Everything I've needed to know as an adult, I was taught eight years ago by my middle school students on the Navajo Nation in New Mexico in my first year of teaching.
The biggest lesson I learned? Take risks and live a vision-driven life, even if logic says otherwise. I learned this from "Alvin," one of my students with special needs who was committed to being a radio star and cowboy, even if his physical and cognitive disabilities suggested to others he couldn't. Last I heard from Alvin, he was on the honor roll at the local high school and closer than he ever had been to his dream.
And so it was with Alvin's lesson in mind that, two years ago, after more than half a decade as a teacher and teacher trainer serving disadvantaged children in America, I moved to rural China.
Under the circumstances, this was a ridiculous decision. I was newly married, loved my work, and had a life (and my entire family) in Washington, D.C. I was about to transition out of Teach For America after two years as a classroom teacher and four as a staff member, and had job offers from a number of schools and districts lined up.
But right before I accepted one of those positions, I received an unexpected phone call about an opportunity with Teach For China, a small but growing nonprofit education organization that is part of the global Teach For All network and related to Teach For America. The only catch? It was based in China. Rural China.
But Teach For China and the role itself were captivating. I would have the chance to design, develop, and lead a team of staffers to support first- and second-year teachers recruited from around China and the United States to teach in high-needs communities in China. I would help foster them as education leaders committed to closing education gaps in China for the rest of their careers, as my fellow Teach For America alums and I have tried to do in the U.S. This was a chance to apply everything I had learned (and not yet learned) to support a nonprofit in its crucial start-up years, at a time when nonprofits anywhere in China were exceeding small, rare, and not encouraged.
The more I learned, the more I was intrigued by the potential for making an impact in a country with 1.3 billion people, 25 percent of whom are under the age of 18. Another key data point: Eighty percent of children who grow up in cities in China attend college, while only 3 percent of students from poor, rural regions do. When I thought about my own students and what I want for their futures, this disparity seemed unconscionable.
There were so many reasons moving to China was a horrible idea. For starters, I had never taught in China. I'm not an expert in teacher development, let alone teacher development in China. Let's not even count the fact that I hadn't been married for a full year yet, and my husband had just started his own nonprofit and couldn't move to China.
But much like what happened eight years ago when I turned down the sensible (and awesome) job offer from The Roanoke Times to join Teach For America, I took the crazy plunge and joined the Teach For China team. My husband was incredibly supportive and enthusiastic. The organization's CEOs felt I could be effective without yet having the crucial background of teaching in China. And I was excited to help set up the training department while we continued to look for someone better and more experienced to take over the role.
Two years have passed now. Just like with teaching, there are a million things I need to do more and better, and so many things I've failed at. I've missed home, I've missed cheese, and I've missed the relative predictability of even the most under-resourced school system in America.
But on the hardest of days, I think back to Alvin, and what it meant for him to live boldly toward his vision, and I get right back to working to close the opportunity gap in China and worldwide.
Join me and our teachers this semester as we share the joys and hardships of teaching and working with children, in a community half a world away.
Photo by James Arya Moallem, Teach For China 2012-14 Teaching Fellow