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Teaching in China: The Differences Between Teaching Middle School and High School

Hello cherished reader!

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything here. That’s because I’ve been busy wrapping up another (semi) successful teaching year, which has kept me involved for the better part of a month. Now that the school year is over, I can finally get back to one of my true passions: writing. And for my first post back, I’ll be writing about one of my lesser passions: teaching.

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I’m… um… “teaching”

Now, not to knock on teaching. I do enjoy my job and the unpredictability of each day. The students are, for the most part, intelligent, eager, and unwittingly hilarious, themselves often being the butt of their own jokes. But like all jobs, there are days that are long, arduous struggles, days that end at the bottom of a cold bottle of beer, not out of want but out of need. And since we’re in China, that beer is most likely a Tsingtao. And no one needs Tsingtao.

Whether your days are a challenge or struggle can largely depend on how well your students behave. Having taught both middle school (初中) and high school (高中), I can tell you that there are enormous differences between the two age groups. You’d be surprised how much of a difference three years in age can make. If you’re thinking about teaching in China and are interested in teaching older kids, you must know what you’ll be getting into. Because your choice can make…

…or break…

…your teaching spirit.

Actually, it’s not that life-changing, but I do recommend being aware of the differences between middle school and high school before you jump blindfolded into one of them. But before I present the differences, I must talk about –

The Similarities

English Levels

Wait, wait, you can’t be telling me that middle schoolers’ and high schoolers’ English levels are the same? High schoolers should be speaking English much better with three more years practice, no?

Well, no, I’m not saying that middle school students’ English is at the exact same level as high schoolers. However, because inequality is still high in China and the education system is brutally competitive and segregated, the English levels of students will vary greatly depending on the schools. For example, one teacher can be teaching at a high school on the outskirts of the city and another can be teaching at a middle school in the heart of downtown, and both could say their students’ English is generally about the same.

At the same time, at both middle and high schools, you will have brilliant students. These students will impress you with their English abilities and cause you to wonder why they’re even in that particular class, or even that particular school. However, with brilliant students come, er… not so brilliant ones. These students’ English levels scrape the bottom of the barrel, and will also cause you to wonder why they’re in that particular class or school. Once these students are in high school (if they even make it there) you’ll notice that their English is still close to zero, and that’s because they plateaued in middle school and probably won’t get much better.

There will also be some middle school students that can match or exceed the ability of some high school students. And just because high school students may know more vocabulary words than middle school students doesn’t mean they are as fluent or as grammatically correct. Having taught both middle and high school in different parts of the same city, I can tell you that I had many brilliant middle school students whose English was likely better than 90% of my high school students. As I said before, it mostly depends on where your school is located.

Class Sizes

Classes in China are huge. They pack around 40 to 50 students in a single classroom in the cities, and in the countryside they may pack in as many as 80 students! Class sizes will not vary much between middle school and high school, and this presents similar problems between the two. Chiefly, it is difficult to give many students the individual attention they need, and it is also a challenge to find quieter students who may speak very well but fail to stand out in a large class. However, this is not generally what an oral English teacher in China is expected to do. They are expected to make the class entertaining, because all their other subjects are supposedly mind-numbingly boring. Students should be given an equal chance to speak, but again, it is difficult to give everyone a fair shot given the classroom circumstances.

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Typical high school classroom size. There are many camera shy students hiding under their desks

Fun

No matter what age level you teach, if you’re an idealistic person like myself, you will always find a way to have fun in the classroom. Personally, I find it easier to joke and have a good time with high schoolers, since we’re closer in age and generally like the same things. Middle schoolers’ brand of humour is more on the immature, silly side, which took some getting used to for me but I’ve learned to somewhat adapt to it. To be honest, I’ve probably laughed more and harder teaching middle school than high school. It’s nice that on some days you can come into class and feel like a 12-year old all over again.

Those are some of the general similarities between middle and high school. However, the differences are where the fun lies, and for anyone who has gone from teaching middle school to high school or vice-versa, they can be staggering. I’m sure one could write a novel about this so I’ll present to you just a few:

The Differences

Behaviour

This is the most glaringly obvious difference. The difference in behaviour will smack you right in the face. Middle schoolers are, well, loud. Walk into a classroom, especially after recess, and students will be punching each other, screaming insults, throwing things, and basically bouncing off the walls. This scene is all the more rowdy when you consider that classes have 40+ kids in them!

High schoolers are almost the complete opposite. You can walk into class sometimes and wouldn’t at all be surprised if less than 50% of the students are awake. There can sometimes be a severe lack of energy in a high school classroom, as students stay awake well into the night finishing homework and assignments, and then need to prepare for grueling exams. They are quickly realizing that life isn’t all fun and games and they’ll soon have to deal with their bleak adult futures. Middle schoolers, on the other hand, have just come out of primary school, which means they’re still kind of in “kid” mode. They aren’t yet aware of the realities of teenage life, and thus are more free-spirited, spontaneous, and eager. It’s a little sad that they can’t be crazy, wild little monkeys forever.

Teaching Methods

To account for the differences in behavior and the way students learn, you need to apply different teaching methods for each age level. You cannot expect the same lessons to work for both, though sometimes they do. Making note of how they behave is key.

For hopped-up middle schoolers, your lessons need to have a great deal more structure and routine to them. Middle schoolers can release more energy than the sun, and most of the time not in a productive way. The trick is to channel all that energy into a focused lesson or activity with clear goals or objectives. I would recommend having several students or groups doing an activity at one time, as it will be near impossible for students to sit and listen quietly to one of their classmates making a two minute speech. Play lots of games to get them to release their energy in a positive way, all the better if your games involve moving around of some sort.

On the other hand, aloof high schoolers’ energy levels are near zero, so it will be the teacher’s job to inject their classroom with a much needed energy boost!

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ENERGY BOOST! source: http://uproxx.com/dimemag/stephen-curry-super-saiyan-dragonball-z-2015-nba-finals/

Now, I don’t mean you need to be crazy and shout and do backflips around the room (though you can if you want), rather, a better way to do it is to create lessons with topics students will actually be interested in, and thus want to talk. If you’ve chosen a suitable topic, you’ve already won half the battle. The next battle is just getting them to speak. I usually just call on random students and get them to say something, anything. It can a drag sometimes but sometimes a student will say something that is an absolute gem, and you’ll be glad you didn’t give up on them.

Classroom Management

Going from teaching high school to middle school, I went from doing almost no classroom management to having classroom management take up a significant chunk of my class time (and lung capacity). When I sensed a hubbub brewing in my high school classrooms, I would need no more than raised hand and a countdown on the fingers to reel them back to attention. In middle school, a raised hand is often accompanied by shouts of “quiet!” or “安静!” (Chinese for quiet). And just when you think they’ve settled down, you open your mouth to talk and they start to raise hell again. As a result, creative methods have emerged to quiet the class. Some teachers use a sand timer to count down how long they’ve been loud, and then make them stay after class for that amount of time. Other teachers will reward them with a short video clip at the end of class, but only if they’ve been well behaved and attentive. My co-worker likes to hit students with a squeaky hammer when they’re too out of line. Middle schoolers can be managed, you’ve just got to think outside the box.

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And for all their hard work over the past term… movie day!

Whichever age level you end up teaching, you will certainly find ways to make it interesting for not only the students, but yourself as well. What is most rewarding about teaching students at this age is seeing them grow behaviourally and intellectually in such a short period of time. You’ll be amazed at what they are capable of doing if provided the chance. Just as this is an age where they learn to push at boundaries, they also need someone to help push them forward. Perhaps that someone can be you.

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