How can I help my students to build a better communication with me

in order to improve their English learning?

By graduate student, Qiao Qian,

Ningxia Teachers University, draft June 2006.


Maybe this question is different from many other questions my classmates are asking themselves at this time: it seems they are tending to ask questions of the kind, How can I improve students' speaking, writing, listening, reading and so on? Conversely my question concentrates on students' idiosyncrasies of thinking and psychology, while they are concentrating more on students' linguistic accomplishments in study and scores. Some o them seem to me to be ignoring the importance of process and are paying more attention to the result in knowledge. In terms of the emotion between teachers and students in the process of studying itself, I want to concentrate on this. If I don't concentrate on this, then I won't know what the students want to say and what they are thinking and feeling. I believe if I don't pay close attention to this, then the students will continue to remain silent (a problem encountered by all my classmates on Teaching Practice recently).


In China it is my experience that when students are controlled by this kind of notion (knowledge before personality) they never discuss questions of their individual understanding on an equal footing with established knowledge. When students have new ideas to offer teachers, I have found that teachers often say their insights are useless and untrue and have no wider validity: their ideas are mere whimsy. Sometimes such teachers even laugh at students in my experience and eve say, oh, what a stupid idea! This makes us as students feel shy and disappointed. Thus when they come across new questions, new ideas, or even have advice to offer the teacher, they don't speak out and don't think it is worthy of expression. Consequently, day after day, most of them retire into laziness in their minds, and cannot think freely and creatively. The level of their thinking stays the same as at the beginning of any course and is not transformed or developed. They become more and more unable to adjust to new ideas and less and less capable of independent study. It seems a common experience to me, that such students don't like their classes anymore, and so when the teacher asks a question, each students feels it isn't their responsibility to answer and they keep silent. They have been confined in such a way to limit their soul and their views on life itself. They speak little, add nothing and cannot even express their feelings. They become excellent listeners not thinkers. Speaking out and making new ideas have disappeared from their world. At the same time, teacher who have encouraged such a context speak more and more and feel they are not wasting time with irrelevant sidetracks.


Perhaps now you will understand why there are many students in China (see our AR Centre's website at: who won't stand up and answer questions in class. It is not only because of being shy but because they truly feel weak in their hearts. They are trapped in a system of education and family, which demands obedience to the set-rules. If a student says something contrary to a teacher or a parent's ideas, they are thought of as poor students. They are not respected, and will be looked down on. So, this habit of keeping silent also leads to students expecting their teachers to do everything for them, and this is even when students are actually out of control in terms of learning anything. Their silence gains a teacher's acceptance. The students lose their creativity and only appear to have validity in others opinions of them, their hearts beating in unison with the authority's heart.


I believe that the above explains why it is, for example, that there are very few Nobel Prize Winners from China, when such prizes are chosen by prominent people from other countries for their originality and creativity. I have known many students who are tired of this system, but have no idea how to change it. Thus the distance between students and teacher becomes wider and wider. It is often the case that a teacher doesn't know the names of his/her students, and doesn't seem to think it is important.


When I was in Junior Middle School in a Chemistry class, my teacher asked a question which was a little difficult. He therefore directly asked several students he felt were good at Chemistry. The other students, including me, kept silent, of course, but no one was able to do it. Then, I stood up with a feeling of fear, but prepared nevertheless to answer it. My teacher said he didn't think I could do it, I should sit down and he would tell me the correct answer. I said nothing and sat down. I realised there were others who'd wanted to answer him, but no one dared to answer him. After that no one freely offered to answer his question, they kept their hands down and heads bowed. Then, of course, the teacher told us the answer, which happened to be the same as I had already thought, but he didn't believe me I could know it. I felt so humiliated and so frustrated. So, no matter how hard we worked, we didn't break this silence anymore. None of us! Gradually, all the students became tired of this class and didn't want to study anymore. This made me sad that the next generation would face exactly the same problems.


As a graduate student I'm embarking on a teaching career. I know it's very difficult, but I want to try my best to avoid this kind of situation happening again in the class. I want my students to have a better deal, and live in an environment with relaxation, trust, security, confidence, enthusiasm, happiness and a harmonious atmosphere (Laidlaw, 2006). I believe a person's greatest emotional need is to feel appreciated by significant others. As teachers we must remember that patience is a virtue because teachers occupy an almost divine status in students' eyes. They trust their teachers, perhaps more than their parents. I have seen how many students believe that teachers can do anything and can solve all the problems they are facing. So, I began my teaching practice with the idea that teachers must love their students patiently, just like parents and give them support in their life-energy and spirit, and not just accuse or stifle or punish them, even though, I realise, that some students are naughty and can make me angry. I want to say, please remember that it is easy to find a stick to beat a dog with!


