How to Cope with Stressed Out Students When Teaching in China

How to Cope with Stressed Out Students When Teaching in China
Aug 29, 2019 By Lewis Schwinn ,

When you meet a problem student while teaching in China, it’s tempting to label them as lazy and leave it at that. But understanding what your students might have going on outside of the classroom can go a long way towards helping you actually teach them something. Today, I’m going to look into why a lot of Chinese children are highly stressed and how you can deal with it as a teacher.

Photo: WANG Hongying

The daily grind

I have spent several years teaching in China. I remember at one particular school, a new foreign supervisor once came in and told us we needed more after school programs for our Chinese high school students. This prompted one of our teachers to explain that "After school doesn’t exist in China.”

This brings me to my first point: Chinese students spend most of their childhoods in schools and tutoring sessions. Most middle and high school students arrive at some form of classroom between 7 and 8am and don’t leave to go home until 9-10pm, and that’s not counting commuting time.  

During their school days, students’ progress is monitored at all times by the banzhuren or homeroom teacher, who shepherds them from class to class and is responsible for policing their behavior and classwork. At home, both after school and on the weekends, “helicopter parents” continue to hover over their kids, making sure they complete their homework and fully engage in a full schedule of extra classes.

The consequences of such a grueling schedule are obvious:

-Students have absolutely no time to pursue any hobbies or interests outside of the required curriculum or those their parents choose for them.

-They have very little unstructured free time in which to interact with their peers, often harming their ability to socialize and be creative.

-They have little experience managing their own schedules, which can hurt their long-term ability to handle a workload and problem solve.

So why all the pressure?

Why is the average Chinese student’s schedule packed to the brim and so micromanaged? The answer lies in the Chinese emphasis on the importance of education and its role in society. Most Chinese children are told from day one that their only job is to study so that they can pass the dreaded college entrance exam (the Gaokao), get into a good university and eventually get a good job.

What’s more, all this studying starts very early. A student’s admission into a good school begins from elementary level upwards and is determined by a series of admission exams. The better school you get into, the better they can prepare you for the next set of exams to get you into the next good school.

This means that if as a young child you screw up and flub an exam, you might seriously impact the trajectory and evolution of your education with no reset button. Not to mention that as a member of the world’s most populous country, you’re competing with literally tens of millions of other students across the nation for any and all educational opportunities.

The rote method

In China, there’s no such thing as being talented or not; there’s only trying and not trying hard enough. Thus, most Chinese students who struggle with a subject are given the Chinese educational solution: memorize all the information.

Rote memorization’s value in learning is debated in educational circles across the globe. But regardless of which side you take, there’s one thing we can all agree on: it takes a massive amount of time and energy to memorize masses of material that you fundamentally don’t understand. Such methods can put a truly terrifying amount of stress on students.

The price of failure 

So what happens if you fail in this educational ironman marathon? Chinese culture is still very much centered around a traditional family structure. The parents’ responsibility is to work non-stop to provide their child with every educational advantage, along with other cultural expectations like marriage dowries for girls and houses for boys.

Consequently, many Chinese parents do not save up any money for retirement and, instead, it becomes the child’s responsibility to support them in their old age using the kick-ass job they got from doing so well in school. Imagine if your parents’ future safety and security depended on how well you can solve a physics problem. You’d be pretty stressed too!

How to deal with it as a teacher

This puts most of us teaching in China in the unenviable position of trying to motivate students who are, in many cases, one class away from becoming the walking dead. Some foreign teachers react by only doing fun activities that entertain the students but don’t teach them much, while others scream “Learning is not supposed to be fun!” while slogging through a textbook.  

As with many things, the best course of action is to try and find a happy medium. You have a responsibility to make sure your students learn, especially as  it’s so vital to their success and there are so few second chances in China. At the same time, varying activities, using group work, surveys, online research projects, and other fixtures of Western education can help provide your stressed out students with some much-needed stimulation and relief.

The trite but important thing to remember is that as a teacher in China, you need to have empathy with your students. Encourage them to find the joy in learning but understand that the majority of their experience does not support this. Do your best to inspire, but cut them some slack once in a while and try not to take their lack of constant enthusiasm too personally.  

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Keywords: Teaching in China stressed out students in China


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There is no doubt that students are selfish and lazy, unable to develop empathy or imagine another perspective than their own. However, this is definitely due to the nurture aspect of development, which is virtually non-existent. Children in China are subject to a constant barrage of physical abuse, putdowns and negativity. Oftentimes, by the time they reach grade school, the damage is already complete, a virtual robot has already been manufactured. Unthinking, unquestioning and uninspired, the Chinese student is forced to complete irrelevant tasks until the (cash) cows come home - their parents. When they do well, they are ridiculed by their peers. When they compete, they are forced back into mediocrity. When they succeed, they are criticized instead of praised. They are put into a pressure cooker for one reason only, and it's not for the success of the nation. It is to dissuade anyone or any group that gets ballsy enough to question the "natural" order of things. No amount of foreign intervention is going to alter the course of these kids... no amount of love or care will save them from eventual demoralization.

Sep 03, 2019 13:11 Report Abuse



Nice article Lewis, certainly one of your best ones so far!

Sep 01, 2019 22:27 Report Abuse