When I first joined an NGO to teach English in rural China, I imagined standing passionately in the front of a low-tech classroom, pointing at the blackboard with 30 eager students smiling back at me. I expected each day would be an exciting challenge, serving others, and changing the world. I thought that my 2-year volunteer commitment would not only bring personal growth, but also improve rural education.

Slowly, those high hopes and colorful dreams warped into something a little less attractive than the hole-in-the-ground toilets in the back of my elementary school. As I learned more about the structure of the Chinese rural education system and the nature of my environment, I realized how limited of an impact I am actually making on my students and local community; this left me unmotivated and frustrated, in a constant state of confusion and culture shock.

In Beijing, I’ve had conversations with 6th graders entirely in English. But my own 6th graders in Yunnan Province could barely differentiate b from d. My village speaks the local dialect instead of Mandarin, the national language. For most students, English would be their third language by the time they reach age 7, and the fourth language for ethnic minorities. Although all Chinese teachers are required to teach in Mandarin, some of my local teachers can barely speak it and often resort to the local dialect. My students’ environment already places them at a disadvantage.

I used to wonder, what if my students just study extra hard? They could leave their villages and receive a top education through good grades! Social mobility through hard work is the Chinese motto, but why do less than 5% of rural Chinese students attend college as opposed to 80% of urban students?

Every morning at exactly 9:40AM, the bell belts out over the speakers, followed by an old Communist anthem. The first graders usually bolt out of their classrooms while the 6th graders calmly file out onto the school grounds in front of the flagpole proudly waving the national flag. The morning exercises begin at 9:45AM when students use the exact movements to loosen their bodies from sitting in scholar position since the 7:15AM reading classes. After 5 minutes, students stand in stiff, straight lines for the morning announcements–if you shift even slightly, the homeroom teacher comes over and whacks you in the head, pulls you by the ear, or makes you kneel on the pavement until the bell rings again at 10:00AM.

Corporal punishment is something I still haven’t gotten used to. Never have I seen public shaming as extreme as here. A 6th grade boy stole from another student during afternoon nap-time. So the next morning, he was flogged until he curled into a fetus position on the pavement in front of the other students, who were watching in awe or even laughing. A few weeks later, a teacher and his mother simultaneously flogged a fourth grader. The message was clear to the other students, this is what will happen to you if you misbehave.

There was just no room for error. How could these students have the confidence to try new things if they were scolded for nonconformity and awarded for obedience? CONTINUE READING >>

Written by an anonymous English teacher in China.