I work in a school, but not a regular school – a school for after school. My students go to their regular schools Monday to Friday, 7am until 4pm, and when they’re done there (though not done with the mountains of homework, of course) they have additional classes. Not just in English, but in maths, music, anything, everything. China is an extremely populous country (stating the obvious, much?) and getting an edge, any edge, in the extremely competitive world that is Chinese childhood and teenage years is important.
It’s incredibly stressful for the students. Ask a group of 10 year olds what they did at the weekend and they’ll say “study”. Maybe they’ll a have violin lesson in the mix too. But it’s a tough life for these kids. I’ve (anecdotally) heard of parents beating their child for reading a book that isn’t a school book. The pressure to do well in the Gaokao, the end of high school exam, is enormous (and you’ll do better in the Gaokao if you go to a good high school, which means you’d better do well in your middle school exam, which means you need to go to a good primary school exam, which means going to a good kindergarten… it basically starts at birth). I’ve not seen any reports about student suicide (this is China, after all…) but across the way in Hong Kong there’s a fairly well documented student suicide epidemic – so I’d say the chances of it not happening here are slim…
Of course, I also teach children who are too young to attend normal school but are not too young to start learning English. These children can be as young as 3 and although it seems super young (and some of them really do look like little dolls!), their capacity for learning is immense and as long as it’s kept fun, I think it’s a good thing to nourish a love for learning at an early age.
This all means that my busy times are when the kids are not at their normal school. I teach classes from around 16.30 on weekdays and all day on weekends. Some of the students want to learn English (this tends to be the younger ones), some of them like chatting in English and don’t care if they make mistakes. Some students are there before they go to extra maths, extra Chinese, extra science lessons. Some are there because it’s daycare, the parents are busy and can’t spend any time with their child.
At parent’s evening, parents tell us teachers things like “you should be more strict”, “I don’t mind if you hit my child, I can write you a letter saying so” and “my child needs to study harder”. But you also get parents who tell us that they help their child study for an hour every day, they are so committed to their child’s education (and guess what: you can spot these kids easily in the classroom!). You get grandparents who don’t speak any English but who bring their grandchild to class twice a week, sitting outside the class with snacks and drinks.
I’m immensely sympathetic towards my poor overworked students, but am also aware that they’re not angels. A lot of them lack basic social skills (snatching, hitting, baring their teeth) along with the disgusting things that kids everywhere excel at (snotty faces, hands down pants, etc). Some of them are just too young, physically and mentally, to be at school. The youngest ones cry for their parents or cry because their bags are too heavy or just because.
Sometimes I look around at my students and I feel like I’m looking directly the future. These children will be the leaders of the future, possibly world leaders (these are the children of the elite, after all). They’re overflowing with potential and I want to do the best I can for them.
But am I part of a problem? Will a generation of Chinese children end up scarred because of the incredible pressure they’ve been under, the extra classes they’ve been sent to, the weight of expectation from everyone around them.
Time will tell.