Reflections on Teaching and Travel in China

As part of my experience teaching and travelling in China, I was asked to respond to a few questions upon my return. Here are my thoughts ...

As a professional educator, what did you learn through this experience?

  • Prior to departing, the STEM team got together frequently to plan and organize our activities. This solidified for me the importance of collaborative planning.  Preparing for the unknown brought a whole new challenge, but I enjoyed thinking through possibilities and discussing them with colleagues. This continued when we arrived in China and we spent time gathering together in our hotel rooms, discussing how our lessons unfolded and making modifications as needed to deliver the most relevant and engaging lessons for our students. I think building collaborative cultures like we developed over the course of our planning and implementation for SFLS is something we could work on in our own schools. These are often done formally within divisions, but more informal conversations are essential to the process. This includes co-planning but also debriefing after learning activities to reflect, make adjustments, and improve.
  • Appreciating the lived experiences of students. Arriving in a foreign country and standing before 35 unfamiliar students, spending some time getting to know the students and their lived experiences was of the utmost importance. In the limited time we had with each group, developing relationships with each student was a real challenge, however beginning to understand their lived experience was important for me. This was heightened when I had the opportunity to visit students’ homes and connect with families.
  • In terms of my own professional learning, curating resources and developing resources led to a more complete understanding of design thinking and it’s importance to teaching STEM.  The process can be stated in many ways. We used the terms ask, imagine, plan, create, and improve. For many of the students, the importance of pushing boundaries, making mistakes, and learning to move forward was challenging. I think the same could be said for our own students and I plan to incorporate many of the same design challenges into my teaching next year.
  • Link between the physical space and learning. Overall, the physical features of the campus really direct one’s attention to their focus - excellence in education and learning - from the statues of famous thinkers that line the pathways to the quotations throughout their interior spaces. I am considering how I can bring some of these aspects into my own classroom next year. In the same light, I noted the students’ reactions to their desks being arranged in groups. They are used to a row arrangement, with little collaboration and it definitely took time for them to get used to more collaborative classroom structures and routines.
  • After class one day, we had a meeting with science and math teachers from SFLS. They had many questions about the structure of schooling in Canada and the United States including subjects taught and formal assessments. I described to them how, as a Grade 7 teacher, I teach all classes but French and Music. This surprised them greatly. I explained how this allows me to integrate subject areas into inquiry based learning projects. They asked about the use of internet in the research process and how students can just look up answers. I stated that if they can find the answer on the internet perhaps we are not asking the right question. This led to a meaningful discussion on assessment practices and inquiry in learning. While I believe we can learn a lot from their model in regards to stamina and work ethic, I think the idea of student directed learning is something that might move their current model forward. This leads to a more collaborative model of education  with greater emphasis on the process learning. As always, balance is key!
  • The world is a small place filled with wonderful people! Students are students. Teachers are teachers. Parents are parents. Students test boundaries, ask questions, engage in the learning process in varied ways. They need to be challenged and are sometimes challenging. They have unique and beautiful gifts and talents and need opportunities to share their voices. Teachers come with their own set of skills and content knowledge expertise. Together teachers are stronger and more effective. Parents want the best for their children and send us the best they have. We can’t forget this!

What were the most important aspects of this experience that impacted on your world view?

  • I was struck by the many dichotomies I noticed in China. It seems like a country in great transition. As an example, on the way home from school one day, we stopped by the mall. It looked much like malls at home, including a Nike and an Adidas store. Afterwards, Gloria, Cathy and I found a little market in an alleyway that we thought we should experience. I was struck by the dichotomy of the two shopping venues. An American upscale mall juxtaposed with the outdoor market with people napping in chairs outside their stalls. The alley was filled with sights and sounds so different from those we see in North America.  It was one of those moments where I thought, where am I? This is what it is to experience life. The world is so much more than the bubble we live in.

  • Competitive edge and worth ethic. As noted in my journal, I was surprised at how the students were placed in classes according to ability level (from C1 - C6 with the students with the highest test results in C1). This is quite different from our model where we seem to shelter students from any sort of ranking. While I think this adds a great deal of stress and pressure to the Chinese students, I wonder if we are doing our own students a disservice by negating pressures as they will be competing in the global community. This competition also leads to unbelievable stamina and work ethic in the Chinese students. During break time and transitions, many students pull out their workbooks to get a jump start on homework and extra practice. Without complaint or prodding, they get out their books and practice.
  • Lost in translation! Overall, we were able to communicate rather effectively despite the language barrier. The use of devices helped with word translation and I noted how technology has greatly helped to bridge this gap. There were a number of times, however,  where the language barrier proved difficult. All the hand gestures in the world could not help us order a meal at the mall for instance (or let alone find the restaurant) and slow and simple speech could not help us order 3 bags of ice to a hotel room. This added a great comic twist to our adventures, but also opened my eyes to the importance of communication in our daily lives.
  • I found it very humbling to be an educator in China. Education in general is highly valued in their culture and I often felt we were placed on a pedestal as Foreign language teachers. On our first Friday, we were unexpectedly asked to teach lessons for grade 6 students who were considering SFLS for grade 7. The chance to learn from a Foreign English teacher, even for 40 minutes, a huge honour. Outside the gates of the school, a huge gathering of parents waited anxiously. All there to see the school, meet teachers from the program, and assess its merits.
  • On kindness and graciousness. Yes - the streets are unbelievable and I faced many close calls simply crossing the road. Traffic rules are more guidelines and figuring out the ebb and flow of the varied traffic from scooters to watermelon trucks to buses an unimaginable feat. Lines and congestion evident in many tourist attractions with hoards of people around every corner. Children with slits in their pants going to the washroom on the pavement. Yet, I noticed that many of the people in China took time to be courteous and helpful. When I attended dinner with a family, I was treated like royalty with platters of food and drink awaiting me. On a city bus ride to the famous Jade store, a stranger looked at our destination and helped us determine our stop. I wondered how often people back home would take this time to help a foreigner with kindness and without judgement.
  • Food and community. I so appreciated the style of eating in China. It was an event and a chance to build community. Eating around a round table, using chopsticks to share dishes, enjoying each others’ company. Yes the food was sometimes out of my comfort zone, but I went in with an open mind and thoroughly enjoyed the experience of meals.

For more details on this experience, check out my daily journal reflections:


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