China Power

Things Fall Apart

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China Power

Things Fall Apart

Reform in China’s education system can be tough. Having too big an ego doesn’t help matters.

When Shenzhen Middle School’s students returned from summer vacation last year they found the school completely transformed. In less than a year, I’d annexed a considerable part of the school, and built myself an empire.I now had an English library, a cafeteria, two study halls, a coffeehouse, a media center (with three publications), a reading room, as well as offices and classrooms. In the self-delusion and overconfidence that came with my lightning success, I thought students would be impressed and applaud my achievement. 
Instead, students complained I hadn’t sought their approval before building the Special Curriculum. Online they wrote that Shenzhen Middle School was a democracy that was threatened by my tyranny. They complained that I’d monopolized public funding for the benefit of an elite minority (about ten percent of the school’s students planned to study abroad), and that the mission of a public school was to prepare students for the national examination, not for study abroad. They also demanded that I share Special Curriculum resources with all of the school: all Shenzhen Middle School students had the right to use the English library and take English classes taught by the American faculty, they wrote on-line. 

In this tempest of protest, I would make a series of decisions that ignited a firestorm. I implemented a selection process to ensure that students adhered to the programme’s philosophy, and students who were rejected considered the process arbitrary. (It was: a selection committee admitted students based on a five-minute interview.) The senior three study abroad students complained that I refused to help them. (This was also true: I didn’t like their attitude, and resented their criticisms; they thought my job was to secure them a place at a US university, and they believed scoring high on standardized examinations was enough.) And finally I had thrown out of the coffeehouse and threatened a study abroad student who was organizing an on-line petition against me. (This really was inexcusable, and the students demanded police action against me.) 

For a year in the build-up to the Special Curriculum I seemingly could do no wrong, and suddenly I could do no right. Students put up Cultural Revolution-style ‘big character posters’ calling for my overthrow, some called for revolution, and one cursed me to my face. And then there was all that pressure from within: Suddenly, without any management experience, I was in charge of a Chinese staff, an American faculty, and students. I was a terrible manager, ineptly handling interpersonal relationships and firing people at will.

I broke down under all the criticism and the stress. I saw conspiracies everywhere, and decided that the whole world was against me. And most insanely of all, as I told myself that the whole world was conspiring against me, I also told myself that I was the world’s only sane person. It was like that scene from that movie ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’, when Jim Carey’s memories were breaking like glass in front of him. In the office, I lost control, shouting and screaming and cursing. With my paranoia and erratic behavior I lost the confidence and trust of my staff and students. In the end, Principal Wang Zheng and I agreed I should leave, and I decided I could never again return to Shenzhen Middle School. That was September 27th, 2009. 

It seemed like it was all over. 
A month and a half later, I met with Principal Wang in Beijing. We had left on very bad terms, as I had made angry accusations to him. During this time I’d calmed down considerably. I had mistreated a lot of people at the school, but I mistreated Principal Wang the most—he’d trusted and supported me, but I had built the programme too fast, ignored criticisms, stubbornly stuck to my ideals, and had become self-righteous. I had complained that the students were spoiled brats, but really it was I who was the most spoiled brat of them all: for me, it was all about empire and ego, and nothing about education and reform.

Principal Wang’s response was that reform was a hard, painful, and violent process. When he eliminated the head teacher system, parents and teachers cursed and threatened him at public meetings. Teachers, parents, and students organized against him, but he held firm, and Shenzhen Middle School today is the centre for education reform. 

I was then updated me on the Special Curriculum: leaderless and directionless, there was political infighting among the staff, and the students played video games and left garbage everywhere. Once the envy of the school it was now the laughing stock. 

So I returned to Shenzhen Middle School. I was scared and more afraid of my ego than the students. I first had a meeting with the Special Curriculum students, apologized to them for all the drama and trauma I put them through, and promised to put things right so that they could receive a good education. I wrote public letters of apology to the whole school in the daily newspaper, went to apologize to the senior three students, and took out to lunch the student I had threatened in the coffeehouse. I conceded I had been a tyrant, and so I broke up my empire: I made the Special Curriculum activities independent, turned the English library and cafeteria over to school management, and just focused on building the English curriculum. Believing that I had sincerely changed for the better, the school’s teachers and students voiced their support for me as I sought to make the Special Curriculum work. 
My American faculty and I experimented with different ways of teaching English until we felt we had the right model for our students. We had four classes of ten students, divided according to ability. We gave them two hours of English everyday: one hour for speaking and listening, and another for reading and writing. In oral English class we focused on building the students’ confidence at speaking: they played games, gave presentations, and did group activities. In reading English we focused on analyzing the arguments and methodology, syntax and diction of essays. Through constant experimentation and the hard work of the faculty the English curriculum became a success, and the students saw rapid improvement in their English ability.

When I returned, my Chinese staff told me that working for me was like living in a soap opera, and by February this year I could joke to them that now that everything was working out, life was boring. We all laughed, so confident and certain that the second semester would pass by calmly and quietly. A week later, the city of Shenzhen replaced Principal Wang Zheng with a new administrator, who decided his first priority was to get rid of me. 

In my last entry on my attempts at reform, I’ll write about the final days of the Special Curriculum.