Growing up, Huang Zhongxin dreamed of becoming a musician. But when those boyhood plans fell through, he decided on a career as a teacher instead. He’s glad he did.
Teaching has provided him with a secure job at a respected school. It has given him a livable salary, enough to rent a modest apartment in this sprawling metropolis. And it has allowed Mr. Huang, whose parents were farmers in a community along the South China Sea, the opportunity to nurture an appreciation for music among young people.
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Teaching is one of the most stable and respected careers in China, but changes to the society and the education sysetm are putting new pressures on teachers.
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“Being a teacher in China, you can’t live a luxurious life, but you can live a stable life,” explains Mr. Huang, 32, a music teacher at the Affiliated Elementary School of South China Normal University. “You work in a school. It’s nice, quiet. You don’t have to worry about losing your job. We have a [high] social prestige.”
Across China, teachers working in many different kinds of schools echo those sentiments. Current and future educators, in fact, cited the same reason over and over—stability—to describe what most appeals to them about teaching. Not only is the teaching profession broadly respected in Chinese society, they say, but it also provides them with a foothold in a country that is in a state of overwhelming economic flux.
The public’s esteem for teachers is only likely to increase, many educators believe, as the country’s free-market system expands and career opportunities for students become even more dependent on education.
But change in China is also heaping new pressure on teachers. Educational opportunity for Chinese students have traditionally hinged on exam scores, which determine admission to top schools and universities. As access to basic education increases across China, and the pool of qualified students expands, so does the competition among parents to make sure their children do not lose out.
Ye Caijuan, 23, is almost ready. She’s now in her final year at Beijing Normal University, where she’s training to become a mathematics teacher.
Ms. Ye moved here from Liaoning province, in northern China, where her parents work in a factory. They were happy when she told them she wanted to be a teacher, reasoning that she was choosing a career with prestige and job security, she recalled.
“Normal” universities are widely regarded as the top teacher education programs in China, and the Beijing school, a collection of gray brick buildings bordered by lean pine trees and crowded bike racks, has a strong reputation. Ms. Ye, who shares a small, single dorm room with five other women, says competition for good teaching jobs is increasing. She plans to go to graduate school to increase her chances.
“There are many people who want to be teachers,” said Ms. Ye, who hopes to work in a high school. “The competition is not only university graduates, but also those who already have teaching jobs.”
Given a Choice
Older generations of Chinese educators, like Chen Jian Xiu, 54, can remember a time when career choices were made for them. Ms. Chen was a teenager during the Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong’s radical campaign, launched during the late 1960s, to purge Chinese society of Western, capitalist influences and reaffirm socialist doctrine.
Millions of Chinese were sent into forced labor on farms and in factories, in an effort to transform the economy and re-educate the masses. Many schools and colleges were shut down. In 1971, when Ms. Chen was finishing high school, a government official told her that she would be required to become a teacher. Though her favorite subjects were English and math, she was assigned to teach Chinese literature. Not long afterward, at the age of 18, she was leading classes of students who were roughly her age.
Ms. Chen, who later received more formal teacher training, still teaches Chinese literature today at Peizeng High School in Guangzhou. When the Cultural Revolution ended in the late 1970s, schools and colleges reopened, and there was a resurgence of interest in education, which continues to this day, she recalled.
“The government and society realized that [education] was a more powerful way to achieve advancement,” Ms. Chen said.
Chinese teachers devote their day to many of the same activities as American teachers, but they don’t have as many classes to teach, which frees them up to meet with their peers.
BACK OF THE CLASS: Fei Hong Guo, left, and Lian Wang observe a fellow chemistry teacher’s class at the Affiliated High School of South China Normal University.
HIGH-TECH EQUIPMENT: A teacher at the Experimental High School in Zhuhai uses a monitor inset of a multimedia station to change an overhead screen.
CONTENT SPECIFIC: Students in the teacher track at the School of Mathematical Education at Beijing Normal University major in math, but also take education courses, including psychology.
Many aspiring teachers today, including Ms. Ye, believe the most desirable teaching jobs in China are in high schools. Some say those positions offer the advantage of working with older, more mature students. Others say they see high school jobs as more important, because they prepare students for college-entrance exams.
Those teachers enter a field in which salaries vary greatly. In large cities, teachers can earn more than 6,000 yuan per month, or about $700, a solid wage, according to many educators. Teachers at schools serving students from wealthier families also earn extra money tutoring students who are preparing for exams, some educators said.
