Better Teacher Performance in China

Teach For China

Amid the lush green hills in the east of Yunnan Province nestles the small town of Changning. Accessed via a leisurely taxi drive along the two lane highway from Baoshan, it is surprisingly tranquil, modern and – for a small town – large. Though men still hang their singing birds in bamboo cages from the trees each afternoon, the atmosphere is one of quiet progress. Young couples share moped rides to the various malls and advertisements promise a lifestyle of technology and fashion I’d always associated with Tokyo.

To the north of the town is a large hill, from the foot of which runs a steadily inclining road. At the summit, where the old feudal manor might have sat surveying the farmlands and agricultural workers, is the local high school or Ji Zheng. Huge, bright and suggestive of surge in national investment in school-building in the sixties, the towering blocks are a statement about the value of education. In July, the school hosted Teach For China’s new cohort of two hundred trainee teachers, and last week I went to visit them.

As I met and talked to the US and Chinese graduates who would soon be dispersing to teach in far flung schools across Yunnan and Guandong, I kept hearing the same single comment: I’m ready. Four weeks of training had whetted their appetite and they were bursting to enter classrooms, excited to set kids on new paths in life. Inspired by their enthusiasm, I recalled this stage in my own training as a teacher. And then I paused. That feeling of enthusiasm and readiness came right before the six months in which I stood before class after class of pupils thinking: I am failing. I am not ready.


In Better, gifted surgeon and best-selling author Atul Gawande asks a simple question: “what does it take to be good at something in which failure is so easy, so effortless?” He recalls his own time as a trainee surgeon (he spent eight years in training, compared to the eight weeks of the teachers in China) and an encounter with an experienced resident over the case of a woman with pneumonia. One night, noting that the woman was complaining of insomnia and sweats, Gawande made a mental note to check on her at midday the next day. When he did so, he found that the resident had already been twice during the morning, giving treatments that saved her from complications and led to the swiftest recovery.

While his first concern as a trainee “was to become competent” (meaning that he was playing by the book and doing his best approximation of good care), he had seen the resident display something more. “He grasped not just how pneumonia generally evolves and is properly treated but also the particulars of how to catch and fight one in that specific patient, in that specific moment, with the specific resources and people he had at hand.” But what was it that enabled this surgeon to be so successful? How had he come to tune his performance to such a high level? These are the questions that occupy Gawande throughout the book, and he arrives at a truly simple three part formula: dilligence, doing right and thinking anew.


Speaking to the teachers in Changning, I thought about my own arc of development as a teacher, starting out hopeless and becoming competent, and I was struck by a couple of ideas. First, that in my (albeit short) time in the classroom I had never aimed for anything more than competence. In fact, throughout the school in which I worked, there were perhaps only two teachers who really aimed for anything more, only two teachers who were in pursuit of high performance. Second, that the training that I had received, and that these teachers in China were receiving, was at best a slow route to competence. These young graduates – as I had – were getting ready to fail, easily and effortlessly.

Underneath these reflections, there’s an important insight: we don’t think about teaching as a performance profession. Whether in China or Chingford, people are essentially still ‘born to teach’. It’s a vocation, something that’s mostly art, a little science, and – to the chagrin of all educators – a whole lot of bureaucracy. There’s precious little science to the learning aspect of teaching, no sense of being at the cutting edge of a field of expertise that has a concrete purpose. And there’s almost no understanding of teacher performance (apart of course from the fact that teachers hardly improve over time). Atul Gawande thinks that medicine is not a performance, evidence-based profession. He should spend some time in the classroom.

It’s not all bad news. His outlier success stories from the medical profession suggest approaches that we can take to bring about real change in education. For example, when we educate teachers, we often take a roundabout approach that is academically rigorous, but practically unhelpful. What if we flipped that? What if we took a practical, clinical approach to teacher development, supported by rigorous academic research? What if we did begin to truly see teaching as a performance profession? By borrowing from other fields, we can see education through new eyes, generating the skill and will to invest in teachers and their development that will bring about a revolution. First though we need to find our own diligent residents, and understand their genius.


Back in Changning, I was asked what words of advice I might share with these young teachers on the cusp of their first days in the classroom. The answer was simple. They should work diligently, do right and think anew. The real challenge is for Teach For China, who must support them all in that endeavour.

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