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The Real Story in Chinese Education: Risk-Taking Teachers

By Jessica Shyu — December 19, 2013 3 min read
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Jessica Shyu

There is a lot other countries can learn about education from China. I could share an inspiring tale about how Shanghai’s PISA scores rocketed to No. 1 after a couple of years of major and consistent reforms in its teacher-support systems and school-leadership development.

But let’s be honest: 1) That story’s already been written, and 2) I don’t work in Shanghai. I work in the school systems that the vast majority of China’s children attend. I work in the system that has electricity and running water cut out for days at a time, and that often sets 16-hour school days for middle and high school students. I work in the system where the availability of seats in the local high school, let alone universities, determines what kind of future a young person can have.

But what we can learn from China has to do with the teachers in this system who go above and beyond, regardless of the physical and political constraints, to make sure their students get everything they can to have a better future. I’m talking about teachers who are the risk-takers and believe anything is possible for their students, even if everything (and everyone) says it’s not. I’m not advocating for reckless behavior or a mutiny against the system—I am speaking up for the educators who boldly go against societal norms to do what they can for students most in need.

I’m talking about people like the teachers and principals of migrant schools across the country who risk their careers, savings, and sometimes lives to open schools to serve the millions of children in migrant-worker communities who otherwise wouldn’t be able to attend school in the city they live in, simply because their parents are migrant workers who lack the necessary local IDs.

These are our Teach For China teachers as well as educators from many volunteer teacher programs where people from various walks of life defy society’s (and oftentimes, their parents’) wishes to teach students in rural and extremely under-resourced communities where few want to teach. These are the teachers poring over textbooks and teaching methods late into the night and seeking feedback to improve their teaching from anyone out there. These are also the teachers who set up library systems and serve as mentors asking students about their dreams and figuring out ways to help them get there. These bold teachers are the ones walking three hours to do home visits to convince 13-year-olds not to drop out from school.

I’m also talking about the two special education teachers in Shantou City of Guangdong Province who started their own “underground” school more than 10 years ago to serve students with special needs across the city because they saw that there was nowhere else for students with moderate and severe disabilities to go besides stay home or go to a local institution. Because this is not a government-approved school, they continue to work their day jobs at a public school while operating and managing a dozen teachers at their special education school.

America has been built by generations of risk-takers who continued to pursue things that others said we couldn’t. In order to really close the opportunity gaps our poorest students in the U.S. and around the world face, it’s time we all further incentivize bold behaviors that are smart and kind, regardless of what constraints our schools, students or government systems may face.

Jessica Shyu is vice president of teacher excellence and leadership at Teach For China where she leads teams to train and develop more than 300 first- and second-year teachers teaching in under-resourced villages in China.

The opinions expressed in Teaching Ahead: A Roundtable 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.


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