Education Is Bigger Than Politics (A Lesson From My Year In China)

Having been in China just 10 days, it was funny how the detail of teaching English–my vehicle for coming out to China–became lost on me. But it was no accident. I didn’t want to think too much about it, because honestly, I didn’t think too much of it. Tons of others before me had gone abroad to teach. Plus, how hard could it be? Especially to a bunch of Chinese children who were going to be little soldier students. Thus, leading up to my departure, and despite all the encouragement I had received, I was sheepish about admitting my job. I would respond to others, “That’s right, I’m going to China to write . . . oh, and teach English.”

Skip ahead, and here I was sitting in teacher training in my school in Zhuhai. And it was maybe one whole hour into it, when I realized I had underestimated three things: the difficulty of doing this job well, how important a job it was, and how rewarding this experience would be.

My fellow first-year colleagues and I gathered for training in a classroom that—with the whiteboard, world map, desks, and bulletin board—reminded me of any classroom at most any school back home. I sat in one of the twenty dark blue plastic chairs with attached, dark blue plastic desks. My colleagues included Marilyn, a young woman from The Philippines; Reynold, a fellow American (Oregonian) a couple years younger than I with a medium build, glasses, thinning blonde hair; and then we had a Scotsman, an Englishman, and an Australian woman all ranging from late-twenties to mid-forties.

The Scot, the Englishman, and the Aussie sitting in the lobby awaiting training
The Scot, the Englishman, and the Aussie sitting in the lobby awaiting training

Soon, a middle-aged Iranian man in slacks and a white turtleneck walked into the classroom. He was tall, thin, clean-shaven, and had a receding hairline and smiling face. His name was Navid (sounds like “NahVEED”), and he was the education supervisor at TPR Academy of American English in Zhuhai. TPR is an acronym for Total Physical Response—a system of teaching and learning with physical accompaniment to aid in the process. TPR Academy is an English-learning school that caters to children and adults outside of normal school and work hours.

Navid introduced himself to us and began his lecture.

Soon after, I tuned out.

His opening remarks were about the value and importance of education, that the job we had as educators was not only to impart knowledge but to impart wisdom and morals. He talked about a spiritual education. He talked about being a role model, a nurturer—that parents and teachers share in this responsibility.

Upon hearing this, I slouched down and thought, “Oh boy, here we go.”

You may wonder why, as his statements seem harmless, if not accurate. But I’d heard this rhetoric before—used by groups and administrations back in America to defend their philosophy of education and then to promote their policy.

Apparently voting “no” means you’re against kids. I had grown tired of the propaganda.
Apparently voting “no” means you’re against kids. I had grown tired of the propaganda.

When Navid started talking like “one of them,” my defenses went up. And so it could have gone for the next two hours, myself veiled from truth due to my judgment—just the kind of thing I moved abroad to improve. Thankfully, I didn’t tune him out for long. As he spoke of the upcoming classes, it began to sink in that this job might not be as easy as I had anticipated.

That upcoming Saturday I would have fifteen sets of eyes staring back at me. Imagine that—fifteen little Chinese kids looking up at you, or worse, not looking at you because they’re bored or messing around with one another. Though I assumed they would be good and quiet, I wondered what I’d do if they did get out of line.

Then all the factors to consider when teaching also hit me: some students are louder, some quiet, some smarter, and some simply want to be there more than others. And I would be teaching five different classes—five combinations of all these factors. Oh, and all the names. And how long does fifty minutes in the classroom feel like anyhow?

Nothing like the reality of reality to get you out of the luxury of being an ideologue.

Adding to all this, I had thought that my job would be to simply, well, teach. Navid used the analogy that the teacher is an urn full of water, and it is his or her job to fill all the little urns. “All right,” I thought. I liked this analogy—clear, simple. Problem was, he used this dated idea to contrast how far we’ve come in our understanding of education since the ancient Greeks used this very analogy. Hmmm, seems like my prejudices and ignorance had me behind the times just a titch. So I told myself to be quiet and listen, and from an open mind came open eyes, realizing the fulfillment of what was ahead.

Socrates: filling urns
Socrates: filling urns

Navid went on to promote another idea of education: that inside each student is a pearl. Some are easy to find, easy to shine. Others are not. Our job as teachers was to discover this pearl inside each child and learn how to make it shine. This is what it is to teach—not merely passing knowledge down, but a discovery process, an interaction that should motivate, educate, and help another person grow. Whoa. Once I heard this, it wasn’t just fear of these first classes that got me to focus—it was excitement about getting to participate in this process. In addition, I thought of the character and the skills honed as a result of teaching: creativity, patience, expression, focus, confidence.

Mr. Holland: shining pearls
Mr. Holland: shining pearls

The Greek illustration was powerful for another reason. It revealed that education is something that’s been studied for a long time—well before lobbies and political lawn signs. It revealed to me the importance of this topic. Indeed, what could be more important than how knowledge and wisdom get passed down?

Education is much bigger than politics. I also realized how easy it is to take a side on an issue and then disregard anything that resembles the opposition. Lessons learned. Breakthroughs may be months/years in the making, but they happen in a moment, and I realized what a lucky opportunity I had before me. It was a good thing, too, because I’d need the motivation to get me through the tougher classes and tougher days ahead.


This story is an excerpt from my recently-released book – Life Learned Abroad: Lessons on Humanity from China – a chronology of observations, experiences, insights, and photographs living in China from 2010-2011. It is available on Amazon.


What say you?