As English becomes more prevalent in the global business arena, learning English is likewise becoming more important for students worldwide to achieve. This need has created a whole new venue of remote teaching opportunities, as families in various countries pay to have their children learn English via computer with native English-speaking teachers. However, when teachers are trained for these teaching positions, they are rarely trained in the cultural aspects and norms of the student body they will be teaching. Because of the notable differences between cultures, particularly between Eastern and Western cultures, teachers would benefit from a training period that would address cultural norms and expectations in education as a basic aspect of their training.
When cultures collide, the ramifications can be confusing if cultural norms are misunderstood or misinterpreted; what is expected in one culture may be abhorrent in another. When remote teachers from Western cultures are hired to teach students from an Eastern culture, the teachers are often confronted with Eastern cultural norms without warning or explanation. Teachers may witness parental behaviors that would be typically considered unacceptable by Western cultural standards, and without any cultural training, the teachers are left wondering how to handle what they deem to be an inappropriate situation.
In order to fill the training gap between the cultures, a cultural training intervention was initiated for the Western teachers employed by ChinaCo (pseudonym), a leading language acquisition organization in China. ChinaCo hires native English language speakers from the United States and Canada to teach children in China remotely but does not offer teachers any cultural training or background on their student’s social norms.
The idea for this study came from some very confused posts on social media groups for the ChinaCo organization. Newer teachers were often posting about seeing parents or teachers verbally berating students or physically hitting children during the lessons; the teachers view this action through the lens of their own cultural upbringing in which rougher parental treatment is unacceptable, and it upsets or confuses them. The intervention was created to bridge the gap of cultural misunderstanding and allow the teachers to recognize the motivations and expectations of the parents and to enable identification of Chinese cultural ideologies.
Cultural Views of Language Acquisition
Remote teachers do not necessarily understand the reasons behind the cultural push for students to become proficient in English in China. In America, learning a second language is viewed as a recreational activity; schools offer different language-learning opportunities throughout the schooling years, and most colleges only require two years of previous language instruction for admission. However, second language acquisition, specifically English acquisition, is viewed very differently in China.
Language acquisition is viewed as being crucial to students today because of the political influences in the global business world. English is considered a ‘lingua franca’ in the business world (Shimpi et al., 2015), meaning most corporations use English as the main language for business, trade, and transactions. Therefore, English acquisition is considered a marker for future success (You & Dörnyei, 2016). This has led the Chinese Ministry of Education to mandate that students need to be proficient in English to be considered for college admission into prestigious schools (Zhang & Kim, 2013) sparking an ‘English Fever’ as parents race to comply with English language requirements (Butler & Le, 2018).
Parents are eager to help their children succeed in language acquisition because English is one of the three core competencies that students need to master in order to progress through the levels of schooling, along with math and Chinese (Zhang & Kim, 2013). Culturally, when parents support their child’s English endeavors, they are seen as ‘good parents’ as they push their children to achieve proficiency (Shimpi et al., 2015). This keeps the drive to learn English a family affair, as parents and other family members have something to gain from a student’s English success.
The Chinese culture and school system are based on a Confucianism style of learning. Confucius developed a philosophy called Filial Piety, which is the belief that everyone must do their duty for their family and show respect to those around them (Chu, 2018). The best way for a child to show respect and honor for their parents is to succeed in education. Therefore, when a child is not performing well or up to potential in school, he is dishonoring his family (Butler & Le, 2018). In fact, if a child is not performing well, not only does the child lose face, but so do the parents (Chu, 2018). So, in the Confucian society, child behavior affects and reflects on the whole family unit, whether that child is in a traditional school or in online classes.
Between the English Fever to learn English, the Filial Piety to uphold family honor, and the lingua franca understanding of the need to master English by college, Chinese students are under a lot of pressure to succeed and exceed expectations in English language acquisition. Many parents have taken it upon themselves to find alternative means for their kids to learn English to supplement school classes to help further student success, so parents who can afford to do so will buy private or semi-private English instruction for their kids, from companies like ChinaCo. Parents pay anywhere from the equivalent of $50-$80 per class (28-45 minutes) for their children to learn English from foreign English-speaking teachers online (Zhang, 2019).
