Adventures in the Dragon Cemetery

Teaching 7th Grade English 口语 in rural China (镇安 Zhen'an, 龙陵 Longling, 保山 Baoshan, 云南 Yunnan).

April 21, 2014 12:27 am

Zero PDCs and Three Months To Go

Too busy to write tonight more thoughtful reflections, but know that I have lots of thoughts whirring around in my head!

In other news, my PM left.  And I am an APM now.  

We had our final PDC this weekend.  I think it was maybe the best PDC we’ve ever had.  Hooray! Even the extremely long 1.5 hour (each) speeches from two local 领导 was possibly better and more inspiring than all of MYPDC.


Shaina’s Handy TFC Glossary to Understand the Above Post:

  • PM: program manager; supposedly your lifeline at TFC, the person who, in addition to observing you, at whom you throw your data/feelings/problems.  What happens when your PM leaves three months before your Fellowship is over?  Keep on reading to find out!
  • APM: associate program manager — a Fellow who observes other Fellows and somehow is qualified to give them feedback??  This role was actually phased out two years ago but was brought back two weeks ago in times of great desperation (read: when a PM supporting 16 Fellows leaves 3 months early, and the Chinese PM in that region plans to leave a few weeks after.)
    Theoretically a compensated job, but this is unclear, given TFC’s background.
  • PDC: professional development conferences; events for which we travel to the city on TFC’s dime, live in a below-average hotel for two nights, and sort of maybe sometimes learn things from sessions.  Or get some much needed zzz-time.
  • MYPDC: mid-year professional development conference; potentially very useful, but in reality a colossal waste of time that asked Fellows to think about entrepreneurship as we struggle with basic teaching
  • local 领导: local lingdao/leadership of education in our regions; people with whom TFC strives to build 关系; can demand to make 1.5 hour speeches and TFC must agree 
  • 关系: guanxi; what allows us to remain in 保山 schools with work visas; might be a bit tenuous given how many Foreign Fellows have quit/gone on leave/left 保山 since the start of this semester (that number is 7 and will bump to 8 at the end of this semester.)
April 15, 2014 9:38 am

"100 Percent Compliance" and Keeping Small Problems Small

In my last blog post, I mentioned that, according to our TAL training, a “good classroom” has 100 percent compliance.  (Here is also a link to a much better and already existing blog post about the topic.)

Anyway, 100 percent compliance.

Lemov says:

There is one acceptable percentage of students following a direction: 100 percent. Less, and your authority is subject to interpretation, situation, and motivation.

"Keep small problems small," our instructors (seasoned "second-year" Fellows who had actually only had one year of teaching experience) cautioned us during SI.  If you let one student break one rule, even a tiny rule, it would just be unfair to other students if you didn’t let all of them break that one tiny rule as well.  …rr any other rule. 

And then, chaos.

So that’s what the theory behind 100 percent compliance is.

I disagreed with the idea of 100 percent compliance during our Summer Institute.  I believed in a classroom that could be student run, based on trust and goodwill.  I believed in a classroom that could and would manage itself, because the students would be intrinsically invested in learning.  First year teachers will snort at these beliefs, held mostly by people who have either never taught a classroom larger than 20 students.

My first semester of teaching was terrifying.  I came in mid-year, starting at the second semester to five 55/60-student classes.  Within weeks, my classes were chaos.  Students didn’t respect me or my authority at all.  I felt like I was barely holding on, essentially just brute-forcing my way to the end of the year.  My co-fellows, however, had significantly better behaved classes.  What was the secret?

It was, apparently, “keeping small problems small.”  No small deed went unpunished, and that kept the students in line.  Forgetting a notebook was a tongue lashing.  Failing to greet the teacher was twenty copied lines of apology.  My teaching philosophy was unsuited to teaching here in China.  ”Chinese students are used to discipline and order,” I was told.  ”No matter how great your lesson is, if no one is listening, it is of no use to any of your students.”  It was true.  Many students didn’t seem to be learning anything in my class.  

100% compliance.

