The best teachers I know share two qualities: humility and curiosity. They worry less about looking good than becoming better. I saw these same qualities in the educators I met a few weeks ago in Shanghai. Despite their top PISA rankings, these teachers see plenty of value in what American teachers have to offer. I wish we took more time in this country to figure out what they can offer us.
You might think the school system with the top math and science rankings on Earth would exude a certain swagger. Yet every educator I met in Shanghai, from teachers to principals, teacher trainers to researchers, displayed profound humility and curiosity.
It surprised me that these educators, who have built a system of internationally renowned excellence, were so eager to listen to my ideas about how to teach creativity.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. The best teachers I know—local heroes who have taught for 35 years and get better every single year—possess the same qualities I witnessed in Shanghai and Shenzhen.
Humility to continue learning and improving, no matter how skilled they have become. Curiosity about what other teachers can teach them, even if those teachers have a few years of experience rather than decades.
Great teachers don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how good they are. They focus on how to become better.
Our school visits in Shanghai and Shenzhen often shattered the stereotype of Chinese schools: obedient students memorizing information, repeating in dutiful unison the lines of the teacher’s lecture. We did see some of that—many classrooms with desks in rows, teachers wearing headsets with a microphone to make sure their voice would carry. But we also saw this:
*An art class devoted to shadow puppets, where students constructed jointed warriors and creatures, then put on shadow plays against a lit paper screen.
*A ballet studio, complete with mirrors along one wall, a barre, and gleaming wood floors.
*Sculptures fired in a kiln, ranging from a tower to a lotus, each sculpture as unique as the student who created it.
Having seen such remarkable learning environments, I wasn’t sure how my speech would go over. I spoke about the home library project my students do, where each child chooses her books based on her interests and her current reading level. I showed the teachers photos of 2nd graders’ architecture and engineering projects, in which the students build mini-skyscrapers and parachutes out of straws, string, and tape, making a big mess in the process.
The Chinese teachers could have ignored what I had to share. They could have pointed out that the U.S. ranks in the 20’s in the PISA test of reading, science, and math skills; Shanghai is often #1 or 2. They could have dismissed the importance of creativity as American fluff.
Instead they listened with rapt attention. They got excited. They asked probing questions, took plenty of notes, and shared their own ideas for building more creativity into the Chinese school system.
This is one way these educators have built such an excellent system: by inviting outsiders from Finland, Singapore, the U.S., and many other countries to share their beliefs and techniques. Chinese teachers listen to these guests, they reflect, and then they figure out how to incorporate the ideas they heard into Chinese classrooms.
Here in the U.S., I rarely see that curiosity about the best practices of other nations. Instead, I often hear one of two responses to PISA rankings or case studies of remarkable innovations happening in Finland or Singapore.
Response 1, most often from liberal educators: “Those countries don’t educate all their students, so it’s not a fair comparison. When you control for poverty, U.S. students do just fine.”
Response 2, mostly from conservative reformers: “U.S. schools are slipping! We must remain competitive with these nations, or else they, not us, will win the future.” (Having used PISA rankings to make the case that U.S. schools are failing, these reformers often go on to describe bizarre policy recommendations that look nothing like the best practices that made those high-ranked nations so successful.)
I didn’t see either response when I spoke to educators in Shanghai and Shenzhen. No defensive excuse-making, no agenda-driven teacher-bashing. I didn’t hear a lot of rhetoric about international competition, either. What I did hear was a focus on international collaboration.
Teachers in Shanghai and Shenzhen know they do many things incredibly well. They also know they have areas for growth, such as moving from a lecture-dominated model for core academic subjects toward more open-ended collaborative problem-solving.
To become better, they find out what strengths in other countries’ systems might help them to address the weaknesses in their own. Then they invite those teachers to come and share their strengths.
As a nation, we need to learn a better response when we hear about other countries out-performing us on international tests. Instead of making excuses for our own students’ performance, or launching into a pre-packaged antidote for reform, we need to ask a simple question:
What can educators in those countries teach us?”
How can they help us do a better job of meeting our students’ needs?
Humility is hard. Curiosity takes time to cultivate.
But we need to realize a simple truth: The teacher across the ocean, just like the teacher across the hall, is not our competition. She’s our colleague.
We can learn from her strengths, and we can teach her our own.
The moment I walked off the plan in Shenzhen, I met a 28-year old teacher with the American name Colin. When asked why he loves teaching, he had a simple answer. It was the same response I might have heard word-for-word from the colleagues I most respect in my own school.
“I just want to share my joy and my knowledge with my students.”
It takes a lifetime to learn how to do that. It’s a lifetime well spent.
Note from Justin: I just found out that a grant I wrote to scale up home libraries for about 1,800 students in our district is one of 15 finalists in the nation. Five projects will receive $100,000; for the home library project, this money would put about 30,000 books into the hands and homes of kids living in poverty. The five winners are chosen solely based on the number of votes they receive online. Please take a minute each day between now and November 30th to vote for our project; it’s in the South Central region, and this is the link to vote: Dream Big Challenge. Many, many thanks.