A Visit to Joe’s Classroom

Stories From a Failing Smalltown School System

            I’d heard a lot of stories about the schools here in this small county town, Longzhou.

            None of them were good.

            Small towns in China usually have the worst reputation when it comes to education.  Teachers aren’t as well-qualified as those in the big city.  Many landed here because they couldn’t get better positions in prestigious schools located in larger areas of the province.  And schools are poorer in small towns.  Cheap equipment, outdated teaching methodology, low salaries, unhappy teachers, students from troubled families and crowded classrooms plague smalltown educational systems.

            Due to such poor quality education, quite a few parents in Longzhou prefer to send their children to junior and senior high schools in nearby cities such as Chongzuo andNanning.  At least in a city school, their children have a better chance to excel in learning, perform better on national tests and rank higher to enter a good university later in life.

             In Longzhou, such hopes are pretty much non-existent if your kid is schooled here.

 Unhappy Teachers; Unhappy Students

              I heard some horrendous stories of Longzhou teachers who verbally and physically abused small kids  because their charges were misbehaving in class.   One such story was told to me by our Chinese English teacher on campus, Margaret.  Her daughter, a brilliant young girl whose English name is Ruby, will be entering junior high next year.  Margaret plans to send her away toNanningfor schooling. 

            I certainly don’t blame her. 

            Her daughter’s reports of the teachers and how they treat the students are quite appalling.

            One little boy’s story was particularly touching.

            The boy is Ruby’s classmate.  Last year, he was an adequate student who didn’t cause any trouble.  This past year, his parents, like so many in Guangxi, moved to Guangdong (Canton) to work in factories to make money.  The 11-year-old is living with his grandma who sells fish in the open-air market.  She catches them in the morning and isn’t at home much as she is trying to make ends meet.  The parents aren’t sending the money home as often as they would like because they aren’t making enough, so Grandma is the only person to raise the little boy and bring in more income.

            Without a strong parental figure to look after him, the boy is spending a lot of time in the Internet cafes, playing computer games. His grandmother has no control over him, nor does she know what to do with her grandson.  Thus he skips school and enjoys his computer games all day with what little money his grandma gives him. .

            According to Ruby, when the little boy finally showed up in class one morning, their homeroom teacher became angry at him for not attending classes, not doing his homework and spending all his time on the Net.  The woman’s anger overwhelmed her to the point where she slapped the child in the face, causing his nose to bleed, and demanded that he go home immediately to tell his grandmother she wanted to talk to her that afternoon.  At the time of the incident, it was the 2 ½ hour lunch break when most kids return home before afternoon classes resume.

            The poor kid ran out of the school and stood at the front gate, crying, afraid to go home and upset by what had happened to him.

           Ruby has a very kind heart.  When she saw him sobbing at the gate, she invited him to come home with her for lunch.   Her mom could talk to him.

            Margaret has no idea why Ruby thought she could help but she knew the child’s story so she did her best to comfort him.

            As a caring teacher, Margaret had great sympathy for the little boy.  She also understood the anger the primary teacher must have felt when confronted by such a student.   

            Primary teachers inChinaare under a great deal of stress.  With 60 or more students tightly crammed into a classroom, controlling a class is a big difficulty. Especially so in our roasting weather of 90 degrees where only fans blow the heat around during lessons. Everyone’s comfort level is affected, both mentally and physically.  Teachers likewise have piles of notebooks and papers to grade every night and on the weekends, adding more to their burden.  Then to have ungrateful children who don’t pay attention in class, refuse to do their homework, talk back or are sullen during the lesson . . . It really wears on a stressed adult. 

            Although schools don’t condone hitting kids, it happens a lot as that’s the logical means of disciplining unruly, disrespectful  kids inChina. Give them a whack. 

            While as horrible as it sounds, remember that not all that long ago, paddling in US schools was acceptable.

            Back to the story:  After cleaning up the little boy’s bloody face, and giving him a nice meal with her family, Margaret sat him down for a chat.  She talked to him about his feelings, the feelings of the teacher and how he can better improve himself.  After her concerned words, he felt better and returned to school with Ruby.  Margaret also called the teacher to tell her that there was no need to bring the grandma to school.  She’d talked to the little boy and tried to give him some sound, motherly advice.

