In late September, Linda Kroll, Betty Lin, Priya Shimpi and I traveled to China as invited guests to the Shenyang Normal University to present at an early childhood conference. Traveling to another country—especially one so different than the U.S.—always opens my eyes to new ways of thinking and acting, offering new perspectives on our own work in the United States.
We spent the first evening and following two days in Beijing, a city that is a remarkable mix of old and new, traditional and modern, crowded together in a single space. From our hotel, located close to the Forbidden City—the imperial palace from the Ming dynasty—in a single glance we could see a large Apple Store, high end car and clothing stores (selling Lamborghinis and furs) as well as the traditional Beijing houses built around courtyards and located in hutangs or narrow alleys. These houses are typically built without indoor plumbing and are all connected to communal bathhouses.
Our first couple of days in Beijing were spent taking in as many sites as possible including the astounding Great Wall which snakes along the edges of mountains, Tiananmen Square that seemed to be cordoned off to prevent collections of protestors, spectacular night markets selling all kinds of delicacies on sticks including grilled squid which was exquisite and snakes and spiders that we veered away from, the traditional historical sites, colorfully lit streets with closely packed venues for karaoke singing, and modern art galleries in a Bauhaus setting. We literally drank in the sites as we simultaneously tried to grasp the life around us, which seemed both familiar and strange.
The central portion of our visit was in the city of Shenyang. We were graciously hosted by Dr. Dan Fei, Dean of the School of Early Childhood and Primary Education. Dr. Dan had visited the Mills College School of Education the prior spring to learn about our early childhood education programs and laboratory school. We were invited to present one of the four central talks of the conference as well as to participate in a panel discussion. There were between two and three hundred people at the conference, primarily professors, graduate students and programs directors of early childhood education programs from around the country.
The opening talk was given by Xiang Kui-Zhang, a highly respected early childhood education policymaker and practitioner from the Children’s Development Center of Northeast Normal University. I was reminded during the talk and throughout our visit of the limitations of my understanding, as every talk and conversation was mediated through a translator. I was also quite aware of the limitations of my own knowledge of the larger cultural contexts and the educational and political systems in China, which is a vast and diverse country. Dr. Xiang talked mostly about the purposes of early childhood education as connected to building character and lifetime happiness. Echoing debates in the United States, she spoke about the importance of setting different standards for each child and the need to revolutionize how China is evaluating children’s performance. Typical reporting on China emphasizes the uniformity in their education as well as their success on standardized testing. This provided an important counterpoint to that discussion.
Our own talk focused on the history and scope of Early Childhood Education in the United States, the preparation of Early Childhood teachers in the U.S., and specifically at our school of education, and the history of laboratories schools in the US with an emphasis on the Mills College laboratory school (Children’s School) as an example of the practices and beliefs that characterize our approach to early childhood education. It was difficult to read our audience during out talk, though it seemed clear that many of the participants had serious questions about the relevance of our ideas for their work in China. We had described the six principles that undergird our programs in the School of Education. One of these is that teaching is political. As we state on our website: “Professional practice is political in that, by definition, it is concerned with matters of change that are neither neutral nor inconsequential.” One participant asked, “What do you mean by your statement that teaching is political?” Even as Linda Kroll answered this question, it was quite clear that our understandings of teaching as political and theirs were quite different. While we connect the political nature of teaching to working in the system as it currently exists while imagining and working toward its transformation, my understanding of the Chinese education system is that it is more overtly a political instrument for shaping its citizens. The conference format and the language barriers made this expanded conversation and exploration impossible in that moment.
