Dear Rambo

( This is largely for my Co-fellow—you have been a large asset to our school, students, and community. Thank you for your constant encouragement, empathy, and understanding on days when I need it most) 

Next year, due to a plethora of reasons, Teach for China will be suspending the U.S. fellows program. It has been a tumultuous semester for first year fellows. They have been offered an option to ‘early exit’ the program, or continue to finish out their two year commitment. There is understanding and respect. One year in rural China is no walk in the park.

I write this for those who have made the decision to stay. An equally tough decision. I write this because I have read many great blog posts and facebook statuses detailing one’s decision to exit the program, but none detailing why they have chosen to stay.This is not a critique of those decision to leave, but a redirection of what (to me) is also important, and deserves to be a part of the discussion.

My thoughts on staying, and why. 

I largely decided to join Teach for China for the following reasons (in no order).

1. I wanted to work in China and improve my language abilities

2. If I was going to teach, I wanted it to matter. If I was going to teach, it was not going to be a one year program set to make you lots of money by teaching China’s quasi elite children. If I was going to teach, it was going to be this wild 2 year program, teaching in a place where no-one has been.

3. I studied East Asia and IR, and wanted to experience policy-not just research about it. I want to bring perspective and insight to D.C. not just take from it.

That being said, my first year was a  challenge. The type of challenge that keeps on coming. The second you feel like you have a handle on things, the game changes (imagine being Katniss in that forest fire scene of the first Hunger Games movie). There were multiple times in my first year where I wanted to leave. I was concerned about my professional growth. I was sad. I was crying alone in my bed some nights. I was watching netflix to feel like I had company. I didn’t feel like I was a valued member of my team or local faculty. I was frustrated when I felt like the organization’s values and mission didn’t align with mine. I was angry when I wanted more ‘teaching support,’ but got an earful of “entrepreneurship.” I remember returning for the mid-year professional development conference. My program manager asked us, why did you come back? What made you?

My answer was : My students, and perhaps stubbornness.

I felt a lot of responsibility to my commitment and to my students. There might have been a level of pride. I have never really quit anything before, and didn’t want the good people of Laoying to think less of me (or Americans, I guess). After a few days you quickly understand just how tough of an environment our students have to face day in and day out. I have the privilege to leave, they don’t. To me, it became less about what this organization or this experience can bring to me, and more about what can I bring to my students? What can I bring to my local teachers? What can I bring to my community?

My second year started off much like my first. I was told a few days before class started that I was teaching a new subject I have no experience in.  However, I have been tested before and I knew what to expect from the unexpected.

What is so rewarding about your second year, is this, you are so much better at everything than you were last year. You have a point of reference, you have parameters to measure your success or failures, you have memories to build off of.

Last year, I would attend parent-teacher conferences with the expectations (from myself and others) that I probably wouldn’t be saying or doing much. This year, I gave a presentation to all the parents, teaching them how to better plan their child’s weekend. For the first time in my fellowship, I felt camaraderie with my students parents and grandparents. A group of dark skin and rough hands (indicative of their status as farmers or migrant workers), laughing and nodding their hands as we connect on their child’s habits.

“After your child wakes up, what do they do?——Watch TV right??”

I experienced smiles and shouts of “对对” when we discuss the current farming season. Everyone is planting their corn. I sensed appreciated of having this knowledge and understanding as I told them, “Take your child out to the fields. Hard work is good for them. But when they return home and you are cooking dinner–watch them and make sure they are studying. Is this possible? Can you do it?”

Their rousing chorus and thank you’s after my presentation will be one of those moments that I will hold dear until the end of time. I know the likelihood of them actually implementing a “study schedule” for their child over the weekend. But at least for one day, one afternoon, one hour, these parents felt like they had a stake in their child’s education. Something they could actively do to offer support.

These moments are a testament to why I stayed for my second year. I am more confident in my skills. I would also say that I cherish these moments just a little bit more than I might have last year. Maybe its because I am in my second year and will be leaving in less than two months? I have found that in my last few weeks, I have been stopping to witness, watch, and take in my general surrounding. Something I caught myself doing often my first month at placement (laoying). But this time, I witness with the perspective of having been here for a year. I am amazed by my students ingenuity and appreciative that the “HELLO (giggle giggle)” calls have almost stopped. Laoying is use to me, and I am use to it. I walk through market day and chat with my favorite shop keepers. I stay and have lunch with them and their family. One afternoon, my flour lady remarked to me, “I can’t believe you are still here! You like it here this much?”

