Many teachers want to travel the world, but between nine months of teaching each year, financial limitations, and family responsibilities, few have the opportunity to do so. While it seems obvious that the most genuine cultural experiences can only come from visiting another country and experiencing the culture on the ground there, that may not be the only way to do it these days.
51Talk is an online English-learning platform that connects English-speaking teachers with Chinese students eager to learn English through a video-classroom platform. Teaching these students, forming friendships with them, and learning about their cultures gives teachers the opportunity to understand how people live on the other side of the world--all from the comfort of their own homes. Here, three educators recount the cultural lessons they have learned from their Chinese students.
Rigel Reyes, ESL teacher
I have been a teacher with 51Talk since December of 2016. It´s been an awesome experience so far to be able to form relationships with my students through the camera. My students and I have learned to love each other from opposite sides of the globe.
I’ve learned so much about Chinese culture. Chinese families are very concerned about education, and they usually support their kids by giving them the chance to take extracurricular lessons that will help them become successful adults. As families, they are usually together, and parents are always around their kids during class. Moms frequently monitor the lessons and try to keep track of their child’s learning. Chinese people highly value their elders, and I’ve frequently seen grandmothers and grandfathers pop into the background of my students’ cameras, just to make sure everything is going well. Online safety and monitoring is important for them as well, which I absolutely agree with.
In my teaching, I’ve found that repetition is an important factor in the students´ learning process, and modeling new things for them is essential for them to feel comfortable while learning. However, I have also seen how they appreciate when we joke and laugh together during the lesson. Laughing makes learning more fun!
By being very respectful without leaving the humor aside, my Chinese students and I are able to build trust and feel relaxed while we are in class. The distance, the language, and the cultural differences have not only not been an issue, but in fact have been an enriching experience. I hope to continue teaching my Chinese students for a long time to come!
Heather Penn, stay-at-home mother and former elementary teacher
I have found that my life experiences have helped me connect with my 51Talk students. For instance, I use the same teaching techniques with my Chinese students as I use with my youngest daughter, who has expressive/receptive speech delays. My students have also given me new perspectives on my own life. My husband is Asian, so I have some familiarity with Asian culture, but since teaching Chinese students, I have gained a greater understanding of the relationship my husband has with his family. I never understood before when certain situations came up between him and his family, and he would tell me, “It’s cultural.” Now I have a greater understanding of how the two of us were raised differently by our parents.
Videoconferencing into my students’ home has shown me how much education--especially higher education--is valued in China. Family is also a high priority, and parents want their children to be successful, so they can care for their parents as they become elderly. Other priorities are exercise, eating healthy, and home-cooked meals. It surprised me how much my adult students cook meals at home for their families instead of ordering takeout.
I have seen how children are expected to stay focused at a young age. When I have younger students, usually an older sibling or parent is close by, listening and making sure the student stays attentive to the material. One of the main differences when teaching Asian students versus American students is the acceptability of mistakes. In the United States, students are taught that it is acceptable to make mistakes. It’s common to hear teachers say, “No one is perfect, that’s why pencils have erasers.” Meanwhile, in China I have heard students’ parents or older siblings whispering the answers to the student in order for them to avoid making a mistake.
Speaking of mistakes, teaching students in another culture offers many chances to navigate tricky cultural differences. For instance, I had an adult student who was discussing how he watches a few American TV shows to help him learn English. I mentioned the name of a similar TV show and told him he should Google it in order to find information about it. He was surprised and simply said, “No Google.”
It’s second nature for me to use Google in order to find information, and I forgot that Google is banned in China. I apologized, and we ended up having a good laugh over the situation. He went on to tell me how he can use a different search engine called Baidu.
Claire Elizabeth Caunce, elementary teacher
I’ve learned that the average student in China has a very different learning style than the students in the UK. There is a much stronger emphasis on memorization and rote learning in Chinese schools than there is in the school system here. This produces very hard-working and focused students, but I also worry that they have too much pressure on them to learn.
I’m currently learning Chinese, so any information I can get about Chinese culture from my students is wonderful. Teaching with 51talk has allowed me to watch New Year’s fireworks with my students, learn about a student’s preparation to row in a dragon boat race, and see my students perform traditional dances and songs. I don’t know how else I could experience such things without being in China.
Recently, a young student took me on a tour of her entire house. She showed me each room and the things she thought were important (her toys). I saw her parents cooking dinner, her brother watching TV, and her grandfather sleeping in his chair. It reminded me so much of my own family’s home, and it was lovely to share that with her.
I often ask young students to show me the view from their window, especially if our topic is about the city/animals/the natural world. The different views I see are just amazing. I see skyscrapers, parks, mountains, and cityscapes. I live in a small city in Scotland, so it’s great to have the opportunity to explore China from my office.
In February this year, I had the opportunity to watch the New Year’s fireworks with one of my regular adult students. She scheduled a lesson with me just before midnight, so that I could see the display in Beijing. It was an amazing experience. The student turned her camera so I could watch with her out of her apartment window. We watched together, and talked about our lives and hopes for the year. I’ll never forget that night, and I hope one day soon to watch the fireworks in Beijing myself.
Working with Chinese students on videoconference has led me to some new and exciting opportunities. I went to teach in China for two months last July and August, and I truly believe I was only brave enough to do it because of my experiences with 51Talk. I’ve learned how open and friendly Chinese people are, and wanted a chance to explore a little of China for myself. I went to the beautiful city of Yantai in the Shandong province and taught students aged 8-21. I hope this is only the beginning of my adventures in China.
Rigel Reyes is an ESL teacher from Tallahassee, Florida.
Heather Penn is a stay-at-home mother and former elementary teacher from Middletown, New Jersey.
Claire Elizabeth Caunce is an elementary teacher in Glasgow, Scotland.
The opinions expressed in Education Futures: Emerging Trends in K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.