In rural communities, however, teacher pay often hovers at around 1,000 yuan per month, though the cost of living is cheaper, educators say.
Earlier this year, State Council Premier Wen Jiabao announced that the Chinese government would take steps to ease the financial burden on teachers by providing free tuition for college students majoring in education. The goal is to demonstrate “the importance of the teaching field” to the public, government officials said in a statement, and to encourage “more outstanding young people to become lifelong educators.”
In citing a broad range of personal and economic factors in choosing their profession, Chinese teachers show motivations similar to those of American educators. Teachers in the United States often say they are drawn to classroom work by a desire to work with children, or to improve society, factors that outweigh the relatively low pay, said Jean Johnson, an executive vice president with Public Agenda, a nonprofit research organization in New York City that has surveyed American educators extensively.
But teachers in China also have traditionally commanded broader respect throughout society to a much greater degree than teachers in the United States, observers from both countries say. That appreciation stems partly from the overall belief in the importance of education, said Daniel W. Gregg, the social studies coordinator for the Connecticut education department, who directs an exchange program with schools in China’s rural Shandong province.
The admiration for teachers pervades homes and schools, and helps explain the order and discipline evident in many Chinese classrooms, which so astounds Americans, Mr. Gregg said.
“The parent hands over the child to the teacher,” he said. “They entrust the teacher to be the one who will look after the child and help them do well. No one questions [that] authority—ever.”
Relations between parents and teachers in the United States, by some measures, appear to be less trusting. More than half of U.S. teachers said that school discipline problems are made worse because they are afraid that parents and school administrators won’t back them when behavior problems arise, according to a 2004 nationwide survey by Public Agenda. Nearly 80 percent of teachers said most parents are not aware of what goes on in their children’s schools, an earlier survey by the organization found.
The differences in how the two societies view teachers are also likely to affect who enters the field, some observers say. Although many Chinese parents are pleased to see their children become teachers, the message in American families often is more ambiguous because of concerns over inadequate pay and limited opportunities for advancement, Ms. Johnson said.
That opinion was seconded by Cathy L. Seeley, a former president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, in Reston, Va. Too many Americans believe that talented students entering the job market will be wasting those skills if they become teachers, added Ms. Seeley, now a senior fellow at the University of Texas at Austin.
“It’s an admirable profession and an important profession,” said Ms. Seeley of the public’s view of teaching. “But what I find is that most people would not encourage their own child to go into teaching because of the economic consequences.”
Despite the differences in how their profession is viewed by society, educators in both countries have been hit with increasing demands to improve student achievement and, they say, to teach in different ways.
In schools across the United States, teachers have complained about the pressure they feel to raise test scores under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The law, which requires schools to improve or face federal penalties, has resulted in more cut-and-dried instruction and an overemphasis on test preparation, many teachers and policymakers say.
Teachers in China face different challenges. The Chinese government in recent years has told them to revamp lessons in a way that will encourage more creative thinking and problem-solving among students, across many subjects. Teachers are staging more classroom discussions and activities aimed at cultivating students’ ability to think independently about material presented in textbooks.
Born of Frustration
Yet that approach is a departure for many teachers, who traditionally have relied on lecture-style teaching to cover content mandated by China’s national curriculum and likely to show up on the country’s high-stakes exams.
“We have a tight schedule, and the tasks are quite heavy,” said Pei Jiawang, a high school physics teacher at the Jingshan School, in Beijing. If too much time is turned over to students, he said, teachers “might not be able to finish the content required.”
Zheng Shibing, a student at South China Normal University, in Guangzhou, is bracing for the challenge.
A native of a poor, rural section of Guangdong province in southern China, Mr. Zheng is nearing the completion of his training to become a teacher at this well-regarded university, a leafy sanctuary of fountains and academic buildings removed from the city’s steady rumble.
His career choice was born of frustration. He remembers some teachers from the school in his home village cutting out of class midway through the period to relax in the teachers’ lounge or another sanctuary. “I was enraged,” he recalled. “I was determined to be a teacher and do a better job.”
Now, the 24-year-old says he plans to return to his hometown and teach English, which he speaks flawlessly.
“I want to develop the education there—it’s my dream,” Mr. Zheng said. “Not all people want to go back to rural areas, because the pay is not very high. But pay is not the only thing.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 13, 2007 edition of Education Week as Teaching Viewed as Stable and Respectable Profession