( 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.