A conversation, set up as a panel and a question and answer opportunity, followed our presentation. The topic of our discussion was U.S. Teacher Preparation: Current Trends and Movements. The vocal participants in the discussion seemed to have two, somewhat disparate, interests. There was a group of program directors interested in the specifics of how our undergraduate programs were structured. In addition, there were a couple of graduate students who had wide-ranging questions that touched on issues such as the prevalence of child abuse among our early childhood teachers. The first group sought to understand the purposes for a liberal arts education in the preparation of teachers with a focus on the requisite courses for future teachers in the U.S. Ultimately their concern seemed to be centered on the extent of governmental control of the curriculum in U.S. schools. Ideas of academic freedom seemed foreign to them, as was the wide variation in the requirements for early childhood teacher credentialing at the state level. The variation they were more familiar with was in the well-known disparities between urban and rural areas of China. They stated clearly that teachers in rural areas have no education to work with young children.
The second set of questions were posed by graduate students who were interested in the problem of child abuse in China and the U.S. They asked us to explain how we guaranteed that our teachers graduate as moral people. We had no answer to that question and could only say that teachers in the U.S. are required to have criminal background checks that screen known instances of child abuse. An important principle of our program is that teaching is a moral activity guided by an ethic of care. Once again, the nuances of how we enact and interpret this principle as compared to their understandings could have been an important conversation. They wanted proof of outcomes, we focused on the principles and values behind our work.
After the final talk on the second day, which reviewed the state of Early Childhood Education in Higher Education institutions, we had the opportunity to visit the laboratory school connected to the university and to see the classrooms of the early childhood education program. The laboratory school for three- and four-year olds was stunning. The modern hallways were lined with classrooms for teaching pottery and the arts to young children, as well as several spaces for fantasy play, such as grocery stores with elaborate plastic food and shopping carts and hospitals and barber shops where children were taught not to be afraid of these life events. There was a huge kitchen where children were invited to join the school chefs and a large garden with farm animals. In the classroom we visited, children were seated quietly reading their own books. It might have been a moment in a classroom in the United States. I wondered what values were embodied in the display of beautiful models as exemplars and the explicit focus on the arts and how they compared to a focus on children’s individual strengths and interests in some U.S. schools. In our tour of the Early Childhood and Primary Education Department at the university later in the afternoon we saw many of these same spaces and emphases including the provision of many varied materials for learning to teach and a focus on the arts. The beautiful aesthetic of the school was reflected in each aspect of the university. Our day concluded with an animated discussion of possible collaboration in the future.
We took away so many questions from our intense one-week visit including: What are the contrasting ways that teachers are prepared to teach in each of our countries? How do the different emphases of these programs reflect our different conceptions of education including the epistemological grounding of our understandings of learning and teaching? What does teaching as a political act mean in each of our countries and what are the ways we can learn from the values that shape our decisions and programs? As the U.S. seeks to attain the high test scores reported from Shanghai, China reportedly wants to introduce more creativity and flexibility into its education system. While we often emphasize contrasts, the similarities and tensions within each country were equally striking. There is so much we can continue to learn from one another; opportunities such as this one provide both a window into another way of thinking at the same time as they hold up a mirror to ourselves.
Kathy Schultz is professor and dean of the School of Education at Mills College in Oakland. She is the author of the 2009 book, “Rethinking Classroom Participation: Listening to Silent Voices.”
The Mills College Children’s School as Urban Teacher Preparation: The Antithesis to Teach for America | Sara Sutherland
Teach for America is a program rife with good intentions: students in inner city schools will have the benefit of fresh blood and new perspectives in their classrooms, beleaguered schools will have the gift of idealistic new staff, the young TFA participants will be exposed to the realities of urban inner-city schools, which will hopefully broaden their perspectives. These are well-intended goals, and there have certainly been positive outcomes. I have several friends who are TFA graduates, and they speak of the horizon-expanding experience that Teach for America offered them, and how the program offered them a landing place when they were at an impasse in their young lives. Did any of these friends go on to teach beyond Teach for America? Not one.
Despite the intentions to improve the lives of students in urban schools, it would seem that the primary beneficiaries of Teach for America are the program participants. The students are exposed to yet another teacher that will leave them, if not due to burnout, then due to a planned departure, when, do-gooder vacation over, their teacher moves on to the next step in their “real “ lives.
