Teacher’s Day

This was written back in June, during my service as a volunteer oral English teacher with the non-profit, WorldTeach. What follows is solely my opinion, and does not reflect the positions of WorldTeach and its staff.

This was originally written around mid-June, when my access to Medium started sputtering out despite having a VPN. I’ve written some stories since then, and I’ll post them periodically from today.

September 10th is Teacher’s Day in China. It’s an observed holiday, so no one gets a day off. But the country over, schools will celebrate their faculty and staff in their own way. Qingzhuhu had its own awards ceremony in its gym, and the entire faculty received a bonus.

It was hard to grasp the meaning of the day, back then. Teacher’s Day was the second week of school. The second week of my year as a teacher. I still hadn’t come around to calling myself a teacher with full sincerity at that point, and I was too preoccupied with my own insecurities to really understand what it all meant to everyone around me. Students from the First High School of Changsha — arguably the best high school in all of Hunan province — filtered in by bunches to see the teachers they’d just left.

As a quick note: Chinese schools are organized a bit differently from US ones. Students are organized into classes from the start to the end of their middle school career. Teachers assigned to head those classrooms, called Head Teachers, also stay with them for those three years. This means that everyone in a class, teacher and students, grows to have intensely intimate relationships with each other.

I didn’t realize that at the time, but I could recall with a certain amount of nostalgia the teachers I’d had in junior high and high school, and how I’d self-indulgently visit them with a stupid grin on my face to show them how much I’d changed. Or, unintentionally, how little.

I’d taught a week’s worth of classes at the First High School of Changsha as part of a practicum — a week of practical teacher’s training. I’d been thoroughly impressed with the quality of the students I’d taught, and thoroughly embarrassed at the poor quality of my lessons. During Teacher’s Day, I spotted a few walking of my practicum students walking around, trying to find their old teachers.

Conscious of it or not, that day marked significant transition for all of us. I’d have to learn how to embrace being an English teacher in China. The First High School students would have to start getting used to the backbreaking pressure of high school life. The teachers, on the other hand, would have to start over with a new class of sixty eleven year-olds. And the junior one students would have to get used to junior high life.

There were a few moments here and there throughout the year that brought me out of my shell. One of those was the sight of one of my former practicum students sobbing in front of a teacher, who I’d learn later was the head teacher of one of the classes I taught. I was only passing by, but the story seemed clear. Qingzhuhu had been his home for three years, and this teacher a virtual father for him during that time. Going to the First High School, of all high schools, undoubtedly added to the enormous pressure on him to perform. Chinese students’ high school careers end in a climax known as the gaokao, or the college entrance exam, a signal exam that is arguably the strongest determinant of a person’s future career prospects in China.

He had every right to be terrified.

We’re at the tail end of the school year now. There are three weeks left of school, and the last week is reserved for finals. Once those are over, the year ends. Junior ones become junior twos. Junior one head teachers become junior two head teachers. And this year’s junior three teachers will start over again with a new class.

Senior high schools ended even earlier. The gaokao is this week. The country over, senior three students will finally take the exam they’ve been preparing for their entire lives. Senior one students, still shielded from the intensity of testing season for however brief a time, have come to visit their teachers now that their school year is over. Like in September, they wandered the school looking for their former teachers. Everyone is a bit more seasoned now, and it shows.

Some students found their way to my office. Mrs. Wu, a head teacher of one of the classes I teach, marveled at how one of her former students stood a half-head taller above her. Her face, normally strained from the daily burden of managing a class seemingly immune to discipline, cracked a rare, beautiful smile as she pushed his shoulders down to illustrate how short he used to be. As I left for class, she’d sat them down to give them some advice.

Others came to find Mrs. Wen, or Julia, a head teacher of another one of my classes. Despite being a whole 5' 2", she cuts a stern, motherly figure among her students. I’m two inches taller than she is, and yet I immediately demur to her presence. Her teaching career is, remarkably, as old as Qingzhuhu itself — 10 whole years. And a few of those years came back knocking, right as she was slurping down a mouthful of fresh watermelon. With a bashful smile, she wiped off the watermelon juice on her face and chatted with her old students about their lives as senior high school students.

Junior threes became senior ones; Junior three head teachers became junior one head teachers all over again.

The year is almost over, and the cycle, soon enough, will start anew.

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