The news today that the principal of a primary school in Xinyang has been fired after two of his teachers caned a four-year-old boy, was shocking enough to make The South China Morning Post. But for me, it made particularly difficult reading as it stirred personal memories of corporal punishment from my first China-based job in Guangdong.
Physical punishment is commonplace in the Chinese education system, just as it once was it the West. As a teacher placed in a state middle school in Zhongshan City, I caught regular glimpses of pupils receiving a ‘clip round the ear’ or a ‘sore hand’ – as my Father would say – but just accepted it as part of a culturally different education system. Just as I used different teaching methods in my classes, I reassured myself that I also used different disciplinary methods, enabling myself to comfortably turn a blind eye.
Teaching in the Chinese state system contains many difficulties that teacher training back in the UK doesn’t prepare you for: classes of 60 or more students, teacher-centred approaches, and undiagnosed learning difficulties being some that stuck in my mind. However, cultural differences form perhaps the biggest learning curve.
During one class, I encountered a particularly disruptive student and dealt with the situation as I usual would. At the same moment, the school principal happened to be walking past and stopped to watch the encounter. The situation was resolved, the class continued and I thought nothing of it.
After the class, as I was sitting down in the office, the principal came in, quickly followed by the student and four of his friends – none of whom had caused any issues in the class – eyes downcast. My weak Mandarin was not able to follow the exchange between them that then took but, after what I assume to be profuse apologies, all the students had their hands caned. The caning was severe, prolonged and – for most of them – highly undeserved. I stood and went to try and intervene but was politely stopped by another teacher and made to just stand and watch.
I was later told that the principal had held the student to be challenging my authority and had not interpreted my way of managing the class as a particularly disciplinary approach. I was prevented from intervening in their punishment because it would have cost the principle face.
The experience has stayed with me since, and I often recall it when I hear other teachers talking about corporal punishment. Many now reminisce about the discipline displayed by students when the cane was a threat, including some parents for who the cane was a reality. However, these people are focusing too much on the end, while not enough on the means.
There are other ways of creating a controlled, disciplined learning environment, and I sincerely hope that the sacking of the primary school principal signals the start of a shift in perspectives towards classroom management within China’s education system.
- Why China learns its lessons off by heart (guardian.co.uk)
- China: Kindergarten abuses prompt calls for new legislation (chinadailymail.com)