What do we want for students in urban schools? I think we want what we want for all children: teachers who are devoted to children and the craft of teaching, who are committed to making this practice their “real” lives. It seems to me that a critical component for success for these teachers is adequately preparing them to be thoughtful practitioners in spite of and because of the very reality of the schools and lives of the children they serve.
I am a Head Teacher at an independent private laboratory school committed to a lens of social justice and preparing thoughtful teachers. I oversee a classroom of children with a staff 100% comprised of students preparing to become teachers, special education professionals, and Child Life practitioners. My top priority is providing safe, thoughtful early education and care to my young students – but a VERY close second is providing a laboratory for learning for my adult students to prepare them for thoughtful practice, wherever their careers will take them.
The Children’s School, my professional home for the past eight years, at times receives criticism for not being “real” enough for student teachers aiming to teach in urban settings. The teacher: child ratios in our classroom are excellent, even if most of the teachers are students themselves, here to learn. We have the luxury and the challenge of partnering with the School of Education on a college campus, and are tasked with ensuring our teaching of all constituencies is research-based and context-appropriate. We have something that many schools are not fortunate enough to have: time. Each day we can debrief with our student teachers to discuss the daily experience, provide support, offer feedback, assist in formulating questions, and model reflection. Perhaps this luxury is the other side of the “real world” coin flipped nonchalantly by speed teacher education programs. However, I would argue that our model of teacher education provides an immersive context for teachers learning to be reflective practitioners. As a Head Teacher, I am incredibly intentional of ensuring that my students be exposed to and allowed to practice reflective teaching so they can develop highly personalized modes of reflection and resilience – so that these can be taken with them as part of their bag of teaching tricks into settings that do not – cannot – offer this luxury of time.
The Urban Teaching Education Consortium recently published a thought-provoking position paper in the Washington Post that critiques the speed teacher-preparation programs and posits a set of recommendations for preparing teachers for urban settings. I was struck – and professionally inspired — by how many of their recommendations for urban teacher preparation we are addressing in our practicum setting for teachers. I am gratified to teach in an environment that places such emphasis in preparing teachers to be deeply thoughtful; that encourages them to know their students and themselves and use this knowledge to create learning communities; that encourages novice teachers to question the why’s of teaching mandates; that models inquiry as a stance. It is gratifying to read the Consortium’s recommendations and know that my work in my context is serving children in more “typical” urban schools through the teachers I am helping to prepare.
Sara Sutherland, MA, is an alumna of the Masters in Education program at Mills. She has been a Head Teacher in the preschool program at the Children’s School since 2007.
Transitioning to School: How Successful Beginnings Create a Sense of Positive School Identity | Sara Sutherland
“Transitions form a life-long matrix of human life through which all children and adults move gradually from known into unknown realms of experience,” -Nancy Balaban, 2011.
The new school year is well underway at Mills College Children’s School. Children and families are learning routines and the children and teachers are getting to know one another. Our teaching teams, comprised of Children’s School Head Teachers and student teachers from the School of Education, are delving daily into the rich and challenging work of teaching: observing the children’s play and thinking; building relationships with families and planning thoughtful, engaging curriculum to provoke exploration. Head Teachers hold fast to our commitment to thoughtful, relationship-based care and using inquiry as a stance.
One of the primary tenets of the Head Teachers’ work is to continually consider the importance of successful transitions. The beginning of school transition is not simply how the school year begins, it is part of developing a life-long sense of self as a person who can transition—who can see themselves outside their families as a person who is competent and confident. How do the Head Teachers support all members of the community — children, families, and student teachers -- in this transition? The Infant-Toddler and Kindergarten classrooms are often the first entry points to school for children and can be pivotal transitions for the whole family. Seferina Rivera and Jenny Bond, Head Teachers in these programs, share some thoughts below.
