Tao’s sheepish demeanor as he approached teacher Kelly McPhail revealed why he and his classmates were nervous about their English grades: They hadn’t been speaking much in class.
To confront an authority figure for such a reason is out of cultural character for Chinese students, such as Tao, who, even at the college level, typically sit quietly.
But McPhail, the foreigner teaching in China, had been encouraging her students throughout the semester to speak and engage with her and each other in a style typical of American classrooms.
Since the course was taught in English only, Tao and his classmates had to speak the language to learn it.
“I told the students that in order to earn a good grade in English, speaking out was essential,” McPhail said.
She and her husband, Brian, serve in China with Mennonite Mission Network as professors and administrators through Mennonite Partners in China.
“There were painful days where no one was talking or answering questions,” she said.
But Tao explained to McPhail that it was difficult for any Chinese student to speak often in class. He asked her to be patient.
Soon there was transformation. The students began to talk more openly. Discussions on values, world events and the need for peace led to students asking deeper questions about life.
“I saw a great deal of change among the students,” Kelly McPhail said.
This has been the experience for both the McPhails, who began their three-year China service assignment in 2013.
In China, like most community-oriented cultures, authority figures are respected highly. Elders, foreigners and teachers are among those treated with honor. Appearing to “talk back” is frowned upon.
Breaking the silence
The McPhails anticipated that having open dialogue with students would not happen instantly. Both alumni of the University of North Carolina, where they met, the couple had previously served in China from 2005 to 2007 in Kunming, Yunnan Province. Nonetheless, they were still initially taken aback by the silence in their classrooms.
“We’ve definitely had very similar experiences getting students to open up,” said Brian McPhail, who gradually began turning the students’ reluctance into a teachable moment for himself.
He asked for their thoughts and ideas about what China is and who the Chinese people are. They began teaching him about the ancient culture and modern ways. The comfort level in the classroom increased.
“On a daily basis, I had people in front of me who could authentically help me to understand their culture and country,” he said. “I definitely learned from them.”
He noticed that the emphasis on respect, honor and not causing shame to the family remains a constant theme.
The McPhails also incorporated lessons on peacebuilding and conflict resolution. In these lessons, they asked students to identify causes of conflict and develop potential methods of peacemaking. Such discussions not only stretch students’ English abilities but also expand their understanding of the world.
They also invite students to their home for informal English lessons. Each Tuesday afternoon, Kelly McPhail hosts “English Corner” in their living room. Small groups of seven to eight students practice speaking English. Topics include cultural differences, education, travel, religion, family and love.
The couple has been asked to serve in other capacities, such as preaching at the new (and small) English-speaking service within the church they attend.
“Opportunities abound here,” Brian McPhail said. “We see that God is at work, and we strive to figure out how we can partner with the Chinese church and Chinese Christians.”