An American Teacher in China

Every year during back to school season, I find the time to reflect on students I’ve met in the past and unique classroom experiences I’ve had.

I have had the opportunity to visit China twice – once in 2012 and once in 2015 – and during both visits I was able to visit schools and speak with teachers and students.

During my last trip, I spoke with teachers in Luoyang, Shenzhen, Beijing and Wuhan.


Breaking Up The Day: Though school was six days a week, class occurred for 50 minutes with 10 minute-breaks between classes. Between noon and 2p.m. the campus was closed. Students had to leave after lunch, almost all of them (and teachers) napped.

Respect for Teachers: In my experience, teachers were revered. Whether it was meeting coworkers of our host father, friends of our host brother or others to whom I was introduced, being a teacher carried an importance and respect in the culture.

Valuing Education: There was trust in a direct connection between school performance and future opportunity that was built into habits and action. When our host brother chose to watch a movie when he got home from school on a Saturday afternoon, he was not allowed to hang out with us on one of the few non-school nights during our stay.


Achievement Obsession: China still relies on the gao kao as a single measure to sort college entrance and life opportunity. I won’t forget driving past our school and seeing families circling the school on test day, where they stood for hours sending good vibes and well wishes.

Creativity and Independent Thinking: When my host brother was assigned a research report on an endangered animal, he chose a panda. He said that half of his classmates also chose the panda. When he showed us a draft of his slides, it was five slides completely filled with text copied and pasted from Wikipedia. To me, this was not very creative.


I am aware that much of what I saw in China was the “1 percent.” But there were moments that left me curious about the fuller picture.

Special Education. At no school that I visited did I see students with special needs in inclusive settings. When asked, the English-speaking students couldn’t articulate how those students receive an education.

Opportunity Gaps. During my stay in Xi’an we took a bus to go cherry-picking and emerged in a remote village of half-crumbling homes and abject poverty. When I asked where those kids went to school my host brother said, “They probably do not.”

Both trips to China further opened my eyes about how different education can be depending on a variety of circumstances. I strongly recommend taking advantage of opportunities, if and when they arise, to learn how others approach education to provide a fresh lens on your own practice.

Sean McComb is a 2016 Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education. Sean teaches students English at Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts in Baltimore, Maryland, where he has spent his entire 10-year teaching career. He is also the 2014 National Teacher of the YearContinue the conversation on Twitter: @Mr_McComb.

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