The honest answer is yes, I do.

I write this for the fellows who are staying.

I know it is a difficult decision and the road ahead will be challenging. But thank you for carrying the torch. Thank you for believing in your impact. Thank you for believing in your students.

I’ll end with the following for the 2013-2015 and 2014-2016 TFC co-hort.

一句话 一辈子
一生情 一杯酒
朋友 不曾孤单过
一声朋友 你会懂
还有伤 还有痛
还要走 还有我

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All that glitters is not gold

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“Miss B, I’m sad…”

“Why’s that?”

“I didn’t score very well. I don’t understand why. I think I have been paying attention in class. I do the homework. I ask questions.  I stay after to self-study. Why didn’t I improve?

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It is easy to write about all the strange, humorous, and beautiful moments that occur during a TFC fellowship. However, if my ‘mission’ is to eradicate education inequality and help more students test into high school, and eventually to college. I’m failing. 

This week marks the halfway point of my last semester at Laoying Middle School. Mid-terms are created by the county and measure student, class, and school ranks. The numbers mean everything.  Classes are ranked by the number of students who score above a 60%. To give you an idea of the challenges teachers face at my school, of the 300 7th graders only 27 students scored above a 60% on last semesters final. Only 5 students in my class scored above the “excellence” rate. 5 out of 61.

One of my constant battles as a primary English instructor is how to raise this number. It’s a daily struggle of self-doubt and the fear of failing these kids. How can I get through to them? How do I make this grammar structure memorable? How do I instill a sense of ‘drive’ in my students? I observe my local teacher’s classes about once every two weeks, and there aren’t large systemic differences between the “Chinese” and the “Foreigner” classroom. We read vocabularly. We do dictations. We go over translations. We write notes on the major grammar points. We assign homework.  Their classes are more tame and quiet. In comparison, my class (on good days) tend to be filled with laughter, different activities, energy, and plenty of student-teacher interactions. A personal goal of mine is to prove to my students that learning English can be enjoyable. I usually try to depict this through my personality with hopes that this will raise their interest level to apply themselves in English class.

Around testing time, I am less optimistic.  So when my students come up to asking, why didn’t I improve. I echo the same question to myself.

I largely appreciate all the support and encouragement offered by my local teachers, co-fellows, and TFC friends. Who have probably seen me cry more times than any of my friends back home. I feel defeated. I feel frustrated. I feel like I’m not doing what I am suppose to be doing to help my students. Typically, I receive a carousel of positive comments or explanations.

“You are only here for two years, and now only a few months. There is only so much you can do.”

“Rachael, don’t worry. The test is difficult and your students just started learning English this year.”

“I see you doing everything you can. That’s what matters.”

“It’s not you, its your students. They don’t care to do well. So they won’t.”

The last one kills me.

Two weeks ago our school was paid a visit by a teacher from the Number 2 Middle School in Baoshan. She was observing 9th grade classes and help an open class for us to observe. A self proclaimed lover of all things teaching and english related,” Miss Susan said that if you asked 100 teachers if they enjoyed teaching, 99 would say no, but she is the 1 who would say yes. I asked her the age-old question that all teachers struggle with.

“How do you differentiate your classroom so you can continue to teach lower-level students, while challenging upper-level students?

Her response?

“You can’t. They are 没办法. In other words, they are hopeless. Your duty is to the students who can make it. I know its hard to hear, but its the truth.”

I’ve been told this so many times it starts to sound cliche. My students are constantly told their worth. It is reflected in their grades. It is reflected in how their parents view them.  It is reflected in the standards students set for themselves.

My war is upholding them to standards and expectations that they can believe in. My war is to be unwavering in this objective.

In some ways I view it as irresponsible for a teacher to let your students decide who is worthless and who isn’t.  Is it not our jobs as teachers to elevate this worth?

If our students are 没办法…shouldn’t we be finding a 办法??

I write this splurge of thoughts because I understand my constraints and the boundaries of my ‘impact’.

At the end of the day, I just want to make clear that I am working hard and maybe 50% of my class is working hard. Yet only 6 students scored above a 60% on their mid-term.

My target goal: 12 students have the ability to score above a 60%

This is my reality.

