“Through ordinary hard work, day in and day out, we produced extraordinary results.”
Zhang Qiang (Fellow ’10, Tsinghua University) recently completed his two-year term as a Fellow. As a math teacher at Dazhai Middle School in Yunnan, he led his class to improve from the bottom ranking at his school to the second-best in their grade. This fall, he will join Teach For China’s Chinese Recruiting team to work as full-time staff. Read his story to find out more about what he learned from his time as a Fellow and how he decided to stay involved with Teach For China.
I remember the first day I walked into my classroom at Dazhai. The
desks and tables were falling apart, and my 53 students were crammed into too few seats. Dahzai is a poor community in a mountain valley, over 160 kilometers away from the prefectural capital. My students rarely met anyone from outside the small town, and I remember their expressions as they stared up at me with meek curiosity.
We faced a lot of obstacles, which became only more apparent with each day. I struggled to understand the local dialect, and half of my students could barely speak Mandarin. I walked into class preparing to teach a standard math curriculum, while many of my students struggled with basic concepts they should have learned years before. A girl named Susan, who was very nice but always silent, did not even know what a triangle was in our first class. I was naïve enough to think that these students would understand the role that hard work plays in learning, as I had at their age. My students were naïve enough to think that I, as a teacher from a big city, could magically make their grades improve without assigning any homework.
We all had a lot to learn. Most importantly, though, I believed from the
beginning that my students could overcome the challenges they faced; and my students believed in me and my vision for our class. We trusted one another, and we worked hard, every day. I painstakingly planned out each lesson, and they tried their hardest on each homework assignment. I told them about my life and about how I got into Tsinghua University, and they told me about their lives and their aspirations. I spent hours outside of class tutoring the struggling students, and they gathered outside my dorm during their free time to raise questions and ask for extra help. Through ordinary hard work, day in and day out, we produced extraordinary results. Having started as the sixth-ranked math class in our grade, we rose one ranking in each successive semester. Two years later, as we approach the end of the semester, my class is now the second-highest ranked in our grade.
Susan , the silent girl, is now in the top 10 in our class. More importantly, in the letter she wrote to me when I left, she said she is now very convinced and confident of going to high school and college. She wrote that this change all came from our sincere conversations about growing up and from our relentless efforts in the past two years. When I read many letters like this from my students on my last trip out of Dazhai , I just could not help crying, for my kids, myself, and all we had accomplished together in two years.
I am so proud of my students’ hard work and of all they have accomplished. Nevertheless, there are so many reminders of how far we have left to go. Today, my classroom is slightly less crowded with only 45 students. Over the course of two years, eight students dropped out, closing the door on a whole range of opportunities. Many of my students like to joke with me, “Teacher, when I’m a student at Tsinghua, I bet I’ll be more handsome than you!” They like to joke about the future, but I can tell from their expressions that they want the joke to come true. They truly want to go to Tsinghua someday, or at least to attend university and to have the choices that a college degree would afford them. However, with so much uncertainty and so many obstacles still in front of them, they only dare to voice this dream as a joke. All I could do was take every opportunity to remind them of how much we had accomplished, and of how much more they can accomplish in the next two years, and the two years after that, as long as they remain brave and don’t lose sight of their goals.
I also know that my work is far from finished, and that there is so much more that I can do to close the gap for my students and for thousands like them in other schools. Now that my two years as a teacher are over, I will join Teach For China’s staff working to recruit new Chinese college graduates to join in our efforts. With each new Fellow, we come one step closer to realizing our common vision and helping every child in China enjoy the education they deserve.