China’s rural schools have a severe shortage of teachers, resulting in crowded classrooms, sometimes numbering 80 students. Many rural teachers have only completed high school themselves and native English instructors are rare. While the government has a high commitment to raising the quality of rural education, there is a staggering amount of work to do.
That’s where Teach for China (TFC) sees its value. Now in its third year, TFC is the first alternate sourcing teaching program of its kind in China and follows existing models like Teach for America. Its mission is to eliminate the educational inequality in China by enlisting college graduates from prestigious US and Chinese Universities like Harvard, Yale, Peking and Tsinghua.
TFC sends cross-cultural teams to under-resourced primary and middle schools in Yunnan and Guangdong provinces. This school year the program has over 150 teaching fellows who are working to educate students beyond their ABCs.
Breaking the cycle of complacency
High school and college are too expensive for most rural Chinese families. Many parents (who often have lower education levels) are resigned to the fact that their children will probably follow them by becoming farmers or migrant workers after completing middle school.
According to second year fellow Hao Linshuo, “Students receive no wholehearted confidence from their influencers. Even the local teachers don’t believe the kids can really succeed.”
To combat the complacent attitude, fellows like Linshuo and Jarlene Choy, who teach at the same school in Yunnan, work to engage students, their families and teachers.
Linshuo makes home visits to two-thirds of her students and meets with students one on one.
“Talking to them individually takes a lot of time, but I feel like it is worth it,” she said. “They rarely get special or individual attention.”
Song and dance
Linshuo said her student Fugen was one such child. Unofficially diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, he had almost no friends, rarely spoke and was last in the class. Fugen’s mother had given up hope but she told Linshuo her son did enjoy one thing—dancing.
“I thought it might be a connection point with him,” said Linshuo. “I signed him up for a performance at our school art festival and practiced a dance with him.”
In front of nearly 2000 students and faculty, Fugen performed his dance and won first prize in the dancing category. He later wrote an essay about it, saying that he had never before been so confident and he felt that someone actually cared about him. His grades have since improved and he talks more both inside and outside of the classroom. He is also applying to a high school with an art focus.
Linshuo doesn’t expect to change a child’s entire life, but she says, “I can change a short period of his life, which might bring more to his life later on.”
For TFC fellows, quelling complacency means broadening students’ existing educational opportunities.
“I feel like there is a lot out there that I want to expose them to so they can have bigger goals beyond just what they can see here,” said Jarlene.
In addition to following the regular curriculum, fellows plan extracurricular activities, use songs to teach and host events. They also encourage other local teachers to incorporate creative activities into their lesson plans.
The art of teaching
Jarlene, a first year fellow, admits that mastering the classroom is a challenge. In her class of 59 she says, “A lot of kids have been passed thru but haven't mastered the foundational skills yet.” Additionally, there is no provision for children with learning disabilities and special needs.
Linshuo and Jarlene say they receive a lot of support from TFC, beginning with an intensive training the summer before classes start. Monthly professional development conferences are held every month to further educate and support fellows.
Fellows are held to a high standard and monitored to ensure they adhere to three core values: improving students’ academic achievement, developing critical thinking skills and building a culture of achievement.
Local teachers also attend trainings to provide insight into the rural Chinese education system. “We’re not only learning from them but the local education administrators are also learning from us,” said Linshuo.
Fellows hope more students can accede to higher levels of education, but realize that often results in a rural brain drain as students choose to move to cities permanently. Linshuo wants to encourage her students otherwise.
“I want to build a sense of giving back so they know they’re not just learning to get a good grade but they’re learning to be able to come back in the future and build their own communities.”
Beyond the classroom, developing dialog between local education leaders and TFC fellows is an important part of the organization’s goal to create lasting change in the education system and in the lives of rural children. And while TFC fellowships are only two years, the organization hopes to build lasting partnerships with schools.
TFC also encourages fellows to continue their development as they move into other sectors, helping them find graduate school and internship opportunities. TFC expects past fellows to continue to be lifelong advocates for educational equality in China across industries.
“Teaching as leadership is the core concept—that you’re not just training the fellows to become excellent teachers, you’re training them to become excellent leaders.” said Linshuo
From the individual child to global partnerships, TFC hopes to build a community that brings the dream of equal education closer to all Chinese children.