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..but I didn’t get first

Kevin, who has yet to reach 5 feet, has wide eyes framed by thick black glasses. He sits in the front of the class with a bright personality, but lacks discipline when it comes to his studies. For the past month, the students of Class 111 had been diligently preparing for this week’s sports competition. An elaborate field day, which lasts 3 days, will include a ticker-tape parade, track races, and other various competitions. As instructed by their homeroom teacher, Class 111’s track participants had been practicing three times a day, running in the morning, afternoon, and evening.

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At a young age, I started running track in elementary school and continued on until high school. Always an avid runner, I continue to run leisurely in Laoying, saying hello to local farm workers, while running into my students’ family members along the way. Given my background, I was coaching and rallying my students to run their best race yet. I ran alongside them barking instructions to look forward and pump their arms. I ran ahead to tell them when to give it their all for the final 100m kick. I ran past them to catch them as they crossed the finished line, win or lose.

During the sports competition, amidst shots of glucose, Class 111 had been sweeping races, placing in the Boys and Girls 100m sprint, 200m, 400m, and the 800m. Today was the day for the tough 1000m race. Kevin’s race.

Kevin, adorned in a number 1 bib, lined up at the start line. He flashed me a smile and returned my thumbs up. He told me earlier that he had been preparing for this race; he’s going to win.

“On your mark. Get set. Go.”

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Kevin kept up with the top of the pack until the 3rd lap, when he started lagging behind. I was running next to him telling him not to give up. I could tell negative demons were starting to creep up to him as he saw the top 3 runners distance themselves from him. By the 4th lap Kevin started to walk while clutching his side and panting heavily.

“Kevin, look at me. You are not a quitter. You told me you prepared for this. Now finish what you started. I know you can. One step at a time, lets finish this race.”

He gave me a slight nod and began to run again. During his 5th and final lap, I accompanied him the entire time. The last 100m, Kevin would face his last challenge. The runner behind him picked up his pace and was licking at Kevin’s heels.

“Kevin, don’t you dare let him pass. You earned this.”

With a scream, Kevin exhausted himself and sprinted to ensure his 4th place finish. He cried for the next hour. Sobbing into his friends consoling arms, “…but I didn’t get first.”

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I spent the rest of the day thinking about the purpose of these races.

Finding a teachable moment, I stood in front of Class 111, and with the undivided attention of 59 young faces and I told them what I say in them today.

“This track race is no different than the race you face for your education. Not everybody can win, but every student can prepare for this race. Each of you will face a moment in your studies when you want to give up. Each of you will face a moment where there’s someone behind you trying to take away your goals. But remember, that each of you have a teacher encouraging you.

You exemplified determination, heart, compassion, sportsmanship, and skill. You proved to me that when you want something, you would  do everything you could to obtain it. I know you have it in you. Now imagine that today’s race was English class and the finish line is the final. Face this challenge, like you faced your races. You will be amazed with what you can do. It is not about being first. It is about leaving nothing on the table. It is about you sprinting to the finish line for what you want.”

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Beer and Baijiu

I stepped out of my evening class at 10pm with my English Class Representative walking alongside me. She had an arm full of 111 class’s first English Test. Students rushed around me, excited to be out of their little stools and breathing in the crisp brisk air. I weaved my way through “good evenings” and “hello Miss.B,” as I looked forward to boiling some water and winding down for the night. I’m not sure what it was about that Wednesday evening, but once again teachers would have to face an incident that goes beyond classroom education.

This evening, a group of 8 eighth grade girls (who I taught last year) stayed in their classroom after hours to celebrate a classmate’s birthday. Not only did a cake fight erupt, but the girls had a backpack filled with beer and baijiu. The amount of alcohol they had in their bag was enough to send them all to the hospital with alcohol poisoning.

In 2006, the Chinese Government banned the sale of alcohol to minors. The ban outlawed sales of beverages with an alcohol content of 0.5 percent or above to anyone under 18. While violators can be fined up to 2,000 RMB, it was unclear how the regulation would be enforced. A report released by Shanghai Institutes for Biologiacal Sciences under the Chinese Academy of Sciences showed that more than half of its surveyed middle school students (53.8%) have experience of drinking.

While underage drinking is not unique to China, the culture of drinking in China stems further into societal and family norms. Fathers drink often, 领导 (Ling Dao’s-local leaders and businessmen) drink to build relationships, and drinking is seen as a way to prove oneself’s status. Students are able to buy alcohol without question.

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Almost every Teach for China fellow has encountered an incident where students have been drinking.

A 5th grader, 10 years old, drunk and stumbling in the streets with his friends on the weekend.

