By Natasha Lock, State school teacher in Suzhou, 2019 – present

In this article, I will introduce three topics I have covered in the Chinese classroom. I have broken these three topics down into: why I selected to teach them, how I taught the lesson and have included some of the work the students produced on this topic. I think it is really important to include the student’s work because it really shows their understanding of these topics and ability to ‘think outside the box’. Free thought and opinions are something I have really tried to encourage and build during my time here teaching in China.

stories of people who have taught in chinaTeaching in China is fantastic because the teaching topics are extremely flexible. I teach older students, mainly 16 year olds, who have a really good grasp of English. Something that I have noticed since living in China is the total obsession over written English grammar. Many of the existing English classes are taught by a teacher at the front going through sentence structures and grammar patterns. To be honest, when I am quizzed in the staff room on which grammar structure works best, I struggle with choosing the correct answer!

The Chinese education system is extremely competitive and very exam focused. As a result it can seem rather ‘black and white’ the majority of the time. The students are given grammatical tests most days and their scores are listed for all the other students to see. Just last week one of the students also told me their parents receive instant phone notifications of their children’s test results and where they are ranked in the class. This kind of learning environment halts creative thinking, as thinking outside the box may not get you the highest marks compared with regurgitation information taught from books. With such a focus on academia here in China, I divert from teaching my students heavy based content, and I really try to base my topics on life lessons for the students. Practicing their oral English is also of most importance to me.

Resilience: mistakes are a good thing

There is a tendency, especially in the Chinese education system, to fear making a mistake. I learnt this quite early on when attempting to play the game ‘hangman’ with my students. They seemed rather uncomfortable playing what I considered as a trivial easy game and to begin with I could not understand why. Then I realised it was due to the fear of making a mistake – the game revolves around guessing rather than knowing. The students did not like the idea of standing in front of their 50 other peers and getting something wrong. I found this really fascinating. It inspired my class for the following week, entitled ‘mistakes & resilience’.

The resilience lesson outlined mistakes, challenges and setbacks – it claimed that these are exactly what makes us human and actually provides essential life lessons for us. This lesson started with a debate: is making a mistake a good thing or a bad thing? Many of the students reckoned it was a bad thing, as mistakes can make you fail exams, lead you to make bad decisions or make a big change in your life. I asked them to give me 45 minutes to change their mind.

We started with learning some key words: setback, challenge, mistake, struggle, inspire, ‘in my early life’, determined, inequality. They had to form a sentence with each of these new words. Then, I told them about the first time I came to China on my own. I was 18 years old and attending a summer programme in Shanghai. I arrived at Shanghai airport where it was pouring with rain and so stupidly jumped at the opportunity of being offered a taxi by a man holding an umbrella over my head. This was unsurprisingly a con in which I got into an unmarked black taxi and was charged about 20 times the price of what the actual 10 minute journey should have been. Whilst this was a mistake and upset me at the time, I told them it was in fact a great lesson. A lesson to not rush into things, a lesson to not trust everyone just because they seem nice at first and a lesson to only get a taxi from a taxi rank!

Then we looked at the story of Jack Ma, one of China’s richest men and cofounder of Alibaba (China’s Amazon / Ebay). However, throughout his early life Ma overcame many setbacks. After University, Ma applied for 30 jobs in his home city of Hangzhou, China. He was rejected from every single one. When KFC opened in his hometown in the 1980s, 24 people applied for the job, and 23 were hired. He was not one of them. There are many more examples of Jack Ma’s setbacks but continued resilience, and we discussed some of these. I introduced the idea that the word ‘No’ can stand for ‘New Opportunity’ – one of the students pointed out if Ma’s KFC application had been a yes, rather than a no, he would be working at KFC. Instead, the new opportunity presented allowed him to become one of China’s richest men.

Finally, we looked at Reggie Nelson, who challenged economic inequality in London to gain an amazing graduate job. As a determined 18-year-old, he door-knocked his way to a job by searching on the internet for the ‘richest area in London’, going to this area and asking its residents how they managed to buy a house there. After a few hours, one of the residents invited him in for a cup of tea, offered him work experience and found him a mentor. He ended up pursuing Mandarin and Economics at University, and working in London.

