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Archive for the ‘Educational Inequity’ Category

“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

Zhang Qiang (Fellow 10, Tsinghua University) with some of his students

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

Zhang Qiang and his American teammate Gareth Collins (Fellow ’10, University of Michigan) with some of their students at Dazhai Middle School

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.

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Wyatt Bruton (Fellow ’11, University of North Carolina) teaches English at Zhiying Middle School 植英中学 in Shantou 汕头, Guangdong. He knows that one of his most important tasks as a teacher is to inspire his students to believe in the importance of their educations. This week, he led a group of his students to visit the campus of Shantou University, giving them their first ever opportunity to set foot on a university campus and showing them what they have to gain by continuing in their educations. 

Every day here in rural China turns out to be surprising and fascinating in its own way, but some days stick out above all the rest.

Today, on one of those days. I had the privilege of taking 40 of the students from my class at Zhiying Middle School to

Wyatt’s students at Shantou University

Shantou University. This was a dream come true for me, and was a trip which I believe could have a huge impact on my students’ futures. One of the core challenges that we face as Fellows lies in the effort to invest our students in learning. Only if our students believe that their educations are important to them will they apply the effort and the persistence that they need in order to overcome the obstacles before them. Many of my students had never left the area surrounding their village, much less been to Shantou or to a university campus. I organized this trip so that they could see, for the first time, what they had to gain by continuing to pursue their educations.

We arrived at the gate around 9:30AM, where we met several professors and 10 current university students with diverse majors and stories. They led us around the beautiful Shantou University campus, where we went in the Art & Design Lab, Science laboratories, the Marine Ecology Department and the Literature Department. Students were able to see first-hand what daily life looks like on a college campus.

Visiting a Marine Biology Lab

We ate with local students in the cafeteria for lunch, and then headed to the library (known to be the most modern university library in all of Asia), where we took part in my favorite part of the day. The university students introduced themselves and shared their stories of how they ended up at Shantou University. They challenged my kids to work hard to defy the odds, to start planning now for their future, and to think critically. They challenged them to not just accept the status quo of what everyone in their village has done, but to dream big and set big goals. They gave my students the opportunity to ask questions about everything from daily life to different possible majors.

The Zhiying Stars on this trip today have some of the highest scores in the 7th grade out of their almost 900 classmates, yet most have not had college on their radar simply because they have just never thought it could be possible. Many of their parents didn’t study past middle school, and they may have never before met someone who took the path to college. For someone from rural China, getting into college is difficult, but it is impossible. I believe that the first

Wyatt’s students spoke with Shantou University students about the value of higher education

step to putting my students on that path is to show them what a university education looks like and what they have to gain from it.

In China, going to college is not the only path to success, but it certainly is one, and I hope that today I planted seeds of hope that will grow a passion and resolve to believe that their goals are achievable no matter what the statistics say.

The visit prompted me to look back 10 years ago to when I was in 7th grade—I had no idea at the time of the epic life adventure in front of me that would intersect my story with these amazing students. I can’t wait to see where they all are in 10+ years. I truly believe I’m teaching China’s future leaders in the fields of science, journalism, art, business, education, engineering, government, and math. 

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Fellows have a lot to learn about their students by visiting their homes and understanding their lives outside the classroom. Kristen Faiferlick (Fellow ’10, Middlebury College) and Laura Zulliger (Fellow ’10, Davidson College) recently spent a weekend visiting the homes of their students in a village near their school in Luodang 洛党. They learned, among other things, that “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “The Tortise and the Hare” are popular children’s stories in China, too!

With the semester almost halfway over, Laura and I decided it was time for us to go visit some of our students’

Kristen Faiferlick with some of her students in front of their old elementary school in the town of Tianxin

homes. We had enjoyed teaching them about American customs and habits, such as celebrating Halloween, and we were eager to learn more about their lives. So, last weekend, we walked with six of our students to their homes in Tianxin 田心 (“Field heart”), a village across the valley from Luodang. Tianxin is deceptively far from our school. From our dorm window, we can see the village spread across the mountain, but walking to the furthest home in Tianxin can take over an hour.

