Why I Stopped Voluntary Teaching
This blogs serves as an end to the
VT (voluntary teaching) series:
As the reasons for VT are stated in Why I became a Voluntary Teacher, I feel obliged to explain the reason why I don't want to be a voluntary teacher anymore in a Chinese countryside after 4 months.
If you have read anything negative about Chinese countryside in the following article, please note that I am only talking about my own little short experience.
If you have read anything positive, it's generally true 😆
# The Good Part
First of all, I am very much grateful that I was lucky enough to have this priceless experience at such an early stage in my life. I have met so many interesting young souls who will better the future of China and the world. Their untainted eyes are as clear as crystal, and they don't have as many complex thoughts as grown-ups. I was really glad some of them desire to learn more about the outside world and I have left memorable, if not all positive, memories in their childhood.
# There is Little I Could Change
I had been an English teacher in a primary school in Chinese countryside for less than 4 months. Though some students have improved their English skills, I don't expect they will remember much afterwards. When a new English teacher comes in the future, one might have to teach from scratch again, like what I did when I first came. As to how much they've improved after my teaching? I am really not sure as this is hard to quantify.
Some boys in 4th grade don't even understand mandarin, let alone English. Most students don't get why they should study English, or study in general. They live in an environment where at least one of their parents is not around and their illiterate grandparents nurture but not educate, where they would follow their ancestors by sowing in spring and harvesting in autumn, where most care about playing basketball over test scores and finishing homework.
I was glad to find out quite a few smart and ambitious kids, most of whom are girls. Like countrysides in other developing countries such as India, girls are usually deemed inferior to boys and should marry asap. Here in CJ, the normal age for a girl to marry is 16 and similarly for a boy, if not older. When I met kids in 6th grade in a relationship or seeking for one, I was not sure how to persuade and if it could be called "puppy love". Worse yet, most girls post their feelings towards love on Qzone signifying maturity.
In a few years, one would marry, go to Hangzhou or Guangzhou, and work on an assembly line in a sweatshop factory. One would then have offspring around 20, leave the kids to grandparents to breed and may divorce at 25. Before 30 one would come back home and open a store or farm and harvest. In the 40's, one would become grandparents. This life cycle then keeps going for another 20 years, very much like Sisyphus' tragedy.
I have nothing against these conventions and I am not justified to tell people what's wrong with this way of living and what's right instead, b/c I myself am struggling to find out my niche in society.
# I Tried
I tried my best but achieved little of what I had desired.
# Stop Burning Trash in School
In retrospect, my act of eliminating trash burning inside school had more negative than positive consequences. In the past, used plastic bags are discarded and left unattended along the roads in Chinese countrysides. Nowadays, some countrysides have trash periodically collected and transported to waste treatment plants, but most still burned them at the spot. I abhor that almost everyone around me was ignorant of toxicity of the exhaust (hydrogen chloride, dioxin, etc.) from burning plastic. A local teacher literally told me, "Just bear with it for a moment and all is well afterwards."
After I was nearly asphyxiated by the arising bluish gas when playing ping pong close to the trash burner inside school, I thought to myself: I will do whatever to stop it. I talked to the headmaster of DL central primary school. No response. Then I posted on the website of CJ county government. No response. The next day I posted again. In the following day, they called in an impatient voice, "We will handle this. Meanwhile, please stop sending anything anymore."
Two days later, 4 government authorities to the school, interrupted my class, dragged me into office and claimed indisputably, "We saw your email and we feel obliged to talk about the current situation: since the waste treatment plants nearby are still under construction and there is no usable one within a reasonable distance, instead of burning inside school, starting from tomorrow we will send a truck every week to collect the trash and send them outside village to burn. Is that cool?" I could only nodded my head under their camera and despotic power. They then proclaimed in a serious commanding tone, "If you ever want to appeal to the county goverment again, please just talk to the village head rather than the county magistrate. Thanks!"
