Candid US teacher a hit with cadres

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 December, 2007, 12:00am

When Donald Holder first set foot in Shenzhen in 2000, he was heralded in the press as 'the first foreigner' to make it into the senior administration of a state-run school.

But he was already popular on the mainland, having taught in elite secondary schools in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. He also had hosted 400 programmes for Beijing Television's Bi-Lingual Magazine and 112 programmes for CCTV's Kindergarten Chinese and After School Chinese.

Mr Holder, 35, who has a six-year-old half-Chinese daughter, is an American dedicated to education on the mainland. He was 24 when he first travelled to Beijing in 1996 from a small town in New Mexico with less than 5,000 people. He had little idea where a two-year East Asian studies research fellowship and an exchange teacher's job paying 1,500 yuan a month would lead him.

After almost 12 years on the mainland, he says he manages to maintain good relations with his communist comrades, despite speaking out on the education system.

Mr Holder, assistant to the principal of Shenzhen Middle School, said there were problems with the education system, including the transition to secondary school, the lack of commitment to vocational training and university graduates fleeing the country. The first nine years of basic schooling was largely geared towards passing an exam to get into senior secondary school.

Although students who did not get a senior secondary school place could opt for vocational training, Mr Holder said they found themselves out in the cold, with education resources favouring secondary school and university students.

'The majority of pupils are unable to get into secondary schools, yet all they were learning was for that exam. What do they do at 16?'Mr Holder said many of the luckier students who made it to university and then went abroad never returned.

'So, who's actually building this country?' he asked.

According to the Ministry of Education, 700,200 students went abroad to study between 1978 and 2003. Only 172,800 of them returned.

'The ones who stay here are the ones building the China hinterland. There is too little for those who get left behind,' he said. 'The biggest problem is the majority who don't have the chances my kids have.

'We don't need 100,000 engineers every year. We need 100,000 skilled labourers. That's why these buildings fall apart in 10 years. We need people who can think and work at the same time. Until China solves this problem, I don't care how big the economic development is every year, it's going to come back and bite you.'

Latest education ministry statistics show around 20.7 million students graduated from junior secondary schools last year. But only 7.3 million graduated from senior secondary schools, and of those only 5.5 million managed to get into universities.

Mr Holder said the pressure senior secondary students were under was enormous, because simply passing the National College Entrance Examination was not enough.

In countries like the US, he said, the number of university places was sufficient to cover the demand. This was not the case on the mainland, where many students could not go to university simply because there were not enough places.

'Americans can go to universities if they want to; mainland Chinese go to university if they get in, period,' he said. 'In the US, passing exams is enough because they don't feel the pressure, whereas here, passing doesn't mean you get to the next level. Passing can mean failure to them.'

As critical as Mr Holder might be of the education policy, he said he had always managed to keep on the friendly side of mainland officials and get his visa renewed. 'I enjoy a good relationship with government officials and they tend to like me,' he said. 'I just work.

'When they call me on the phone and say 'can you help us with this and that?', I do it. So whether it is in Beijing or Shenzhen, I have done pretty well keeping them on my side,' he said, adding that he was not rebellious and respected the difficult job they had.

'Policy is their job, not mine.'

Nevertheless, Mr Holder said that as a foreigner it was hard to convince local educators that he understood the Chinese education system as well as they did. Winning their trust was another issue.

'Some say, what is a foreigner doing here? Do we need foreign practices introduced to our school? Those kinds of folks would love it if I left. But, in general, I think people recognise the fact that I'm not here to mess around,' he said.

Although he has been on the mainland for nearly 12 years, Mr Holder said there was still a lot about him that was American.

'I have been here so long at this point that some people don't know what to make of me. I'm pretty sure I'm still an American, though,' he said. 'I'm still very impatient with inefficiency. I am still very direct.'

He said students came to have a 15-minute chat with him every now and again and he often found them asking him two questions: 'Do you like China?' and 'When are you going to leave?' He said he always gave the same answers: 'I'm still here' and 'Ask me tomorrow.'

Mr Holder said students were very conscious of the fact that they were in a developing country. 'The kids want to feel proud of their country. They want those coming from first world countries to appreciate their culture, the people and the country's development,' he said.

Part of his job this year includes overseeing the lower secondary school's gifted and talented students' programme, community service and social practice.

He said moral as well as patriotic education was an integral part of what he handled at Shenzhen Middle School. The course covered elements such as being Chinese, the pride of national identity and how a Chinese person should be responsible for their country.

Mr Holder said it may seem strange to some that a foreigner was teaching Chinese students about loving their country.

'I know, and I'm the foreigner. Ain't that great?' he said with a wink.