 Welcome to One of Longzhou’s Junior High Schools

             After hearing such stories, you can imagine how curious I was to actually visit one of these county schools.   Were things really as bad as all that?  What were the students like, not to mention the teachers?

             But as I didn’t know any teachers other than here on our campus, it seemed unlikely I’d be visiting an outside school anytime soon.

            Then came Joe.  His English teacher (Ms. Nong) was very excited to meet me.  He had told her about his visits to my house, showed her many pictures of me and asked if I could come to his class.  Surprisingly enough, she was very keen to have me.  Sometimes, Chinese English teachers are worried their English isn’t good enough for the foreigner.  They don’t want a native speaker showing up in their classroom to embarrass them in front of their students by not understanding what the person is saying.

            But it seems Ms. Nong had a different opinion about native speakers.  She was very willing to have me talk to her class.

            With Joe’s help, we arranged for a Monday afternoon at 4:30 p.m., the last period of the day.   Joe was allowed to leave the school in order to pick me up in  3-wheeled taxi.  His friend, Tom, who had attended his birthday party, came along for support.

            The junior high we were visiting was one of three in Longzhou.  Later, I learned it had 2,000 students.  Some of them actually lived on the campus in dormitories as they were from smaller villages in the county which had only primary schools. Joe and Tom lived in town, however, so they didn’t have to live on campus.

A Fun Time Had by All

             We were stopped at the front gate by the school guard.  He was a sour man who was extremely wary about letting me enter.  I’m sure he was just doing his job but he certainly had a huge chip on his shoulder.  Joe was required to have a teacher present to usher me in but Ms. Nong was in the classroom, waiting for my arrival. 

            Finally, a passing teacher made a few phone calls to Ms. Nong.  Reluctantly, the guard let me in, even though I had no adult accompanying me.

            I must say the greeting I received was quite something.  The students cheered excitedly when I walked into their classroom on the 3rd floor.  Ms. Nong, a young woman of about 30, thrust a bouquet of flowers into my arms as a welcome.  Joe later told me she spent $10 of her own money to give me this gift, which I thought was very kind.

            There were 62 in Joe’s class and they certainly were a vibrant, lively, talkative group.  I gave them an introduction lesson of myself and we practiced some simple phrases, such as “What’s your favorite XX?” to test their listening ability.  I also handed out English decorated reward pencils and  stickers at the end of my 45 minutes to make the visit a memorable one.

            After only 45 minutes, I was exhausted.  Holding the attention of so many whose English levels were all different, coming up with phrases they’d understand and keeping an eye on those few ornery boys who were messing about in the back row gave me a small taste of what Chinese teachers deal with every day, all day.  It was fun for one lesson, and rewarding, but I really wanted to get back to my college kids.

            After the class dismissed at 5:15 p.m., the students scattered, ready to go home for the day.

Ms. Nong walked me out, giving us some time to talk a bit.  I learned that she was from Longzhou and her alma mater was our school!  No wonder she was so eager to have a foreigner visit her classroom. And no wonder her English was so good.   She’d had a foreign Amity teacher before, 10 years ago when the organization first sent teachers toGuangxiNormalUniversityfor Nationalities.

            Before parting, our promise was to have her visit my apartment with Joe.  We could  talk more about teaching inChinaand her life as a single woman in our small town.  In fact, her visit took place yesterday. 

            But I’ll save that for another blog.

 Pictures That Bring Great Memories

            For now, I hope you enjoy the pictures from my visit to Joe’s school.  I made copies for his entire class.  Joe delivered them to everyone last week, which certainly made him the favorite one among his classmates.  He said he’s famous at his school now, all due to his invitation for my visit.

            Until next time, here’s wishing youPingAn (peace) for your week.

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About connieinchina

I have been in the Asia region for 18 years as an English language teacher. 13 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 second year in Guangxi Province at the 3-year college, Guangxi Normal University for Nationalities. The college is located in smalltown longzhou, 1 hour from the Vietnam border.
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