After Saturday morning class, Laura, our students, and I walked down the road and across the river that stretches around Luodang (which I learned is named Yinchun He 迎春河, “Welcome Spring River”). We stopped along the way at each student’s home, meeting their parents or grandparents. In many homes, one or both parents are working in other cities or provinces, so only a grandmother or grandfather is present to care for the children. Most of the students we visited were lucky to have at least one parent in their home. Troy, Sandy, and Meena also had adorable younger sisters!

I learned a lot about my students from seeing them interact with one another and with their families. I knew that Troy was quiet and gentle from talking with him in class and seeing him patiently work with some of our class’s most challenging students, but seeing him joke with his sister helped me understand how tender-hearted he really is. I was also struck by how sensitive he is in dealing with his family’s pets. In many cases in China, pets are hit or kicked, but Troy told me that they neither hit nor kick their dog or cat.

Once we reached June’s home in the heart of Tianxin, we sat in the morning sunlight and told fables that we learned

The village of Luodang, as viewed from Tianxin

when we were young. Apparently, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is a Chinese story! Additionally, all of my students already knew “The Tortoise and the Hare,” even though I had been sure that it was an Aesop’s fable. It seems good stories travel fast! We had fun discussing what each of these tales can teach us about life.

At Sandy’s house, we ate a quick lunch of rice, fried eggs and soup, and then headed up the mountain to see Meena and Savannah’s house. We made a detour on the way up to see Savannah’s favorite spot: a tiny stream that pooled over smooth rocks. We spent some time splashing in the pools, then continued up the tiny trail to the upper level of Tianxin. Finally, we reached Savannah’s house. It wasn’t a typical home: for the next few months, Savannah will be living with all her furniture under a tarp, waiting until her new house is built. All of her extended family members still living in Fengqing had joined to help tear down the old house and build the new one. We had to step gingerly around piles of rubble and avoid falling pieces of roof as we approached her makeshift home. Although the family will be cold under their tarp, in a few months, they’ll have a brand new home to live in!

After seeing each of their homes and meeting their family, Laura and I headed back down the mountain. It’s always

Some of Kristen and Laura's students at home

satisfying to interact with students outside of class, and we could feel their pride as they showed us their village’s elementary school, their favorite swimming hole, and introduced us to their parents. I feel blessed to be teaching such wonderful children. Getting to know them better makes me more dedicated to our mission and want to work even harder to give them the brightest future I can!

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Many rural school systems don’t offer English education until middle school, leaving their students at a huge disadvantage to those students who start learning the language earlier. Last year, former Fellow and Program Manager Ken Saathoff oversaw an exciting new pilot program that brought English education into rural elementary schools, with extraordinary results: read his story below. 

My name is Ken Saathoff. I’m a graduate of Harvard University, where I studied English literature. After graduating, I came to China as a member of the initial cohort of Teach For China Fellows, teaching in Liuhe middle school in northwestern Yunnan. After completing my Fellowship, I came on staff, working to train and support new Fellows.

One of the most challenging things about teaching English in rural Yunnan is how, from the first day of the first year of English, your students are already so far behind. Seventh grade students at my school, for instance, were taking their first year of English. And yet, the final exam that assessed their performance at the end of the year was the exact same test as the one administered to their peers in Dali and Kunming, who had been studying English since first grade and, often, spent years doing private tutoring in English after school. The playing field is anything but level.

Ken Saathoff (Fellow '09, Harvard University)

Looking at how far behind our students were, it struck me: it didn’t have to be this way. Our Fellows were already providing a quality education to these students in middle school; what if they could start working with these same students at a much younger age, building solid foundations and preventing students from falling behind in the first place. The impact our Fellows could make in elementary schools would be tremendous.

However, across the board, schools prioritize middle school English, and think of elementary school English as a placeholder at best, or completely unnecessary at worst. It was difficult to draw the correlation for them between students’ experience with English in elementary school and their performance on middle school exams. It would take too long to measure. It was a waste of time and resources.

It took extensive planning, much collaboration with local partners and the enthusiasm of Teach For China staff and Fellows alike, but we finally found a partner in Xingfu elementary school. In fact, Xingfu’s principal was so eager to pilot the program that he dramatically increased English hours for all students and brought in three Teach For China Fellows to co-teach all third and fourth graders in the school. At Teach For China’s recommendation, that also adopted an international standard curriculum that has proven results with young learners of English. The pieces were in place, and it was time to see what would result.

