What happens when you visit a top five middle school in China? The experience completely changes your view of kids between the ages of 12 and 14. While students were clearly in the midst of becoming teenagers, all awkward and full of nervous energy, they had two characteristics which we don’t often see in typical middle school students – at least not in the states. One, they had confidence – confidence enough to hold a conversation in English (their second language) with a bunch of foreign teachers, and, two, a deep respect for and dedication to their education. These kids were serious and focused.
Wenhui Middle School was established in 1997. The original school educated roughly 1500 students with 150 staff members. In its early years, the school took students from across Beijing. They have since added a primary school, adopted more of a neighborhood school model, and now have a student body totaling over 2000 students and a staff of over 200. The school building is not large, at only 15,000 square meters, so space is at a premium and classes are large. In the middle school (grades 7-9) there are 32 classes with 40 students in each class. By US standards, 40 students constitutes an overloaded class. However, based upon my observations of students sitting at their desks, focused on their studies, 40 of these students would not be too many to handle, and is quite normal in a Chinese school.
June is exam month in China, so the students and staff were quite busy. We were honored they took time out away from their studies to host us. The English teacher, Fiona, brought her class to meet us. Her students were bright, kind, and eager to learn all about school in the US and to share with us about student life in Beijing. Students attend school from 8:00 am until 4:00 pm. They take eight classes, four in the morning and four in the afternoon, with one hour in the middle for lunch – which we’re told is quite delicious.
I had the pleasure of talking with Yu Meng Xi (her English name was Kelly). She was bright and her English skills were excellent. She explained that she spends her weekends taking three classes – two for English and one for math and her evenings are spent on homework. English is one of her favorite subjects. One focus of the school is for students know other cultures, particularly western culture, so Yu Meng Xi went with her class last December on an international field trip. They visited New York and Los Angeles.
The assistant principal explained what’s amazing about their school and graciously answered our crazy questions. Each month in autumn, the school focuses on a single subject and holds class competitions to keep students motivated. September is sports, October is science, November is Reading, and December is English. They also celebrate many western holidays to learns more about western culture. Additionally, to better meet students individual needs teachers provide homework at a basic, standard, or advanced levels. Students get to choose which level to complete.
As a cohort, we were mainly interested in discipline. They tackle discipline in three main ways. First, students stay together all day in one classroom. Teachers move, not students. Second, each class has its own master teacher. This teacher handles all of the discipline and stays with the class throughout the day. Third, they have a virtue department. The virtue department focuses on guiding the students in self-discipline, morals, and values. The virtue department handles any major infractions. I am extremely curious about what this looks like, but unfortunately time was short and we did not get to explore this topic further. Also, they had a massive security room with screens showing cameras for every part of the school.
As far as teacher evaluation, teachers are evaluated on three elements: student evaluations, student competitions, and student scores on the final exams. There are two levels of educator unions, one at the school level and one at the district level. I would also love to know more about that. Finally, contracts are renewed annually and it is quite rare to fire a teacher. The assistant principal explained that teaching is a well respected profession and many university students pursue careers in education. Teaching is considered an admirable endeavor.
Our morning at Wenhui Middle School was incredible. The teachers and administrators were more than accommodating and the students were friendly, outgoing, and excited to meet us. We’ll have another school visit in the coming week. Next we will visit a culinary arts school. So, check back regularly!