Forty things Beijing teachers can't say to kids

They aren't exactly George Carlin's seven dirty words. But new rules in a Beijing school district this spring have listed "40 forbiddens" - words, phrases, and sentences - that teachers may no longer fire off at their trembling charges.

While public school teachers in China are venerable icons, they are also known for their tough language, used in an effort to harden students for competition.

Yet it is no longer acceptable to say, for example: "If I were you, I would not continue to live. You are hopeless." Or, "You are a wood post with two ears. Get out." Banned, too, is a phrase students say is among the most unpopular and most heard phrases: "Whoever teaches you has the worst luck."

The new mandates derive partly from a growing middle class of parents bringing pressure against a harsh experience for their offspring, and from China's economic reformers wanting graduates to be competitive in a world of high-tech accomplishment.

With both parents and Communist Party officials concerned that the verbal authority of teachers needed curbing, 20,000 Beijing students and teachers were surveyed last year to come up with 5,000 phrases heard in class that were considered harmful. The Chaoyang District Education Committee boiled that down to get its "40 forbiddens."

"Using rude language with kids has become too normal, and it needs to be addressed," says Liu Jizhou, retired principal of No. 65 middle school in Beijing.

In fact, the language alert is only part of the larger changes brewing in China's schools. For the past year, school officials here have been mandated to emphasize student "personhood" and "participation." Mulled at top State Education Commission levels for a half-dozen years, the reforms were sparked by a Party-led National Education Conference on elementary and secondary education in 1999.

Particularly in urban schools in Beijing and Shanghai, there's an emphasis on parental involvement, reforms so students not headed for college can take a different test to demonstrate their accomplishments, and experiments with curricula that stress more creativity and less memorization.

Central to the new moves are efforts to change the relationship between teachers and students. "We've been teacher-centered since the late 1970s. Kids were taught to be absolutely obedient," says Mrs. Wang, a Party Secretary in Haidian district who did not want her first name used. "When you add the competition for college and the pressure on teachers to perform, it is almost inevitable that they will be verbally hard."

In one public middle school, for example, teachers are now asked to speak for only 30 minutes of the 45-minute class time - leaving the rest of the period for student questions, or for interaction. In the same school, every child is required to take a turn as classroom monitor - a prestige job usually given to the class's top scorer - and must plan with the teacher contributions to the class.

One parent's publicized experience

Last year Beijinger Duan Wu wrote a China Youth Daily article that became a rallying point among parents. Mr. Duan told of his daughter's alienation from him when she went to high school, her sudden loss of confidence, and decision to drop college dreams. Duan finally phoned the teacher and was shocked at the language ("dumb," "useless," "no brain for math") used to describe his daughter. Duan pulled "Stephanie" out of school and sent her abroad, where she flourished.

Along with the "40 forbidden" phrases no longer tolerated in Chaoyang district schools, the education committee there also came up with 108 phrases that are encouraged. They include "Keep working hard," and "Let the teacher help you." But officially, the 108 "good" phrases have been given less importance by the central Education Commission. Insiders say that officials did not want to "constrict" teachers.

To be sure, some teachers contacted say the top-down changes are taking hold very slowly, and that such efforts ignore the pressures they face.

With the enormous competition for good scores in a country of 1.3 billion people, and with an average class size of 50 students, teachers say they are under extreme pressure to "unify" the class so that everyone can learn quickly. They say forcing discipline is needed in order to keep the class moving forward. They complain that new innovations to let students participate more take away from learning.

"What difference does it make if the cat is black or white, if it can teach," says one teacher, who feels the "40 forbiddens" are an attempt to deal with a deeper problem through a cosmetic answer. "What counts is our testing percentages, not how civilized we are." In many schools, teacher bonuses, income, and advancement are based on performance of the students, teachers say.

Teacher power under scrutiny

Teachers in China occupy a position of authority - greater even than parents. Children learn that their futures can be made or broken by a sympathetic or hostile teacher. Xiao Li, a recent college graduate from south China, remembers being petrified when her parents told her that if she didn't behave, they would tell her teacher. "My sister and I were so afraid," she says.

"We put our daughter in an international school, worried about just this sort of atmosphere," says Cao Xiaoxiao, who is married to an American lawyer from Minnesota.

As far as the "40 forbiddens" are concerned, some officials say it is a warning to older teachers too comfortable with their position as "little emperors" in class. "The 40 sentences issue perfectly reflects tensions between the old way of teaching and the new teachings we hope for," says Party Secretary Wang. "We must have something like these [words and] sentences for a guideline. We may later need to discipline those teachers who ignore it."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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