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Education in Sight: Teacher Closes Achievement Gap With Eyeglasses Start-Up

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A couple weeks ago, I wrote about how the only way we'll close the opportunity gap among children in under-resourced communities worldwide is to tackle the problem from every angle - as classroom teachers, policymakers, healthcare workers and social business leaders. One of the best parts of my job is seeing people be inspired at the early stages of their career in education. I've had the chance to watch Andrew Shirman, a 2010-12 Teach For China teacher, from the sidelines as he's launched his own start-up, Education In Sight, one of the budding non-profits in China. Read below for more on his reflections and click here to volunteer or donate!

Virgil leaned forward and squinted from his desk, trying to copy the opening exercise on the blackboard.

As I looked past him to the other 50 seventh graders in my English class, I realized at least 10 others couldn't see the board. They were the ones falling behind in class, goofing around in the back and were most likely to drop out by the end of the school year to work in the fields, factories or much worse across China.

As a first-year English teacher in the mountains of rural Yunnan, vision impairments was one thing I didn't anticipate being a life-changing hold back for my students, especially having grown up in the United States where eye exams and glasses are as common as buying shoes.

"Why do things have to be like this?" It's something we constantly ask ourselves as teachers, and often the reason we became teachers in the first place, no matter where we are in the world. However, as we get bogged down in our day to day struggles, it is easy to avoid finding solutions to the problems that do not immediately fall into the realm of "teaching".

This is a fallacy. The true responsibility of a teacher lies not just in education, but in defending the needs of their students by either raising awareness, or taking action themselves.

This is what led me to founding Education In Sight in 2011, an organization that believes access to corrected vision is the right of every child in China and the world over. Our mission is to remove all the barriers between students and eyeglasses to ensure that they are achieving at the top of their academic potential and continuing to place importance on their vision.

But before any project took place though, I needed to do my homework to learn more about the problems my students faced.

Even without poor vision, my students had the odds stacked against them in every way. Class sizes are often over 50 students in China, leaving no time for individual attention, especially for the students who fall behind and need it most. An emphasis on exam preparation means limited class time to develop critical thinking and foster a sense of achievement. Social and economic realities also often mean students are pressured to leave school to support their families. In my own seventh grade class, only 43 of the 50 students remained in school by the end of the year

To learn more about the problem of vision, I reached out to everyone with question, from students to local teachers to experts in health and education. Taken together, I identified three key barriers that were stopping students from accessing vision care:

    1) Glasses are often too expensive for families to afford. Traveling several days into town for eye exams and glasses were out of the question when families struggled to eat.

    2) More than that, most parents and teachers don't see the need for children to have glasses, believing conventional wisdom that says glasses solve the problem only for a little while, but rapidly deteriorate your vision after.

    3) Many of my students came down from rural villages and have little opportunity or time to go to large town centers where optometrists work. Most of my students boarded at school and walked 3 hours through the mountains to return home on Fridays.

These were the challenges I needed to address through Education In Sight. In 2011 as a second-year teacher, we raised $3,000 USD. This was enough to hire eye doctors to come to three middle schools, examine 1,644 students, and provide glasses to 331. Read one teacher's story on the impact of eyeglasses for his students.

With the leadership of other Teach For China Fellows, we also addressed the knowledge gap, teaching students how to take care of their glasses, and investing local teachers and administrations by discussing the tangible benefit to learning.

IMG_7539.JPGIn July 2012, I returned to the United States to work in market research after teaching for two years. But I knew that Education in Sight had to continue.

Throughout the 2012-13 school year, 17 Teach For China teachers signed up to participate in Education In Sight. With a far larger group of schools to serve and with me working from the United States, it required a large and organized team of volunteers, countless late-night Skype calls, down-to-the-wire grant applications, and working with the amazing leadership of teachers in China.

And the hard work paid off. By the end of last school year, we had quadrupled the number of students being impacted by Education In Sight by raising over $30,000 USD through crowd-funding and grants. Over 8,000 students received eye exams and over 1,200 received eyeglasses - allowing them to see the world (and blackboard) clearly for the first time in years.

Looking at the future, I am excited to say that in the next month I will be moving back to China and pursuing Education In Sight as a full time job. I never thought that starting as a teacher in rural China would take me here, but I'm not completely surprised. My experience taught me that there were needs for my students that existed beyond straight-forward education, and that as a teacher, I had a responsibility to address them, even if it meant becoming a social entrepreneur.

In China alone, there are still 30 million students whose dreams are dwindling because of something as basic as uncorrected poor vision. I cannot wait to be back there, working to find better solutions and creating an impact that will change the entire paradigm around the importance of vision. All because of what I learned as a first-year teacher from Virgil and my first 50 students.

Photos by Andrew Shirman, Teach For China 2010-12

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