Seferina Rivera is beginning her eleventh year as a Head Teacher in the Infant-Toddler program. For most children and families, the Infant-Toddler room is their first experience of care outside of the home. As they think about building classroom community, Seferina and afternoon Head Teacher, Virginia McKone, find themselves focusing on the individuals in the classroom. For children and families, the Infant-Toddler Program offers many opportunities to become more familiar with one another and the classroom setting; families are invited to visit the classroom during the summer, teachers visit the children at home and classroom play dates are encouraged prior to the start of school. “These repeated visits offer families a chance to see their child as part of the group” Seferina shared, “and often raise questions about how their child’s individual needs will be met in this setting.” This transition is about the whole family, as the child experiences being a member of a new setting, and the family learns about their child in the context of a group. Individual details about each child’s cultural caregiving preferences from many conversations and observations are recorded and shared with the student teachers, serving to create deeper understanding in both constituencies. For both families and student teachers, the Head Teachers encourage open dialogue as they support the children in the process of transitioning from home to school-based care.
“At the beginning of the year, everything I do is about transition,” reflected Jenny Bond, Kindergarten teacher. The Kindergarten transition is about supporting children, families and student teachers in feeling a sense of “belonging, autonomy and competence.” Jenny uses this goal to guide her teaching style, including the language she uses, the books she reads and how she structures drop-off in the beginning of the year. One of Jenny’s main objectives is to ensure that each child feels she or he has a place in the new classroom community, and a primary way she does this is to be very intentional about how she utilizes the children’s names. On the first days of school, the children see their names in print in many places in the classroom: on their cubbies, at their table seat and at their ‘spot’ on the gathering rug. In addition, Jenny greets them by name several times each day: as they come to school, during morning meeting and as she works with them throughout the day. Jenny makes this practice visible to her student teachers through teaching team discussions prior to the school year and through modeling on the floor.
Being a part of these transitions, both as witnesses and participants, offers a chance for creating relationships and allowing a deeper understanding of our role as guides. Thinking about the beginning-of-school transition can help us as practitioners have a greater understanding and respect for how transitions are a part of life. By exploring how practitioners work with children and teachers in different developmental stages, we can see not only how needs might change as children move from egocentric infants and toddlers to independent elementary students but also how the human need for belonging and a sense of competence remain the same.
Founded in 1926 as the first campus laboratory school west of Chicago, the nationally-recognized Mills College Children’s School provides a model setting for child study and teacher education based on the six core values of the Mills College School of Education. The Children’s School is also a base for the advocacy of best practices and the care and education of young children. Visitors from the Mills community and from around the world come to observe. The Children’s School currently serves 145 children between the ages of five months to ten years old and is the practicum site for 47 student teachers.
Sara Sutherland, MA, is an alumna of the Masters in Education program at Mills. She has been a Head Teacher in the preschool program at the Children’s School since 2007
The menu changes every time they open, and specialties range from turkey pozole to hearty fish chowder, quinoa salad to broccoli pasta, and blueberry scones to cheesy pigs-in-blankets. They use only organic, low-sugar ingredients and sustainably-raised meats or vegetarian alternatives. But this is not a fancy, five-star restaurant. It’s an elementary school, and all the chefs are fourth and fifth graders.
Anne Malamud’s 4/5 class at Mills College Children’s School, the laboratory school for the School of Education at Mills College in Oakland, California, is learning how to run a successful business and to make a difference in their own community. Calling their entrepreneurial venture the Happy Eating Place(HEP), the students originally set out just to prepare healthy snacks on campus and raise money for a yet-to-be determined nonprofit organization, but Malamud saw the opportunity for a service learning initiative with broader goals that would include social justice issues within our society. Now in its second year of operation, the HEP’s mission has grown to include educating others about nutrition, the importance of sustainable farming, and the roots of hunger in America. This has included writing pamphlets, giving talks, and creating a presentation.
Service learning projects can be developed at any grade level. It may require extra work when teachers alter their plans to integrate student-driven, hands-on lessons in their math, writing, social studies, and science curricula, but that work pays dividends in student engagement. Here are five easy steps to start a service learning business model in your classroom.
