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Learning to Defy the Odds: My Father and Our Students in China

Yunnan boys - JMoallem.jpgIt took me moving more than 8,000 miles to China 2 years ago to realize that, statistically, there is no reason I should be doing what I do today.

It was entirely by chance that my grandparents left mainland China to Taiwan before the revolution. And it was entirely by sheer will that my father became the first person in his family to attend college, despite failing his high school entrance exam. If the statistics played out in any other way, I should be working in factories like my second-cousins in China or working at a store like my family in Taiwan. While these jobs are perfectly respectable, the reality is, I really like being able to do what I do--coaching and supporting teachers in under-resourced communities around the world and empowering them to be the future leaders for this movement to provide an excellent education for all kids--no matter where they're from.

My father, like many of our own students, was told by everyone to give up every step along the way. He was one of nine children in post-war Taiwan and, like many others out there, didn't pass his high school exams 50 years ago. By all means, he should have gone into manual labor like his siblings. But refusing to give up, he asked everyone when upcoming exams for other schools would be coming up and studied like crazy. Finally, he got into a vocational school to become at teacher. He taught first and second grade for three years. Afterwards, he joined the military and then made his way into college.

He was the first in his family to graduate high school, let alone college. Later, he had the gumption to get on a plane to go to the United States for graduate school. He couldn't speak English, had no money and didn't even know how to use a pay phone when he got off the plane. But much like our students, he persevered. He took every other semester off to wait tables in Chinatown to make enough money. It took him years, but by the time he was almost 40, he had a job he was proud of, and was able to start having a family.

When I began as a teacher, my dad would call to listen to me cry on the phone and then tell me to never give up on my students who deserved far more than they could ever imagine (this was while my mom was on the other line telling me to come home). But what I didn't really understand until I joined Teach For China and met the students and families whom we serve, is just what it must have taken personally for my father to have refused to give up even when everyone told him he should--just like our students have to do.

Even though it's been more than 50 years since my father went to school, it shocked me to realize that the students we teach now in rural and under-resourced parts of mainland China face similar, if not more difficult, challenges as my father did. Compulsory education goes until 9th grade but many, many students drop out in elementary and middle school, which is why Teach For China focuses on 3rd to 8th grades. To move up into high school and college, you need to pass high-stakes tests and have enough money to pay for schooling. The poorer your town, the fewer openings there are in the local high schools. Unlike the United States the system is designed so that in this country of 1.6 billion, not everyone will go to high school, let alone college.

The stakes for what we do is devastatingly high and isn't limited to just the classroom. What I've realized through my work with Teach For China is that our job is entirely to make sure every child we work with has the fighting chance and ability to experience and access what they want out of life. For many, this will require high school and/or college. And for others, it'll take something else that they'll need to figure out.

But for everyone of them, it'll require what my father had--the ability to dream boldly, think critically and to keep finding ways to rebound when you think you've only reached failure, because giving up just cannot be an option.

Photo by James Arya Moallem, Teach For China 2012-14 Teaching Fellow

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