I’ve been thinking a lot recently about why I have decided to remain in this part of the world for so long (while I have not actually been here for a very long time, the time seems long in relation to my comparatively short lifespan, so bear with me, older people). The answers that materialize haphazardly in my often shortcircuited brain, then float nebulously around the empty spaces between the scattered gray matter, are simple: the students. The culture and landscape. The unparalleled opportunity to live and work in such an environment.
But no matter how many responses to the above question arise and stand up, rank-and-file, for due consideration, I always return to the first and most obvious reason I’m here: the students. Education. Having the opportunity to teach some of the most wonderful people imaginable. Often, my parents try to suggest that I should take more time for myself, that I’m “giving” too much and not necessarily getting enough in return. I, however, see things in the opposite light: I give a little and gain a remarkable amount. Show the kids a little care or affection and, as has been noted, they pop right open and give you their all. Even on days when classes are frustrating, when the students are tired or acting up, I don’t have to work hard to remember why I’m teaching here. One stronger word, a quick reminder or even the faintest hint of anger, wafting into the classroom on tone of voice and turn of phrase, brings such an apologetic outburst that I immediately break into a smile, animosity (mostly) forgotten.
I came to western China, admittedly, mildly interested in but not fascinated by teaching and education. Like so many others, I saw teaching as a medium that allowed me to live and work in fascinating places, and with fascinating people. My first year of teaching, while hardly satisfying and in some ways a terrible experience, dramatically changed my outlook. Though I had a rough time teaching some of Xining’s most spoiled young scions of the rich and powerful, I began to see teaching as a goal in itself, a viable profession which could be the central motivation for my spending time here. This was only strengthened when I moved to my current school, where the teaching experience is unimaginably more fulfilling. Far from being a day job which must be completed satisfactorily, muddled through halfthinkingly, before real “life” and “experience” in a foreign country can begin, teaching – focused on, of course, the students – has become the undeniable central focus of my expatriate life.
But what exactly am I doing? How valuable is the education these kids are receiving – and do I truly contribute anything to the betterment of their lives? What, in the end, does the education my kids receive (and my participation therein) do for these individuals, their communities, and their cultures? If my students become doctors or teachers, will they become happier or more satisfied than if they remained yak herders? Traditional viewpoints on development and social change urge us to respond in the affirmative. However, over the past few years, increasing number of graduates from top-level US colleges and universities (including many of my friends) are going into farming (organic, of course), animal husbandry or other industries directly connected to food production (lobster fishing, etc.). What do these professions offer that more traditionally prestigious jobs, or careers often deemed more socially valuable, do not? Where do happiness and satisfaction lie, and how – if at all – are they linked to education?
This is an age-old question, and one not easily resolved within the confines of a blog post. However, as a teacher, one truly has to resolve this dilemma for oneself, and thus resolve for one’s mind the value of one’s profession, before truly effective work can be accomplished. Personally, I view being a teacher as quite similar to being a guide, without the necessary firmness or physicality of the guide’s actual guiding (not to sound redundant or anything). While teaching certainly involves imparting specialized information in a classroom setting, one of the overarching goals (at least for me) is to help the students reach a stage of self-understanding, and of understanding of the world, that they can successfully make their own broadly informed decisions – about their jobs, about their future prospects of fulfillment, about their lives. This may sound like an imperialist American point of view to impart to rural students, but I think that it is truly important for them, after becoming acquainted to the prospects available, to be able to have some say in what kind of life they will find most fulfilling. For what is the purpose of education if not to help people, whether wealthy or disadvantaged, urban or rural, men or women, and from whatever nationality, learn to make their own choices and truly become themselves? Not teaching people to imitate our own values and beliefs (and not even the belief I have laid out here), but to judge and weigh and hold onto or discard their own beliefs and opinions and feelings and life choices and, in so doing, become the person who is as fulfilled as the one they have dreamed of since childhood. For our goal, as teachers, is nothing more or less than give students whatever ammunition they need to attain their own lives, to enable them to become the people they want to be.
Wow – that was such an American blog post I’m seeing the stars and stripes inside my eyelids, dancing up and down as if to mock my relativist outlook and the degree to which I’ve been molded by my surroundings. Expect no blog posts or contact for the next month; if you want to reach me please call my cell phone (see “about me” or the book of faces).