Author: Huina Zheng
Huina Zheng holds a M.A. in English Studies degree and has worked as college essay coach. Her stories were published in Baltimore Review, Variant Literature, Midway Journal, Tint Journal, and other journals. She lives in Guangzhou, China with her husband and a daughter.
My nine-year-old daughter Kitten returned from school and said, “Mom, my classmates really dislike Teacher Xu. Today, many boys rebelled.”
“Yes. When Teacher Xu turned around to write on the blackboard, some boys stood up and made contemptuous or uncivilized gestures at her.”
She showed me, with her left hand across her chest and her right hand waving up and down on her left. She added, “You only do this to your enemies, which shows you despise that person. The uncivilized gesture is the middle finger.”
Teacher Xu started teaching English to Kitten’s 3rd-grade class last semester. She was in her 50s, short-haired, thin, and liked to wear dark floral skirts. Because of the epidemic regulations in Guangzhou, China, Kitten and her classmates only attended school for about six weeks last semester and had studied at home until this semester. Less than three months after school started, almost all the students in her class disliked Teacher Xu.
I asked, “Didn’t your teacher notice it?”
“She didn’t because when she turned around, the boys sat down immediately. Some students snickered quietly.”
“When did this start?”
“Last week. When Teacher Xu turned around, Ming trotted before the podium, making contemptuous gestures. No one dared to laugh. He was caught the third time. Teacher Xu turned and found he had left his seat, so she asked him to move his chair to the podium and sit there. In the second English class, some boys joined him. But they did this while standing at their seats.”
“Why did Ming do this? Isn’t he Teacher Xu’s favorite student?”
Kitten said many times that Teacher Xu was unjust because she always praised poor and never good students. Ming’s English grades were either B or C. He didn’t listen in class and talked to his desk mate, but Teacher Xu always said he was brilliant.
Once over dinner at home, Kitten said Teacher Xu told the class her favorite student was Ming. My husband said, “Teacher Xu might know Ming’s parents, so she favors him.”
I disagreed. Teacher Xu was the typical type of teacher when I was a student, who believed that praising naughty children would motivate them to be good. She also used the teaching methods and concepts of the past. During class, she asked students to read the textbook aloud repeatedly. The daily homework was to copy English words and write Chinese translations. After so many years, the English teacher still used this outdated teaching method.
In my age, teachers could treat students anyway they liked, and students were expected to obey them unconditionally. Teachers and students had a superior and subordinate relationship. But today’s kids need to be respected and recognized. Teacher Xu didn’t realize students were now different.
Although Teacher Xu preferred him, Ming was unhappy. He felt that he had done nothing to make Teacher Xu favor him. He was isolated by some classmates, saying that he was the teacher’s sycophant.
Kitten said, “When the class was over, Ting approached Teacher Xu and told her when she turned around, many boys made rude gestures. Teacher Xu asked, ‘Why?’ Ting replied, ‘I don't know.’”
The next day, I discussed this issue with Ting’s mother, who said, “Ting doesn’t like Teacher Xu, either, but she thinks it’s wrong for students to disrespect teachers.”
“Teacher Xu should have delt with students’ dissatisfaction. Otherwise, students will dislike her even more.”
“Teachers wouldn’t deal with these problems. If they did, their class wouldn’t have so many problems,” Ting’s mother said.
Every time we brought up Kitten’s class, we felt helpless. The teachers wouldn’t punish the several mischievous students, leading to a bad learning atmosphere in the class.
We didn’t want to complain, so we stopped there.
When did Kitten start to tell me she disliked Teacher Xu?
Initially, she complained about Teacher Xu’s inaccurate pronunciation and strong accent. For example, she would pronounce “great” as “gleat.” I told Kitten when Teacher Xu started learning English, she probably didn’t have English audio to learn its standard pronunciation. She could listen to the audio of the textbook instead.
Kitten said Teacher Xu never let them play in P.E. class. In July 2021, the state implemented the double reduction policy in China, allowing students to have more outdoor activities while reducing the school load. Kitten began to have four P.E. classes a week. Because there were not enough P.E. teachers, other teachers would teach the P.E. class once a week. Their math teacher, Teacher Su, taught the P.E. class before, and she let students play outside. Since last semester, Teacher Xu had been the substitute for Thursday’s P.E. class. She would teach English instead and only give students five-minute activity time.
Kitten said Teacher Xu’s lectures always overran. At the end of the second class in the morning, they had to do eye exercises, but they couldn’t because of Teacher Xu, resulting in points being deducted by the discipline inspection team. Because of it, their class could not get the weekly mobile red flag, which is to reward classes with good performance. Each class would be graded weekly, and the class with the highest score in each grade would get a red flag for the next week.
As the class monitor, Kitten reported this situation to the homeroom teacher, Teacher Wang, who said she would talk with Teacher Xu. But Teacher Xu said to the class, “Your class is the worst class I have taught for more than 30 years. Anyway, you have never got the mobile red flag.”
Kitten growled, “Teacher Xu was wrong! Our class has won the mobile red flag every semester since the first grade. Not long after this semester started, because many mischievous boys asked for a leave due to flu, we got the mobile red flag that week, and everyone was excited.”
Her father heard our discussion and said, “Teacher Xu is old, and teachers her age are all like that.”