I jumped on this ship so quickly.  My next year (technically, semester two, for me) was much better.  I had rules from day one (I had only introduced rules out of desperation maybe halfway through my first semester.), and in addition to my rules, I had a string of consequences.  There were no exceptions to my consequences (more on that below).

I told myself that this was for the students.  Was it?  They were learning better.  They were all coming in on time to class; all students had their class materials ready before class even started.  I began to enforce “no opt out,” and students’ mastery of the material was much better than the year before.  Management was good.  It was like a dream come true.


I wrote last semester about punishing a late student and the guilt I felt afterwards.  I concluded:

The way that I’ve changed from before is that I care enough now about my students’ learning to be harsh to them.  Last year, my students came late to every class, and I was too kind and weak to punish any of them.  I would feel pity and then allow them to get off with just a reminder to be on time.  This caused us to waste so much class time.  I would constantly be opening the doors for late-comers during every single class.

My expectations for them are high because I believe they can achieve them.  They deserve someone who will hold them accountable for their actions and their learning.  They deserve a teacher who can hold back her own tears in the face of theirs, and who can continue holding them responsible.

I don’t know if I still feel this way.  I believe in high expectations, but are following orders “high expectations?”  Does bringing all your shit to class count as high expectations?  It sounded actually like very low and basic expectations you expected out of a mindless horde.

My class is better than before.  But couldn’t it be better than now?


Telling students that they all have to 100 percent comply with your rules is essentially telling them they they all have to obey you, as the authority figure in the classroom.  Something seems a little off about this.

And do we really want to instill the idea of being followers in all our students?  Ray Salazar writes:

A perfectionist discipline is, “What are students being socialized to do?”  In Teach Like a Champion, students are being socialized to be passive, mob followers.  They are being taught that recall of information is all they can, should, or be expected to do. The researcher also questioned why schools must institute militaristic, penal-system practices before they believe our students can learn.  My response is that the priority in these schools is control—not learning.

I worry.  We value management so much here in Teach For China, that we care less about how well written the lesson itself is.  I remember the first feedback I received from my IPM at SI.  ”Some kids were chattering in the back.”  Management is everything you see on the outside of the classroom, nothing of the inside workings of the lesson and the material.

A classroom of poor, rural Chinese children, sitting, listening, and obeying their (maybe white, foreign, and rich) outsider teacher.

That’s an ideal TFC classroom right there.


I don’t believe that you shouldn’t manage your class.  I also don’t believe that those who do manage their classrooms are horrible teachers who crush their students’ souls and joy and all learning, or we’d all be demonizing our school’s local teachers right now.  (I’m sure some Fellows do.)  My school’s local teachers have some of the best management I’ve seen.

I believe in discipline.  I believe in rules and I believe in order and strictness.  These things are all valuable in a learning environment.  For example, students shouldn’t talk out of turn, because it can make students who are currently speaking feel devalued or it can cause other students to miss out on something they want to hear.  Students shouldn’t come late, because it distracts others, but it also negatively impacts their own learning.  And so on.  There are reasons to have all of these expectations and requirements. 

But I’m not sure I really believe in 100 percent overarching oppression and compliance.  It just seems…a little lazy.  Maybe not as lazy as not managing your students at all and letting them just sleep during class or never take tests or do homework.  But lazy in the sense that you lump all your students together into one blob that can obey every order on every day without question.  I agree that many students need order to perform well.  

But I question where that order comes from — is it from fear of loss of control?  Or is it from a genuine desire to make the classroom a better place for all the students?

April 14, 2014 9:01 pm

"No Opt Out"

During our Foundations of Pedagogy (yeah, FOP was…a hideously awkward acronym) class, we were exposed to the TAL (Teaching as Leadership) style of pedagogy.  TAL is heavily based off of Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion, a popular (and deservedly so) book of 49 surefire teaching tips “that put students on the path to college.”

