China Power

Head—Meet Brick Wall

Main lesson about trying education reform in China? You can’t beat the bureaucracy.

So, what was the fate of the Special Curriculum I’ve talked so much about this past month?

By February this year, it was considered a success. All the drama and the instability of the first semester had finally gone, and teachers could focus on teaching, and students on learning. Students, parents, and teachers said they were all happy with the direction of the programme, which now had three components—oral and reading English classes, a fitness programme, and activities. I felt that overall these were making the students open and curious, healthy and confident.   

Local media reported on us, and students tried to transfer into the programme. This success also put pressure on other elite public high schools to start study abroad programmes, and two actually did. All Shenzhen students interested in studying abroad had now heard of the Special Curriculum.

My patron, Principal Wang Zheng, may have been unceremoniously replaced in February, but I was still confident that the new principal would support the Special Curriculum and that I could continue to manage and direct the programme. 

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But my Chinese staff members were not as optimistic as I was. They told me that leaders here were more interested in maintaining and asserting their power than in building something good and lasting. This new principal would have made inquiries about me, and although I’d created the Special Curriculum, I’d also brought all sorts of political strife to the school. Principal Wang Zheng tolerated me because we both shared a passion for education reform. But this new administrator would, I was told, likely make sure to get rid of me.

I was sure that my Chinese staff members were wrong until the new principal sent out a memorandum announcing the formulation of a new department at the school called ‘The Office for International Curriculum.’ The office would be responsible for the hiring and training of international teachers, the planning and development of international curriculum, advising students on how to apply to American universities, and handling all international contacts. The school had created a new department to subsume all my responsibilities: The Special Curriculum was now dead. 

Literary critics have long debated the meaning of The Castle, and now I have the answer: In telling the tale of a land surveyor who tried without success to contact the castle, Kafka was describing working in a Chinese bureaucracy. Like the protagonist K., I’d been isolated and abandoned in bureaucratic purgatory. But unlike K., I neither asked questions nor fought to know the truth nor sought to confirm my existence. Certain that the school was just waiting for my contract to expire in mid-July, I went to the gym every day and decided to read the Western canon (I’m now on The Fall and Decline of the Roman Empire!)

As I write this, the programme we all worked on is being torn apart. The new programme will eliminate the small class format, saying it’s a waste of resources, and eliminate the fitness programme, saying it’s pointless. Next semester, the oral and reading English classes will be replaced with Advanced Placement classes (the students’ English has really improved because of the current curriculum, but I suppose that AP classes would look better on the students’ application to US universities). 

Both the school and I believe in inculcating self-control and discipline in the students, but we disagree over approach. The school believes a head teacher by controlling and commanding students will prevent them from making mistakes and disobeying rules. I believe in students making mistakes and learning from these mistakes. Above all, I believe in choice and responsibility; last semester, students didn’t take fitness class seriously, and when they got a C in that class on their report card they came to the office to complain. I held firm, and this semester they’re on time and constantly sweating in fitness class. A school should place boundaries, not put a leash on students.

I was angry and sad to see all these changes, but I kept calm and silent. I honestly don’t have any hard feelings against the new principal: he’s just doing what he thinks is best for the school. 

These last two years at Shenzhen Middle School have made me a better person in so many ways, and I’ll be devastated if I leave the school once and for all. I’ve been happy, sad, arrogant, pitiful, exhilarant, depressed—and above all felt alive.

The Special Curriculum was a radical experiment, and I used it as a laboratory to experiment radically. Looking back I now see it was unethical to experiment in a public high school, but I also learned a great deal about how to make the classroom a better learning environment for students. 

Later this month I’d like to discuss the particular difficulties of teaching English (and just language in general) to Chinese students. These entries will—like my time at this school—probably provoke and disturb, annoy and anger. That’s my hope, at least.