Because they spend so much time at school, 老师 (lǎo shī) – teachers, 学生 (xué sheng) – students, and 同学 (tóng xué) – schoolmates play a huge role in each other’s lives.
And, that means if you want to understand the formative years of your Chinese friends and colleagues, or you are preparing to study or teach in China, understanding Chinese classroom etiquette is crucial.
That’s why – as a former teacher and current PhD student in China – I’m sharing the most important things I’ve learned about Chinese classroom etiquette in this blog post.
1. How to address teachers
When I was at school in the UK, we called all of our teachers “Mr.” or “Ms.”
But, if I called my Professors in China “先生 (xiān sheng) – Mr.” or “女士 (nǚ shì) – Ms.”, they’d think I was extremely strange, or even downright rude.
Teachers in China are addressed as 老师 (lǎo shī) – teacher.
For example, instead of saying “Mr. Wang”, you should say:
“王老师 (wáng lǎo shī) – Teacher Wang”.
And, instead of saying “您好 (nín hǎo) – hello”, you should say:
“老师好 (lǎo shī hǎo) – hello teacher”.
When I taught high school in China, my students would typically start the class by standing up and shouting “老师好 (lǎo shī hǎo)” in unison (which can be pretty loud when there are 60 teenagers in one small classroom!).
In fact, the Mandarin word 老师 (lǎo shī) is infused with so much respect that people who are highly admired for their knowledge and skills are often called 老师 (lǎo shī) even if they don’t actually work as teachers.
2. How to talk about your (fellow) students
Teachers typically refer to students by their names, or simply 学生 (xué sheng) – student. However, the ways students talk about each other are more complicated.
You can describe a student in the same year or cohort as you as your 同学 (tóng xué) – schoolmate (literally “same study”), or 同班 (tóng bān) – classmate (literally “same class”).
But, students in the years above you are 学长 (xué zhǎng) if male (literally “study elder”) or 学姐 (xué jiě) if female (literally “study big sister”), while guys in the years below are 学弟 (xué dì) (“study little brother”) and girls are 学妹 (xué mèi) (you’ve guessed it, “study little sister”).
In fact, when speaking English my Chinese friends often struggle with the lack of English equivalents for these terms. To them, referring to their 学长 (xué zhǎng) or 学姐 (xué jiě) as “schoolmate” in English feels disrespectful, because it doesn’t indicate seniority.
At my university each class typically also has a Class President – known as 班长 (bān zhǎng) – who serves as a student leader and does administrative work.
3. How to ask questions in a Chinese classroom
One of the major reasons behind this is the importance of “face” in Chinese culture (learn all about face in Chinese culture here). Students are afraid they’ll 丢脸 (diū liǎn) – lose face if they show misunderstanding by asking a question.
(Of course, badly-behaved students exist everywhere, and in China I’ve noticed that rather than asking questions, chatting or causing trouble, bored or confused students typically take a nap!)
But, traditional attitudes to education are changing, and in my experience most Chinese teachers really encourage and welcome questions, as long as they’re respectful and well-mannered.
Ask a question politely using: “老师，请问一下 (lǎo shī qǐng wèn yī xià) – Teacher, can I ask…?”
4. Unexpectedly informal aspects of Chinese classroom etiquette
For example, if my Chinese classmates receive a request from one of our Professors – even if it’s at the weekend or late at night – they drop what they’re doing and start work immediately.
However, some aspects of classroom etiquette are less formal in China than my home country (the UK).
For example, the dress code is super relaxed. It’s quite normal for teachers to wear jeans or casual dresses, and the typical high school uniform is a tracksuit and sports shoes (very different from the formal skirt and shirt I wore to high school in Scotland!)
Communication is another area in which Chinese etiquette is more relaxed. In college in the UK, I communicated with my teachers using very professional emails that started with “Dear Professor…” and ended with “Best Regards” or even “Yours Sincerely”. And there is no way I would have dared to add a college professor on Facebook!
In China, I communicate with my teachers using 微信 (wēi xìn) – WeChat (China’s combination of WhatsApp and Facebook), and it’s quite normal for teachers to comment on students’ social media posts and vice versa.
5. How to celebrate 教师节 (jiào shī jié) – Teacher’s Day
Every year on September 10th students give their teachers cards and presents, and – best of all – sometimes teachers get half a day off or spend the afternoon playing games and taking part in team activities.
One of the things I miss most about working is a teacher are the small notes, gifts, and even drawings from students that I’d find left on my desk on 教师节 (jiào shī jié).
If you know a Chinese person who is a teacher, or you have a Chinese teacher yourself, a gift, card, or just a text message to say 教师节快乐 (jiào shī jié kuài lè) - Happy Teacher's Day! It will make their day.
And, if you’re a teacher, why not encourage your students to learn about Chinese culture by celebrating 教师节 (jiào shī jié)?
You can learn about 5 more official Chinese holidays you may never have heard of here.
Are you a teacher or student in a Chinese classroom? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below!
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