FOP class taught us that to be excellent teachers, we need 100% compliance from out students.  When I communicate instructions in class, all students must be listening and obeying to these missives.  In addition, we need to have high expectations from students; anything less is a disservice to them.  Students cannot opt out of answering questions — they do not get “days off” from participating in class and they must answer because the teacher believes that they can.  This is a specific, named technique in Teach Like a Champion.

Our Managing Program of Director in Baoshan (a TFA alum himself) came to observe my co-fellow’s class.  ”It’s very good,” he said.  But he had some feedback for Chris.  ”No Opt Out,” he had written on his notes.  Chris wasn’t supposed to let students get away with not knowing answers during cold-call.

"This is awesome advice," I thought.  I would have to make sure that I had the highest of expectations for my students.  If they couldn’t answer, I would expressly make sure that they knew they had it in them.  I owed it to my students to have these high expectations!  Anything less, and I would be looking down on them.


I experienced “No Opt Out” myself during my time in class at SI.  SI heavily disagreed with me.  It was a lot of sitting in boring classes without moving a lot, listening to sage and wise tips from second year Fellows, and I was a person who learned most by doing.  

During our Subject Pedagogy Training, the “session leader” (aka the teacher) asked me a question.  I was in the middle of answering another fellow’s question, and I had no idea what she had asked.  I blankly stared at her.  She asked another Fellow, who gave the correct answer.  Another session leader, sitting at my table, sympathetically nodded at me and told me that wasn’t my fault; she had seen that I was answering another question.  I gratefully nodded at her.  I wasn’t stupid; I just literally missed fifteen seconds of the class.

During that time I was nodding gratefully at her, I also missed the correct answer.  The session leader asked me again.

I had no idea.

She asked another Fellow, who again gave the correct answer.  She asked me again.  By this point, I was feeling embarrassed and confused.  I just wanted to not have to answer this question anymore.  I hated SPT class and I felt slow and behind.

Eventually, many shameful minutes later, I finally parroted the correct answer.

Nearly two years later, I have no idea what we learned in that class.  I don’t recall that question at all.


During my own class last semester, I felt confident that I was on my way to being a “good teacher,” at least, according to Teach For China.  My students did well; they were able to speak a relatively high amount of English compared with other Fellows, according to staff members who observed.  I was complimented on my high expectations for my students.  Sometimes when students could not answer, I rained fury down upon them.

You just practiced this for the last three minutes! What on earth were you doing during that time? You absolutely can still answer this question.”  I would push that student to still answer my question, and often, an answer would be eked out at the end.

Students, not wanting to be subject to my wrath, would often practice questions and answers among themselves before class time.

Everybody could answer every question in my class.


In my last semester, I realized something.

A student being shamed or embarrassed one time during class does not mean that student will try harder or care more in the future.

A student parroting material back to you in class does not mean that the student has learned that material.

A student answering a question correctly in class does not mean they care at all what the answer is.  Nor will they remember it years down the line, as intended.

I observed my friend Wai’s elementary class this past week.  It wasn’t a perfect class.  There were awkward, clunky moments, and the scaffolding could have been improved.

But I watched him call on a student who couldn’t answer correctly.  But the teacher didn’t yell at him or berate him, despite that he had just taught that exact material moments before.  Instead, he let him know that it was okay, and then asked another student to answer.  He did not go back to make that student answer again.

During our debrief, I asked Wai if he were being purposeful in letting that student “opt out.”  He, in fact, was; it was to create a classroom culture where students would not be afraid to be wrong or answer.  I started to disagree in my head, but then I immediately remembered my experience in SI, and how I felt, and how I didn’t even remember what on earth I was learning that day.

"That’s great," I told him.  "That’s actually really good."

And inside, I resolved to be more compassionate, more understanding, and just better in my own classroom.  ”No opt out” is harsh and may “bring results,” but maybe they’re not the results I want.

8:22 pm

Last Semester Reflections

My Fellowship with Teach For China is now drawing to a close (in no less than three months!), so I’ve been taking extra time this semester to reflect on many things relating to: teaching and education, including my thoughts on the TAL (Teaching as Leadership) model; “aid work,” especially in the context of the “educational reform” movement; and, finally, just personal reflections on my own flaws and growth during this time.

