One way that China’s ubiquitous messaging app WeChat distinguishes itself from competitors is through its group chat function. Public attention has been drawn to the questionable antics of groups of work colleagues, relatives, and old classmates in the past. Now, however, it’s teacher-parent WeChat groups’ turn to come under fire. With the start of the new school term in September, netizens came out in force to mock viral articles detailing the overdramatic, sycophantic behavior of the parents in these groups.
Teacher-parent WeChat groups are designed to provide a direct line of communication between those who look after children at school and these children’s guardians at home. Unlike in the West, the Chinese education system lacks a culture of holding parent-teacher conferences. Previous generations of Chinese parents and teachers stayed up to date by writing notes back and forth, and parents often receive class teachers to the family home; later generations used telephone calls and text messages to communicate. Today, however, the audio messaging and video chat functions on WeChat allow parents and teachers to talk to each other whenever and wherever they please.
WeChat’s sheer convenience, however, is becoming a cause of stress for teachers and parents alike. As the app gives group members the ability to respond immediately, many teachers feel pressure to be at parents’ beck and call 24 hours a day. As a result, teacher-parent groups have stopped serving their original role as conduits of informative and harmonious dialogue between families and schools, and have instead devolved into a free-for-all in which parents argue, show off, and bootlick their way to currying favor with the teachers.
Relationships within teacher-parent chat groups are subtle and complex. In the course of supposedly normal interactions, parents will casually compete with one another, virtue signaling the high esteem in which they claim to hold their children’s teachers. Students, conspicuous in their absence from the groups, are in reality the subject of all communication, as parents fight tooth and nail to get them special treatment from their educators.
The result is a grotesquerie of unbridled sycophancy, a what-we-talk-about-when-we-talk-about-teaching scenario in which parents praise the teachers to the moon, when of course they’re actually showing off their own or their kids’ achievements. Xiao Wang won gold in an essay contest, you say? Then you simply must send a message thanking Mrs. Li for all her help — just make sure you do it in the group, so everyone else knows, too.
Teachers’ Day, held on Sept. 10 every year, provides plenty of classic examples of the genre, as WeChat groups are awash with parents tagging teachers in seemingly endless streams of well-wishes. Some parents even trot out their kid’s grandparents so all three generations can wish the teacher a happy holiday together, while others have their kids record special video messages. This year, a father honored his kid’s teacher by composing a poem in the classical style.
WeChat groups are not just good for brownnosing competitions, though. Many parents flood these groups with feel-good essays in a style reminiscent of “Chicken Soup for the Soul,” an American book series of motivational stories that enjoys incredible popularity in China. Still others post product advertisements or digital hongbao — red envelopes stuffed with virtual money.
Some teachers use the groups to publicly rebuke parents or list a student’s flaws. Usually, this comes in the form of divulging which students don’t do their homework, talk too much in class, or break other school rules. Recently, Chinese microblogging platform Weibo was all atwitter after a user posted screenshots from a group chat in which a parent accused a teacher of wrongly confiscating their child’s mobile phone, sparking an argument.
As these groups have become increasingly problematic, local education departments have found themselves forced to issue regulations to bring them under control. Last month, the education bureau of Shanghai’s Jing’an District published a “Pact for the Creation of Middle and Elementary School Class WeChat Groups,” in effect banning all posts unrelated to students and schools, including advertising and red envelopes. It also prohibited criticizing particular students by name and revealing student grades and class rankings. In April, another Shanghai district, Pudong New Area, issued similar guidelines.
Fraught parent-teacher relationships are not a new phenomenon in China, but WeChat has added another dimension to them. As an elementary school student in the ’90s, even before the spread of computers and the internet, I heard stories of parents fawning over teachers, of gifts changing hands, and of students from well-connected backgrounds or those whose parents gave their teachers gifts during the holidays being named class monitors. In 2014, the national government tightened controls on gift giving in the education system, but underhand practices persist.
It has been well-documented that China’s unbalanced education system — with its variable quality across cities and provinces; its emphasis on competitions, grades, and rankings; and its grindingly difficult college entrance exam — has created an environment of intense competition and anxiety. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that a pact aimed at admonishing parents for their role in creating this situation will resolve its underlying problems.
In the last three or four years, the growing popularity of new communication tools like WeChat groups have reshaped the way parents and teachers interact and have exacerbated their feelings of anxiety, which frequently manifest themselves as extreme behavior. Parents worry that if they don’t show due respect, teachers will treat their child poorly, and so moms and dads resort to cheap flattery. Teachers, for their part, are already overworked and hardly want to spend their free time being pestered by parents. Before long, everyone just feels exhausted, and no one has actually achieved anything.
Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Zhang Bo and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: Mothers gather around to look at a mobile phone outside a high school in Beijing, June 7, 2017. Qin Ran/IC)