To arrive at school, we take bus 8 from the stop across Pan Tang Road from our apartment. Five stops later we get off and turn into a little alleyway off the main street. Several twists and turns later, we arrive at what looks like a gated mansion in this warren of alleyways with small homes and shops.
The Juangfu campus of Xiguan Experimental Primary School is breathtaking. Through the gate into the huge courtyard, we stare amazed at a modern sculpture rising from a bed of flowers. We look up four stories with open air hallways, which makes sense in the tropical climate of Guangzhou.
The happy sounds of children and flowers spill over the railings on each floor. The school is loud with morning noises. The students stare at us. The shy ones smile. Some wave and some even say “Good Morning” in English. The children begin taking English in the first grade at this campus.
I honestly wasn’t expecting such a lavish campus, especially in the midst of a poor neighborhood. Traveling often sets your pre-conceived notions on their heads! Henry Miller said it best: “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”
Heidy, our liaison teacher and guardian angel, takes us on a tour to get our bearings. Each classroom is equipped with a computer desk, an updated “overhead” projector and black boards. They are crowded with students’ desks, as most classes have over 40 students.
We arrive in the fourth floor teachers’ room. It is not a lounge. It is filled with 16 little computer cubicles, where teachers work between classes. Students come and go in small groups to do recitations or work with an individual teacher quietly.
Their school day begins at 8:00 am and ends at 5:00 pm. You are greeted each morning by a phalanx of “Little Policemen,” who say “Good morning, Teacher.” These students in special uniforms support teachers during the day. All students in certain grades are allowed to be a “Little Policeman.” All students also wear school uniforms.
A normal day includes four to five classroom periods, a 15-minute English time, a school-wide exercise time, practicing Tai Chi/Kung Fu type movements. They also have a PE period, art, and music classes during the week.
Lunch is brought by the “Aunties” in buckets to the classroom at noon. These same “Aunties” keep the school clean and the flowers well kept. After lunch, everyone takes a one-hour nap, teachers included! A civilized practice if I ever saw one!
I expected everything to be very militaristic, learning to be totally by rote, children to be subdued, and teachers to be martinets. None of these ideas was completely true. China’s schools are not the schools I pictured in my childhood, when Chairman Mao was in charge.
Yes, there is much group work in classrooms of 40+ students. The teachers do demand attention: “Eyes on me.” Some of the work is rote. There are “Little Policeman,” but all students are allowed to proudly participate. There is respect for authority. Teachers are very warm with their students, often quite affectionate. The children are enthusiastic and happy.
China has changed or maybe I just had it wrong from the beginning.
As Henry James would say, “I am seeing things in a new way.” If you are not careful, travel will do that to you.
Andy Hawkins, with her cousin Karen Robinson, will be in China for six weeks from March 4-April 15. They are teaching English at Xijuan Experimental Primary School in Guangzhou for a month. The last two weeks of their visit, they will tour other areas of China. During this time, Andy will post a blog “Musings from China” with pictures once a week or as often as she can get the technology to work.