President Xi Jinping’s visit to Tacoma’s Lincoln High School this week holds special significance for several members of Lincoln’s teaching staff who have also taught in China.
Jim Lawson, who learned Chinese first while serving in the Air Force and later as a student at the University of Washington, is a Lincoln alum who taught Chinese language at Lincoln before retiring in June. (He’s back at Lincoln this year as a substitute teacher.)
In 2001, he and his wife, Glenda, also a Tacoma teacher, traveled to China to instruct several hundred Chinese educators who teach English. The couple returned in 2006 to study in China. On that same trip, Lawson visited Tacoma’s sister city of Fuzhou as a prelude to Lincoln signing an agreement with a high school there to promote cultural, faculty and student exchanges.
Hope Teague-Bowling, a Lincoln English teacher, lived in China for several years as a teenager while her father studied there. She and her husband, Nathan Gibbs-Bowling, also a Lincoln teacher, have taught leadership and other classes to middle school and high school students for the past two summers in Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan Province.
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She said that while the Chinese education system is very different from the U.S. system, her students there share many of the same traits as her kids at Lincoln.
“They are still awkward, like kids are here,” Teague-Bowling said. “They are just teenagers.”
Chinese students begin studying English early, she said. A portion of their high school exit exams tests their knowledge of English.
Lawson said Chinese students face high levels of stress as those final exams approach. They get one chance, and if they miss, they can’t move on to college, he said.
“Everything hinges on the exams,” Lawson said.
He said Chinese education features a lot of rote memorization; there’s less creativity in the classroom than is found in the U.S.
Teague-Bowling said Chinese students are used to accomplishing tasks individually, so part of her goal was to get them working in teams.
She said that in China, classes are often large, with up to 60 students. So there’s not much room for the experiential learning that is popular in the United States.
“There is an assumption of respect for teachers and respect for the work they do,” Teague-Bowling said. “That doesn’t mean that teachers aren’t criticized. But students walk in with that (respect) already there.
“In our society, students are a little more skeptical about what’s happening in the classroom. In the United States, we have to build that relationship in a different way.”