Another story to illustrate my educational philosophy: My niece is only 8 years old and studies in Number Two Primary School. During May holiday I went home and found her reading English words, but some of the words she was reading were incorrect, so I taught her the correct pronunciation, but she said her teacher taught the words like that, so she continued reading aloud the same as before. From this I realised again how influential a teacher is in a student's eyes, that no matter what the teacher does s/he is right in a student's eyes. This led mt to think that as a teacher I must trust my students, give them opportunities to develop confidence, care for themselves and each other and respect, lading them to walk along an illuminated pathway. Meanwhile I should my best to improve my ways of teaching. Furthermore in modern society students, like tender plants, will be destroyed if not handled carefully. Thus I must cultivate my students, spend time with them, to learn the circumstances of their lives and help them overcome the difficulties and remove inappropriate barriers. Giving them more power in their actions and provoking their interest in studying would promote interest and interest, I believe, is the best teacher. I think encouraging interest is thus more important than aiming directly for improvements in study. It is a property of human beings, I believe, that love, spirit and eagerness support each other in living in the world. As long as we want something and love it, we have a reason for living. As the philosopher Erich Fromm said in 'Fear of Freedom':


There is nothing more meaningful in our lives than the meaning we give to it through loving relationships and productive work.


So, if I, as a teacher, can seize this important point to cure the wounds of the students' souls, to help replenish the students' spirits and help them set up an appropriate view of the world – a life of love and value – then I will become a successful teacher. By reducing the psychological distance between teacher and students, and by paying practical attention to China's pleas for our 'Essential Quality Oriented Education' (New Curriculum Working Party, 2005), I can realise my dream.


My Action Research Enquiry


On 8th May we graduate students started our four-week teaching practice, which was the last step of being students and the first step to becoming real teachers. When I arrived at my teaching-practice school, the teachers and students gave me a warm welcome. I was to teach Class 8, a class designated as poor by their achievement-scores in English. However, contrary to what I was expecting, I found the students willing and clever, so I wondered why they were described as poor. I was a little confused. At the beginning I acted simply as a College-student, not formally enrolled, and expected to apply the knowledge I'd learnt from others. During my observation phase at the school I found that the students in the class I was later to teach didn't listen to the class at all, some of them. They slept, talked amongst themselves, ate, played games and so on, and the teacher stood on the platform reading and reading aloud. Sometimes he didn't even look up. I was shocked at the force-feeding methodology being applied here. After class I spent some time communicating with the students and some of them told me that although they had liked English and wanted to get high scores, they hadn't known how to study it by themselves. They said that in the class they were passive listeners, there were few activities for them to join in, and the atmosphere was dull. They were tired of it now and found sleeping a ready alternative.


Then I asked them a specific question: As a teacher, what could I do to improve the situation?


Wang: A teacher should respect and be considerate to all students equally.

Zhou: Teachers should communicate with students, not punish them.

Chen: As a teacher, the ways of teaching are very important according to different places, different students, using different ways.

Mao: Teachers should pay more attention to their manners, and if he promises something he should do it. He should be responsible to his students.

Ma: The atmosphere in a class is so dull so we need more effective activities in class.


Then I asked the students what they thought of themselves.*** (Some detail needed here, Qiao Qian). I wanted them to see that I took their opinions seriously as well about themselves and that in education, it's a huge project and we all have to work together. As a teacher, I wanted to be able to stand in their shoes to consider their needs and feelings and to understand that our problems, though from different generations, are shared in education. Such reasoning is important, I believe, to build a harmonious society. Teachers, whose project is the human soul, have a responsibility and duty to do this. The younger generation are the flowers of the motherland, the hope of our country. Thus I must know my responsibility in this matter. I believe if more people think about such things, then education will become more and more precious and helpful.