Kitten replied, “Teacher Su is older than Teacher Xu, but she is fair and just, and we like her.”
I agreed. Age was not an excuse.
Kitten said, “Teacher Xu always emphasizes that our class is the worst. But she never does anything to help students improve. She often says she doesn’t want to teach us in the 4th grade. We don’t want her, either.”
I wanted to tell Kitten respecting teachers had always been a fine tradition in China. Students must respect their teachers, even if they punish or humiliate them. When I was a student, teachers would smack, beat, or slap students, abuse them, calling them stupid pigs, and we could only remain silent. Times were different now.
I once discussed this issue with my friend Jing. She forwarded a video to me. On the school’s military training day, it rained heavily. Students wore raincoats and stood in the rain while teachers were sheltered on the podium. A teacher said he was there with the students, who yelled, “Come down here.”
Jing said, “When we were students, we didn’t dare say that to the teacher. Now the young are different.”
“Maybe because when we were young, the overall social atmosphere was to obey authority, and we also obeyed our parents at home. But now that we are parents, we allow our children to refute. We respect them, so they don’t believe in blind obedience.”
“This is a good sign. Systemic oppression can be broken only if everyone dares to resist.”
Kitten’s classmates also expressed their dissatisfaction through action. They were noisy during Teacher Xu’s class. Teacher Xu often knocked on students’ desks, podium, and the blackboard with a ferule, shouting, “Attention! Attention!” But students generally ignored her and continued talking. Teacher Xu would yell louder, “Be quiet!” She knocked on the table harder, and the whole class could only be quiet for a while, and soon began to talk again.
I told Kitten teachers were also human beings and had shortcomings. The class monitor was the bridge of communication between teachers and students. She could try to communicate with Teacher Xu, convey the students’ ideas to her, and ease the conflicts. Kitten nodded and said she would try.
“One parent in the class called the principal and asked for a change of English teacher next term, saying that the English teacher’s class discipline was bad and her teaching was not good,” Kitten’s classmate Chen’s mother told me on WeChat.
“Did the headmaster agree?”
“No, he said he needed at least 10 parents to demand to change the teacher. Will you join it?”
“Yes.” I wrote back, “How many parents are there now?”
“With you and me, there’re only five.”
I asked the mothers of Kitten’s two classmates who were close to me and explained the situation to them. They also agreed.
The next day, when I communicated with Chen’s mother, she also found two parents, eight in total. “How about Hang’s mother?” I asked.
“Hang will transfer to another school in grade 5, so his mother doesn’t want to make trouble.”
We couldn’t disclose to parents we did not know well. If the parent told Teacher Xu, we feared she would maltreat our child.
“How about talking with Xing’s mother? She is a member of the Parents Committee, and we can talk to her about the discipline of English class and let her communicate with the teacher.”
Two days later, Kitten came home and said, “Today at the class meeting, Teacher Wang scolded the students who behaved contemptuously or uncivilly in the English class.”
“Does that work?”
“No. Some boys still made those gestures in English class. Teacher Xu would only complain to Teacher Wang about us, but she didn’t dare to discipline us,” said Kitten, purring her lips.
My childhood friend, Yun, became a Chinese teacher after graduating from college. She told me nowadays, teachers were vulnerable. When the teacher criticized a student for wrongdoing, the student refused to listen or insulted the teacher.
Once, she asked students to hand in their homework, and a boy stood up and swore at her.
“An unknown fire surged in my heart, but I still tamed my emotions.”
“How did you handle it?”
“My experience is to keep silent and stare at the student with a serious expression. Then I continued the class as if nothing happened. Sometimes the teacher’s serious expression was more effective than endless lecturing.”
“Didn’t you criticize that boy?”
“I communicated with him after class. I listened to his explanation and reasoned with him. I told him the classroom is a place to learn, not to act wildly. If his behavior affects other students, it will violate school rules, which is absolutely not allowed.”
Yun went on to say that she would communicate with parents about their children’s performance at school, and tell them not to beat or scold their children. She was a responsible teacher.
Would their class be better if Kitten’s teachers communicated with undisciplined students in the first grade?
Yun said, “Some students and parents like you, and others don’t. I’ll just do my best to teach. After teaching for over ten years, I realize the most important thing is to protect myself.”
Parents blame teachers for their inaction, and teachers worry that if they discipline students, parents will get mad and complain, and they will be suspended or fired.
This is an unsolvable dilemma.
When Kitten came home today, she told me her classmate Hang had a stomachache during English class, and when Teacher Xu asked them to read the textbook, he slumped across the desk.
Teacher Xu scolded him, “Why don’t you read the textbook? Do you want me to punish you?” Hang started crying and said, “My stomach hurts.” Teacher Xu said, “Ask Teacher Wang for a leave and go home.” Hang said, “No one is at home. My mother is on a business trip, and my father is at work.”
Teacher Xu asked Kitten to take him to the school clinic. The school nurse rubbed carminative oil on his stomach. After returning to the classroom, Teacher Xu asked him to rest on the desk. When Teacher Xu turned to write on the blackboard, only two boys made contemptuous gestures.
“So, when Teacher Xu cared about Hang, your classmates thought she wasn’t a bad teacher, right?”
“Yes,” Kitten replied. “We like teachers that care and respect us. I will tell her what my classmates think about her tomorrow and help them get along.”