American Teachers in China, Part 1

The Aspirational Building, home of the international program

In 1984-86 I taught English as a Foreign Expert at Xiamen University on the coast across from Taiwan (Link).In many ways it was a great job, but my starting salary was only about $200 a month with free housing. I heard this was ten times what the lowest-level university teachers were making and twice Deng Xiao Ping’s take-home pay, although I’m sure his perks were a lot better. I had a great time and learned a lot. If the pay had been better I might have stayed on, but I was over forty and needed to start saving for my retirement, so I moved to South Korea.

Recently I met two women who are teaching in elite Chinese schools for western-size salaries. The money plus really intelligent students plus the changed political environment plus mind-blowing adventure—or you could call it culture shock—makes China a place foreign teachers might want to consider.

Virginia and I spoke over Skype when she was in Beijing and I was in the Philippines.Thanks to her for the photos.

Virginia’s story

So, can you tell me about the school where you’re teaching?

Yes. I teach psychology at Beijing National Day School (Link), a  government-owned high school which starts with the sixth grade. It’s called a “day school,” opposite of “boarding school,” despite the fact that most of the 4,000 students live on the campus. It was originally set up as an elementary school for the children of high-ranking officers of the People’s Liberation Army, then expanded to include a high school and finally opened up to the general public and lost its affiliation with the PLA.

The international department admits a very select few students in grades ten through twelve, this year 657 students. It’s housed in the Aspiration Building. The classes are taught entirely in the student’s immersion foreign language—so English, French or Spanish—with many other languages available in foreign language courses. The department offers Advanced Placement from the US, British A-Levels and the International Baccalaureate program, which is headquartered at the Hague. I’m told we have the top 1% of the students in the country, but I don’t know how this was determined. All the kids seem to be well-off, very smart and very diligent.

I have the 10th graders twice a week, half the class for the first semester and the other half for the second semester. They get a watered-down introduction to psychology because when they start 10th grade most can’t understand simple spoken English. Sometimes I ask the students who had English in middle school translate into Chinese. But it’s astonishing how quickly the whole class becomes fluent.

Then I teach 1th and 12th graders psychology with an IB curriculum that spans two years. I place an emphasis on essay writing because otherwise they wouldn’t pass their exams. I have them reading and working with original sources. They learn not to plagiarize and to document their sources accurately. These kids write so well you’d be astounded except for second language problems like tense and preposition errors. You wouldn’t believe their use of vocabulary, like polysyllabic words from psycho-babble. It’s embarrassing to admit, but they write better than most 10th graders in America.

Well, that’s not surprising. Are the students still memorizing a lot?

Yes, and my course drives some of them crazy because it emphasizes critical thinking, and they want me to just give them the right answer to memorize. I say, “Nope, those days are over. It’s not going to happen.” But yes, they’re little memorization machines and calculators. They’re at a loss when it comes to practical applications or forming their own opinions or thinking outside of the box. That’s what I’m trying to develop in them.

In class they listen and take notes, then leave to study. They work almost too hard, Carol, until 9:30 at night when they’re up at five.  I don’t know how they do it. They’re so dedicated it’s almost scary. Last year one of the students studied so hard that in the middle of a test he fell asleep with his face planted in his keyboard. I said, “Just go take a nap. You can come back later to finish your test.” He wouldn’t. He made himself wake back up and finish it. He made a hundred.

Do your materials come from IB or do you rustle them up yourself?

The greatest strength of IB is its greatest weakness. Unlike Advanced Placement, with its tidy little textbook that you can teach and go home, IB is all over the map. It’s very vague. Teachers can do what they want, when they want and how they want. It can be configured in a variety of different ways. It is absolutely brutal in the beginning to get used to because there’s a core of different approaches involved. You have options, so you could, for example, start with developmental psychology, abnormal psychology or psychology of human relationships. Some people integrate all those themes together. Other people do them separately, which is what I do. I have six or seven different online textbooks, and I draw from all of them. At the beginning of 2017 the curriculum was changed. Now veteran teachers and the authors are in a complete uproar because the new one is so poorly written. It’s really hard to explain what it looks like. But after fretting over it for two years I finally feel I’ve gotten a handle on it.

