Doing my time teaching in American high schools isn’t meant to sound like prison. I graduated from John Carroll (class of ’99) not with hopes of my students standing on chairs like “Dead Poets Society” but acting more mature and having their parents back me up in difficult situations. However, this wasn’t the case.
Luckily, I’d planned for this possibility. The struggle for, and lack of, professionalism throughout the teaching community I hadn’t planned for, which is why I’m an educator at a university in China. Yes, it’s college level, and the students are more mature, but the respect for teachers in this society is obvious.
It’s odd I received minimal respect as an educator in the states. The U.S. has the numbers to prove its dominance in education in the world arena – we’re the big boys on the block. According to the U.S. Department of Education, $560 billion is spent on education (although too small a percentage finds its way into teachers’ wallets), and more than 30 percent of the best universities in the world are in our country. The U.S. believes it’s No. 1 because of its teachers, right?
Why, then, are we consistently being outperformed in education by other countries? This is especially true of Asian students, especially in math and science. With my first interaction in the Asian classroom, I started thinking it’s not the Chinese education system that’s better necessarily, but the Chinese students who outwork their American counterpart by leaps and bounds. I had one class writing their paper until the end of class and then begging, “I must finish this.”
I, like many, misperceived that students from foreign countries learned by rote memorization and were waterboarded if they didn’t perform to the standards set by their parents or government. On the contrary, although my students are highly motivated, they consistently show higher-level thinking skills. They don’t just repeat information. They question it.
With these higher-level skills, my students perform well. I set the standards and, thereby, receive a professional status. The Chinese are willing to grant professional status to those occupations that require education and skills. Often in the U.S., our society grants jobs as being professional based on income. A professional athlete is an example. While educators struggle to be thought of as professionals, NBA players are deemed professional because they put a ball through a hoop. America has become a country that views professionals as those who garner the most respect and status. No wonder no one wants to be a teacher anymore.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: I’m another bitter teacher who knew what he was getting into, so why don’t I work in the private sector? Well, because I enjoy teaching. As masochistic as it sounds, I enjoy it. But the key word is teaching, not being an emotional sounding board, prison guard, or burnt-out educator trying to explain the sociological concepts of status and role.
Teacher professionalism in the U.S. relies on the theory that if you have higher standards and highly educated teachers, professionalization will come soon after.
(Welcome, year-round school.) The Chinese believe that if having better benefits to draw people to the career, professionalism will follow soon.
I still know what you’re thinking: If you like it so much in China, why don’t you stay there? Well, aside from not having access to unhealthy hot dogs or NFL games on Sundays, being an expat isn’t only showing me what’s wrong with the American education system; it’s also showing me how American students and their parents place blame on everyone but themselves. I don’t have enough room to opine about the No Child Left Behind Act.
I also hope the mysterious stigma of being an educator will lift and society will see there’s a difference between status issues of a profession and role issues associated with performance – how a job is viewed versus what we, as educators, actually do. Public perception shouldn’t determine the respectability of a profession, even in China. America tends to manipulate the facts and place blame wherever the trend lies.
Life’s challenges drive me. That’s part of what draws me to teaching. I’ll continue to perform under pressure. I love the U.S. (it’s my home) but see no reason not to point out and try to fix its flaws.
The occupation of teacher in the U.S. doesn’t rank as high in status compared to other countries, but it should. Parents need to stop looking at teachers as their go-to scapegoat. Everyone is to blame. While we’re bickering about reform efforts instead of teaching, our Chinese competitors have been on the weight bench waiting to step on the field.
Christopher Siders ’99 is an English as a foreign language instructor at the Shenyang University of Engineering in Shenyang, China.
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