The overall context of foreign language teaching in China
All six teachers held Chinese foreign language teaching in China in a negative light. First, the focus on content knowledge to the exclusion of pedagogy in their pre-service training was highly problematic for all of them. As they remembered it, they were taught only language content, and very little in the way of pedagogical knowledge or pedagogical content knowledge. P31, on the US side, asserted that her training 'was more on linguistic content' than on pedagogy (38). For her, 'What I grew up with is, like, the teacher is the person who is going to present' (203). She intuits the situation as analogous to standing 'on top of a mountain and give them a speech' (206). In a similar way, Pi's early training 'get me prepared mostly in terms of my academic knowledge about ... um ... like ... Chinese grammar, about the pronunciation, about the characters.' (20). P25 recognised this emphasis on content as well, 'So I feel that, whereas like in the past, knowledge teaching - how to say? Uhhh, overrides, yeah? - We paid too much attention on knowledge' (353). While they knew their content upon graduation, none of them felt ready to actually teach. 'So I think during my studies at [university], I really have no idea about how to actually teach' (Pi: 26). On the China side, P21 said, 'We were taught how to, uhhhh, give for such a period of time, but we were not taught how to be a teacher, or how to do things, or how to teach the points' (74). For similar reasons, P41 'just was a little bit confused, you know?' (476) at the beginning of his career. He had seen certain procedures in action, but he really didn't know how to teach.
The US-side teachers held that the content-centric nature of language teaching kept students from practicing the skills of L2, especially speaking. As P5 stated, 'If you teach a foreign language, you must emphasize speaking. This must be the most important thing that a learner must establish before doing anything else' (15). This was seldom the case in the foreign language teaching that he remembered from China, because 'most English teachers cannot speak a word themselves' (24). So rather than display their own lack of ability, they defaulted to teaching about the language rather than teaching the language as a tool for communication.
'I don't know how to say, right? 'Cause my teacher, actually they ... 'cause we didn't have any, like, native speaker, so they just tell you, "Oh, this is subject, this is object, this is past tense."' (P1: 81).
For the China-side teachers, the economic pressures of today's society are creating problems for teachers in realising the jiao shu yu ren ideal they hold. According to P25, 'Society just puts too many demands on teachers' (193): academic success as measured by publishing, their students' exam success, a bigger house, a car, and the sorts of material things that come by making more money. With a heavy teaching load, a part-time job, and pressure at home, teachers are feeling stressed.
Now, if a teacher wants to ... like, for example, care about the student, does he have time to sit in your dorm for half an hour waiting for you, you know? I doubt. You know, modern life is more complicated; you have more temptation. [Teaching that way] needs like, uhhhh, your heart, and also that needs your time. Do teachers today have that time, have that leisure, have that mood? (P41: 558).
The majority do not have the time, the leisure, or the mood. And they are frustrated. This frustration is evident in their perceptions of the testing system in Chinese education. The testing system is so perniciously pervasive that it leads teachers to teach not for knowledge growth or self-perfection - the traditional aims of Chinese education - but for lesser reasons: to get as many students as possible to score as highly as possible on the next high stakes exam. 'The teachers in high school, they have ... one goal, one purpose. Yeah: produce as many good students as possible, produce as many gra-, uhhhh, college students' as possible (P21: 82). Influenced by this goal, teachers are constrained in both what and how they teach. 'I have no freedom in high school. The teachers, we had to, or I had to focus my attention to selecting texts in [the textbooks]. Yeah, the point that would be examined in the future examination' (ibid.: 67). This exam system 'guides you to teach ... practically' (P25: 215), where 'practically' means focused on helping students prepare for and pass the tests.
This exam system constrains not only teachers but students as well. Because of the pressure to pass the exams, students' creativity is stifled, because there is 'only one correct answer.' P21, talking about his son, laments that 'All the things he does have a definite answer. Yes. Not only maths, physics, chemistry, history, and also politics, and how they teach him to be a good citizen . .. and Chinese and English. They all have one answer, definite answers' (60). That answer is the teacher's. A story related by P21 memorably illustrates the only one correct answer problem.
P21: So sometimes my child asks me, 'Dad, what is the answer to the question?' And I tell him the answer. And the next afternoon he came back from school and said that [both laughing]
MJP: ' Dad, you're wrong.'
P21 : 'You're wrong'! Yes! [laughing] And I ask him, 'Why?' 'Because the teacher said, "It is because so and so," but not what you have told me.' Yeah. And so, sometimes I find it difficult to overcome this situation. I want her [sic] to be creative, but the present model, the teaching model, education in China just does not encourage that.
Beside his frustration with the status quo, this interchange from P21 reveals a teacher who is resistant to the hegemony of the testing regime. P25, for her part, goes so far as to say that 'Students have suffered a lot' (355) from the traditional, teacher-dominated, uninteresting teaching methods, and so are ready for change.
These teachers' perceptions signal a system that is not only ready for change, but is now changing. And it is changing because teachers - like P21 and P25 - are tired of the rigidity and limitations of the current system. 'Because I am tired of the old, traditional way of teaching. There was the teacher who is always speaking to the students, and the students busy making notes. What I want to do is what we want, I want to interact with my students' (113). This desire for change, even for interaction, was one of the surprising elements of this study: Chinese teachers want to find new approaches to foreign language education. The challenge for them is to find acceptable ways to accomplish that change.