This summer, I once again returned to my alma mater, Shanghai’s East China Normal University (ECNU), to take advantage of a new preferential policy directed at “free admission” students — those whose tuition fees have been waived in return for a pledge to teach for a set period after graduation. After completing our degrees, we free admission students can also return to our former universities during the summers and take master’s-level classes for free.
Returning to my old stomping grounds is a wonderful feeling. At ECNU, we can engage with some of the most progressive education in the country. However, the person I am now is very different from the person who left a few years ago to work at Lhasa High School in the beating heart of Tibet. Sometimes I wonder whether the didactic theory I’ve learned at ECNU will ever take root in Tibet.
This past year of teaching in Lhasa seems to have passed in the blink of an eye. The best thing about the experience was that even though I was starting as a new teacher in my first post, I was still able to experiment with different styles of teaching, thanks to the liberal teaching culture at Lhasa High.
At many schools tucked away in China’s vast interior, subject teachers will gather once or twice a week to draw up a curriculum based on common texts. Without a doubt, this manner of lesson preparation results in especially thorough lesson plans. However, to a certain degree, it also limits a subject teacher’s ability to perform to their fullest potential, because they lack the freedom to base their teaching entirely on their own expertise and passions.
At Lhasa High, subject teachers generally plan classes on their own. Each teacher is therefore able to express themselves as they see fit, but this also makes it difficult for teachers — especially new teachers like myself — to recognize where we fall short.
I believe that to learn a language, one can’t just focus on the textbook, as this is but one of many teaching tools. A Chinese class consists of instruction in language, literature, and culture. Students must not only learn to read and write, but also gain an appreciation for the content that they are reading.
As such, I often gave the students in my Chinese class the opportunity to engage with texts outside of the prescribed curriculum. Sometimes, these exercises would be based on a word from our curriculum texts. This word could have some kind of classical allusion, or be related to a certain school of thought or set of beliefs. It could reference the daily lives of the ancients. Sometimes, my supplementary material included the original classical Chinese text that provided the basis for whatever modern text we were reading in class. At other times, it was an article related to the subject we were currently analyzing. Perhaps it was this that keeps most of my students attentive and active during class time.
In all honesty, while I continue to introduce supplementary material to the classroom, I do worry that this type of system may not be feasible. Perhaps my education methods will hurt the students’ test scores, as it may distract them from the core knowledge needed for their exams. Students from Tibet tend to perform much more poorly than the rest of the country.
It wasn’t until I started teaching my class of first-year high school students that my worries about my teaching methods began to dissipate. During the previous semester, this class had ranked last out of all of Lhasa High’s freshman classes on two important standardized exams. Additionally, their average score was substantially lower than that of the class immediately above them. When I took over their class during the second semester, I didn’t have high hopes for improving their scores; I merely applied the same teaching techniques I was already using in my other classes and hoped that everyone would try their best.
Zhang Min and her students pose for a photo during an activity at Lhasa High School, Tibet Autonomous Region, June 17, 2017. Courtesy of Zhang Min
After half a semester, they had already made visible improvement. During the midterm exams, I assumed that while their average language and literature scores would probably still be the lowest out of all the freshman classes, the point differentials might at least be smaller. What I never imagined was that they would leap up the rankings to become the second highest-scoring class in their grade. I never imagined that their improvement would come so quickly — and of course I was delighted. At the same time, the students’ accomplishments allowed me to feel more confident in my teaching abilities. It’s impossible to conclude that the students’ improvement came down to me alone, but I’d like to think I can take some of the credit.
When my students found out that I was returning to Shanghai during the summer vacation for my master’s classes, they surprised me with fresh flowers and gifts before my departure from Lhasa. I was moved by their thoughtfulness. My class of now-precocious freshmen even made me a scrapbook expressing their well wishes. Some students wrote that while they had previously disliked literature, it was now their favorite class. Other students said that my Chinese class has broadened their view of the world, and that they never imagined a Chinese class could be so interesting.
During my extremely stressful summer course, I have often flipped through this scrapbook. Doing so simultaneously gives me joy and motivates me to make the most of my studies. I remember that I am still young, that there are always was to improve my teaching, and that I must continuously adjust my methods in order to achieve optimal results.
Translator: Christine Liu; editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: Two teachers walk through the campus of Lhasa High School, Tibet Autonomous Region, June 7, 2017. He Penglei/CNS/VCG)