My name is Greg Hopper-Moore, and I am a project administrator at EPIC. Recently, I had the good fortune to be able to visit Xi’an, China, for two weeks. Xi’an (pronounced “Shee-awn”) is home to over 8.5 million people, and 17 universities have multiple campuses in the metropolitan area. The city itself dates back over 3,100 years and is probably best known for the archeological find of the 20th century: an army of over 6,000 terra-cotta warriors and horses. The first emperor of China had this army made to accompany him to the afterlife. Approximately 6,000 life-size soldiers were buried not far from the emperor’s mausoleum, but only one warrior has been found intact. More on those warriors later.
My friend David has lived in China since 1995, when he started teaching English at the university level. Now he coordinates a program that places American and Canadian teachers in universities as English teachers. In addition to visiting David and his family, I observed English teachers from his program. I was eager to see ESL teachers in action, as I had been a foreign language teacher for 10 years at the beginning of my career. What I didn’t know was that I would be traveling to 5 different campuses in order to sit in on 8 teachers’ lessons.
Chinese students were surprised to see a Westerner sitting in the back of the classroom when they entered. For the teachers (most of them in their early twenties), it might have seemed like a formal evaluation, but my debrief sessions with them usually turned into a brainstorming session around one or more of the following issues:
- Class sizes usually run between 40 and 60 students, depending on the university. The sheer number of students makes it easy for students to “hide” at the back of the class. Large classes are also a disincentive to assigning very many homework assignments or tests.
- English classes are 2 hours long, meeting once per week. Two hours of class is a long time, so teachers have to be really prepared with several activities that will keep students engaged.
- Student populations vary widely, from postgraduate English majors to undergraduate nonmajors. Both types of classes present their own issues. Students who aren’t majoring in English are still required to take the class. These students are typically the first to stop listening.
- Finally, teachers are often left to make up their own curriculum. Without the support of a set curriculum, teachers have to decide what is most important for their students to learn. Is that grammar, pronunciation, or vocabulary? What should their focus be?
Teaching is hard work. The chances of coming out of a career in education unscathed are probably less than a terra-cotta warrior’s chances of emerging from the ground in one piece. Like the thousands of terra-cotta warriors who are in various stages of being pieced back together, teachers also need regeneration. Teachers are responsible for creating enough forward momentum to overcome student inertia, and they must pick up the pieces of lesson plans gone awry.
I admire the teachers I visited in China for their persistence and creativity. I felt honored to attend their classes, and I wish all of them an extremely profitable career.