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Cutting, Bullying, Suicide: What to Do as a Teacher in Rural China?

Heqing students.JPG
One hundred percent of my students on the Native American reservation had experienced physical, emotional or sexual abuse by the time they landed in my middle school classroom. When I heard this statistic from the school counselor, I was not surprised. I was terrified. As a starry-eyed 22-year old, I barely knew how to teach fractions, let alone counsel students going through life traumas that I could scarcely dream up. I showed my love, care, and consistency for them the best I could, and sought advice from counselors and my graduate school professors, but honestly, I'm not sure how much I was able to do. I just knew I had to do something.

Jasmine Wang, a first-year Teach For China teacher, is seeing her students go through the same thing. But the reality is, she and other teachers in rural China have far fewer resources, professional guidance or structural support to help her do something. Check out her guest post below, as well as her question for you all: What should I do?

After teaching my own classes and substituting for another teacher this week, I was tired of seeing students.

But as I was walking between classes, something in the stairwell caught my eye.

It had only been for a split second, but I noticed vertically down a student's wrist were a row of large red "X"s. While I had seen students drawing on themselves, there was something off about the color of her marks. I turned around and walked back to her. I had seen her occasionally at the girls' basketball club I hosted at the junior high boarding school in Heqing County, a small community tucked in the mountains of Yunnan Province.

She was silently surprised when I took hold of her wrist and confirmed to myself that these "X"s were indeed carved into the flesh and bleeding a deep red. Across her wrist were multiple scars of cuts. I asked her why she did this and she replied with a soft, unconvincing smile that she was simply, "in a bad mood." Certainly, I cannot let this behavior continue, but what could I do?

It struck me in that moment how easy it is to not notice students. As a Chinese American grappling my way through the massive testing and curriculum pressures, new culture and just the basic shock and horrors of being a first-year teacher, there are days where my primary objective is just to claw my way through class and leave as soon as possible. It's easy for a class of 60 students to become a collective mass of behaviors oscillating from rowdy to silent rather than individuals; it's emotionally self-protective

It is even easier for local teachers--who sometimes carry twice my class load--to be too exhausted to notice a student's problem unless it is a life-threatening situation. Like in so many other under-served communities worldwide, many of my students - almost all of whom live in unimaginable poverty - have experienced trauma in their lives. And like so many other places, in rural China, mental health is too taboo a subject to discuss, let alone have resources, educator trainings and suicide hotlines to call.

If I had not only by chance taken a second look at this student, she could have easily slipped into the cracks of a school whose sense of order and discipline is secured by conformity.

But the problem with noticing is that it begs the question--what do I do now? What is the right thing to do?

At my school, teachers like me—and in particular 班主任 or homeroom teachers—function as educators, parents and, in some cases, counselors for classes of more than 60 teenagers who board at school. Young local teachers have brought me cases of promising middle school students suddenly considering dropping out of school due to financial reasons and family tragedies, hoping that as a Teach For China Fellow I could do something about it.

My fellow Teach For China teacher Li Bolin has struggled to help a student who, over spring vacation, chose to jump into a river and end her own life rather than to return home. She was thankfully saved in time, but what emotions does she have to suppress every day to function as a normal student?

As teachers who have noticed troubled students, we each risk our concern transforming into hopelessness, defeat, and sometimes, Band-Aid solutions. I have heard of past cases of self-injury among students written off as an unhealthy fad, with the students in question punished and sent home on suspension. In this context of such insubstantial mental health infrastructure, I completely understand how sometimes we would rather simply teach the curriculum and mute out those individual stories of trauma and tragedy. What is the right thing to do?

I have tried many times to mute out the emotions of the classroom only to find myself drawn back in as students continuously break my heart and then piece it back together again. They are somehow the only ones who can. They are constant examples of loss and sadness, but also examples resilience and joy. It seems you cannot notice one without the other; to mute would be to lose both.

I have known students who are constantly told they are "bad," "dumb," and incorrigible to express extreme gentleness and maturity at home as they care for their numerous younger brothers and sisters. I have seen students whose families cannot even afford a door for their house pounce from tree to tree up and down a mountain, expressing the purest form of joy I've ever seen.

My student Stan was bullied by his classmates for months last semester for being neither a boy nor a girl" because he failed express the traditional form of masculinity. He cried and often ate alone, yet, after the semester was over, it was Stan who had the compassion and strength to phone me simply to check in and wish me a happy Lunar New Year.

As I consider what to do about this girl who cuts herself, I debate between the reality of my limitations and putting faith in the resilience of these students. Was it right of me to have noticed? Or have I simply begun something that I cannot finish. What is my role here?

Today, when I asked her why it was that she cut herself and if she was influenced by anyone, she replied with the words, "No, no one else is quite like me. No one's personality is quite like mine." I am beginning to suspect that our role as teachers here is not to teach resilience, but to ask the questions that students must answer with their own resilience. To stop and take notice of students as individuals, students who are asking for help, students who are waiting to help themselves and to be reminded that they can. To maybe learn some resilience from them.

Tomorrow, my co-fellow and I are meeting with her again to hear her story in greater depth--we'll see what she has to say.

I implore you all for comments and suggestions on how teachers can better guide students to help themselves, and for examples of resilience that you have noticed in your own classrooms from around the world. My students need to know that they're not alone.

Photo: Students at Heqing No. 2 Middle School complete their morning exercises.
—Jasmine Wang

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