Student-Shadowing: Spending a Day in a Chinese High School

Student-Shadowing: Spending a Day in a Chinese High School
Sep 19, 2013 By Kate Williams ,

Bells are ringing, children are screaming, but just how merry and bright is it behind the gates of a Chinese high school? Many “foreigners” living in China who have engaged in teaching know very well the view from the teaching platform, but what are things really like for the students? I have been yearning to spend a day in the life of a Chinese high school student and when the opportunity finally presented itself to capture the view from the ol’ wooden desk, I jumped on it.

High school in China

Education is no joke in China. Students in Chinese high schools spend twelve hours a day, six days a week for three years memorizing, reviewing, and reciting all in preparation for a three-day test known as the gaokao. Their score on this test almost singlehandedly determines their future. It is the deciding factor for what university they can attend, what major they can study, and in some cases, whether they’ll even have the opportunity to achieve a higher education at all.

According to a 2012 Forbes article, about a quarter of the test-takers won’t be admitted into any university in mainland China; in which case, many of them will find work or attend a trade school to learn skills such as make-up artistry, massage, auto mechanics, and so on. The gaokaois a force to be reckoned with, and learning about it had me dying to know exactly how students spend their days at school. After student-shadowing for a day at a public high school in central China, I was able to gain interesting insight into the lives of China’s youth and this is what I found.

The daily breakdown

The days are long and the days are rigorous at a Chinese high school. The school week typically lasts six days and starts off bright and early everyday at 7:30 with morning self-study, except on Mondays, when the flag-raising ceremony is held instead. Next in line is the morning drill, when the students head outdoors to the field (weather-permitting) to perform a military-esque exercise routine to the roar of a tune blaring from the loudspeakers. While on the topic of weather-permitting activities, I might add, there is nothing more upsetting than a weather-induced cancellation of the ever-so-exciting, physical education. Personally speaking, this was my most dreaded class of the week. But students love it here. It ranks right up there with computer class. In fact, I’ve heard of Chinese teachers threatening a student’s participation in these classes as a consequence of bad behavior. It seems to work!

Morning rituals aside, the core coursework begins shortly after 8:00 with a class line-up including physics, politics, literature, math, geography, biology, chemistry, and of course, English. Having served as a teacher myself in China, I was very interested to see how Chinese teachers conduct their lessons. I found that they generally work through the infamous stacks of books that can always be seen towering over a high school student’s desk here in China. These textbooks apparently make a great shield for an in-class nap as well, but that is beside the point. They are filled with exercise after exercise, most of them being assigned and graded, which the students busy themselves with before, during, and after school. In terms of classroom order, Chinese teachers demand respect from students and respect is what they get. Each class begins with a bow to the teacher and a warm lao shi hao greeting and ends in the same manner, but this time saying lao shi zai jian.

The core subjects in a Chinese high school cover eight periods and are broken up with a lunch break and 45-minute nap. It’s quite interesting that in China many students leave the campus for lunch; meeting their parents outside the gate, heading to the nearest McDonald’s, and otherwise. I think they are really quite fortunate to have this bit of freedom to break up an otherwise grueling day. When I asked the students about the school’s food, they responded with disgusted faces, referring to it as ‘toxic’ and proceeding to tell me horror stories about mysterious discoveries in school-served dishes. I’d choose McDonald’s too.

Which brings yet another topic to light: junk food and sugary drinks. There clearly hasn’t been any form of nutrition-related legislation limiting what’s allowed to be sold in schools because during every break, students sprint down to the on-campus convenience store to stock up on ice cream, chips, soda, and more. You name it, they buy it. All in all, their lunch break and snack offerings put the 20 minute lunch and a la carte at my high school to shame.

So eighth period has ended, yay, time to go home! Wait...not so fast. There is an evening of all-important night study to look forward to. This is a time when students can do self-study and teachers can instruct supplemental (mandatory) classes to make sure students are up-to-speed on all of the materials that need to be digested before the gaokaohits them. At 20:00, after a few hours night study, the students are released from the gates of...the school. But it’s still not over yet. After having dinner, they start off on the adventure called ‘homework’ that will last them yet another 2-3 hours. By the time it’s all said and done, they’re ready to hit they hay so they can get up and do it all over again the next day. Unless it’s Sunday, in which case they still can’t do a whole lot of living because they’ve still got a mountain of homework to battle.

Concluding remarks

As you can see, high school students in China have to face unimaginable stresses at a very young age. The system has received all types of criticism, but no major changes seem to be taking place. Unfortunately, this immense educational pressure sometimes results in youth suicide. A recent news report tells the story of two students who took their lives after failing to complete their homework assignments on time. So next time you see students flooding into or out of a high school in China sporting their color-coded uniforms, know that the life they are living isn’t an easy one. And as for the foreign teachers out there, we all know it’s not easy imparting an education upon these unruly youth, but after wearing their shoes for a day, I can’t say I blame them for their behavior. They are dealing with insurmountable pressure from parents, teachers and themselves to succeed at a time in their life when they should be enjoying their precious youth and morphing into the individuals that they are destined to become. Oh, if only we lived in a perfect world.

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Keywords: Chinese high school student Chinese high school


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OK, this is unrelated, to some extent, but I'm curious. What exactly do foreign teachers do in Chinese schools? Are they expected teach English grammar, reading and writing, as well as everything else, or is that left to the Chinese teachers, with the foreign teacher focusing on lexis (vocabulary) and fluency?

Sep 22, 2013 09:40 Report Abuse



White monkey in the zoo...

Mar 15, 2015 03:26 Report Abuse



If only we lived in a perfect world? I don't think the UK is perfect, far from it, but, my time in high school was filled with fun and interesting times. Not once did I, or any of my other friends feel overwhelmed by the whole experience. It is the fault of the system here, in China, this kind of thing does not happen anywhere else. With the possible exceptions of South Korea, Japan and HK.

Sep 19, 2013 16:35 Report Abuse



Yes I empathize with the writer about the life of a Chinese student. It beggars belief and whatever it is they learn I can assure you one of the subjects IS NOT about life and another IS NOT about what goes on in other countries! But what's the answer? The gaokao exam? The standard of teachers in the public system? The curriculum? I don't doubt there has not been nor will there be any great change because my experience with education in our country I know took years, nay decades, to change as well. And even today it is an ever changing, evolving system. The Chinese education system needs to take a critical look at itself and develop a vision and one that is not necessarily based on that one important exam. The existing system is not going to change with a quick fix but I am sure that as more and more Chinese opt to travel overseas for their education then some of that experience will filter back into the country and changes will be inevitable. For the sake of the kids I hope so.

Sep 19, 2013 11:11 Report Abuse