During March, I had the wonderful opportunity to visit schools in China through the People to People Ambassador Program. I was part of the Early Childhood Delegation for National Board Certified Teachers. Our rich cultural experience included a visit to the C'ien Temple, a walk through the Stone Forest, a climb on the Great Wall, and a chance to view the Terra Cotta soldiers — a collection of 8,000 life-size figures of warriors and horses discovered in 1974. We also enjoyed a traditional Chinese meal with a Chinese family in their home.
During our stay, we visited a variety of Chinese schools and two universities. One goal of our trip was to gain more understanding of the philosophy of Early Childhood Programs in China and observe Chinese teaching methods. The school visits were illuminating. We learned there are five fields of focus in Chinese Early Childhood Education Programs: health, language, social, science, and art. Under Chinese law, every child has a right to an education and good health. Kindergarten students vary in age from two to five years old, and "preschool" students are typically six to seven years old. The Chinese educational philosophy was more progressive than one might expect. Their education leaders emphasize respect for the individual student and believe children learn best through play.
While the kindergarten programs for children ages 2-5 were quite impressive with their Montessori-style classrooms, I was quite taken aback by the fact that many of the young children board at school during the week. For a mother who was a stay-at-home Mom for six years, this is not something I could have imagined for my two sons. I am not sure this would be accepted in America — certainly not on a large scale. I will have to say the children all looked healthy and happy.
It was also overwhelming to see 50 to 70 students in each primary classroom, with one teacher and one assistant teacher. I will say that the organization and regimens of the classes were very impressive!
During our visit we were told that, in the public schools we visited, there was no special education population. Students take a test early on to determine their needs. If the determination is made that they need special instruction, they go to a special school (at a very young age).
I could not help but compare the homogeneity of what we saw in the Chinese schools and classrooms to the look of a typical American classroom where there is so much diversity. For example, one teacher in our delegation works in school where there are 17 languages spoken. All of the American teachers worked with students who have a wide range of academic and physical needs.
So often American schools are criticized for our level of achievement, which is sometimes compared in international studies to the achievement of students in China. What we seldom hear is how different the composition of schools is in the two nations. In America, teachers are in the trenches every day striving to meet the needs of a much more diverse group of students in order for each child to experience success.
As I reflected on this difference in our roles as classroom teachers in two very different cultures, I could not help but be reminded of the poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
These words might appropriately be emblazoned over the doors of many of our public schools. I am very proud to be an American teacher. I realize we are asked to take on much as teachers in our nation's classrooms, but would we want it any other way? Our country was founded on the principles of equal rights and an equal chance to succeed. Even with our deficiencies in trying to achieve this ideal, we never stop trying.