1. Find an Entry Point That Excites Students
Fresh off a nutrition unit where they learned about digestion in the human body and picked up a few simple, healthy recipes, the class became enthusiastic about the idea of using food as a basis for a service learning project. Malamud saw an opportunity to teach basic economics in the context of running a business, and brought in a financial planner (one of her parents) to explain about initial investments, gross and net profits, and how to price items and predict sales.
2. Give Every Student a Stake in the Project
In order to run a successful classroom business, every student needs to have a job — cooks, servers, cashier, accountant, marketing team, even dishwasher. A range of jobs can accommodate the range of abilities in the group. Artists who like to draw and make posters are great on the marketing team, those who like to move around can make great servers, and those who like to cook can cook! Students learn that every job is important, and they see the interconnectedness of each job. They are more invested in the project, and more excited about working together toward a common goal.
3. Incorporate Daily Curriculum into Business Lessons
While cooking, students practice multiplying and dividing fractions to increase and decrease their recipes. To drum up interest in their healthy bake sales, the marketing team writes and maintains a blog and visits other classrooms to talk about their mission. This year, HEP expanded to include a restaurant, where students served a four-course meal to families and staff, researching recipes related to their current social studies unit (i.e. Old World vs. New World foods). Students are more engaged and excited about doing class assignments when they relate to their business model.
4. Look Beyond the Classroom
Since HEP is centered on a cooking model and the class had already studied a unit on nutrition, Malamud had an idea to incorporate a particular service learning component within their business project. She asked her students, “What happens when people don’t have access to good nutrition?” To answer the question, she showed a documentary called A Place at the Table about hunger in America, organized a field trip to a local sustainable farm, and set up a volunteer partnership with the Alameda County Community Food Bank. Students decided that they wanted all of their HEP profits to go to the Food Bank, and over the course of two years, they’ve donated close to $1,000 to that cause. And because each dollar raised for the Food Bank has the buying power of four dollars, students can use the Food Bank’s online shopping cart to see just how much their donation is buying.
5. Let Them Make Mistakes
After their first few initial successes, students voted to make organic fruit smoothies for one dollar each at their next bake sale. Malamud knew that the ingredients would be expensive, but she let the students learn their own lesson and lose money on the sale, prompting the team to think about whether they could serve smaller portions or charge more. Another time, a measuring error resulted in salty scones, and the marketing team went class to class talking to their fellow classmates about the error and rebuilding trust in their product. In their second year as a business, HEP added a new job — a Satisfaction Manager who interviews customers after each sale so that the team can discuss what worked well and what they might do differently next time. Sometimes, this requires changing the recipe, increasing advertising, or surveying their clientele. Even if the only solution is to take an item off the menu, the students learn an important business lesson.
The Happy Eating Place is an unusual leadership opportunity for fourth and fifth graders, and perhaps that is the reason for its success. Even young elementary students can excel when given the hands-on experience of running a business, and also seeing how they can effect bigger change in the world.
Please tell us about any service learning or student-driven nutrition projects at your school.
Whitney is the Admissions Director at MCCS and has been a professional journalist for 20 years. She enjoys working with the 4/5 class’s marketing team to maintain their Happy Eating Place blog.
This article was originally posted on Edutopia in July 2014.
We are continuing our series of speeches given at the 2014 graduation of multiple and single subject credential students from the Teacher’s for Tomorrow’s Schools program.
The speech that follows was given by Lauren Foos, who completed a 4+1 multiple subjects credential program with a BA and MA in Education. Lauren was elected a member of Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society in 2013. She is excited to be starting her first year of teaching 2nd grade at Montevideo Elementary School in San Ramon Valley Unified School District next year!
Hello Class of 2014! Congratulations on your exciting day! This is a very exciting day for all of us here, yet it is truly an even more exciting moment for the six of us in the 4+1 program. Hello family, friends, and all the teachers who are here to celebrate with us as well, thank you for all that you have each done to support us in our journey!
