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    Learning Curve: Young Teachers Strive as Class Leaders

    Serving as a homeroom teacher to provide educational and emotional support to dozens of students and their parents can test educators, especially those new to the job.

    Addressing her class for the first time, Li Xuan stepped up to the podium, crossed her arms, put on the sternest expression she could muster, and began reciting a list of rules. She wanted to send a message to every student that she meant business.

    In reality, she was so nervous her legs wouldn’t stop shaking.

    Li, who is still relatively new to teaching, had learned only two weeks before lessons started in September that her high school had appointed her as a homeroom teacher. The position is traditionally reserved for experienced educators in China, as it requires taking full responsibility for the education and discipline of an entire class, which in a major city can mean 50 or even 60 students.

    When she received the news, Li says her first thought was, “I’m done!”

    Initially, Li modeled herself on the tough teachers she remembered from her own school days. She answered questions more sharply and showed a cool demeanor to students. And it worked at first; her 10th-grade classroom would fall silent as soon as she entered.

    After a few weeks, however, the students appeared to detect that her serious and frosty temperament was just a front. She says it became obvious one day when she woke a student taking a nap in class — he openly mocked her by standing up straight, his eyes still closed, and saying, “Yes, yes, you are right, OK.”

    Now, as she enters the second year of her teaching career, Li feels she no longer has any prestige among her students. Rather than the respectful honorific of “teacher,” some call her “sister” to her face or by her name. They even poke fun about her “tigress approach” at the start of the semester.

    As accommodation is tight on the school’s campus, Li shares the same dormitory building as many of her students. After evening classes finish at 9:30 p.m., students will often stop by her room either for a chat or to report a problem. She finds she has little time for herself.

    “Children can read people,” says Song Chen, who serves as a homeroom teacher at a different school. He recalls that, as a rookie teacher, no matter how loud he talked in class, students would ignore him. Yet if an experienced faculty member entered and sat at the back, discipline was instantly restored.

    Tip of the iceberg

    A 2022 paper published in the Journal of Xinjiang Normal University based on a sample survey of schools in 13 provincial regions across China found that the biggest causes of stress among homeroom teachers are workload and classroom management.

    Interestingly, it also found that schools are filling the role with more young teachers rather than senior staff. Anecdotal evidence suggests inexperienced educators are being attracted by the salary increase and kudos that come with the role.

    Zhang Ting, 23, was selected in 2023 as a homeroom teacher by her senior high school shortly after receiving her graduate degree in education. In university, she took only one course related to the role, and during her internship, her leadership experience consisted solely of overseeing students’ daily exercises. When she came on board full time, she discovered it was the tip of the iceberg.

    Now, her routine includes daily study sessions, meetings on Mondays and Fridays, lesson planning, and countless work reports, as well as odd jobs such as collecting tuition fees and drafting announcements. Her biggest headache, however, is student welfare.

    “I don’t think I’m doing well as a homeroom teacher,” she says. At the start of the semester, testing showed that one-third of the children in her class were experiencing psychological issues to some degree. She says she often attempts to reassure them that it’s normal to talk with teachers about problems.

    Last fall, three months into the semester, two students in Li’s class suspended their studies due to mental health reasons. The parents of one boy came to visit Li several times in the hope of finding a solution.

    Li feels she serves as an “emotional sponge” for students and their families. When the midterm results were announced, she had deep conversations in her office with three separate students. “When I finally got home, I had to lie down. I felt like I’d been talking for a month,” she says.

    Risk of burnout

    The emotional strain of seeing students struggle is not unique to younger teachers. Liu Zhe, who has eight years of experience, says that whenever a child in his class begins to experience symptoms of depression or anxiety, “it can be like a bomb going off — it affects everyone.”

    Many schools have introduced procedures to handle these kinds of special circumstances. For example, Liu will meet with the parents of affected students on a monthly basis to learn about their child’s treatment, and to better understand any changes in their psychological state. There’s also paperwork designed to track a student’s behavior, as well as to protect the teacher.