These factors all combine to paint a clear picture of the cultural importance of language acquisition in China. The Chinese government wants its future citizens to be ready to lead in global capacities, and parents want to set up their children for success; the stress is high for students to be successful, often with great monetary expense by parents. The combination of these truths creates the situation where students cannot fail in their language acquisition, because doing so would impact their futures and their family’s status in society.
In the fall of 2020, a study was conducted to gauge if remote teachers would have a higher level of comfort teaching classes if they understood the cultural reasons behind some of the stricter parental behaviors witnessed during classes. The study defined what the teachers knew about Chinese culture, and what they saw during classes before introducing them to cultural data.
The main component of the intervention was a PowerPoint presentation including information on several various aspects of Chinese culture that feed into the experiences that remote teachers have while teaching in China. The intervention was mainly created to acclimate participants to some of the underlying factors that they were not familiar with, such as the government mandates for English proficiency (Zhang & Kim, 2013), the status of English as a lingua franca (Shimpi et al., 2015), the necessity of English for college admission (Zhang & Kim, 2013), and the role the whole family plays in a student’s successes and failures (Chu, 2018). The goal in this cultural introduction was to create a broader cultural knowledge base for the remote teachers, so they could understand more of the behaviors they witness.
Finally, teachers were asked how their perceptions were changed about the parental motivations and behaviors, and if their understanding about the culture of Chinese education was enhanced. Participants were also asked for the biggest take-away from the information to help gauge the impact of the information.
When asked about their understanding of the importance of English acquisition, all of the participants knew that learning English was generally important to very important; however, only a few had more specific explanations of why it was so important. One participant stated, “English is such a global language it gives them ample opportunities that stretch well beyond China. I believe an early grasp of English is a sign of affluence in China.” Another said, “China does a lot of business with other countries, and I think that in their country English is essential to getting a good job and/or career.” After viewing the presentation, participants stated, “I thought initially that English was an extracurricular but now I see it as a way to honor their families and be successful in their future roles. I didn’t realize how much was on the line and how closely tied these courses are to their acceptance in society,” and “The Government mandate does ‘up the ante’ for these kids and families, so it makes me really realize how important it is for them to have success.”
While all of the teachers knew that their roles as teachers was important to their students, they did not realize the long-range rewards or repercussions that could be tied to English acquisition and proficiency. This understanding helped to solidify the teacher’s perceptions of both the importance of English language acquisition and the role that each teacher plays in student achievement.
Participants were then asked about their understanding of stricter parental behaviors during class time. The pre-test data clearly showed that 85% of the participants had first-hand experiences with witnessing harsher corrections during their lessons, with 27% admitting to hearing abusive verbal behavior, and 58% admitting to seeing physical corrections including, hitting, smacking, swatting, slapping, ear tugs, and shaking. These behaviors are not culturally permissible to teachers from a Western culture, and 36% of these participants who saw harsh corrections took steps to report parents to the ChinaCo organization.
One participant noted having seen, “Overcorrecting, yelling in a demeaning way, Eg. A mother calling her daughter (7-8yr old) stupid and hitting her (moderately) for getting a wrong answer,” another commented, “I have witnessed verbal and physical abuse. Correcting children when they aren’t even wrong. That drives me crazy.” Other notable participant comments included, “I have seen children hit on the back of the neck for not participating,”; “I have had children cry in class due to the parent’s expectations,” and “I have had more than one student whose parent slapped them if they hesitated or were perceived to have pronounced a word incorrectly.”
Suffice it to say, it is far from rare for remote Western teachers to witness behaviors that they are uncomfortable viewing. The true test of this intervention was to find a way to have the teachers develop an understanding as to why these corrections were happening.
