A Minnesotan in China: Education on education
I came to Zhuhai for one simple reason: to live abroad. I wanted the perspective to better understand and see my own country -- not to mention my whole world.
But the job that got me here was teaching. Funny how this "detail" kind of got lost in the whole mix. But it was no accident.
I didn't want to think too much about it (I mean, how hard can it be, right?). And frankly, I didn't think too much of it (heck, tons of others have taught abroad - whoop-dee-doo). Leading up to my departure, I was even a little sheepish about admitting my job. I would to say to others, "Yeah, I'm going abroad to write ... and teach."
A few days ago, I had my first training. It didn't take me long to realize that within me was a large, looming disconnect that underestimated three things: 1) the difficulty it will be to do my job well, 2) how important a job it is, and 3) how rewarding this experience will be.
Before I came to this realization, though, I sat in my desk on the first day of training Tuesday night. Navid, (sounds like "Naveed"), supervisor to the education staff, began.
Soon after, I tuned out.
His opening remarks were about the value and importance of education, that the job we have as educators is not only to impart knowledge, but to impart wisdom and morals. He talked about a spiritual education. He talked about being a role model, a nurturer, and that parents and teachers both play this role.
I slouched down and thought, "Oh boy, here we go."
You may wonder why, as his statements seem harmless, if not accurate. But, see, I've heard this all before. In America, this rhetoric has been under the ownership of groups and administrations whose view makes me wince, and their talk of "a need for an education" is used as leverage for their policies. Some have even assumed the title of "advocates of education" and feel their solutions and ideas are the only ones truly "for" education -- as if others are against it.
Teachers not teaching
Back home, I had grown tired of speeches about "the importance of education." The politicization had jaded me, and when Navid started talking like "one of them," my defenses went up. "La la la la laaaa, not listening!" Or I did listen and thought of all the ways he was wrong.
And so it could have gone for the next two hours, continuing to commit such a sad error --just the kind of error that I moved abroad to correct! I was letting politics and prejudice of certain groups distort and block the truth, which is this: that education is a precious undertaking.
Thankfully, I didn't tune him out for long. I was here to teach, after all, and until now, had assumed it would be pretty easy; it was beginning to sink in that it might not be.
This Saturday, I will have 15 sets of eyes staring back at me. Imagine that: 15 little Chinese kids looking up at you, or even worse, not looking at you because they're bored or messing around with one another. What if they get out of line? What's to compel them to listen to me? How long is 50 minutes in the classroom, anyway?
There are a million factors to consider when teaching a group -- some kids are louder than others, some kids are smarter than others, some respond to different learning styles, some don't want to be there. And I'll be teaching five different classes, so I'll have five combinations of all these factors. And then there are all the names!
Here you go, Brandon. Get to work.
And up until this evening, I had thought that my job would be to simply, well, teach. At one point, Navid used the analogy that the teacher is an urn full of water and that it is his or her job to fill all the little urns. I liked this analogy -- clear, simple. Problem was, he was using this dated idea to contrast how far we've come in our understanding of education since the ancient Greeks used this very analogy. Hmmm, seems like my prejudices and ignorance had me behind the times just a titch -- like a few thousand years. But now my mind was open to today's ideas of education. And from an open mind came open eyes, seeing the fulfillment from doing my duty.
Navid went on to say that inside each student is a pearl. Some are easy to find, easy to shine. Some are more difficult. Our job as teachers is to discover this pearl inside each child and learn how to make it shine. This is to teach. It's not a mere pouring of my knowledge into their urn. It's a discovery process, an interaction -- and, in doing so, to motivate, educate and help another grow. What an experience to undertake; what a skill to develop!
I quickly became excited.
The Greek illustration was powerful for another reason. It simultaneously occurred to me that education is something that's been studied for a long, long time -- well before activists and political lawn signs. It revealed to me the importance of this topic. Indeed, what could be more important than how knowledge and wisdom get passed down? And specific to my assignment, I am helping children open up their lives by learning another language -- a gift that multiplies an individual's experience in life unlike any other. And last, I'm helping Chinese-American relations in my own itsy-bitsy way.
Education is much bigger than politics. But how common it is to take a side on an issue and then disregard anything that resembles the opposition -- regardless of the truth of the matter. It would be like someone refusing to recycle because they don't like environmentalists.
The best benefit I realized was what a lucky opportunity I have before me. One that I'll use to positively affect many more for many years to come.
Brandon Ferdig writes a weekly blog at www.newplateaus.areavoices.com. This column is an excerpt from a blog post during the year he spent teaching and traveling in China. His book, "New Plateaus in China," about his experiences, interactions and insights while traveling in China, is due out this winter. He can be reached at email@example.com.