A few months after the program was implemented, I got a chance to visit Xingfu. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I told myself to reserve judgment – after only a few months, particularly with new teachers who had not been trained to deal with young children, it would be an accomplishment if these students were well-behaved and making real progress on the alphabet and phonics.

What I saw in Xingfu shocked me. Walking down the street in the village, young children would approach me and speak to me, not in Chinese, but in standard, unaccented American English. They would engage me in the types of conversations that eluded most of their high school-age peers. English was clearly alive for them, something they felt comfortable communicating with on basic topics, rather than a series of memorized phrases and grammar rules. By the end of the year, the local teachers and administration at Xingfu were so impressed with our students’ English level that they served as willing ambassadors for our elementary school program, advocating with other local partners for the benefits of prioritizing early education. Today, we have over forty Fellows placed in elementary schools in Yunnan and Guangdong, a number we expect to see continue to grow over the next several years.

These types of experiments, this type of partnership building – it’s utterly crucial to our work. Seeing the impressive results at Xingfu fills me with hope that this system can undergo the change it so desperately needs. It’s the kind of work that’s happening in Xingfu that will dramatically change the face of rural education in China.

I teach for the children of Xingfu. I teach for China.

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“I know that if the student at the bottom of the class can succeed, then they ALL can.” 

Chen Yanmei 陈燕梅 (Fellow ’10, Shantou University), told this story to the guests at last week’s Teach For China benefit dinner in Hong Kong, about the student at the bottom of her class, and how she pushed him to achieve.

My name is 陈燕梅. I graduated from Shantou University. I majored in Journalism. Now, I am a 2010-2012 Teach For China Fellow. I currently teach 7thgrade Chinese–last year I taught in Yunnan, and this year I am teaching in Shantou, Guangdong.

Chen Yanmei (Fellow '10, Shantou University)

When I first arrived in my classroom in Yunnan last year, I was completely overwhelmed by the challenge before me. I had 44 students on the first day of school and after only half a semester, 9 boys had dropped out. They were all significantly behind in their school work and felt that their efforts in the classroom were pointless.  After a few weeks, it became clear to me, that my students had it in them to succeed, they were simply not motivated. I set forth a goal for my class: 98% of them would improve their test scores.

One of my students, Li Ronghua, who comes from a Dai minority village, presented a unique challenge. He had scored a 2 out of 120.  He could barely read or write Chinese. In class, he looked down and did not dare to speak.

I became determined to help Li Ronghua succeed. One day, I decided to visit his family. His parents informed me that he is very shy and can only speak a little Mandarin. But, they told me about his passion for driving cars. He learned how to ride a motorbike on his own when he was 9. I saw a glimmer of pride in his parents’ eyes when they spoke about Li Ronghua’s driving. I told both him and his parents, if he graduates middle school, he can find a technical school and he can prepare for a career as a professional driver. But, in order to do this, he needs to gain a basic education.

I made a plan to focus on Li’s writing and speaking.  In order to get him to speak, I encouraged him to speak with me in both mandarin and Dai dialect. I don’t understand Dai, so his best friend would translate for me. I asked him to write 5 sentences, twice a week, in Mandarin Chinese. He could write about anything he wanted—even motorbikes!

Li Ronghua had the lowest test scores in Chen Yanmei's class

But the process wasn’t easy. He would often forget to turn in his writing homework despite my reminders. At times, I doubted if it was worth spending so much time on him. But I knew we were on the right track when I read what he wrote on his midterm exam: “Chen Laoshi, I do so poorly but you never give up on me. This semester is the happiest I’ve ever been in school.” Much of the words he wrote were incorrect but I was so moved when I read it. I promised myself to be more patient with him and to celebrate every small achievement.

Once day he tried to speak in class, I asked his classmates to applaud and support him. He was so surprised and inspired by this and he began to feel more and more confident speaking Mandarin and he began to hand in his homework. I’d call his parents regularly to praise his improvement in school.

He still has difficulties speaking and writing, but he is not afraid of them anymore. On the last test, he scored a 38. He is still the lowest score in the class, but he no longer fears the hard work that he KNOWS will lead to his success.

Li Ronghua is just one of the many students in my class. But I know that if the student at the bottom of the class can succeed, then they ALL can.

At TFC, We set big goals for our students because we know they can achieve them. We challenge our students and ourselves because we see great potential. We work hard because we believe that we should be the change we want to see in the world.