The students come from a sheltered, upper-class background. They don’t know about life in general, much less psychology. Unfortunately, nowadays American children learn about things like sexual molestation and alcohol and drug abuse at such an early age that they can’t even fathom not knowing. But these kids don’t.

Well, when I was there, psychology was illegal—why would you need it in a workers’ paradise—but I saw a lot of stress and a lot of ignorance about human emotions, so I collected magazine articles to discuss in class.

Happily, things have changed since you were here. This is an experimental school in that it allows students to drive their own learning and the administration is hands-off in terms of controlling what they learn. I think it’s fascinating.

Last year a couple of kids came to me about setting up a psychological assistance group on WeChat, an internet application I use in all my classes so we can stay in touch. The students formed a group which translates psychology articles and writes a quasi-Dear Abby column. Young people can write in anonymously with their questions and ask for advice. The group now has over 600 followers. They’re doing a great job, and I’m very proud of them. There’s a similar site for adults called Know Yourself.

Are you on the regular Chinese network, or do you go through a server back in the states?

I have both, but I can’t read a word of the Chinese network, and the online translations are full of errors.  I buy two different VPNs—virtual private networks—which connect me to the United States. Some days I have a handful making them work.

 I think my website has been blocked on Chinese internet.

Probably. The authorities block everything. The firewall is real. When there are major conferences in China, we can’t even access our online textbooks. Everything is shut off. Day-in, day-out we have a school VPN, but the government requires us to submit all the sites we’re using for approval. Sometimes you can get anywhere and do anything, and other times it’s a headache, a nightmare.

So you’re accessing materials from abroad?

Oh yes, we use all western materials. There’s a wonderful site for psychology and critical thinking by John Crane called InThinking (Link) and our grade book is online. We have to struggle when there’s a lack of connectivity.

You said that in addition to teaching you’re also the school counselor?  What kind of problems do students come in with?

In class, when we read an article on “smiling depression,” it was a smash hit because the students know about being depressed while acting like they’re fine. As a counselor I see cutters who self-harm, kids who suffer from perfectionism and stress-related illness, over-achievement and unrealistic expectations. I’ve heard about eating disorders—there’s a very high standard for thinness. I was warned when I started that there were students who had to go to the hospital because of bulimia, but I haven’t had any students with full-blown anorexia. That shows up in China fairly regularly, and there’s a certain amount of suicidal ideation.

The kids get so tired and so discouraged they think, “If I’m not the best, then I’m not good enough.” Everybody wants to be the best, and they often compare grades and test scores. They aren’t thinking, “If you can’t be the best, you can still make a valuable contribution.” They’re so polite that it’s not in-your-face, but they do get pretty aggressive with each other. In addition to stress, depression, self-harm, I see some normal teenager stuff like relationship problems. They’re not supposed to have romantic relationships, but of course they do because they’re normal teenagers. That’s developmentally appropriate for that age. So I’ve had to step in and be there for them on that too, a little bit.

At Xiamen University the Party was also opposed to students having relationships, but they did. What kind of role do you see the Party playing in terms of the students’ private lives or the operation of the school?

It’s very subtle. The school is supposedly—they use the word “experimental”–but it’s also called an “open school,” but there are limits. For example, a student confided in his advisor that he had a girlfriend, and the man called his parents.

You probably know that you’re not allowed to talk about Tiananmen Square, Tibetan Buddhism or Taiwan. The 3 Ts are forbidden. I’ve heard that when kids go to school in America they can be called by the Chinese government and told to straighten up their behavior, but I haven’t seen that.

The students aren’t allowed to color their hair. The uniforms are cute sweatpants and sweatshirts with the school logo on them. The environment seems very healthy and wholesome. Compared with my experience in the US, I feel like I’m in paradise.

Why don’t you tell me about that?