I also now have taken on a part-time APM role, so I will also be traveling around to observe other Fellows in their classrooms.  I’ve already learned a lot from the few classes I’ve observed both at my school and at other schools.

My thoughts on:

Expect some overly pensive blog posts from me in the next few months!

March 23, 2014 7:08 pm

An Accidental 91 (and Why I Might be a Bad Teacher)

I made a one big mistake in my students’ grade, and I have done nothing to rectify it.  

Last semester, I tested all but one student with our 口语 final, provided by TFC (and edited by me to fit our school’s context).  The scores of each student, out of 100 points, were posted on the walls of each 班‘s classroom.  

This semester, I reprinted out my roll and grading sheets.  I decided to keep the final grades of my students posted in a column so I could refer to them during class.  As I went through their grades, I refreshed my memory of how each student did.  

I also reorganized each list by grade.  As I went through the grade list for class 254, I realized something went wrong.  One boy student was surprisingly high on my final sheet.  This made no sense.  I remember that last semester, he was a troublemaker who could barely recognize his letters.  He sat in the very back of the class.  He often received warnings from me. 

I had typed 91, instead of 19, into the grade sheet.  19/100 was the third to lowest grade in the class.  I had accidentally given him the 10th highest grade.


I thought about how to rectify this mistake.  And if I didn’t…did it matter that much?  Kouyu isn’t officially recorded by the school; and the grades are just for the edification of the students and myself.  They know how they’re doing as students, and I know how I’m doing as a teacher.  Should I quietly pull him aside after class and tell him?  Or should I post another grade sheet onto the wall with the correct grades and not single him out?

As I stated initially, I opted for neither of those options.

What happened was that this boy-in-the-back, trouble-making student suddenly became a wonderful student this semester.  He raises his hand often.  He helps other students, lingering for 补课 (extra class) to explain phonics rules.  He participates in class.  While he was one of the bottom three students from last semester, he manages to be solidly average this semester.  

He didn’t suddenly become my best student, but the change in behavior and achievement this semester definitely noticeable.

I changed the number in my own spreadsheet.

But I can’t bring myself to tell him about my mistake, because I want him to continue to feel like and be a 91% kid, not a 19% kid.  I’ve been thinking about grades incorrectly.  Yes, I want and need that data to understand how much they know, understand, and can perform, but when I see him actively raising his hand and explaining rules to other students, the words die on my tongue and I just wave goodbye at the class.  I understand this is unfair to students who did actually work hard to achieve their grades in my class.  And, yes, I think it’s horrible to lie to students.  Lying is wrong; honesty is good.

But for now maybe there’s something a little more important than letting him know exactly what grade he really got on that final.

February 25, 2014 10:27 am
You think you know what teachers do. Right? Wrong.

This article is only marginally related to what we discussed in our MYPDC, but I do strongly believe that “quick fix” solutions by those without the necessary experience (years in the teaching system) are not the answers to any types of (educational) problems.  

I also know that this article is about the States, and I shouldn’t take it out of context, but I can’t help but worry when TFC assumes that Fellows easily become star teachers in one semester (or even two years), and then hopes for Fellows to start solving “bigger issues” on the side.

Respect that we are trying our best to be good teachers, nothing more, nothing less.  It’s a time-consuming, full time job.


The problem with teaching as a profession is that every single adult citizen of this country thinks that they know what teachers do. And they don’t. So they prescribe solutions, and they develop public policy, and they editorialize, and they politicize. And they don’t listen to those who do know. Those who could teach. The teachers.

February 24, 2014 10:01 am
To Hell with Good Intentions by Ivan Illich

I do have deep faith in the enormous good will of the U.S. volunteer. However, his good faith can usually be explained only by an abysmal lack of intuitive delicacy. By definition, you cannot help being ultimately vacationing salesmen for the middle-class “American Way of Life,” since that is really the only life you know. A group like this could not have developed unless a mood in the United States had supported it - the belief that any true American must share God’s blessings with his poorer fellow men. The idea that every American has something to give, and at all times may, can and should give it, explains why it occurred to students that they could help Mexican peasants “develop” by spending a few months in their villages.