We ended the class in a reflective way: I’d told them about my mistake when I first came to China, we looked at the setbacks Jack Ma had faced throughout his life and finally Reggie’s ability to overcome the challenge of inequality in London. We ended with a class discussion: why is it important to make mistakes, to have setbacks and face challenges?

This was one students’ take from the class: ‘Someone once asked the question: will computers one day surpass humans? The answer is no because humans make mistakes, but computers don’t. People, after making mistakes, will think about how to put things right or wrong, think about how to better their actions, and think about the root causes behind everything and the results. After doing some things in this way talent can progress. Indeed, because computers lack the ability to think they can only act according to human’s instructions. In my opinion, young  people should do more things that they want to do, not including crime of course. Youth is our capital. When we have experienced some things and meet new people, we have our own unique views and opinions of life and the world. We will grow from these things and these people, getting a new view of life. Therefore, making mistakes is not a negative thing. Human beings learn from their mistakes and experience. As a result, humans can continue to live’

Understanding the important things: health is wealth

teaching chinese students englishModern China’s economic story has been a fairytale for many families. For many middle class Chinese families, there has been a transition from their grandparent’s generation who struggled to eat to a new generation that has many opportunities, things and relatively high disposable income. This has been the story of success for so many. Yet, as a teenager I think it is really important to have an appreciation for money and a true value of it. Something I found interesting is that none of my students have part-time jobs, despite being 16 years old. Their homework load is far too high, and any free time on the weekend is spent either in extra-classes and private lessons or doing homework. I decided to do a class on the true meaning of wealth as I think it is important at 16 years old to have an idea of what is truly most important in life.

As a way to kick off some class discussion, I drew a triangle on the black-board. At one tip I wrote ‘health’, the next ‘wealth’, and the other ‘happiness’. Then I asked everyone to pick two of these things. It was fascinating to me – naturally I thought many would pick the same as me, health and happiness. And yet the majority went for ‘health’ and ‘wealth’ because ‘if I have wealth I will buy things that can make me happy’. This was an answer I got time and time again. Many also picked happiness and wealth, claiming they would rather be rich and a short life, than have a poor but long healthy life.

We started with learning some key words: earn, inherit, co-founder, ‘health is wealth’, ‘money cannot buy happiness’. They had to form a sentence with each of these new words and phrases. After this, we looked at the story of Steve Jobs. As the co-founder of Apple, Jobs had an extremely successful career and was hugely rich. However, at the age of just 56, Jobs died after a long battle with Cancer. At the time of his death in 2011, Jobs’ worth was estimated at $10.2 billion. What is this money worth if life is cut so short? Knowing his cancer was terminal, Jobs said ‘my favourite things in life don’t cost any money. It is really clear that the most precious resource we all have is time’. With this in mind, I passed around chalk and asked each student to write on the board something they enjoy doing that is free. ‘Spending time with my family’, ‘swimming in the sea’, ‘a summers day’, ‘friends’, ‘family’, ‘true love’, ‘my parents giving me a hug before I go to sleep’, ‘your lessons!’ – these were just some of the responses they came up with.  

After this I split the class in half, half A and half B. They were all given a scenario that they had just won 100 billion RMB. Half A had to write how it had changed their life for the better, and half B had to write how it had changed their life for the worse. I then called on people to stand up and read their response. We finished with some discussion based learning. I put forward the following questions to them, telling them that actually there was no right answer:

  • Is it better to earn money, win it or inherit it?
  • What are disadvantages of being rich?
  • Should global wealth be re-distributed evenly? Why? Why not?
  • Does having lots of money help you in EVERY situation? What situations can you think of when it doesn’t?
  • Would you accept thisYou have infinite money but you can never speak again.   

