September 10 is the Teachers' Day of China, a special day to honor all teachers for their hard work. On last year's Teacher's Day, I received two beautiful, fresh flowers and several chocolates (most of which I had eaten by the end of the day). A few months later, on Christmas Eve, I left my kindergarten with a pile of cookies made by the kids and some more chocolates, which my students had given to me throughout the day.
But the best part about this wasn't the flowers or the chocolates themselves; it was who they came from.
I work as a kindergarten teacher in Beijing, teaching English to six different classes. So, one can assume that the 2- to 6-year-olds weren't running down to the local supermarket and buying gifts for their teachers. Their parents did. It was a heartfelt reminder that the parents are happy to have me, and all the other teachers at my school, involved in the daily lives of their very young children.
It also made me think about how early education teachers are thought of back home. I read American newspapers online on a daily basis, and at least once a week, education in the United States, as well as in China, is a big topic.
President Barack Obama has, thankfully, put education reform high on his list of priorities, and, just as thankfully, these reforms are sparking a lot of debate across the country.
Education has always been important to me. It is the cornerstone of a good country and a good economy. Without education, America would not be competitive in today's ever-expanding global market place. To be great, you must be smart, creative, and, above all, a thinker.
And this is why seeing how China treats its educators is one of the most important things I will take away from my experience in this country.
The difference in attitude toward teachers in American culture versus Chinese culture is stark. In the United States, teachers who do not teach at the university level are often poorly paid (especially those in public schools, which most American children attend) and are not very highly respected. In fact, the lower the grade you teach, the less respectable your job becomes. Tell anyone at a party in America that you teach high school English and invariably, someone will ask you the question, "Why?" Tell anyone at a party in America that you teach kindergarten and invariably, someone will say, "Oh. Do you know where the dip is?"
A good friend of mine back home once told me she thought that kindergarten teachers were "more babysitters than anything else." It was a statement that shocked and offended me. After all, I was traveling halfway across the world to teach kindergarten. If I wanted to be a babysitter, I could certainly have stayed home.
I think her statement shows a sentiment that many Americans feel about people who teach younger children. In the end, what are the kids really learning when they're finger-painting or making macaroni faces? My only answer to that question is this: everything. Young children are some of the smartest people on the planet, even if they do some of the dumbest things. That same kid sitting in the corner with his finger stuck up his nose all the way to the second knuckle has already learned the basics of how to speak a language, simply by listening to it. He doesn't go home every night, sit down at his pint-sized desk and study the finer points of grammar. He just listens. Young children's brains are soaking up as much knowledge as they can, and the people who are there to teach these kids at such a young age are just as important as the people who are there to teach them after they hit puberty.
In China, teachers are even given their own day for celebration. I have a hard time imagining such a thing in the United States ever taking place. Teaching anywhere except a university in America is just a job. Teaching anywhere in China, university or otherwise, is an honorable profession.
I have always held the profession of "teacher" in the highest regard. After all, without teachers, where would any of us be? So, I am excited to find that the United States is beginning to question the basis of its education system after years of barely keeping up with the status quo. Countries around the world, including China, have been making their educational systems and teachers stronger and well-respected. I'm happy to see that America is doing so as well.
The writer is an American who formerly lived in China