Sunday, May 8, 2011

In Praise of Chinese Teachers

On Monday and Wednesday mornings, I study for a couple hours with a Chinese tutor who is a grad student in the Chinese department.  On Sunday afternoons, I have a guitar lesson with a guy who has his own shop close to the dorms.

I've been saving this post in my head for awhile so I can post pictures of my teachers, but since that hasn't happened yet, I'll just charge ahead and see about adding pictures later.  In the meantime, a mental picture:

My Chinese teacher has a slight build, a long black ponytail, and reading glasses.  She looks like she could be 14, but she is actually 24.  She is from the far west of China, almost on the Kazhak border, so she can tell me lots of interesting things about the Uighur minority people, Western China's famously good dried fruit, and the 3-day train ride it takes for her to get home.  Now she is hard at work on her master's thesis.  She used to talk too fast for me, but now I understand her.

My guitar teacher is a Qufu native and has the same family name as Confucius (Kong Zi), making him one of the many Qufu residents in the great philosopher's family line.  Like my Chinese teacher, he also has a slight build and, according to student reports, also used to have a long black ponytail.  (One could argue that he also looks like he could be a 14-year-old girl, because he's so young and small and his hair is so feminine.)  His hair has gotten progressively shorter since I met him a few months ago, but so far it hasn't gotten boy-short.  My students who know him think he is very handsome and cool.  Apparently he was in a band in Beijing for awhile before coming back to start his own guitar shop.  His mother sells sweet potatoes outside his store.  He doesn't speak English.

Over the last two years, I've had about half a dozen Chinese people teach or tutor me.  I've started to notice some things they have in common:  All have been about my age, all have scheduled lessons that are at least an hour and a half long, none seem to work from a detailed lesson plan, and all have mostly stuck to the program or book without introducing anything terribly exciting or earth-shattering.  And:

They they have all been unfailingly, uncritically, and untiringly patient.  Even when I'm watching the clock and feeling antsy, they never seem to be.  Some examples:  There are Chinese words I don't seem to remember no matter how many times I've been told, and my tutor doesn't seem any more frazzled on the 100th repetition than on the second.  When I did studied in Beijing over the winter holiday, that teacher would sit down with us at the table and not get up until the lesson finished four hours later.  Four hours!  (When I was a speech pathologist, I thought even hour-long individual sessions were a bit grueling.)

My guitar teacher once watched me do soundless strumming for like 30 minutes straight, and during that whole time I never even got it right.   He also has the additional joy of repeating or rephrasing half of what he says to me because I don't catch it the first time: 
Mr. Kong:  Something indistinguishable in Chinese.
Me:  "What?"
Mr. Kong (in Chinese):  "I said, class is over now."
Me:  "Oh." 
We probably have this dialogue at least every other week.

Another thing I like about my teachers:  They will tell me how it is.  American teachers can't go five minutes without saying "good job," but have a hard time saying "that's wrong."  Chinese teachers have no such qualms.  They will tell you directly, "Bu dui!" (not right!).  Direct quote from my guitar lesson: "That sounds bad right now."   I like the honest feedback and I like that they cut the fluff.  Then when I do get a "hen hao!" (very good!), it actually means something.

Even though I don't always think their methods are the most efficient, I have liked all my teachers and I owe them a ton of gratitude for being kind, patient, and honest in the week-in, week-out grind of a fairly tedious job.


  1. Fun post. :) Now, if you could just post about 50 more so that I could continue procrastinating on studying for finals....

  2. Well, I posted one more. But (bonus!) it has a video you can listen to over and over for optimal entertainment.

  3. I discovered the same thing about praise and not being afraid to tell a student they're wrong when I was in Tanzania. The students never minded answering a question, whether they were right or wrong, and they were always eager to answer the next one regardless of the outcome on the first. Praise was also rare. In my U.S. classroom, it's often like pulling teeth trying to get anyone to answer, and I often find myself telling students they're close or they're on the right track even when they aren't at all or using the word "good" constantly to describe their contributions even when they aren't. Also in Tanzania classrooms, I discovered that students were told to do things, not asked to do things, almost without exception. Another marked difference. Interesting observations; thanks for sharing!

  4. I don't know about Africa, but in China, teachers are really, really respected. They get a lot of their authority just from their position, so they don't feel so much like they have to win over their students. Some classroom teachers are really critical and controlling, but others have a nice balance of honesty/authority and care for the students.

    Anyway, since I'm teaching here, I try to be a little less sugary than I might in the USA. I'll tell a student "No" when she's wrong, but almost always with a smile. :)

    Thanks for the comment.