It was this time last year, when I graduated as an undergraduate, that I realized how lucky I was to have attended Mills College. I recognized then how fortunate I was to be able to spend an additional year to receive both my teaching credential and Masters in Education at such an amazing school: It was a chance to really appreciate the school, and faculty, I had around me.
Without realizing it, we all fill important places in each other’s lives. It’s that way with the peers who study with you at the Tea Shop or the lounge, the professors who push us to think outside the box, and all the unnamed staff who make the School of Education an unforgettable place.
Remember when, in kindergarten, you were given a tiny Styrofoam cup, some soil, and a seed? You talked about giving the seed plenty of water and sunshine so it would grow. You learned that from this tiny seed a beautiful plant would emerge: The stem grows upwards towards the sun and the roots grow down, deep, into the ground. And that without the roots, the beautiful plant would be nothing. All of this from one tiny seed.
Consider a tree for a moment. As beautiful as trees are to look at, we don’t see what goes on underground as they grow roots. Trees must develop deep roots in order to grow strong and produce their beauty. But we don’t see the roots. In much the same way, what goes on inside all of us is like the roots of a tree…unseen.
The six of us chose Mills College because it was the perfect planting ground for our actively growing roots. The nurturing, diverse environment protected our fragile optimism while challenging any narrow thought processes we may have been tempted to cling to. We have blossomed and thrived in the rich soil of the Mills School of Education experience for many, some of us many, many, years now.
I think this is one of the greatest strengths of this school. Not only do the students go on to achieve great milestones in their own lives, they never forget their roots and the school that gave them the chance they needed to improve their lives and the lives of everyone around them. It will be painful for each of us to be uprooted and yet our continued growth demands this.
The traditional graduation speech would now urge you, having built strong roots, to fly. But we, as future educators all know that the business of building roots is a glory in itself. The true challenge of growth begins when the formal curriculum ends. It’s easy to stay on top of the new educational philosophies when your teachers assign, what can feel like, 5,000 pages of readings a week.
For example, when we all came together to study for Anna (Richert)’s midterm, there was an energy of excitement as we imagined what innovated teachers we will all be.
And, the six of us, I will never forget the tight bonds we have built throughout the years and this year as we worked together through the academic rigor of writing our individual Master Thesis paper while crafting our unique vision of ourselves as future educators.
The real challenge begins when we are left to our own devices to continually explore a better way to educate our students. The School of Education did its part by developing the strong roots that will see us forward.
As we leave here today lets make a vow to keep one thing in mind, we as teachers are committed to continually growing the healthy roots the School Of Education has so carefully nurtured. Thank you.
This spring we had some terrific student speakers at the School of Education’s Teachers for Tomorrow’s Schools credential graduation. The speech that follows was given by Alessia Cook, who completed the multiple subjects credential program and received an award for Reflective and Integrated Teaching Practice. She is excited to be teaching 4th grade at Hesperian Elementary in San Lorenzo Unified next year with a wonderful team of teachers.
My parents always thought I should go into education. Many years ago, when I was freshly out of college, we sat together at the dining room table and I rebuffed my mom’s suggestion. I remember the exact words I used: I told them, laughing, that “I wasn’t ready” to become a teacher. I wanted something else -‐ I wasn’t sure what -‐ to happen first. Maybe I resisted because I sensed that they knew about some part of me that I was only just discovering. Ten years later, however, here I am: looking with some trepidation about that first year on my own, but mostly great excitement, toward a career I can’t wait to begin. Turns out they knew me pretty well.
I’ve spent the last week thinking about my experience at Mills, trying to decide what to say tonight. I wondered if there was a way to represent this group of extraordinary people with whom I have shared the journey of the last year, even though we’re all different in any number of ways. So I decided to begin by sharing a few of the things I’ve learned from my colleagues in the last ten months.
