The day starts early at Guangya School in Dujiangyan, Sichuan, China. At 7am sharp, music starts blasting from loudspeakers all over campus, welcoming the day and waking up the students in their dorms as well as the teachers in their apartments. Still tired, they all make their way to the cafeteria in order to have breakfast: rice soup, dumplings and hard-boiled eggs.
After that, the students gather to raise the Chinese flag together. This is a ceremonial act for them which they take very seriously and every day different students have the honor to execute it. It goes along with music, singing, saluting the flag and pledging love to their country as well as their school.
Classes start shortly after. As someone who saw learning more as a dreadful duty than a pleasure during high school, I am amazed every day by how eager everyone here is to gain knowledge and continuously better themselves. Of course I can only speak for my own lectures and they might not be fully representative, since my main job as a foreign English teacher is to get the students to engage, interact, and have fun with the English language. Therefore I play a lot of games, think outside the box, try keep the lessons interesting and as far from ‘textbook learning’ as possible. But the pupils I teach make that extremely easy for me. Although their English is very limited, they are passionate to broaden their horizon and interested in everything that has to do with the western world. When I speak they hang on my lips, absorbing every word, even though they only understand half of what I say.
Students love foreigners!
After class, students come to me and ask me all sorts of questions. “Do you speak Chinese?” “Can I have your phone number?” “Are you married?” They write me love letters (as you can see in the pictures above) and even ask for my autograph. Usually I am so flattered that I comply and end up spending the entire break writing my name on 40 notebooks.
At 10.30am, the students get a 25 minute break. During this time they all gather at the school yard and exercise together. They dance to music, do stretching or run laps. While the excitement with which these activities are executed greatly varies, it is interesting to see the effects that this small sporting activity has. Many students who were tired, cranky or unable to concentrate before, return to their classes fully at ease.
But these breaks are also necessary for another reason: a Chinese school day is very long. Since I am teaching at a boarding school, the students live here during the week and only go home for the weekends. That’s why they have to be kept busy from morning until late evening on school days. There are a lot of classes to attend and especially for the older students, who are about to apply for colleges and possibly want to get a scholarship to go abroad, school can be very stressful here. The pressure from teachers and parents often is intense and the work load in form of homework and exams is extensive. That’s why it is school policy to try to create a balance between classes and leisure time activities.
These activities range from sports like football, basketball, dancing or ultimate Frisbee to business activities like having your own student-run campus café or gym. You can take cooking classes, acting classes or language classes. They even have their own counter strike group at school! It is a lot of fun for the children, since they can join whichever group they want, and it is a great way for the teachers to get to know their pupils outside of class. In the evenings I often hang out in the student café, drink green tea, use the fast internet there and chat with students about their plans in life. There really is an atmosphere of socially being together and learning from each other as opposed to just trying to get good grades and get out of there.
That is one of the many things I really like about this school. Again, I am not sure how representative that is for Chinese schools in general, but it sure is different from the way I experienced school in Germany.
Prejudices and reality of the chinese school system
I had plenty of prejudices about the Chinese school system before I came here. I imagined students that study the entire day without being able to enjoy their lives. I expected students that are forced to memorize huge amounts of information without learning how to apply it. And I thought that the sole purpose of school in China was to prepare children for their future academic career.
Now I have to revise these prejudices. Yes, children’s lives in China are completely dominated by school, but school here is not only a place where knowledge gets dropped onto you and then you get send home again, but it is a place where you get to try new things, hang out with friends as well as teachers and learn from them. Yes, students study very hard here, but they also get to actively relax and recover from the stress. And yes, students get intensively prepared for a successful academic career here. But more importantly, they get prepared for life.
Here are some impressions from my last two months at school in China: