Education Opinion

Lessons from my Parents: Living and Teaching

By Jessica Shyu — December 11, 2013 3 min read
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I’m two weeks late with Thanksgiving, but it’s never too late to give thanks. Here is a belated word of gratitude to my parents, whom I didn’t spend Thanksgiving with this year.

Over the past two years or so, I’ve noticed aging. Not my own exactly, but the aging of my parents and those of my friends as the ones we love face diabetes, dementia, and in two or three cases, death.

That it why it was so magical when my parents visited me this past summer for 2 weeks when I was running Teach For China’s 300-plus person Summer Institute. I’m ashamed to admit it, but it took them traveling more than 36 hours by plane, taxi, bus and rickshaw to rural China for me to realize that they are pure, unfiltered rock stars.

Despite the craziness of training so many new teachers and more than 80 staff, I still managed to glean a couple good reminders about teaching and living from my parents while they were here.

1) Talk to everyone: It’s taken more than 20 years, but what mortified me as an 11-year-old about my father is what I admire most these days. Within half an hour of checking into his hotel, he’d made friends with the lady running the front desk, started tutoring her daughter and was chatting with every Teach For China teacher he could find in the streets. He wanted to know everyone’s story and by the end of the day, he was telling me about the hopes and dreams of locals he had met, and how meaningful it was for Teach For China to be there. I had been living in the same town for more than 2 weeks and knew a fraction of what he knew. Though I had been working 18 hour days and met with government officials, I hadn’t been taking time to understand the new community and reflect about the implications of running a summer program there. How can I possibly have an impact and serve the community that way?

2) Always be in teacher mode: Within a few days of settling into the small town, my father had set up a tutoring schedule for the two girls whose parents worked at the hotel. He bought them better textbooks. He taught them life skills and shared his own story about perseverance and getting creative to seek a better life. It doesn’t matter that my father has been out of the classroom for more than 50 years. Teaching was not a job for him - he was always in teacher mode and this was his way to build a connection with those around him. Almost half a year later, he still emails the girls words of encouragement. I love teaching and yet in my current management role, it’s rare for me to instruct students, even casually. Why lose touch with what I love to do, especially when I’m most busy?

3)Put family first and make new ones. My parents stopped their busy lives to come to rural China because I was going through personal problems while running Summer Institute. This was a bold gesture, even for them. And when they arrived, they started making new family by getting to know the principal, his wife and son, the local restaurateur and hotel owners... (See #1: Talk to everyone). Though they will likely never see each other again, my mother still sends vitamins and lotion to the locals they got to know. My father continues to email. In my busy life in China (and let’s be honest, in DC) I rarely paused to get to know my neighbors and shopkeepers, let alone stay in touch with them. There are so many friends and family members I have missed out on.

4) There is never a job beneath you. My father was a teacher, soldier and computer engineer for the bulk of his career. He has 2 Masters Degrees and speaks 3 languages. When he was at our Summer Institute, he gladly spent time drawing posters with our high-school interns. He got serious joy out of teaching the 16-year-old girls how to draw cartoon characters. Always pitch in and have fun - no matter how impressive you may like to seem.

5) Don’t bargain when you don’t have to. I spend a good amount of time bargaining with rickshaws or taxi drivers to save 1 or 2 RMB on rides in our little town. It’s part of the local culture and partly out of habit. When my father was with me, he would swoop in and give people an extra 5 RMB above their asking price. And when I protested, he reminded me to be generous because as someone who worked in the service industry for many years, every dollar (or RMB) counts as food. Stop being such a cheapskate all the time and stay focused on the big picture. Save money in other areas.

Thanks for reminding me about life, living and being a lifelong educator and community member, Mom and Dad. And thank you for hauling 80-pounds of chocolate, Starbucks coffee, French wine, organic granola and Goldfish crackers with you.

Photos by Jessica Shyu

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.