    A survey conducted by researchers at the Beijing Academy of Educational Sciences found that homeroom teachers at elementary and secondary schools feel that student safety is the biggest pressure they face. Many also indicated an interest in receiving more training to improve their counseling skills.

    Yin Hongbiao, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and associate director of the Hong Kong Institute of Educational Research, warns that excessive emotional labor can lead to exhaustion and professional burnout among teachers.

    An eighth-grade teacher at a junior high school lasted just three months as a homeroom teacher. She says she felt exhausted at the end of every day.

    Li has persisted through her first semester, though she concedes she’s often been conflicted. “Sometimes I think I don’t want to be in charge of everything, and then at other times I tell myself that I’m the homeroom teacher and I should shoulder the responsibility.”

    Yet, in addition to students’ anxieties, teachers must also handle their parents. Studies by the Beijing Academy of Educational Sciences suggest that those people who feel they lack the necessary education or counseling ability to help their child will contact teachers more often, as they fear their child’s academic performance will inevitably slip.

    “I’ll get questions like, ‘Why did my child score well in exams when they were in junior high but now they’re barely passing?’ It can get on your nerves,” says Li, who adds that after one midterm test, she received 11 phone calls in three days from parents wanting to know where their child should improve. It’s also not uncommon for parents to call to offer their advice on how to teach.

    Li says she’s always polite when talking to parents, as she feels “too young” to be able to educate them on how to raise a child. “How dare I tell them how to do things. I’ve only been working as a teacher for a year.”

    Teachers say the problem is particularly acute among parents whose children are preparing for the gaokao, China’s national college entrance examination.

    To avoid being disturbed out of hours, teachers have begun to create group chats for students and parents using the mobile workplace app DingTalk rather than WeChat, which is more of a personal platform. However, this still has its flaws.

    Experienced teacher Liu says he had to turn off notifications for DingTalk. He often receives messages late into the night, and even if he doesn’t open them, just seeing a banner notification on his phone’s home screen can be enough to get him worrying about work, ultimately disrupting his sleep.

    Pressure points

    Whatever the channel of communication, Li recognizes that it’s important for students to vent their feelings.

    Shortly after the two children in her class dropped out due to mental health issues, she arranged a special session in which she invited students to write on the chalkboard about whatever was upsetting them. It ended up densely packed with images and words related to homework, overloading, rankings, homesickness, and overly strict teachers. Then, Li asked them to talk about these issues as a group.

    “Seeing how they responded shows that they trust me and accept me, and it also made them a lot happier. This is the true value of my work,” Li says, adding that she now feels that part of being a successful homeroom teacher is being a good listener.

    In 2020, Shanghai introduced a pilot program in which every teacher mentors at least one student. Sun Lei, who works at a senior high school in the city, says she helps mentor 12 students. She is free to choose the format for the tutoring sessions — movies, games, or discussions, for example — and receives support from school psychologists as needed. The work counts as part of the teachers’ work assessment. Students can speak to their mentor about their studies, emotions, personal life, or any other issues.

    Sun meets with seven to eight students on a weekly basis and says she can sometimes sense their anxieties ease as they share their thoughts with her. However, she feels more specialized help is needed for students struggling with particular issues or subjects.

    While measures are being taken to ease the workload on young minds to improve their overall mental and physical health, cities and provinces across the country are also rolling out policies and programs aimed at alleviating the emotional strain on teachers. Efforts to ease the pressure in China’s classrooms aim to benefit both students and educators.

    Reported by Li Ang.

    (Due to privacy concerns, some interviewees have been given pseudonyms.)

    A version of this article originally appeared in White Night Workshop. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and is republished here with permission.

    Translator: Eunice Ouyang; editors: Xue Ni and Hao Qibao.

    (Header image: Guo Xiaopeng/IC)