I met Ismael Perez, a 2013-15 Teach For China Fellow, when he was in his first week of summer training more than a year ago. He shared how he grew up attending KIPP schools in low-income communities of Houston, had Teach For America teachers throughout his life and had turned down Teach For America’s offer to empower children in rural China. To me, Ismael’s experience was the point of why I believe in the work we do: So that all kids, regardless of socioeconomic background, have the choice to make wild, audacious choices like move to rural China to make a change in the world.
Last month, I reconnected virtually with Ismael. After a year in the classroom and having gotten to know his own students and reflect on his own experiences even more, the questions he’s asking are more poignant and crucial than ever. Please share your reflections, wisdom and suggestions to Ismael’s questions.
Statistically, this should not be happening.
As the son of two impoverished immigrants from Mexico, I should not be teaching English to four grade levels of village children in Yunnan Province. I should not be a college graduate and math major. I should not have even left my hometown of Houston, let alone move to rural China and know how to speak Chinese.
But because of my family and teachers, all of this is happening. As I head into my second year as a Teach For China teacher, I’m more aware than ever of my own role to empower my students in the same way - to make whatever they want to happen, happen - regardless of what the poverty statistics say.
Growing up, I attended a KIPP charter school. I worked hard, developed grit, did as I was told most of the time, made mistakes, fell more than once, and got up again. I was a “good” student. KIPP helped me flourish. My teachers, especially those like Mrs. Soliz, helped me to work through the challenges I faced then and later on as well.
When I interned for a Chinese nonprofit serving migrant workers during college, I was reminded of what my mother taught me long ago: Education inequity exists all over the world. So I moved to rural China after graduation, starry-eyed, hoping to be able to make a difference in my students’ lives. Just like Mrs. Soliz.
Last year at Heping Elementary, a tiny public school of about 350 students on the side of a mountain, I taught 140 fifth and sixth graders. Despite having never learned English, the students took on 5th and 6th grade material. By the end of June, I was so proud of the ridiculous amount work they completed.
Yet, I know that I did not always put in my best work. I failed to live up to my own standards. I didn’t challenge every student the way she or he deserves in order to have meaningful and effective class time. Some of my students were bored; I wasted their time. I might have taught English grammar, but I hadn’t necessarily supported my students in figuring out how to make impossible things happen - like Mrs. Soliz had done for me.
Harry was one of my former students who was in the summer camp class I taught last month. He is quiet and loves reading. His father is a local librarian and farms the land. Harry’s extremely motivated and proudly has the top test scores at school. But three days into camp, he wanted to quit. “It’s just too hard,” he said.
When Harry said that, it reminded me of when I pulled my first all-nighter when I was in the 5th grade. That was the year I also started working with my father for his lawn services business on weekends. My parents knew that I had to work harder if I wanted to accomplish anything so slacking off in any way was not acceptable. Poverty doesn’t allow this. Like Harry, I was exhausted and everything seemed too difficult. I too had wanted to quit.
I walked Harry through some strategies on how to actively take notes and make the most of English class. He leaves with an unsatisfied look. I know it’s not enough. I continue to work with him and other students so that the challenges do not overwhelm them.
I also realize that 3 weeks is not nearly enough time for these exercises. I know that they’ll face many more challenges in the following years, so how do I teach my students to push past these obstacles despite the setbacks they’ll likely face? How do I teach them to make things happen for themselves?
I found myself asking this question throughout the year. However, I also want my students to recognize that inequality does not have to be the status quo. Poverty will get in their way in many predictable ways.
Whenever I explain my “story” to people, some of my peers have exclaimed brightly about how special I am. I’ve inspired them to think that if you work hard enough, you can surely attain your goals. But the truth is, I am not here to inspire you to work harder or to serve as your inspiration for the day.
If anything, I’d hope that you would learn about the horrors of poverty and perhaps move you to demand more from our society. To do something to change reality so that going to college, leaving your hometown and working overseas aren’t statistically impossible depending on the zip code or village you grew up in.
Just because people like me are “gritty” enough to have “beaten the odds” doesn’t make poverty “okay.” It doesn’t mean that we can sweep poverty under the rug and pretend that it doesn’t affect people’s lives. Grit doesn’t make poverty an acceptable part of society.
If you give students opportunities to flourish, they will. We know this already. We also know (or do we?) that poverty forces people to make impossible choices everyday.
So how do I teach my students to push through the many obstacles they will face without teaching them that poverty is an inevitable part of life? Can I? Are my classrooms ready? Am I equipped to teach my students not only how to get through all of the bullshit that people expect them to but also how to challenge their societies?
Harry is going to face many more obstacles in attaining his education. We know this. So how do I develop his ability to push through? How do I teach him to get up when he fails? I want to set the highest expectations for him and my other students; however, I also want to maintain the highest amounts of empathy. How do I merge the two? Grit has gotten me far, and it may get Harry far as well. But grit alone may just teach him that the world is cruel and that there is no hope for that to change. I think empathy may help resolve that. I want Harry and others to face their challenges head on, but I also want them to be able to empathize with others.
I don’t know if I have that balance of empathy and grit yet, so how do I set the standards for my students and myself so that we can make the impossible keep happening?
The opinions expressed in Lessons From China are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.