A couple of middle schoolers drinking at a local bar/restaurant/coffee shop TFC fellows frequent.

A student drinking with his friends while I enjoy a bowl of noodles with a fellow I was visiting.

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Last year, I had a conversation with Miss. Li, an english teacher who has been teaching at my school for 14 years. We had just caught students drinking out at a local BBQ spot and I unloaded my frustration.

“Don’t these businesses care about their community? Don’t these students know what alcohol will do to their development?” Her answer was, 没办法 (nothing we can do).

My mind was racing. “What if I made a public service announcement and printed it on paper–taped it around the village and at these businesses? What if I told them about all the harm they are inflicting on these students?” Her answer, “Rachael, it wouldn’t do anything. The only thing we can do is to continue to educate our students and tell their parents.”

“This is their community what else can be done?”

Miss Li said, “One time, we had an internet bar at Laoying. Students started sneaking out of school to go play games and watch porn. Finally, the parents banded together and drove that business out of town. That is the only time something has been done.”

Tackling alcohol and smoking is tricky in our context. It is so embedded into the culture it is unreasonable to think that any TFC fellow will be able to do something about it. Furthermore, the presence of alcohol and smoking is not the fault of our local teachers or school administration. I have witnessed local teachers speak to their students about alcohol and smoking, and its something all students are aware of. They know its bad for their health, they know it impedes development, they know its costly, and they know its not allowed at school.

We have to ask ourselves, why did we start drinking? why did we start smoking? In todays society we know all the harmful effects, we know all the damage it can do, yet we still do it.

Just this year, a fair opened up right outside of the middle school. Students could play games like pop the balloons and win a prize, throw a ball and knock down all the bottles to win a prize, etc… Want to guess what some of the prizes were?  Cigarette packs, bottles of red wine, and baijiu were mixed in among stuffed toys and juices. I walked around baffled at the scene. It only took a few minutes until I ran into James, a student of my 7th grade class, who un-capped his prize of red wine and began to take a long swig of victory.

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*I confiscated James’s bottle of wine and had a conversation with him about alcohol later that evening. His banzhuren (homeroom teacher) also spoke with him about the severity of his actions. I then approached my school’s principal and urged him to make an announcement at that evenings faculty meeting for teachers to take extra care in checking student dorms, bags, and desks for any contrabands.

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I can see clearly now

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Michael, sat in the back of the class and was never a very attentive student. He liked to gaze out the window, draw on his desk, or stare blankly at his notebook when it came time to write notes.  It turns out his vision was poor and since he sat in the last row he had a hard time seeing the board. Though I still struggled to keep him engaged in class, I noticed a difference in his attention span after receiving glasses. He was more responsive and I slowly found ways to motivate him.  Wearing glasses, by no means, miraculously solves student behavior. However, it is a small step to providing students with simple solutions to help them along the way.

In March of this year, my team at Laoying Middle School decided to embark on a campaign to bring eye exams and free glasses to the students of Laoying. Thanks to the kind support and donations from friends and family all over the world, we collectively raised about $2000 dollars!

All students were given eye exams and in the end, we provided 97 students with free glasses.

I had always wanted to wear glasses. Perhaps for vanity reasons, my dad wore glasses, and my sister wore glasses. I would go with my sister to visit the eye doctor and intentionally fail the tests with hopes that I could look just like her. What surprised me was how excited these students were to receive glasses. I recall classmates I grew up with complaining about wearing glasses or begging their parents for contacts. Nobody wanted to be “four eyes,” but at Laoying there was none of that. Students were able to pick their own unique frames, laugh with their friends, and confidently see the blackboard clearly as they pressed on their studies.

On behalf of my TFC team, my school, and our students

we send our deepest and warmest thanks for all your support

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no pain, no gain

History Midterms 7th and 8th graders

It’s 7:35 in the morning and the English mid-term exam is set to begin in fifteen minutes. With a cup of hot instant nescafe coffee in my left hand and a half eaten banana in my right, I am standing outside the science room to collect the 8th and 9th grade English exam. While I waited, I noticed how informal this whole process was. I was to pick up the tests at 7:40, distribute the test and begin the test by 7:50; it all seemed a bit rushed.

At 8:00am the listening (听力) section began. Blasted over the school’s PA system, students waited for their grade’s section to play. Prior to the start of the listening section, some students began writing the Chinese translation next to questions and possible solutions on the test.