I teach for Li Ronghua. I teach for China.

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BEIJING, China–October was a month of frenzied activity in the Teach For China Beijing office to prepare for a visit last week from Wendy Kopp, founder and CEO of Teach For America and Teach For All. This trip, Ms. Kopp’s second to China, was planned as part of an effort to raise Teach For China’s public profile here. The trip included meetings with a range of prominent figures, including American Ambassador Gary Locke, CEO of the SOHO real estate empire Zhang Xin, and Yang Lan, a prominent television producer and host of her own interview show who is sometimes referred to as “the Oprah of China.”

Ms. Kopp also served as the keynote speaker at Teach For China’s first ever two benefit dinners. The two events, held last week Beijing and in Hong Kong, brought together a range of prominent figures from the Chinese corporate, nonprofit, and government spheres. Ms. Kopp spoke about Teach For

Wendy Kopp speaks at the Teach For China Benefit Dinner in Beijing

America’s successes and about the lessons learned from the first four years of running Teach For All, which now includes 23 education nonprofits working in different countries throughout the world. “One of the major unknowns we faced in the first years of starting Teach For All was the question of whether this model would work anywhere else,” she said, after all, there was no way to know if a model which has proved so effective in America would generate results against the particular challenges of education inequality in other countries. What we’ve found, though, is that there is a universal power in channeling a nation’s young people to tackling its most fundamental problem.” The benefit dinner in Hong Kong, through a combination of donations, ticket sales, and a charity auction, raised over 2 million Hong Kong dollars (over 250 thousand USD).

Ms. Kopp’s time in Beijing also included a lunch with the staff in the Beijing office, who shared with her the challenges and successes currently being faced by their different teams. “It’s amazing to see the progress you’ve made since I last visited almost a year ago,” she said. “You are light-years ahead of where you were last time I visited. There are a lot of challenges ahead of you at this stage, but you guys are asking the right questions.”

Wendy Kopp eats lunch with the Teach For China Beijing staff

Leaving Beijing, Ms. Kopp stopped over briefly in Shantou, and had the chance to sit in on several Fellows’ classes. She spent over an hour in the class of Wyatt Bruton (Fellow ’11, UNC Chapel Hill). “She re-centered us on an ever-important question: given the challenges and all the circumstances outside of our control, what can we do to make a lasting impact in the lives of our kids?” said Wyatt of the visit.

Wendy Kopp with Wyatt Bruton (Fellow '11)

In retrospect, the visit was a success on several fronts. Ms. Kopp’s support proved of tremendous value to Teach For China’s efforts to both build strong relationships with influential leaders in China and to meet its fundraising goals. Ms. Kopp’s over two decades of experience working in education reform provided lessons for staff and Fellows alike to apply both in and out of the classroom. Perhaps most importantly, though, in the words of Wyatt Bruton, the visit served as a powerful reminder “that our daily work here is part of a global story bigger than ourselves.”

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Meet Class  (“ban” 班) 138 from Xiaojie Middle School, Yunxian, Yunnan. Their English teacher is Andrew Coflan (Fellow ’10, Georgetown University)

Well there you have it, the 61 students of Ban 138. A few have been cut off, but you get the idea. From the windows to the wall, from front to back. Now when you hear about people complaining about overcrowded classes in the U.S., with a horrifying 30 students, you can point them my way.

Andrew Coflan's students in Xiaojie Middle School, Yunxian, Yunnan

On top of the number of students in a class, there are a few other challenges in their way. The first is their sleeping arrangement, with students sleeping two to a bed. There are usually 12 beds in a room, so that means there are 24 students to a room. They’re not allowed to hang anything on the walls, and they don’t usually have any real possessions. Some will wear the same outfit for the whole week, sleeping in it and wearing it to class until they head home for the few hours they have off.

Until last week, they didn’t eat breakfast either, which is rather common in rural areas. That means that they are in class from 7 am until 9 pm, after which they clean the classroom and head to bed. They have class until Friday night. Saturday morning they walk back to their homes, some of which are 6+ miles away, where they are allowed to spend a night with their families before walking back on Sunday.

What amazes me every day, is that despite all of the difficulties facing them, they are on the whole engaged and bright students. They face difficulties ranging from malnutrition to teachers who don’t believe that they can succeed, yet they show up every day with an enthusiastic “Good Morning!”

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