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Teachers’ Day

Teachers’ Day   —by Jinny Batterson

It’s a truism that if you become a teacher, you’ll learn a lot from your students. This was brought home to me in a special way during the 2008-2009 academic year, when I was a foreign teacher of English writing for language majors at Sichuan Agricultural University in Ya’an, Sichuan, China. Ya’an is a very small city by Chinese standards. In 2008 it had about 150,000 inhabitants. It lies two hours’ drive southwest of Chengdu via modern expressway. When the massive May, 2008, Wenchuan earthquake hit, Ya’an was far enough from the epicenter to avoid serious structural damage and numerous deaths. However, its student base, drawn about 90% from surrounding areas of Sichuan province, contained many who had lost homes, friends and/or family members because of the quake.

Occasionally students would share anecdotes about the earthquake, more often verbally than in written form. When they did, I was impressed by their compassion and resilience. However, students mostly wanted to focus on their futures. They were excited, if a little apprehensive, about their prospects as members of China’s first “one child” generation and its first generation of netizens.  As the year advanced, I found that the single child dictum had not been strictly enforced in the countryside, where most of my students had been born, and that nearly half of my language majors had a brother or a sister. Many of my mostly female students planned to go into some branch of teaching.

By choice, I had lots of papers to grade that year—I relish writing, and thought that a good way to improve students’ English writing facility was by having them write.  I typically assigned a 300-500 word essay as homework for my 80 or so students each week. I tried to pick homework topic choices that would challenge the students’ imaginations, that required personal reflection rather than copying canned material from the Internet.

Once in a while, I got an essay that expressed, even if in somewhat labored English with minor grammar and spelling errors, a fresh point of view.  Partway through the spring term, one of the shyer students, “Joanne,” turned in her assignment about her “best school experience.” She related the story of her much earlier self, frustrated at being too young to accompany her older brother to primary school. As a substitute, she’d set up her own first classroom on a large flat rock in her family’s back yard. She alternated being teacher and pupil:

“Good morning, class.”

“Good morning, teacher.”

She practiced her characters on the rock’s surface, and only interrupted her daily studies when called in for lunch. Now a college student, she thought she might become a teacher once her schooling was complete. She confessed that long years of tests and rote learning had somewhat worn down her enthusiasm for formal education. She yearned to recapture the excitement she’d felt when she first discovered “school” as a 4-year-old.

I’m still grateful for her insights. They inspired me to redouble my efforts to put more pizzazz into my lessons and to interact more freely with students, both inside and outside formal class time. At its best, as Joanne rightly perceived, education is less about conveying a set body of knowledge, and more about igniting the spark of creativity that lies within each of us, however deeply buried.

Almost as soon as I arrived at SAU, I’d been surprised to receive cards and small gifts from several students during the first week of classes. They wished me “Happy Teachers’ Day!”  I later learned that each year since 1985, China has celebrated this holiday early in the school year, around September 10. The cards and gifts were fun, yet the real fulfillment came from efforts like Joanne’s. Happy Teachers’ Day, all!