Over-Resourced: Why People are Always more Important than Things

The first time I realized teaching might be hard: Four of five minutes in to my first class. It was a beautiful September morning. I took my PE class down to the basketball court. I hadn’t intended to teach PE, but the school compelled me to. The night before, I decided I’d teach them how to play knockout—a favorite (and simple) childhood game. Sanzhuang had a pretty nice basketball court—which has since become an absurdly nice basketball court. We had basketballs. The weather was nice. What a perfect moment for throwing orange spheres into orange rings. But, by the time I’d assembled all of my students in a long, wending procession starting at the foul line, I became aware of a problem. I had no idea how to teach the game. Especially not in Mandarin. The students awkwardly rocketed balls off the backboard for about a minute before I told them to just do what they wished with the rest of PE class. Some of the boys continued tossing around basketballs, but most kids just sat on benches doing nothing.

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Basketball Court

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Assembling the basketball court

The school I work at is far from short on resources. Read that again. We may be located in one of the poorer parts of Asia, the students themselves may not come from propitious beginnings, nor is there any semblance of a service economy. Agriculture is still the unchallenged reality for most everyone. Those who do not ascribe to that reality will almost certainly leave. But, the school is different. We have a… deep breath, brand new basketball court—the nicest in the county. Deeper breath… there’s a just laid 100-meter strip, a PE room with all the stuff you’d expect to find in the American iteration, plus some swords and a lot more shuttlecocks, a room full of like, 30 computers, a to-the-touch whiteboard and speakers in each classroom, plenty of printers, a spotless and stocked cafeteria, a high-quality security system with 16 color cameras, a slew of drums and trumpets, a campus environment that looks more like a botanical hyper-Zen garden than a school, an art room with easels, Wi-Fi everywhere, a washer machine, and a fully outfitted experiment room—beakers, sinks, Bunsen burners.

Well, that last one is only hearsay. I’ve never seen it. I don’t think it’s ever actually been open. Here’s the thing: Almost none of this means anything. If you sat Ben Franklin—widely considered intelligent by scholars—down in a room with a switched off laptop and a stable Internet connection and said go, what would happen? Probably not much. If you put 10-year-old LeBron on a court with a ball and said go, what would happen? If you threw a youthful Pierre and Marie into a room full of radioactive shit (shit: to be read as a synonym for things), beakers, and Bunsen burners, what would happen? Probably something less than ideal. If you put a bunch of super-intelligent, highly trained and motivated men in suits in a roomful of screens, tickers, and phones, what would happen? Well… never mind.

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Radioactive disaster

At first thought, one may be tempted to conceive their image of a rural school with an eye on things. Ruddy-faced kids wearing tattered up clothes. Scuffed chalkboards. Bowls full of nothing more than rice and watery broth. Maybe some roosters clucking somewhere. And, for some reason, always early morning fog. And, one wouldn’t be wrong. There are thousands of schools that fit that formula. And, I suppose that’s where paradigms are made. But, Sanzhuang isn’t one of them.

There are advantages to nice things. First, they look nice. They make for a comfortable environment and win approval from visitors. Second, they add to GDP. Sure, it’s true in a macro sense, but microeconomically speaking, local businesses are getting money and jobs are being created. And everybody loves jobs. I don’t mean that business thing in a cynical way here, but perhaps you can read between the lines and see how it might be a problem. Third, in many cases if you don’t have them—things, you can’t do stuff that you’d like to do. And, in most cases, they will at the very least “improve the experience” above things of less nice quality.

But, things don’t mean anything, especially to a school, if no one knows how to use them. This is not a gripe against my school. What Principal Yang has pulled off is nothing short of miraculous. The renovation undertook at Sanzhaung since I arrived in summer 2013 is stunning. What’s more, it’s not like Principal Yang or our administrators really have a choice. All these things are way, way, way easier to acquire than people who know how to use them. But, an Olympic swimming pool won’t do you much good if you don’t have a guy on the side telling the kids not to inhale under the surface.

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100-meter strip

The reason I think this might be hard to grasp, at first thought, is that the two notions tend to go hand in hand. MIT probably has really great things and really high-paid expert types. Your local CC probably doesn’t. And all the way down the line to preschool. Reasons for this: quality people are attracted to quality things and quality paychecks and in a weird way, vice-versa. People generally stay in or near the communities in which they were raised. But, now I find myself in a strange situation. We (really, truly) have everything we need and more. Education spending in Heqing County makes education spending in the States, in proportion, look like a sad joke. But, no one knows what to do with it all.

When I was a kid, our (public) school had an art teacher, a PE teacher, a music teacher, a separate guy for band, a computer teacher, a speech coach, a whole Special Ed staff, a teacher for “gifted” students, a school nurse, a science teacher, and a group of administrators whose job description certainly did not include time in front of a class. If you are a teacher at Sanzhuang, you are literally expected to be all of those things (plus surrogate parent). Yes, I have seen teachers help students administer IV drips.

