The relationship between students and teachers in China and how it differs from the UK

By Will Hutchinson

Will started work in Shenzhen in August 2014 and is about to complete his long-term contract.

In a recent interview with Teach English in China, I was asked what surprised me the most about teaching in China, and my response touched upon the student-teacher relationship in school. The stark difference in connection between a student and a teacher in China compared to the UK is quite shocking at first, and it took me a while to become accustomed to the way in which teachers and pupils interact in formal (classroom) and informal (outside the classroom) setting. At first, as my school is a boarding school, I believed that the behaviour was unusual because of the increasingly pastoral role my colleagues take in students’ lives, however with further research it is evident that my school is certainly not unique in its approach to the student-teacher bond.

Before I arrived in China, I had an idea of how I expected the relationship to be in class. Let’s be honest, there are stereotypes created by films and TV shows that we see, suggesting Chinese students will be hard-working and studious, marshalled by severe, strict teachers in a pretty bleak school environment. In my mind, I was certainly expecting the relationship to be similar to that of teachers and pupils in UK classrooms, if not more distanced. There are elements of this stereotype that are rooted in truth, however there are parts that are complete fiction. We all know what school was like in the UK. The vast majority of students don’t particularly enjoy it until the later years when they realise how valuable education is and have ambition to pursue it further or move into a career. Subsequently, students can be disruptive and disrespectful to teachers. In fact, in a Chinese textbook I read recently, it describes English and US schools as having severe discipline problems, painting them as places where chairs are thrown every lesson and teaching is like going into battle. We know that this is pretty much fiction but I would definitely say British students have a lot less respect for teachers than their Chinese peers. However, new teachers still struggle with discipline in Chinese classes, much like new teachers in the UK struggle, and the older, experienced teachers manage their classrooms with iron fists in China, just like the UK (albeit the Chinese iron fist is a lot scarier than in the UK).

I have sat in new teacher’s classes with students continuously talking over the teacher and was surprised…these are the studious hard-working students I had imagined in the UK. However, differences still exist. Walking into and greeting a class is responded to by the children standing to attention and replying in chorus. Every time a student answers a question they will stand to address me. These things hint at the esteem in which teachers are held in China. In stricter teacher’s classes, there is deathly silence as students copy from the board or loud ringing chorus as they recite from textbooks as the teacher patrols around. It’s a pretty intimidating environment that I certainly would have had a game of “Bogeys!” in but in an education system where academic ability is monitored so closely, old teaching techniques and an attitude of ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’, produce consistent good grades when students are simply taught to pass an exam.

In an informal environment outside the classroom, teachers are entering dangerous territory if they get particularly close to a student in the UK, or they treat them any differently; and that’s a shame. To me, a teacher is a responsible adult who a student should be able to turn to for advice about pretty much anything. They are a role model, educator and ultimately they should be trustworthy. Unfortunately, incidents involving inappropriate conduct and relationships between teachers and students in the UK have damaged those relationships between teachers and pupils, restricting actions with red tape and limiting how students and teachers interact. Both parties are hesitant for fear of breaking the law or getting sacked as a result of a misinterpreted gesture or act. I’m not saying these regulations are unnecessary, because they absolutely are. Protecting children is of paramount importance. I am simply arguing that it can result in it becoming more difficult for a teacher to play the part of a trustworthy role model when a simple touch can result in a lawsuit and the sack.

The teacher-student bond is the absolute polar opposite outside the classroom in China. In essence, the relationship appears to be significantly more personal than a student-teacher relationship in the UK. The words ‘touchy-feely’ instantly come to mind when I try to describe it to people. I don’t mean that in an inappropriate way at all, far from it. Culturally, the Chinese concept of personal space is not existent and people will get up close and personal in any situation. That took some getting used to at first and in situations where being so close to another person is avoidable, I will still take a step back as it can be quite uncomfortable. Getting up close and personal is not reserved for foreigners either, everyone does it to everyone. It’s just the way things are.

Will in China 2

Will teaching a class in Shenzhen

The most obvious differences in interaction lie in time between classes in the office or after lessons have finished for the day. I often see students sitting with their arm around a teacher as they both look at a computer and this seems to be the norm. Or a student will be walking to a class hand-in-hand with their teacher. These students are at least 14 years old and they are displaying behaviour that you would expect to see in a primary school. The maturity level of students is an entirely different discussion that I won’t get into in this article; all I will say is that it is much lower than the UK. The closeness between students and teachers is strange to witness at first, as had these things happened in the UK, the teacher would be out of a job straight away. It is worth mentioning that these interactions do not cross genders – you would never see a female pupil holding a male teacher’s hand or a male pupil with his arm round a female teacher. So, there are obviously some boundaries but they are significantly less restrictive than the laws (I don’t know what the laws are surrounding Chinese schools) in place in the UK. In addition to this, students actively seek out the phone numbers and WeChat (Chinese WhatsApp) of their teachers, and staff willingly give it. In fact, all staff, including myself, have desk labels with our phone numbers on so we can be contacted by students with questions. I found it particularly frustrating as it simply means you cannot escape work, a point that I explained further in my interview. There is a clear boundary between professional and personal life in the UK, and that does not exist in China. The novelty of having a foreigner to talk to on WeChat just doesn’t seem to wear off!

With further research, this cultural difference apparently stems from traditional Confucian values that have transcended generations and still remain evident in schools today. Confucius described five main hierarchical relationships in a well ordered society – that of ruler and subject, parent and child, older sibling and younger sibling, husband and wife and older friend and younger friend. All relationships fall into these categories, including teacher and student (master and disciple), and this relationship is viewed in the same way as parent and child. This explains the evident closeness and respect that students have for their teachers. Students accept their teacher’s word as law in China, whereas in the West, we are taught to question and form our own conclusions. As Chinese students move on to university and beyond, significant teachers in their lives will continue to contribute in both an academic and non-academic context. To the students, teachers are ‘masters’ who can advise them in all aspects of life, however personal. It is a very interesting topic and large numbers of academic papers have been written about the differences and significance of the student-teacher relationship in the West and China, I would recommend checking some out to gain a better understanding as this article is just an overview on what to expect.

There are no apparent positives or negatives of the significantly different relationships between teachers and pupils in China and the UK. It is impossible to pass judgement across the board because there are simply so many educational institutions in China and my experience is so narrow. All I would say, is that if you are teaching in China, it is important to set your own boundaries as to what you deem is acceptable and unacceptable. In my classroom, the students are welcome to put a hand on my shoulder when they’re looking at the computer with me but smacking me on the bum (yes, that is a thing in China and seems to be considered pretty normal amongst friends) is an absolute no-no. I originally made the mistake of giving out my WeChat, but the constant barrage of messages led me to block and delete my students as it was just too much. I value my personal and professional lives equally but separately!