It seemed, in many ways, like a typical seventh grade classroom. During a break between periods, six or seven boys huddled in the back of the room, mischievously laughing and playing with some small toy cars. Several girls sat patiently at their desks, where books were piled high, chatting and rolling their eyes at the roughhousing males. The teacher ignored the chaos for the moment as he gathered his notes and class plan, preparing to begin the day’s lesson.
At closer inspection, however, it was obvious that this was not a familiar Berkshire setting. The interior white walls were grayed and dingy with soot from the coal-fired heaters. Rickety wooden desks, worn from years of use, were matched with simple, backless benches. In spite of the youthful energy permeating the room, an air of indigence hung about the place.
This was the lower high school (chuzhong), grades seven through nine, in Dazhai Township, Yunnan Province, China. I traveled there in April to observe and learn from Teach for China (TFC), an organization, similar to Teach for America, that sends recent college graduates as teaching fellows into under-resourced school districts in an effort to improve the educational achievements and life chances of children in poverty.
A key feature of this version of the global network of Teach for All organizations is that in China, American and Chinese college graduates work together for the common cause of countering educational inequality. Typically, two recent American graduates, like our own Laura Huang ’11, are paired with two new Chinese college graduates and sent as a team to a disadvantaged middle school.
It’s hard work. The students are drawn from small mountain villages and towns, some a full day’s walk from the center of Dazhai. They live, during the week, in dormitories next to the classroom buildings and trek home on the weekends. Their parents, mostly members of non-Han ethnic minorities, do not speak Mandarin, the language of classroom instruction, at home. Non-mechanized farming is a common livelihood in the region. Families struggle at the lower levels of the Chinese economy, and children are drawn to work in the fields or sent for jobs in the factories of far off cities. Dropout rates run at about 70 percent. This is not an environment conducive to focused and sustained academic work.
TFC fellows put in long days. They live on campus and are up early, preparing their classes as the students do their morning calisthenics. They teach multiple sections each day, conference with other teachers and work with students on various projects outside of the classroom keeps them going until dark. What they gain in return is the satisfaction of experiencing their students’ learning, seeing that spark of recognition, a flash in the eyes, as a boy or a girl connects with their effort to instill a particular lesson.
They also acquire a wider understanding of China than is possible for those confined to affluent urban enclaves. Fellows with whom I spoke told of walking out to the villages on weekends, meeting parents, being welcomed into modest rural homes. They feel the joys and sorrows of people at the margins of a vast society, enveloped in landscapes of deep history and tradition. It is a perspective unobtainable from Beijing.
Indeed, the merits of the program are manifold. American teaching fellows forge close working relationships with their Chinese peers. They learn to navigate within a Chinese organizational context, seeing how things operate from the inside. There can be moments of frustration with bureaucratic intransigence, but these are outweighed by a deeper knowledge of Chinese society, culture and politics. And this sort of understanding provides a foundation for future endeavors in China, whether in education or not. TFC fellows will be uniquely well-positioned to seize future opportunities in Beijing or Shanghai or Guangzhou when their two-year tours are completed.
Let me end with a political thought – since I am a student of politics. One might ask: Why teach for China now when here in the U.S. there is so much need for similar sorts of efforts? To ask such a question, however, is to imply a zero-sum game, that China’s gain is somehow America’s loss. I don’t see it that way. There is plenty of intellectual talent to spread around to Teach for America, Teach for China and Teach for All. Moreover, improving the educational prospects for poor students in rural China does not harm American interests. Some of those students will succeed. They will go on to universities and influential careers. And they will have with them always a tangible understanding of what cooperation can achieve.
Sam Crane is a professor of political science.