Of course, this surprising conviction was supported by members of a missionary order, who would have no reason to exist unless they had the same conviction - except a much stronger one. It is now high time to cure yourselves of this. You, like the values you carry, are the products of an American society of achievers and consumers, with its two-party system, its universal schooling, and its family-car affluence. You are ultimately-consciously or unconsciously - “salesmen” for a delusive ballet in the ideas of democracy, equal opportunity and free enterprise among people who haven’t the possibility of profiting from these.

Next to money and guns, the third largest North American export is the U.S. idealist, who turns up in every theater of the world: the teacher, the volunteer, the missionary, the community organizer, the economic developer, and the vacationing do-gooders. Ideally, these people define their role as service. Actually, they frequently wind up alleviating the damage done by money and weapons, or “seducing” the “underdeveloped” to the benefits of the world of affluence and achievement. Perhaps this is the moment to instead bring home to the people of the U.S. the knowledge that the way of life they have chosen simply is not alive enough to be shared.


If you have any sense of responsibility at all, stay with your riots here at home. Work for the coming elections: You will know what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how to communicate with those to whom you speak. And you will know when you fail. If you insist on working with the poor, if this is your vocation, then at least work among the poor who can tell you to go to hell. It is incredibly unfair for you to impose yourselves on a village where you are so linguistically deaf and dumb that you don’t even understand what you are doing, or what people think of you. And it is profoundly damaging to yourselves when you define something that you want to do as “good,” a “sacrifice” and “help.”

January 24, 2014 1:36 pm

Perhaps, Horace concedes. Tests? They’re clumsy instruments, often riddled with discrimination.

I agree: Tests, or any exhibition of mastery (I prefer that positive term […]), are troublesome mechanisms. but the alternative to them — no basis to describe or assess what school is for — simply is worse. A sensible school would have a variety of means for exhibition — time tests, essays, oral exams, portfolios of work. Yes, these will take hundreds of faculty hours to prepare and monitor. However, I persist, these hours are better so spent than continuing with the known inadequacies of the status quo.


Theodore Sizer (via shainagoeschina)

This quote is interesting and very relevant to one of our main struggles as Oral English teachers in TFC.  As you might imagine, testing many, many students for an Oral language class might be a bit difficult (you can assign some written dictations, oral exams, projects?), and many first-year (and possibly, some second-year) Teaching Fellows just opt not to assess their students at all, because they simply don’t “see the point.”  Personally, I (still) struggle against the organization-mandated standardization of our data*, but I’ll always think that data of student mastery is important to me as a teacher, to understand how students are doing individually in the class, to give students accountability for the material they learn.

The danger in that is that if you, as the teacher of the material, don’t see the point for accountability of mastery from your students, your students may also find it hard-pressed to see what the point is either.

*I think we should offer more diverse methods — no, require more diverse methods for allowing students to exhibit mastery.  Even in Oral English, you still have options of projects, speeches, oral exams, dictations, and so on.  

December 27, 2013 8:37 pm
Why Teachers of Color Quit

Read it!

7:52 pm

Some photos from our Baoshan Christmas weekend at Zhen’An!

On Friday, we decorated a small tree and had curry.  

On Saturday, we baked cookies (I got a local bakery to agree to let us use their oven!), made various holiday drinks (eggnog, sangria, cider, mulled wine), and finally, went to a local restaurant to have a tasty feast.  We exchanged Secret Santa gifts!

Something surprising: The Fellows that came surprised me and Andrew for our birthdays with a cake, cards, birthday crowns, and most surprising — a murder mystery drama that involved our friends dying, getting up, and then calming putting on t-shirts with numbers.  (Which eventually revealed our birthday dates.)

I’ll be posting some holiday recipes soon, so hang in there!