This was one students’ take from the class: ‘For me personally, I don’t think success necessarily has to be linked with money. People can be successful in many different ways. Surely, for some people success means having lots of money and power. But for others who pursue very different things in life, success may have nothing to do with them. Many famous artists had their lives in complete destitution, but are still considered successful. Take Van Gough for example, he had neither money nor power during his entire life, but can we say he’s not successful? I surely think not. I think the path to success is the most important thing. For example, Jack Ma failed several times in the GaoKao and other things. But he didn’t give up, only tried his best to succeed. And at last, he founded Alibaba. I think Jack is not only happy with his success but more with his steps to success. So, to sum up, I think being wealthy and successful means finding your true passion in life and going to great lengths to pursue it.

The importance of kindness: Good Samaritans

It is really interesting, often in China people are resistant to act as a ‘good Samaritan’ in fear of landing themselves in a con. In the past there have been cases of good Samaritans having it thrown back in their face; a random bystander helping someone who has been caught in a traffic accident, only to be blamed for the accident and having to pay for damage expenses. Homeless scams in which the money does not go directly to the person in need but a wider criminal network who prey on the vulnerable to get money.

games to play in chinese classroomI decided to do a class to remind the students the importance of being kind and doing the right thing. Kindness promotes empathy and compassion; which in turn, leads to a sense of interconnectedness with others. When we do nice things for other people, we feel better and the recipients of our acts feel better, which makes them more likely to be kind to other people. We outlined these ideas in the start of class.

We then looked at a story in Boston that had recently featured in the newspaper. It was about a homeless man, Glen James, who turned over to police a backpack stuffed with nearly $42,000 worth of cash shortly after he found it in a shopping mall. He gave it to police who were passing, who found the owner. James was given a special citation from  a Boston Police officer ‘for his extraordinary show of character, decency and honesty’. After reading this as a class, I split the class into small groups and asked them ‘how does this story make you feel?’. Many said it made them feel happy, as they were touched that someone with so little money would find the backpack and give the money back. Others said it was sad that someone has so much, and can afford to be walking around with $42,000 in a backpack, whilst others have so little. Some felt pure respect for Glen James, saying he must be a good man because he remained honest and true to his heart. Others thought he was foolish to give back the money and should have kept it for themselves. One girl felt really upset that he had received only a praise and no actual physical rewards for his actions.

I had not told the students, but as they soon found out the story actually continued. After this story was published, many Americans were so touched and inspired that more than $68,000 in donations have poured in from people around the country for Glen James. The students felt really touched by this.

As I previously mentioned, I strongly focus on building the students’ oral English and getting them to think outside the box. For the next activity I gave lots of scenarios and asked the students ‘what should you do?’. The scenarios were as follows:

  • You know your brother is going to cheat on his GaoKao. He will get into Peking University but he has not done it honestly. What should you do?
  • You pay for some food at the shop and the shop assistant gives you too much money back. What should you do?
  • You are really exhausted, sitting on the metro. An old lady gets on and there is no seat. What should you do?
  • You find a bird with a broken wing. But you are on your way to school. If you help, you will be late to school. If you don’t help, the bird will die. What should you do?
  • You’re in a shopping mall and there is a small child crying because they lost their mum. Would you help?
  • Is stealing ALWAYS wrong?

At the end of lesson I set them some homework, and they all looked at me very confused as one of my rules is that I never set homework. As I wrote it out they began to smile, their homework that week was to do a random act of kindness in Suzhou. 🙂

This was one students’ take from the class: During the term, we have had a class about good Samaritans. According to the report, a homeless man found a bag full of money in public. The money in the backpack could make him instantly become a millionaire as long as he just took the money away. However, he didn’t do that. What touched me was that he gave the bag to its owner. After reading this report, many people said that the world we live in is very unfair. There are so many rich people in the world, but so many poor people at the same time. A few days later, many people were so touched that they raised more money for the man than what was originally in the bag. As the saying goes, one good turn deserves another. In my opinion, each one of us should learn from the good qualities in this man. Remember, even if your kindness is not rewarded, you will be satisfied with your soul. Besides, sometimes you can get unexpected surprises as a result of your actions just like this homeless man! So, let each one of us become a good Samaritan!


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