Throughout my travels, I have sought opportunities to engage with students in different global contexts. Given my commitment to join the Teach for America movement as a high school teacher in my home state of Alabama next year, I am always eager for the chance to learn about other educational systems, pedagogical models, and methods of thinking. China has given me no shortage of opportunities to embrace these topics across classroom communities.
Education carries tremendous value in China. President Hu Jintao sets the national tone with speeches centering on his vision of a “harmonious society” that stresses a “culture of scientific discovery.” In cities across the Middle Kingdom, teachers carry a tremendous amount of social capital and ambition for educational attainment permeates the culture. School children can bestow no greater honor on one their families than to be admitted to one of China’s—or the world’s—most prestigious colleges. Therefore, it is not difficult to find grade school students who study 12 hours a day, determined to sharpen their mathematical and language skills for the change to one day make their parents’ proud with admission to a leading university.
One of my first major exposures to a classroom community comes through an opportunity to teach an English lesson on American culture to 7th grade students at a small school just south of Beijing. Jill Xiaozhou, a colleague of mine in the Harvard Business School 2+2 Program working for UBS Financial Services in Beijing, invites the service event, coordinated by her company. I plan a lesson that focuses on the “melting pot” of American culture informed by languages, styles, and traditions from around the world. It also includes a mention of NBA stars and pop icons.
Throughout the lesson, all 30 of the students in my 7th grade classroom demonstrate a high degree of discipline by sitting quietly and attentively through two hours of instruction. Two hours! When asked a question, eager hands shot into the air and tiny bodies stood with straight backs as they offered responses. I instructed them to stand and ask a classmate questions like, “Who is your favorite athlete?” The partner would stand at attention, and proudly answer, “My favorite athlete is Kobe Bryant,” with a beaming smile. Something tells me that the students in my future high school classroom will require more classroom management and coaching than their counterparts in China.
My second major exposure to the Chinese educational system comes thanks to the Jiayu School in Changping, a city of 1.3 million just north of Beijing. Their school leader, a charismatic visionary named Jerome Ma, invites me to join a visiting musical ensemble from Indiana University in touring the Great Wall of China and meeting assembled students. Ma is a technocrat is some senses—his background is in management at Lenovo, the parent company of IBM—but I can tell from my initial conversation with him that he’s a leader of people more than computers. He has a vision for making his program truly international in nature and a passion for connecting his students with opportunities for higher education in the U.S.
To move on this ambition, he partners me with a young girl in his program with dreams of enrolling at Harvard University in the coming years. The girl wears a turquoise and white jumper and flashes a shy smile at me as we meet and Mr. Ma asks me to counsel her on ways to improve her SAT scores. I encourage her to become a vociferous reader of English language magazines, newspapers, and textbooks in order to improve her vocabulary and recognition of grammar rules. Immediately, the pre-teen begins pouring over an article in the English-language China Daily newspaper about inflationary pressures in the Chinese economy and begs me to test her comprehension. I walk away impressed by her drive.
Later on, we sat down for their musical presentation and a duo of young emcees took the stage, welcoming their American guests to the program. Three hundred youngsters sat surrounding us, on the floor, on bleachers, and around the Indiana University orchestra. Awed by their respectful silence throughout the two-hour performance, I remarked to a U.S. State Department representative in attendance that I had never before seen such well-behaved children. A notable comment, considering that a majority of the three hundred of them spent the duration of the performance seated on the wooden gymnasium floor, with only a thin foam pad to cushion them.
In both of my school visit experiences, I walked away extraordinarily impressed by the students’ work ethics and desires to achieve. From the eager participants in my rural classroom to the disciplined listeners in the urban gymnasium, Chinese youngsters I engage with leave a lasting impression about the disciplined nature of the country’s educational system. I believe that we have much to learn from them in the States!