Attached is a 5 minute video of the 8th grade listening section. I was blown away by the difficulty and range of skills the students needed to demonstrate mastery over. As mentioned before, students at Laoying Middle School begin studying English in the 7th grade, however, their text book and thus test requirements, proceed at a pace with the assumption that students have been studying English since the 3rd grade.

What I hope to disclose in the next few paragraphs are my observations of the skills asked, test taking strategies, and students confidence in English.

(disclaimer: the students, whom I administered the test for, are among the lowest performing students in the 8th and 9th grade.)

The listening section of the English test is known to be one of the more difficult portions of the exam due to the students lack of exposure and their local teacher’s english accent. Part one of the listening section, students listened to a sentence then chose the picture that best corresponded with the meaning of the sentence. Part two, students had to listen to a sentence then choose the correct response. Part three, students listened to a paragraph then had to answer multiple choice questions related to the content of the paragraph.

After the listening section, came multiple choice-which tested students on grammar, conjugation, and reading comprehension. Last, came the essay portion-where students were given a prompt and are expected to write a paragraph. I noticed one particular strategy, where students would simply copy sentences from the reading comprehension portion of the exam and switch out vocabulary.

As I watched students struggle through the exam (some simply giving up and sleeping), part of me felt sympathy for the students. They are tested on and forced to learn a language with little practical application.  Given all of their adversity, I can’t help but think about this opportunity that is given to them. These students, born to peasant families, have an opportunity to learn a second language that could truly make a difference in their lives. They only need to take advantage of it and rise to their own potential.

The 9th grade topic was asking students to describe how they study for English–as one student put it “no pain, no gain”

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seek to understand

“One challenge teachers face is disruptive behavior in their classrooms. In a 2004 survey, 75 % of teachers noted that they would spend more time teaching and teaching effectively if they had less disruptive behavior in their classrooms (Public Agenda, 2004). Disruptive behavior (e.g., speaking without permission, getting out of seat) often interferes with students’ engagement in the learning process. Another challenge for teachers is to find classroom management strategies that are proactive, preventative, and relatively easy to implement, and which provide minimal disruption to the classroom. ” (http://bit.ly/17z7Ocu)

Classroom Management: the topic the tends to conquer most conversations with my co-workers and Teach for China fellows. “How are your kids? They are chatty. I confiscated a knife. They are disrespectful. I can’t keep them focused for more than 3 minutes. I had to shut down class 3 times this week.”

During Teach for China’s summer institute (a fast paced month long training program) we spent a large portion learning how to manage a classroom, as well as discussed and practiced different techniques, including, activity differentiation, teacher actions vs. student action, affective filter, positive consequences, and how to handle disruptions without giving up valuable class time. We practiced non-verbal and verbal cues and discussed various tracking methods (a point system) to motivate students to stay on task. Recently I have spent a good amount of time dealing with classroom management and figuring out how to handle my most 调皮(naughty) students while upholding my own dignity and most importantly, the student’s dignity as well. Management to me, at times, becomes a game of chess and sometimes even a battle of wits.

My third week of teaching, I was tired and feeling the swooping depression that all Teach for China fellows eventually feel. However, I realized that I had been yelling all week. I was exhausted, frustrated, and fed up. I felt disrespected and my first thoughts were, it’s because I am not from here, it is because I am American and vulnerable.

Later I thought that was pretty selfish of me.

There are teacher actions and there are student actions, and as a teacher you have to believe that you can make an impact on student actions. I decided to yell less, and ask more.

Scenario: While teaching students how to say “Do you like bananas?” You see a student passing notes, and you have a decision-make an example out of them-or confiscate the note and wait.

This was not my first run in with this student, who had repeatedly been completing other homework during my class. She stood up, apologized and asked me not to read the note out loud. While I had no intentions of doing so, my knee-jerk reaction was to be upset. How dare you stand up and speak out of turn. She already disrespected my class by passing notes and now she was asking for a favor? I continued on with class and pocketed the note.

It is age-old advice, but a deep breath and beginning a conversation with “how are you doing today? Did you have a good break?”-certainly goes a long way.

The student’s best friend from home was going through a rough time. Her friend quit school after completing elementary, was not eating, and refused to see anyone. My student was worried for her friend and the note passed in classed read words of encouragement.

Since this incident, this student chats with me during lunch time, eagerly participates in class, and makes an effort to practice her English with me outside of the classroom.  Her behavior in the classroom drastically changed and she now volunteers to answer questions.

Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

7th graders at LaoYing Middle School

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