere because they were back too soon.  They probably just stood outside the room to make it seem as if they’d gone someplace.  

This is definitely a cultural thing.  Chinese students never interrupt a teacher who has begun a class, especially if it’s not their teacher or classroom.  If they are late, they stand at the door and say, “May I come in?”  The teacher is then to respond by nodding his or her head.  Sometimes, the student just stands in the open doorway until the teacher notices him and gives him permission to enter.

Asking students to enter a classroom and steal chairs, even if the chairs are located conveniently at the back of a classroom, is very impolite and embarrassing.  I’m absolutely positive no Chinese teacher would deny them a chair, especially as we are all miffed by this chair dilemma, but these are Chinese students.  Taking a brave stance and initiative to go against custom is not exactly built into their systems.

In other words, they’d rather lie to me, their foreign teacher, and suffer standing for 2 hours than interrupt a strange classroom to clang, bang and drag out chairs.

Sneaking back to their standing places, my four girls positioned themselves behind their desks once again and seemed ready to endure the long stand.

“Did you find any chairs on the 5th floor?” I asked as the entire class sat expectantly, waiting for their response.

“Yes!  No chairs,” they lied. 

So I turned to Plan B.

Plan B seemed perfectly logical to me.  In America, if we don’t have chairs, we just sit on the desks. 

            “We’ll do like we do in America,” I announced enthusiastically. “Just sit on the desk.”

            Stunned silence.

            Those standing in the back didn’t move. I thought they hadn’t understood what I was saying so I walked back to demonstrate.  All eyes followed me as I made my way to the back of the room, picked up a student’s things, and perched myself on the desk with the book balanced in my lap.

            The entire room erupted into laughter. 

            “No!” a few of the students shouted while those standing tittered nervously. 

            O.K.  So obviously students sitting on top of a classroom desk is a cultural faux pas in China.   

After so many years of teaching in this country, didn’t I know that?   Guess not!

Plan C was to share a chair with another student.  This I had seen on many occasions where seats were not enough.  These young people are so tiny and thin, two rear ends on a chair would be like one rear end for the average American. 

While this solution was certainly more acceptable than the other, my four still opted to stand.

I’d done everything possible to help them out so I just let them be.  And, bless them, they did manage the entire time standing aside from a few squats, their heads popping up over the desktop,  toward the end of the second period.

As the week wore on, more and more students were having difficulty snatching not only usable chairs but desks as well.  I watched entire classrooms emptied of both desks and chairs for one period and then dragged back down the hallway by students needing them during another period.

            Peering into one room during a break, I noticed some very ingenuous boys had positioned the desks on their sides and were using them as chairs.  While sitting on top of the desk seemed out of the question, tossing one on its side and sitting on it certainly didn’t raise any eyebrows.  I’ve taken a mental note of this as a Plan D for next week’s classes.

            And most likely, I’ll really be needing that Plan D,  . . . . if there are any desks to spare, that is.  This weekend, the last enrollment of 400 freshmen are arriving with perhaps another 100 yet to trickle in.  Every year, the college submits the number of incoming students to the provincial government for approval.  This year, 2,500 were approved but only 2,000 arrived.  Much of this is due to the earthquake when many of the entrance exams were postponed to a later date, thus making freshmen enrollment in Sichuan’s smaller colleges late as well.

            Heaven only knows how those 400 students will be managing in our classrooms next week. If we’re short on furnishings now, we certainly aren’t going to be in great shape for receiving newcomers when Monday hits.

            Our newly arrived freshmen don’t know that yet, however.  Hopefully, all the preparations this weekend to make them feel at home will help ease their disappointment in our facilities when they actually start their courses.  Banners this week have been flying, welcoming new students to our college.  And tonight’s Friday evening, two performance events hosted by different departments are being held for our newcomers as well.  One is on the sports’ field and another near the entrance gate.  Stages have been set up, fancy sound and lighting equipment positioned, balloons tied together for decorations, and community sponsors used to pay for huge back-drops announcing the event.  These same sponsors, mostly for drink companies, have also set up their wares under tents to sell to the students.  The most popular sponsors are those that sell bottled drinks, such as flavored iced teas, juices, and soft drinks.    

            While it’s great that the students are able to find sponsors for such events, one does wonder why those same sponsors don’t consider a donation to the college, perhaps for something, like, might we say, . . . classroom chairs? 

            I’m guessing that any day now, a huge truck will pull up to our classroom building and be stacked with hundreds of brand new chairs.  The workers will begin unloading them, one by one, and hustling them into classrooms where they’re sorely needed. Who knows?  Maybe that will even take place this weekend, in time for my Monday afternoon class!  Wouldn’t that be great.

            I’m not counting on it, though. I’ll most likely be turning to Plans A to D come the beginning of the week.

            Anyone out there with a Plan E is welcome to send one my way.  Always pays to ready with extra solutions, just in case.


            From Luzhou China, here’s sending you a weekend “Ping An” (peace).   




About connieinchina

I have been in the Asia region for 30 years as an English language teacher. 28 of those have been spent with the Amity Foundation, a Chinese NGO that works in all areas of development for the Chinese people. Amity teachers are placed at small colleges throughout China as instructors of English language majors in the education field. In other words, my students will one day be English teachers themselves in their small villages or towns once they graduate. Currently, this is my 13th year in Luzhou Vocational and Technical College. The college is located in Luzhou city (loo-joe), Sichuan Province, a metropolis of 5 million people located next to the Yangtze River .
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