Education Opinion

Not Just a Job: A Lifelong Commitment to Children

By Jessica Shyu — June 27, 2013 5 min read
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In Teach For China, we falsely advertise ourselves as a two-year teaching program. Because, honestly, after you meet your amazing children and see what they’re capable of with great teachers and advocates, this usually becomes a lifetime commitment where you do whatever you can from any direction to serve the students you love.

As we close out the school year around the world, it’s a time for looking back on how far we’ve come. Below is a speech that one of our senior program managers, Ralph Legg, shared with our second-year Teaching Fellows as they become alumni of our program and transition to continue teaching, attend grad school or start non-profits of their own.

Although it’s written for teachers in a small industrial town in rural China, the reality is, it’s for every teacher I’ve ever met around the world. Because no matter who and where we are, once we fall in love with our students, it’s no longer a work contract and a paycheck. This is a lifelong mission. Happy Summer and thank you for all you do.

Imagine you were offered a job as a teacher, a job that you were told could potentially change the lives of people who are less fortunate than yourselves. However, there are some catches: the pay is low, and you’ll be away from your family and friends, and maybe even the country and culture you know best, for as much as two years. Additionally, you don’t even know what subject or which students you’ll teach, you have no idea what your school will look like, or what expectations will be placed upon you.

Let’s say you accept this job, but upon starting you discover you’re actually totally unequipped for the role and find yourself simply battling to survive. You’re overwhelmed not only by the fact of having to teach 60 students in 30 degree heat, but you’re also working in a local culture where you don’t understand how things work and where you may not even be able to communicate effectively with the people around you. The students find your lessons difficult to follow and leave the classroom confused, making you feel useless. Furthermore, the “work-life balance” you were told about is a myth: you can’t escape from your job because you sleep 50 metres from where you teach and your free time and weekends (that you hoped would be your own) are swallowed up by marking homework and trying to navigate the curriculum. You’re constantly tired, the water at the school is infrequent, and you find none of the food appetizing. On top of that, the people who are supposed to be your main support just keep demanding more from you, seemingly never aware of how tough things really are.

It’s probably fair to say that most people would give up in the face of such adversity. To be prepared to tackle those challenges, overcome them and ultimately be successful takes a special kind of person. That’s a person who truly believes that every child deserves the same level of attention, care and support as any other. Who is humble enough to know that they know very little and have it all to learn, yet sees that as a challenge to embrace, rather than to back down from. An individual who will not simply accept the grim reality for what it is, but will instead do everything in their power to change it, no matter the time, energy and resources required. Someone who, despite personal setbacks for themselves and their students, continues to strive for improvement, putting the personal well-being and interests of others before themselves.

You are all that kind of person. And it is only through becoming and then continuing to be that kind of person that you have been able to play a significant part in the growth of so many students during you time here.

You’ve helped them to understand their own capabilities, to acknowledge their talents & develop new ones. You’ve instilled in students an interest in their subjects and furthered their understanding of the value of education as a whole. You’ve exposed students to ideas and experiences which will shape their thinking and choices for many years to come. You’ve given them support and belief needed to let them see that, no matter what happened in the past, they can achieve and they can improve. You’ve helped empower them to realize that they have important contributions to make to their communities and the people they care about the most. And you’ve led them to begin to think about what is important to them, what they would like to pursue in life and what kind of person they want to be.

These are the things that will stay with your students for the rest of their lives. These are things that will, in some way, influence the person they become and the decisions that they make. Indeed, what they have learnt with you are things that they will want to teach to their own children in time.
Even after you leave your placement schools, the work you’ve done over the last two years will continue to impact upon students in this region. Your understanding of students’ lives and school environments has enabled us to redefine our organizational approach and the way we work with children. You have established and pioneered programs in your schools which will be continued by the Fellows who follow in your footsteps, and you’ve set levels of excellence that they will strive to meet. Your creativity and adaptability in the classroom has produced the template for what it takes to be a successful TFC teacher in this region, leading to new and more appropriate Fellow training and support. And finally, through the outcomes that you’ve achieved both inside & outside the classroom, and the relationships that you have built in your communities, you have made the role of Teach For China Fellow a more respected, effective and meaningful position.

To put it in simple terms, without your hard work, resolve, and influence, we would not have been able to come so far in such a short period of time, indeed we may not even have a program here in Shantou Region at all. Therefore, I speak for all staff when I say that we are immensely grateful for all you have done here, and that we feel privileged to have worked with such a dynamic and talented group of people. Congratulations on your completion of the TFC Fellowship, I wish you all the success and happiness that you undoubtedly deserve in whatever you chose to do in the next chapter of your lives.

Photo by James Arya Moallem, Teach For China 2012-14 Teaching Fellow

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.