I’ve learned when to stop pushing, and that sometimes being too forward can make someone suspicious. That the absence of some of our classmates here tonight speaks to how much more we have to do in order to be truly inclusive and live a social justice stance because there is no neutral. That even though I didn’t feel my own authority when I was 23 and couldn’t imagine holding the responsibility of a classroom, some people seem hold that presence from birth. That most elementary school teachers, other than me, really do have mountains of art supplies in their homes, and probably in their bags right now. That you can live and breathe being a teacher and it doesn’t mean you have to spend all of your time working. That there are games I actually like, like eyeball tag. That there are infinite configurations of insightful, fierce, generous and inquisitive personalities. That my own questioning of how I could have done something better is exactly what I need to keep doing. And to the secondary folks, I’ve learned that even though you still sometimes feel like the cool, older, more rebellious kids who smoke in the parking lot and collectively might have more tattoos and piercings, that you’re still part of the same web. You help all of us question the status quo, and we can’t do any of our work without each other.
This was the year when I learned that one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received could turn out to be a particular student telling me, “That was kinda interesting, I thought it was gonna be boring, but it kind of wasn’t.”
I’ve learned that we all came here for different reasons.
My dad was a career educator, first as a classroom teacher and later as a math-‐ science program coordinator and teacher of other teachers. He loved his work. He once came home at the end of a day at school, and keep in mind this was about 35 years into his career, and said, without any sense of irony, “I have the best job in the world.” He was the epitome of an enthusiastic lifelong learner. I always knew how admired he was by both students and other teachers, but truthfully I didn’t pay close attention to that when I was growing up. I just loved him because he was my dad.
I didn’t decide to become a teacher until after I lost him three years ago. One of the most difficult parts of the decision to become a teacher was regretting that I had lost the greatest model and mentor I could have hoped for before I even began my career. What has been so extraordinary for me about the community at Mills is that it has fulfilled what is otherwise an incredibly painful gap for me. Our professors, supervisors, and my colleagues have enriched my life and widened my perspective in ways I didn’t know were possible.
When I tell people I’m going into teaching, they often respond with some version of, “Good for you! Thank you. I could never do that job, but we need more good teachers in the world” and to be honest, this response drives me insane. I’ve struggled to figure out exactly why it bothers me, but I think it’s mostly because I don’t consider teaching a sacrifice and I don’t want to be treated like a martyr. I’m becoming a teacher because I want to use my strengths and my interests to do something I truly enjoy. Every time I walk into a new classroom, I can’t wait to get to know the students in there. That is my touchstone and the feeling that I know will sustain me when I face the challenges and moments of self-‐doubt that are sure to come.
As you can see, I learned a tremendous amount this year. And one of the people who taught me the most was Vicki [LaBoskey]. I learned from her that even without my dad here, there are models of everything I aspire to be as a teacher, mentor, and a human being, and that can include going on a passionate rant in the middle of class and making sure your students know exactly what you value.
During our recent visit to Malaysia, we spent one great day on a strange historical quest in Kuala Pilah, a town about one hour south of Kuala Lumpur. We went to find the school where my wife’s dad had taught during his three-year stint in the Peace Corps after college from 1964-1968. We didn’t know what we would find when we got there. It was an educational adventure for us, one in which we learned that quintessential lesson of travel: no matter where you go, things are more similar than they are different.
We got there by taking a commuter train to Seremban, then caught a bus to downtown Kuala Pilah. We started by walking around the town, taking pictures of places Tim might have traveled: The main street, with its KFC and Pizza Hut, some of the side streets with the Chinese-owned businesses, and the bus station. Then, armed with our GPS-enabled cell phone, we began the walk along the road up to the school, which was about a mile away.
The security guard at the school’s main gate didn’t speak any English, and after taking our names down on the visitor sheet, let us go without any hassle, hugely different from what we would have experienced in the US, given our heightened fear of kidnappings.
