It was the Thursday before school ended for Christmas break and everyone was in high spirits. I was in a particularly good mood because I was days away from wrapping up my international work placement in China. My morning passed by in a blur of parent-teacher interviews, grading and last minute prep-work. I was just about to head downstairs for my afternoon classes when one of my fellow foreign teachers intercepted me at the door and pulled me aside.
“Do you know what happened during recess today?” he asked. And before I got a chance to respond, he continued, “One of your students decided to place thumbtacks by the entrance to the auditorium and all over the stairs. Some of the first graders have them stuck in their shoes. When I asked him why he did it, he told me he thought it would be funny.”
In that moment, I was at a loss over what to say. I had believed, perhaps erroneously, that after enacting disciplinary measures and working through various behavior problems over the course of a semester, my students would not attempt such dangerous and juvenile pranks. When I entered the classroom with barely concealed anger, I saw my homeroom teacher in deep discussion with one of the boys. The rest of the class did not even try to conceal the fact that they were eagerly listening in on the ongoing conversation. When I saw which student was being addressed, I felt my anger give way to resignation. This particular student, though kindhearted, was prone to bouts of uncontrolled emotion and even violence. It did not matter whether it was English or math class or everything in between: he was openly antagonistic.
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Instead of looking remorseful, he wore an expression of profound displeasure, as though the homeroom teacher had somehow inconvenienced him by giving a lecture. I felt my expression mirroring his, but for a different set of reasons. Prior to working as a foreign teacher, I regularly encountered articles and videos of the extreme methods of discipline that are sometimes carried out in Chinese schools in the news. As you can imagine, I struggled to wrap my head around how permissive my school was with regards to student discipline.
At this point, it may be useful to relay a few facts about the school that I taught at. The first vital bit of information is that it is a private institution, meaning that students do not need to adhere to the same rigid expectations as their public school counterparts – namely, to be silent, obedient and orderly at all times. Second, based on what I have been told, student enrolment was on the decline, making it especially important to keep the existing students – and by extension their parents – happy. Finally, as students had different teachers for each subject, standards and expectations varied markedly from class to class. However, none of the above-mentioned statements can justify how an obviously malicious prank can be considered “resolved” after a few reprimands.
When I offered to call the student’s parents and have him sent home early, my homeroom teacher informed me that she has the situation under control and that I should focus on my teaching. A part of me wanted to protest, fight, argue – but I was too drained to summon up the energy to do so. For the rest of that day, I could barely concentrate on anything.
Now that I am back in Canada, and can properly reflect on what happened, I regret not putting up more resistance. By doing nothing, I simply reinforced my student’s belief that he can get away with hurting others with minimal punishment. Of course, it would be wrong to assume that all private schools in China are lax about disciplining children, but at the same time, they share many of the same characteristics and problems as my place of employment. And if the latter case proves to be true, I worry about the students’ future outcomes. After all, once they leave the premises of their schools and enter into society, they will realize, with painful clarity, that they must be accountable for the consequences of their actions.