Sure. I started out in 1989 inner-city New York. For four years I taught kids who were functionally illiterate. Some had sexually transmitted diseases. Children got shot and killed. I was at a fifth-floor window when I saw a kid get stabbed to death on the sidewalk below. Kids would sneak into school with sharpened ball-peen hammers as weapons.

Then I got a master’s in school psychology and went to Minneapolis as a school psychologist. All I was doing was cranking out reports every day, all day long, and sitting at the table with lawyers and crazy parents. For example, there was a little girl who was totally out of control. She’d been born a crack baby and was then adopted, and her parents wanted her in mainstream classes, while she’d be pulling bookshelves down on other children’s heads or running out into traffic, She tried to bite my leg while I was assessing her. And there were others like that with lawyers.

Finally I decided I couldn’t do it anymore, I was not making a difference. I was not helping anybody. I was getting attacked and hurt by those who hated white people, and I was upset all the time. All I was doing was meaningless paperwork. The administration would turn on the faculty in a second to cover their own behinds. It was a nightmare. I was deeply angry.

So I took myself to Honduras and then to Venezuela. I think I did some beautiful work. I renovated two different special education departments. I was able to cherry-pick the good stuff and leave the bad behind. I learned Spanish. Then I had to return to the US to take care of my mom. That was rough. After she died I went back into international teaching. Anyway, China has its challenges and its moments of frustration, but compared to the United States…[laugh]

So basically you really like the job?

Yes, but living in China is full of ups and downs. My colleagues feel the same. At times you want to pack up and leave, and at other times you feel so rewarded. Most of us say this is the best job we’ve ever had in terms of the children. These are extraordinary young people. I don’t know how the Chinese raise kids this great. This is the only time in my life I’ve ever been satisfied and fulfilled teaching. There’s no discipline problem. Once in a while, something very minor will occur, but with these kids, a soft word and a credible explanation is all it takes. So – it’s heartening.

On the other hand, this year when I went to renew my Chinese permission to use the website with all my materials, I made the unfortunate error of calling it an online text. I did not perceive that those words would be fatal. The government appears to be tightening a stranglehold on censorship. Every year it gets harder. And there are rumblings out in the community too that this particular government really wants to shut down foreign access.

I persuaded the officials to let me have access to this website. They said I could have it, but not the kids, so I had to wipe all the kids off. But I put them back on because they couldn’t do their work without it. When I asked who approved the textbook, the official said “not me” and never answered the question. It’s just ridiculous.

A really persistent problem is our living quarters. The foreign teachers were given these old, unrenovated apartments which need repairs all the time. Instead of sending professionals, the support staff, who are totally uninterested in supporting us, send over kids who don’t know how to repair anything. I’ve had problems with the plumbing–all kinds of things. You’re not supposed to make waves in China, but I tool a staff member aside, and I said. “It is easier and about the same price to send a professional and get it done right the first time.” Someone came over twenty times to look at my stove, and then I found out it has batteries in it. Nobody could bother to tell me that the stove needed batteries? There are batteries in the toilet, in the door, in the gas. If something goes out and an alarm goes off, you have to go through 30 different things to figure out what it is. Then paying the utility bills is a hassle. You have these little cards you have to use. It’s crazy.

Could you hire someone to help you with that? Years ago we had no washing machines, and I got tired of washing everything by hand in the bathtub, so I hired one of the guesthouse employees to do my laundry—although it was difficult because people felt that kind of work was beneath them.  Here I have a housekeeper who does everything.

I had someone too in Latin America. Here I don’t think it would be possible. Besides, next school year will be my last.

Now that I’m 60, getting my work visa is increasingly difficult. Every year they add more hoops you have to leap through. This year I have to prove that I went to a university in the top 100. In the States, it ranked 67 out of 100. I complained to my director that instead of focusing on my work I’m going to have to do a search and find this information at a recruitment agency and update my resume and do all this paperwork. Later I heard the administration is going down to the government authorities to get me approved for next year. I’m satisfied with that. I would like to save up as planned and move comfortably the year after. I’m looking at Mexico as a place to teach. I like Latin America, and I speak good Spanish.

A reader writes:

Great article!