I spent the day following around He Na, a friend of mine who works as an English teacher at a school in the nearby town of Ma An. As I expected, the sudden appearance of a foreigner was something of a momentous event at the school. Her class of 5th-graders erupted in excitement as I entered the classroom, and at least a dozen children escaped from neighboring classrooms to peer in at me through the doorway. After listening to He Na drill her class on pronunciation of various English words for most of the class, she finally indulged their curiosity and allowed them to spend the last few minutes of class asking me questions about the United States. Many of them were the same standard questions I have gotten throughout the past year that I lived
in China: “What do people eat in America?” “Can Americans use chopsticks?” “Do all Americans own guns?” Upon pulling out an American dollar bill which I happened to have in my wallet, the entire class burst from their seats and rushed to the front of the classroom, pushing both me and He Na back up against the blackboard in their effort to see. Only by repeatedly pounding on the front podium with a ruler was she able to get them to settle down and return to their seats.
Though He Na’s parents also live in Yilong, she and most of the other teachers live in a dormitory across a courtyard from the actual classroom building. Over three hundred students also live in dormitories on campus as well, which is common for middle school and high school students from surrounding towns.
Having majored in English at the Sichuan Foreign Languages University in Chengdu, He Na is only a month into her first job out of college. “It was my father who originally wanted me to be a teacher, with this job I can easily stay close to my parents,” she explained when we first met. As a graduate of a four-year bachelor’s program, He Na is rare among a teaching staff comprised mostly of graduates of three-year “professional” programs. However, she explained to me that her options for different teaching positions were still quite limited without any previous experience.
A short way down the road from the private middle school where she teaches is a public middle school. Teachers at the private school, however, are under considerably more pressure for considerably less pay. He Na complained to me that teachers at the public school make over 1,200 RMB a month, and are not subject to any sort of regular teacher performance evaluation. “If their students do poorly on tests, it’s not their problem, but if my students do poorly on exams then they can take it out of my salary.” At 700 RMB a month, He Na’s salary is already quite low.
After lunch, I sat in on another class of fourth-graders who were also practicing English pronunciation. He Na singled out a student in a corner who had not been paying attention, asking him to read the words on the board for the whole class. After he failed to repeat the words again, she scolded him, switching from Mandarin into Sichuanese in her frustration. After asking the class how many of the words he had said incorrectly—six—she came over to his desk and rapped his wrist six times with a ruler. As she walked me back to the school gate she complained how that class always consistently had lower grades than her other classes. “If their grades are low then the headmaster will take it up with me.”