Dear friends, I visited an international school in Hong Kong last Thursday and Friday. I shadowed a 2nd grade and third grade teacher and was able to speak with them about challenges in teaching, differences in American and international schools, and different types of students they encounter.
One of the most difficult challenges I face as a teacher is closing the large skill level gaps in my classroom. In Taiwan, there are many "cram schools" (buxiban) where students study a subject intensively for two or three hours after school. Those that are wealthy, who can afford these cram schools, advance at a faster rate than those who cannot and thus creates a classroom situation where some students already know the subject matter so well and others have never seen the subject matter before. Disparities in skill level are challenges every teacher faces, but they are much more prominent in Taiwan and China where they have these cram schools.
The two teachers I shadowed told me that the challenges they face as teachers are, for the most part, not really relevant to just international school teaching, but teaching in general. They could relate to the different skill level, classroom management, and politics that happens in schools. One of the teachers noted that the politics that happens in international schools are felt more by teachers, though because as private schools, international schools determine what to include in the curriculum. As such, the jockeying for input is felt to a larger degree in international schools because it happens at their level of authority. In American public school systems, much of what is decided to be taught and guidelines for teaching are set by a higher authority (such as the District's Board of Education) for uniformity among schools. Politics still exists, but at a higher level of authority when it comes to setting the curriculum.
There are many more differences between international and American schools, though, besides just the politics that we discussed. Students at international school mostly come from affluent families and come with different sets of social problems. On one extreme, some of the kids may face neglect in the form of being raised by a "helper," or a Phillippino cleaner/nanny who speaks minimal English. With their parents working such long hours, the children are neglected at home. On the other extreme, some kids have been given everything to them on a golden plate and they do not know their own boundaries, their own limits. Other times, these kids may also not know how to tie their own shoe because they've always had a "helper" tie it for them! By the second and third grade, students should be able to understand and take responsibility for themselves, turning in homework, picking up their own trash, etc. While these cases of child neglect and over-indulgence can be emotionally and developmentally damaging, it is different and not as severe or traumatizing as inner-city youths trying to survive street gangs, abusive households, poverty, and unsupportive families.
Students are always in need of nurturing, attention, and guidance. One thing that I agree with one of the teachers I spoke with is that students, wherever you go, are the same. Students are still curious, creative, vulnerable, and sensitive beings. They may have grown up in a completely different culture and social context, but as children, they all want to be loved, to be in a nurturing atmosphere where they can learn. As teachers, we have to remember that all children have the potential to learn. Each child learns differently (e.g. via kinesthetic learning, visual learning, or auditory learning) so different teaching styles and techniques must be used. We must be flexible and adaptable to understand our students.
I want to thank the school and the teachers I shadowed last Thursday and Friday in Hong Kong. It was a pleasure meeting them and their cute students!