Trash was no longer burned at school any more and I never smelled dioxin ever since, but the local teachers held their silent grudge against me. They feared that their bonus might be deducted and the government will find faults deliberately. When I learned this fact weeks later from a close local teacher, I was pretty angry not because they had these selfish thoughts, but they weren't upright to sincerely talk to me about these worries.
# What's behind the Mountains
In Wang Kar-wai's film Ashes of Time, there is a monologue that goes like this:
Beyond this mountain may be another mountain, and beyong this desert may be another desert. When you arrive there, you may find that there is not as good as here. However, you'd still choose to see it in person rather than stop and stay here. After all, that's your destiny.
I admit that I am this kind of person: mistrust what "they" say and long to see what's beyond this mountain, desert, or even oasis. I fear to become a boiled frog in warm water. Even if there is nothing new beyond here, I enjoy what I see along the journey, and only hope to die on the odyssey.
With the hope of finding students who think alike, I brought some fun books to the the school, such as Three Bodies, Jules Verne, taught English songs by Beatles, MJ, Coldplay, and played films such as Star Wars and Harry Potter. However, few have expressed their curiosity and said: oh, that's what's happening in the outside world and how we might lead a different life. The curious are few, and even fewer think different and ask interesting questions.
# Maybe it's just Me
After multiple failed attempts to get my students more interested in science and foreign culture, I tried to stick to the English textbook and just be an English teacher but still got quite frustrated. Though most girls tried hard to learn English but quickly forgot words just learned due to the lack of English environment, most boys were more interested in basketball and cricket fighting.
Thus, I always ask myself, "Are you a boring teacher giving boring classes? Are you not explaining clearly enough to the students to make any effort? Are you too harsh and teach too difficult content?" After SJ gave positive comments about my classes, I recollected some confidence but still found few kids frustrated to remember English words and reluctant to come to my class.
Should I blame myself? Is it the teacher's responsiblity when a student is impossible to become serious about schoolwork and almost never finishes homework? Is studying more like the teacher being assured of efforts than the student learning knowledge or the student's family satisfying with good scores?
I'd become lighthearted for a short while if told, "you can't do anything if a student doesn't want to learn." But if I've done my best, why are the kids wasting their youth not learning and later working at sweatshop factories? I have always set a high standard for myself and likewise for my students, but w/ a strong desire to control, I found it hard to even control myself sometimes, let alone others.
The headmaster at the school taught for more than 2 decades. He even taught the parents of some kids. However, one could count with one hand the number of college graduates from DL county. I tried hard to hold back the question: how do you deal with such failure and depression everyday?
Maybe I should look less into the dark side. As LN told me, "it's a meaningful experience even if only 1 student gets more interested in studying (English)." In that vein, I am a successful teacher.
During the time there, though I learned little new knowledge due to slow Internet speed, unreliable electricity supply, and most crucially was "infected" by the lazy atmosphere and slow pace of life, I understood the line untold under with great power comes great responsiblity: great responsibility requires great power.
# Let There Be Light
And God said, "Let there be light," and there was light.
Genesis 1:3, ESV
This scripture reminds me of Sunrise Also sprach Zarathustra in 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrik, my favorite foreign film director.
# Light over Rural Education in China
As stated in My VT experience, teachers do NOT earn what they deserve, so not many good teachers would come to insular primary schools. Thanks to Steve Jobs, most kids in 4th grade and above have a smartphone and use them mostly for video games and Kuaishou/Tik Tok. Once I was usually invited to their video games and shared with funny videos, but don't know any effective way to ask them to stop.
After all these grumbles, I still harbor a hope: the smart kids will achieve their ambitions and live better lives.
If education is the light and students are a forrest, then initially light is uniformly distributed everywhere in the forrest. The few who know their way would not branch but only focus on growing up, to compete for more light and grow faster.
I will quote what's later dubbed as Matthew effect from the Bible to officially end the VT series:
For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.
Matthew 25:29, RSV
But do you want to have more in the first place?