Educational Exchange to China Provides Insights into Foreign Schools and Culture
By Robin Steiner, assistant superintendent of Kearsarge Regional School District (SAU #65)
China has been at the top of my list of "places to visit" for many years. My wish came true when I was recently selected by the College Board in the United States and Hanban in China for a nine-day educational exchange with China. In June, I joined 400 educators from all parts of our country in Beijing. There we began our cultural orientation and then split up into several groups that were sent to schools all over China.
My group traveled to Chongqing. This is China's most industrialized port city, located in the interior of western China. The Jialing and Yangtze rivers converge in this metropolis of 32 million people. We had the opportunity to visit several schools and meet with teachers, students and administrators. They performed for us, shared their thoughts on education and showed us their classes.
Education is highly competitive in China with students aspiring to attend the best primary, middle/high schools and universities. As a result, major stress accompanies exam periods with millions of students vying for few spots in the most selective schools.
The Chinese educators and students I met were proud of their schools, country and accomplishments. They all spoke English extremely well, having studied it since elementary school. It was immediately clear just how different our two systems of education are. The children at a middle/high school I attended began their school day at 7:20 a.m., took five classes until noon time and then a three-hour break. They returned to classes until 6 p.m., had time off for dinner and returned to classes at 7 p.m.-sometimes until 10 in the evening. The students took 11 classes per day. Many spoke of wanting to go into some international profession and "getting rich." Life is certainly changing rapidly in China!
The children often spoke of the competition of getting into the schools they attended. One school I visited had hundreds of students who had been relocated due to the Three Gorges Dam hydroelectric project. All education is free for children, who often travel from far away to live in school dormitories.
Life for Chinese teachers is also vastly different from those of us in America. Teachers in China are highly respected and well paid, as evidenced by their expensive foreign automobiles. Many teachers also live on campus in school-provided housing. Even retired faculty lived in historic housing at one of the schools visited. Often, sports facilities toured were beyond what one would see in the United States. For example, schools had Olympic-sized pools, enormous turf fields and well-appointed gymnasiums. Classrooms were similar to those here in the States in that they would be modern and beautiful in one school while ancient and tired looking in another.
The students were bright, articulate and interested in their education. One could see the influence of the Internet, cell phones and media on Chinese youth. They knew about popular singers in the United States, as well as other cultural aspects. They were warm and welcoming, often greeting us with shows that included singing, musical performances and plays they had written.
While our educational visits were enriching, China's cuisine was also a delight. We were treated daily to specialties of the area, which included the following: steamed buns with bean curd (my favorite!); dumplings and fish; and chicken and vegetables sautéed in tasty spices. I found some of the most interesting foods in the night market, where one could choose from scorpions, sea horses, spiders, starfish, lizards, and centipedes-all served on skewers and then quickly deep-fried to crispy perfection!
The aspects of this country that stood out most for me were not the sites or school visits but the warmth and hospitality shared by every Chinese citizen with whom I came in contact. Their interest in meeting and hosting Americans is unparalleled to any other I've experienced. I would go back to visit anytime and am excited to share what I have learned in my school district.
Guest writing for School Notes this month is Robin Steiner, assistant superintendent of Kearsarge Regional School District (SAU #65), and wife of Jon Steiner, the LGC's associate executive director for member relations and regular author of this column. Robin can be reached by phone at 603.526.2051 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.