It's never too late to start over

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 April, 2012, 12:00am


When Wang Xiaoyu, 27, graduated from university he landed a coveted computer-engineering job at a nuclear plant. But three months later, he followed his heart to become a teacher. After a difficult start, he is now one of the leading advanced placement (AP) physics teachers for mainland students who hope to study in the US.

Why did you change jobs?

I studied automation at university and when China Guangdong Nuclear Power Group selected me and a classmate from several hundred applicants to work at its subsidiary, I naturally said, 'yes.' My parents are teachers and always wanted me to be an engineer, and it was a very difficult year to get a job. But, two months into the job, I realised it wasn't for me. My job was to computerise blueprints of the nuclear plant, so I sat at the computer all day, working 12 to 14 hours a day. I felt like a robot, going to work when I got up, then straight to bed when I got home. It was also an all-male environment. I'd had four years of that - which is why I had time to teach myself English - and I wanted a job where I could interact with people. I persisted for three months, then decided to quit and give teaching a try. I had always looked up to teachers and believed that acquiring and sharing knowledge was fulfilling. Since getting a regular teaching job would require going back to university to obtain the necessary certificate, I decided to start teaching English. For a year I knocked on the door of scores of English language teaching institutes in China, and was interviewed more than 50 times. Soon I was teaching part-time at more than 10 institutes. Once I even tutored the daughter of an ambassador. I finally was hired by an American education company in July 2010 to teach AP physics.

What do you actually do?

The US company worked with four local schools to teach a pilot three-year senior high school curriculum to prepare students for university studies in the US. This curriculum is only a few years old, but is quite popular. Teachers would be posted at local schools, and students at these special classes would pay higher tuition fees than their classmates in regular classes. In February, I joined my current employer, a new company called Yizhitang International Education, which I believed would be more challenging for me. I am helping them train teachers and develop relations with more local schools in providing this curriculum, in addition to just teaching.

How are you different from other physics teachers?

I try to interact with my students when I teach and use topics they are interested in. For example, first I would teach them the properties of projectile motion. Then I would let them play Angry Birds [a highly popular smartphone game] and calculate the variables of range, height and time of each scenario. I encourage students to do many experiments, especially ones they design themselves, which do not just simply follow steps in a textbook. I also encourage them to make presentations and challenge me when they think I'm wrong. In 2010, when I was in Shenzhen, I suggested to my students that they should write to Steve Jobs.

Why Steve Jobs and what was the biggest lesson from that?

I thought of Jobs because my students love Apple products. At the same time, one thing kept bugging me - when giving speeches and presentations, he would always drink from plastic water bottles. I discussed this with my students and encouraged them to ask why was he doing something that was not good for the environment. In the end, one a student sent Jobs an e-mail, and he immediately responded. The correspondence went back and forth three times, and the gist was Jobs saying that environmental protection should come from the bottom up and that my student should continue doing what he was doing, and to 'learn all you can, far and wide'. The responses of course excited my student. But the point of this exercise was not what Jobs said, or even if he responded. For my students, I wanted them to realise that authorities may not always be right, and that they should always speak their mind.

Were you like this when you were a student?

Yes, quite so. In high school, I loved sports and invented a pair of glasses that could be worn while playing sport, so I wrote to several dozen sports firms including Nike and Adidas asking if they were interested in my invention. In the end, I got a reply from the company of Li Ning , the Olympic gold medallist and sportswear entrepreneur, saying that while they appreciated the design, it would be difficult to commercialise the product. During university, I queued for more than an hour just to ask the CEO of Intel a question. I was also not afraid to do something different. During the 2008 Olympics, I rode my bicycle from Chengdu to Beijing. The 2,400 kilometre trip took more than 20 days. It was a memorable experience. I made many friends.

What did your parents think about your switching jobs?

I didn't dare tell them when I left the nuclear company. Three or four months after I left, while I was juggling several part-time jobs, my father phoned me during a break, and I just started crying. I think they now approve of my choice, but it's difficult to tell. My father came to Shenzhen two years ago and attended one of my classes. Later he told me that, compared to teachers who had been teaching for 10 years, I was still lacking in several areas, and went on to tell me what those were. He's not one to give praise easily. But my mother told me that he once saw a newspaper report about me and he said, 'he does seem to have some ideas about what he's doing.'

When you were invited to attend an annual global meeting of AP teachers in San Francisco last year, what did you say?

I'm invited to attend the meeting of the College Board each year. At last year's AP teachers' meeting I was the only Chinese teacher who spoke. I believe our US counterparts have some misunderstanding about Chinese students. They think Chinese students lack critical thinking and creativity, which is not entirely true. Our education system is shaped by having to serve a large population with limited resources. Therefore, it's designed to be very exam-focused and ranking is important. Americans may also fear Chinese students because in the US perhaps those who get a full score it is 16 per cent, but among my students alone it's 75 per cent.

Apart from your present job, do you have other goals or plans?

I would like to study education or physics in the US. I have never studied abroad, and even though I'm doing as well in my teaching financially as my colleagues, I want to expand my abilities.

Many graduates today complain about finding the right job. What's your advice to them?

I think the most important thing is self-recognition. Nearly all young people in China are single children, and we enjoy special treatment from the day we are born. Many of us are lost the day we step out of school. We need to know what we are good at, and we also need to find out what we enjoy doing before we can do well. It's like a vector (in physics): you must first set the direction before you can apply your energy and soar.