During my teaching practice days (most of which were concerned with observation, rather than actual teaching) I talked a lot with the Class 8 students. They started to talk to me about their families, their studies and other things in their lives. I visited the school-dormitories many times and learned what it was like for them to live at the school week by week. I played with them in extra-curricular activities or after class and truly came to believe how lovely they were, and that they had a lot of different skills. I love them very much now, and often said what I believed was in their best interests and how they might lead a fulfilling life. They had to believe in themselves and their abilities. In the class itself, I used an elicitation-method of teaching to give scope to students initiative and creativeness (Laidlaw, observation notes, May, 2006) and to encourage the ability to analyse and solve concrete problems independently.


In addition, we had some extra tuition after class to help them solve problems they weren't able to cope with in the classes themselves. It was very busy, but well worth it. So, day by day, we set up a better working relationship, talking, playing, studying and so on. They were able to ask me any questions they wanted and we'd sit together and discuss them (give an example here, Qiao Qian). I smiled at them a lot and encouraged them to work hard and to enhance their interest in studying from the sidelines step by step. (More detail needed here, Qiao Qian)


On May 25th Dr. Laidlaw and a leader from the University came to the school and they, and other teachers from the school, sat in on my class. During the class there was a wonderful moment I will never forget as long as I live. After the review-section of the class, I was writing on the blackboard and my hand was shaking so much, the blackboard was unsteady on its stand. A student, unasked, got up from a back-seat in this class with over 80 students, and held it steady for me. At first I paid more attention to the writing and wasn't paying attention to the students enough, and certainly not to him, but afterwards, I realised what he had done, and I found him. His name is Ma Yanghui, a very clever and lovely boy. He held the blackboard steady with his hands! I felt so excited when I realised the significance of what he did, that I wanted to cry. I didn't ask him to come to the front, and generally-speaking he was a quiet and reserved student. However, he recognised my problem before I did, and tried to correct it for me. How wonderful that is! This truly shows a marvellous relationship  between me and Ma Yanghui. He wanted to help me and thought more of this than being shy or asking permission to move his seat. He thought the work itself was important too. It is incredibly rare for a student to behave this way without permission first. I feel so happy, because I think his action means something in our work together.


Gradually, the students started to put up their hands more in my class; they stood up more to volunteer their answers (Qiao, 2006). I believe they were beginning to feel a greater sense of collaboration with me because of their actions. This is precisely what I wanted to see: students studying in a harmonious atmosphere, which is filled with love, respect, care, happiness, sharing, trust, security and enthusiasm. To create a social environment in which teachers and students are respected and education is valued, knowledge sought and learning stressed.


Conclusion: So, it seems clearer to me that changing the situation for students in their thinking can lead to a more humanitarian working environment (NC Working Party, 2005) and attainment levels. I was trying out a way to help students overcome their difficulties, break down the inappropriate barriers between myself and students and develop their enterprising spirit and enhance their interest in studying, for us to build a bright future together. I think that is the Action Research way (McNiff, 1993). I believe this experiment has shown how suitable such encouragement and methods are with students in wanting to learn, in developing their character and improve collaboration. Such a method is also suitable for the subject-matter of English (VSO, 2003).


So, I think I'll keep on with my Action Research in future and have decided that I want to reflect more on how I can help my students to develop their individual skills (in what they're good at, I mean). I am choosing this area of enquiry because no one is perfect, but everyone has skills, I believe. Some are good at Science, some at Art, some of them are accomplished in music. Therefore, as teachers, we should not judge them on one aspect, concluding that he or she is a 'good' student or a 'bad' student. We should see the whole person as a developing person and encourage them to develop new skills and insights as they contribute to the development of society. As a teacher I want to help my students learn how to live well in the world and be a useful person in society. So, readers of this paper, please don't be afraid to admit you are less than perfect. We are all less than perfect. It is this fragile thread, which binds all of us together in our humanity. I think together we can develop the teaching and learning quality of the whole country and strengthen the power of our motherland.



Laidlaw, M., (2006), 'How can we build an educational research-base here at the University? Researching stories for the social good,' Professorial inaugural lecture, Ningxia Teachers University, June 15th.

McNiff, J., (1993), 'Teaching as Learning', Routledge Books, London.

New Curriculum Working Party, (2005), 'China's New Curriculum for the Teaching of English,' Beijing Normal University Press, Beijing.

Voluntary Services Overseas, (2003), 'Newsletter: What's New about the New Curriculum?' March edition, VSO Beijing Press, Beijing.

Qiao Qian, (2006), 'Data Archive'. Ningxia Teachers University.