Understanding Cultural Pulls
If teachers can have more of an understanding of the cultural pull behind the corrections, then it will make the teachers more tolerant in the virtual classroom setting. Participant comments on the post-survey were very encouraging for meeting these goals. One participant stated, “I didn’t realize how important learning English is to them. I didn’t realize the extent of how much value is placed on education and the belief that being proficient in English will ensure future success.” Others stated, “I knew it was important, but now that I know it is mandated it makes the stakes even higher for the families,” and “I better understand why parents are so involved in their children’s English language learning based on their culture.” Another participant answered, “I realize that families may feel that they look bad when the child gets an answer wrong. I realize that they are spending a lot of money to follow government mandates and that the children NEED to learn English. I see that it is not ok for them to fail, as they will fail their families.”
These comments are encouraging as evidence of participant growth and understanding directly relating to the intervention. Although the teachers were not comfortable with these corrections, they now understood some of the cultural factors that have made English a necessity for both students and their families.
Finally, participants were asked about job satisfaction despite parental behaviors. Several participant comments cemented the fact that the presentation affirmed that teachers are satisfied with their jobs, such as, “It gave me a renewed sense of importance,” and “It has solidified a greater understanding that English is not an option, nor is failure.” Finally, new cultural awareness was created, as evident by comments like, “I have always been curious about the differences between the education systems and this gave some wonderful background information on some of the key differences,” and “Personally, I admire the dedication to education that Chinese parents have for their children and I just wish that our American parents demonstrated that same dedication for education for their children, too.” Overall, the responses and data comparisons point to this intervention as fulfilling its mission and helping remote English teachers have a better understanding of the Chinese students they teach.
Reflections and Critique
Overall, the evaluation process was very informative; many of the teacher’s impressions were more in depth than was originally hoped, rounding out the answers for the research questions very nicely. It is accurate to say that everyone learned some bit of information that was new or unexpected. As one participant noted, “ I appreciated the in-depth explanation of the Eastern view of education from the standpoint of Confucianism. This is enlightening and very important for me to know as an ESL teacher.” Another participant noted, “It gave me a renewed sense of importance… It reminded me how important [learning English] is to the families.” The teachers gained a new understanding of cultural points, and this new knowledge has helped them reconcile some of the behaviors they witness that go against their cultural norms.
Implications for Professional Practice
The final question on the post-test asked participants what they believed the biggest take-away from the presentation was. The answers ranged from the family aspects of English acquisition, “It’s so important to help these kids succeed not only for themselves, but for their families and their own futures,” to the educational aspects of English acquisition, “They are hoping their child will be better and go beyond,” to the career aspects of English acquisition, “What we see as too strict (yelling, pushing, hitting kids) is actually their culture’s way of encouraging and helping… We may not agree with it, but understanding the motivation helps to see that the parents are not trying to be mean or hurtful. They are trying to provide for their child’s future.”
One teacher noted, “While I will never condone harsh behavior, knowing more about the educational culture has caused me to re-evaluate my emphasis when teaching.” Acclimating teachers to these differences will not necessarily change their feelings toward the harsher parental behaviors but it can help them reevaluate their own teaching methods to fit the needed situations.
The primary aim of this intervention was to familiarize the remote English teachers to some of the parental behaviors they may encounter during lessons and explain the cultural points behind these behaviors. The intervention was successful in this endeavor, and the teachers were very positive about the new knowledge they had acquired.
The success of this program can be summed up in one participant’s overall take-away from the presentation, “…to be more mindful of other cultures and how their society shapes how they may go about something as simple as an online English class. It is not for us to judge their way of doing things, only to make the class as fun and educational as we can for the students the 30 mins we have them.”
Reader Response: Information on this topic is always changing and updating. What are you experiences with this topic?
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Chu, L. (2018). Little soldiers: An American boy, a Chinese school, and the global race to achieve. HarperCollins.
Shimpi, P. M., Paik, J. H., Wanerman, T., Johnson, R., Li, H., & Duh, S. (2015). Using parent and teacher voices in the creation of a western-based early childhood English-language program in China. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 29(1), 73-89. doi:10.1080/02568543.2014.978515
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Zhang, Q., & Kim, T. (2013). Cross-grade analysis of Chinese students’ English learning motivation: A mixed-methods study. Asia Pacific Education Review, 14(4), 615-627. doi:10.1007/s12564-013-9288-3