I recently had a long talk, actually a series of long talks, with one of our younger foreign teachers about what it means to be considered a “good teacher” in China by one’s administrators and school owners.
To understand my answer to this question first requires that one consider the role of the foreign English teacher in China in its proper context: It’s either to meet a highly contested and resented national Ministry of Education foreign language requirement that compels schools to expose Chinese students to a native speaker or—in the case of a private English language school—to make money for the school owner. In this context, the correct answer is clear: A “good teacher” is one who is popular with the students, makes few demands of the school, asks very few questions and essentially does whatever he or she is told. It’s really that simple.
This young foreigner is more sincere than most. He would love to think of himself as a good teacher—and perhaps he has the natural ability to be a good teacher one day and maybe he will finish his degree next year, go on for additional training and become a real one in his own country. Only then will he ever truly know if he is any good—only when popularity is no longer the only criterion being used to measure his performance.
I’m not suggesting that a teacher’s popularity with his or her students is insignificant or that it says absolutely nothing about the quality of a teacher: It often does. It’s just that when all the foreign English teacher is required to do in China is engage students in simple conversation and keep them coming back, it’s difficult at best to know precisely what that popularity truly means.
I know of a foreign “teacher” in China who is extremely popular with his students (actually, I know several just like him). There is only one problem with him as a teacher from my perspective: His students don’t seem to be learning anything. That is to say, most of his students—even the ones who have been attending his classes for years—can barely communicate in English. He is funny, he is engaging, he is thoroughly entertaining and he has an intuitive understanding of the psyche of young people that is quite impressive. His control over those classes of otherwise bored, overworked, terribly fatigued and mentally exhausted prepubescent Chinese kids is exemplary: It’s just that no one is truly learning anything of substance and—in all fairness to him—that’s because he isn’t trying to teach anything of substance. You see, he knows that 80% of his students don’t really want to be there and whether he could teach truly motivated students is entirely unclear as he had never taught one day in his life before moving to China. In that regard, he understands his role here in China as a foreign English teacher better than most—or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he accepts it better than most. (PS. He doesn’t sing in class that I am aware of, but he does have a slapstick comedy routine that would put even the Three Stooges and Marx Brothers to shame.) He is, in my opinion at least, the proverbial and quintessential “foreign monkey.” And, boy oh boy, is he damn good for business.
Aside from being affable and entertaining, is it possible to be popular with one’s students in China based on and limited to the quality of the material being taught and learned? Yes it is, but that is an outcome that is primarily (if not only) possible with older students (particularly university and corporate students and, possibly, Western-bound senior middle school students) and, in the former instance, appreciation would rarely extend beyond one’s students unless that teacher is able to “give face” to one’s superiors by, for example, helping the department to show better at university- and provincial-wide English contests.
One year after I began teaching at a key provincial university, the university’s teaching office was forbidden by my department chair to provide me with my students’ teaching evaluations because they were significantly better than hers. (For the sake of clarity, I should also quickly add that at no time did I ever attempt to teach “oral English”: I would simply distribute interesting articles in class covering various topics I thought would appeal to 21-year old students, e.g., articles about relationships and dating one would find in magazines such as Psychology Today or Time, and encouraged them to speak freely, think independently and challenge me as much as possible: no easy feat in China.)
Is my young friend really a good teacher? I sincerely have no way of knowing the answer to that question for sure because he’s never had any genuine teaching experience outside of being hired to be popular and good for business in China. It’s not as if I can review his students’ exam scores, objectively test their proficiency in specific subject matter he was hired to impart, or even examine the existence of a correlation between attendance in his classes and performance on the College English Test (CET-4 and -6). I know he’s going home this summer for the explicit purpose of finishing his degree. I truly hope he does finish and I further hope that he gets a job as a real teacher so that one day he can answer that question for himself.