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computers

Oh, and in addition to the above responsibilities, you’ll have to teach one or two of math, Chinese, and English. And those are the only classes that actually matter. But, still do your best with the music, and the Special Ed, and the needles. I mean, can you comprehend the burden that would be required to even remotely execute the wearing of all of those hats?

And this is the genesis of unfairness in education. It’s really not a tangible resource gap—although in some situations it truly might be—, the resource gap is demonstrably easier to bridge. It’s a people gap. Again, there are reasons for this. The school’s location might be part of it. It’s in a historically poor area. The teachers it recruits will likely be from the area and have limited education. Those who do make it out, will probably teach in the city somewhere. But, that’s a lame excuse, because I frankly do not see much difference in ability and motivation between the teachers at Sanzhuang and the ones in Sherman, CT. They are both excellent.

At the end of the day, it’s a lack of specialization, training, people, and all the stuff that goes into giving those people what they need to succeed—the intangible stuff, that is. There was a teacher at our school last year named (surprise, surprise) Mr. Yang. He was 28-years-old—the youngest local teacher. He was a talented singer and usually sang the national anthem at all of our school events. Mr. Yang was an incessant complainer. From the day he arrived, it seemed like he always had something to be pissed off about. His third-grade class did poorly—worst in the school. We were friends. One day, I was in the passenger’s seat of his car, driving to a wedding. He seemed typically peeved. I told him, seriously:

“Dude, you’re kind of a downer sometimes.”

“What? Me? Come on?” He chuckled, agreeing.

“Do you not like Sanzhuang?”

“Not so much.”

“Why? It’s a great school? Beautiful, comfortable.”

“They tricked me! That’s why.”

“Who?”

“The school. They didn’t say I was going to be a homeroom teacher teaching English and Chinese and all the other stuff. They said I was going to be a music teacher, specifically and only a music teacher.”

“Really? That’s what you thought you were going to be?”

“Yeah, of course! That’s what I’m trained to do. And now I’m a homeroom teacher and I get to sing the damn national anthem sometimes.”

This is not the school’s fault, mind you. They needed someone to teach Chinese and English to 35 nine-year-olds. Mr. Yang, for his part, is now at a different school—still teaching all the other stuff.

Nowhere is this people problem more glaring than in the discipline of English—a mandatory subject for all pupils in the People’s Republic. English learning begins at Grade 3 here. A majority of local English teachers teach the subject like this: They take a tape, put it in a tape recorder, let it play, and tell the kids to repeat after it. Whether you do this on a tape recorder, a CD player, or through an HD digital recording—that is to say, regardless of what things you have—the effect is, as it were, 差不多 (more or less). On the day I arrived in Sanzhuang, I had this exchange with the local English teacher.

“How are you?”

“Oh, sorry. My English is not good. We can use Mandarin, please.”

She was trained to be an English teacher, and though she is a vastly superior teacher to me, she cannot speak English. Imagine trying to explain to someone how to do long division without actually knowing how to do it yourself? Then, even if you did know it, not being trained to teach it—like me in my first PE class.

I reieterate. This is not our fault. There are only so many hats one can throw on before they start sliding off of each other. That teacher is now a Chinese teacher, by the way.

Recently, my Principal has been dropping some hints, saying things like “Don’t forget that this will always be your school,” or more blatantly, “When you get rich, you gonna hook us up or what?” or less optimistically for me, “How about that friend of yours, the boss, speak to him lately?” He asked about the boss so many times, that I finally fibbed,

“Yeah. I did. He said he had visited many schools in Heqing and there were many that need much more attention than ours. If anything, he said maybe he would give some cash for training.”

“Oh. Ok.” Said my Principal. “Maybe he could help out with the multipurpose room instead?”

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The locked experiment room… I admit, my investigative journalism ability is poor.

There is a point, and it occurs very early on, when the need for well-trained specialists outstrips the marginal need for things. This happens shortly after a school accumulates enough food, pencils, and paper (real problems for thousands of schools). What’s happened at my school is interesting. It’s gone from being superficially under-resourced to superficially over-resourced, yet ostensibly, nothing has changed. It’s given me the opportunity to witness the point firsthand. Math and Chinese scores are still very high. My English class still does fine. The Wi-Fi is nice. The block called “science” on the schedule is still generally regarded as a good chance to review Chinese vocabulary.

There is no solution contained in this ramble—sorry… But, my point is that the problem holding students back and ratcheting up education gaps will usually not be a resource problem—as attractive, comprehendible, and fixable with fat stacks of as that problem may seem. The problem will almost always be the people one—the one that is much, much harder to address. Perhaps we can see more recognition of that reality.

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