After a few minutes, we began attracting some attention from the students, who approached us and asked us where we were from. “California, United States.” Kind of like saying, “I’ve come from Mars to see you go to school.” What the heck were we doing there, they must have wondered. We tried to explain that Rebecca’s dad had taught there, but we’re not sure it got through.
Ultimately we walked up to the main school building to peer into classrooms, at which point we finally ran into a teacher, Ms. Ying-Ying. She was doing a homework session with some students, but she was gracious enough to find someone to cover for her and take us to the principal’s office. There it was arranged for another teacher to show us around while Ying-Ying finished up with her students.
Our tour guide, whose name eludes me now, showed us all around the school grounds. I took pictures of everything, including some of the curious students, who waved and smiled at us like crazy. Most of these kids had never met Americans, much less young American women, before, and were excited, shy, and happy to practice some English. Apparently the first thing people in Malaysia learn to say in English is, “Where are you from?”, because every single one of the kids we encountered asked us.
The teacher explained that this school was now a regional, or “state,” sports academy, essentially a boarding school where boys and girls who excelled at sports from around the area were sent to develop their skills. The best students were then plucked for the national sports academies, where they did the same thing, and the teams they were on then played the state schools. So the state schools lost their best players, only to have to play them later — pretty unfair.
The students had to qualify, so they didn’t have to pay, but with the kids’ schedule and emphasis on sports, the teachers lamented that the kids didn’t really learn anything but sports. They went to class during the day, did sports practice in the early afternoon, and then they were basically too tired to do homework. So the teachers would assign homework and then do it with the students, since they didn’t have time to really work on school outside of school. Not much of an opportunity to let that class work sink in.
We met a second teacher, who was a teacher/soccer coach, and he explained about the problems the school had. And here’s where the similarities to the American school system really started to become uncanny.
“These are kids who really need more time in school, and less time playing sports,” he complained, “since they aren’t the best students to begin with. But we put them in a school that emphasizes sport, so they don’t become better students.” Emphasizing sports over education? No way.
Another problem — and stop me if you’ve heard this one — is that schools are underfunded in general, and in the sports schools like theirs, the money that does come is for better sports equipment. The stadium and the field was brand new, and gorgeous, while the classrooms that we saw were the exact same ones that Rebecca’s dad had taught classes in 50 years ago. On top of that, the Malaysian equivalent of the Department of Education keeps coming up with new theories on how to make students do better, and keeps changing the curriculum and increasing the number of standardized tests to make it “better.” Without consulting the practitioners, who, despite years of experience, are regarded not as professionals, but as babysitters. Teaching isn’t respected in Malaysia, he told us; teachers are underpaid and disregarded by the government. No kidding!
The teacher/coach saved us a bus ride and drove us back to Seremban, since he lived out there and was headed back for a break before soccer practice. He talked to us the whole way about education, and teaching, and how he loved it despite the obstacles. “The students that remember you the most were your worst students. The good ones go off and forget their teachers, become lawyers or doctors, someone important.” Of course he was really looking forward to a time when he didn’t have to work anymore, since it was getting harder each year to deal with the bureaucracy of Education.
So we had to travel thousands of miles to hear the same story we hear from all of the teachers we know. As they say in Asia, “Same same, but different.” It’s too bad that our worst habits are becoming the norm all around the world, while some countries like Korea and Finland, countries that invest in education, see test scores and literacy rising. I wish I could say that things are looking up, but I don’t know that it’s going to get better in the next however many years before we have kids. So I guess we’ll be forced to supplement school with stimulating activities at home, the way our parents did for us.
One thing is for sure, though: we will be traveling with our kids, so they get the same kind of quality experience we had in Kuala Pilah. That’s how they’ll learn that even though people may look and sound different, that really, we’re all the same and deal with the same kinds of problems. After all, that’s the most important thing for someone to learn anyway.
Danielle Strollo is free-lance writer, traveler, and development officer. She is currently looking for a good job in the Bay Area.