When I was in primary school, I had enormous respect for my teachers. I didn’t always behave well, but I was a good student and hardly ever got into trouble. I knew my teachers well, and I had a good idea of how much fun I could have in class before my teachers would get angry with me. I was attentive, did my homework, and behaved. However, when we had a substitute teacher, things were different. It was like it was a lesson without consequence. Substitute teachers rarely got mad, wouldn’t call your parents, and if you forgot your homework they wouldn’t care. They were always nice and played games, so we liked them but didn’t respect them. At least not as much as we respected our regular teachers.

In China, I feel there’s a similar comparison between Chinese and Foreign teachers. I’ve seen it in all three schools I’ve worked for. The local Chinese teachers command a lot of respect in the classroom, the students seem very disciplined, and the classes run smoothly. But, as soon as the Foreign teacher starts, the students flip a switch and go into “play mode”. They test your limits, act up, and if you scold them in English they don’t understand. I’ve seen many examples, including myself, of foreign teachers being treated like a “play uncle” in the classroom. Although our teaching style is often more interactive than Chinese teachers, it’s not how the students should be perceiving us. We should command the same respect from the students as their Chinese teachers do.

When you first start teaching a class, it’s important that you show yourself as an authority figure early on. It’s easy to be too sweet at first because we want the students to like us. However, if you’re too much fun at first, they’ll always think you’re playing around and not being serious. It’s easier to start strict, then gradually ease into a friendlier version of yourself. But, it also means being patient with the students because they won’t fall in love with you as fast as they otherwise would. In the long run though, they’ll respect you more, and will treat you more like an authority figure.

As with anything new, you should start any new class with setting clear rules and boundaries. Let the students know what they can and can’t do, what you expect of them, and ask them what they expect of you. Getting the students involved in the rule-making process is also a good idea, because it gives them ownership. With older students, you can simply take the first class to discuss class rules and expectations. With younger students, it’ll take longer, but it can mostly be done through games and activities. Teach them words like “stand up,” “sit down,” and other vocabulary related to classroom instructions and rules.  Practice with the students, and be strict at first so they know your boundaries.

In my opinion, it’s important to find a balance between being strict and nice. A good teacher never needs to yell at students, but always has clear rules, and consistent methods for punishing bad behavior. In my classes, I have a scoreboard for each student. When they do well they earn points, represented by checks; when they do something they’re not supposed to, I erase their checks. Students quickly learn what earns and costs checks, and they behave accordingly. I have taught my current students for about two years; now they know me well enough to know how much they can play around, and when to sit down and listen.

There’s a maxim for teachers to establish discipline early on in their classes: “Don’t smile until Christmas.” This may be an exaggeration, but it’s true that establishing clear rules and discipline is easier if you start early. Kids feel more safe in a classroom with clear rules; this leads to better academic performance from the students, and less stress for the teacher!

By: Mikkel Larsen

Mikkel Larson

Mikkel is a Chongqing based teacher, blogger, and photographer. He’s lived in China since 2010, and can be found blogging here, here, and here

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