Voices from China

Zeng Jinyan: Middle class parents in China looking for a better education for their kids

(September 16, 2011) “These children may be the happiest students in all of China:” Chinese blogger Zeng Jinyan visits one of the alternative schools taking root across the country.

By Zeng Jinyan for Voices From China

On the western outskirts of Beijing, middle class Chinese parents and teachers have chosen a site to construct and decorate a school, called Spring Valley. They do most of the work themselves maintaining traditional Chinese culture and practices, but applying a local version of the famous Waldorf education model. With support from this international educational movement, most of Spring Valley’s teachers have been trained abroad and have experience teaching many subjects. But they don’t have any set teaching materials. Though the teachers receive training and updated inputs from the worldwide Waldorf community, in each class, the teachers innovate to suit their class. Before children are enrolled in the school, the parents are educated to deal with parenting challenges. And the parents are encouraged to help in establishing and running the school. These children may be the happiest students in all of China, though not in the world. Compared to boys and girls in other Chinese schools, who are burdened with overloaded schedules and rote education, students in Spring Valley are cared for and educated well: eating organic food, studying in an environmentally friendly school with toys and facilities made from natural materials, learning by doing in artistic ways, with an abundance of outdoor activities and self-directed time to learn.

“My husband wasn’t satisfied with public education either. But he did not agree with me that we should start a school on our own. He thought that sending our children to an international school was the best choice.”

Hu Aimei, the mother of two children and now the founder of two kindergartens, and a graduate from Beijing Normal University with a major in preschool pedagogy, added, “but in the international school, they study mainly in English. Though their spoken Chinese, listening and reading in Chinese might be good, their writing would suffer. [My daughter] is too young to go to an international school. She needs a good education in Chinese first,” she said.

Aimei did send her son to an international senior high school. But, in February 2009, she established a family kindergarten in downtown Beijing for her six-year old daughter Duoduo. This September, Duoduo and some of her classmates in the family kindergarten graduated to primary school. So Aimei and her school’s fellow parents, as well as volunteers and teachers who have been in Waldorf education community for several years, are establishing a primary school and a kindergarten together named Spring Valley on the western outskirts of Beijing. Aimei is a teacher in the new kindergarten.

Education problems in China are too numerous to list. An ideology of dictatorship is the fundamental reason. It is implemented in various forms, both in public and private schools, from kindergarten to university. You can see the trappings of the ideology in the schools’ bureaucratic methods, their dull books, and overloaded schedules. Now, a new generation of parents, especially those who are well-educated and are better off economically, are looking for a better education for their children. Most send their kids to the so-called “better” public schools – the famous schools that receive more state funding and have better resources, some send their kids to international schools, while some are lost in the burgeoning commercialized “training and education” institutions.

Generally speaking, a private school in China is not a non-profit organization, which means the bosses of the school earn money from the students and share the profits. Though the numbers are still few, more and more parents are trying to create small-scale schools for their children. Aimei is one of these pioneer parents.

Since the Waldorf education was introduced into China by a young German Eckart Loewe in 1999, and some Chinese who had learned and practiced the Waldorf education overseas for years, it has slowly become one of the most popular forms of alternative education in China. The first, and the only recognized Waldorf school, was established in Chengdu in 2004. According to a preliminary list (available online [PDF]), apart from the Chengdu Waldorf School, some 50 small-scale kindergartens and 5 primary schools, with only a few grades, have been established as Waldorf schools in China. One Waldorf teacher, and a writer, Ms. Wubei, told me there are in fact 100 small-scale Waldorf kindergartens and 20 primary schools throughout China with a few grads to their credit, though they do not advertise their success.

I visited Spring Valley this August. During my visit, I saw parents dyeing clothes for the Spring Valley students. Here is a pictorial account that captures a day in the life of Spring Valley.

An overview of Spring Valley from its western corner. Spring Valley will open this September, with only one kindergarten class and one grade one class in the primary school. The school depends on the parents' donation of money and time. School fees are RMB 3,100 per month (not including meals) for a child in kindergarten, and RMB 31,000 per year for a child in primary school.

An overview of Spring Valley from its eastern corner. It rests at the foot of the mountains on land provided for free by a generous couple. The school spent about ¥200,000 to repair and decorate the cottages. They also had to stabilize the landscape and to reconstruct the grounds in just two weeks to prepare for the new school.

Hu Aimei, a mother, a teacher and also one of the school founders. She was trained in the Waldorf education method in Australia. Her husband rented a piece of land on the eastern outskirts of Beijing and employed villagers to work on it, using organic methods to plant vegetables and fruits, and to tend chickens for eggs. All of the products on this farm are provided to their family and friends, and are not for sale. This is their way to protect themselves from the crisis in food safety.

Zhou Yehua, a mother and the teacher in the new kindergarten. She was engaged in business before becoming a teacher. Her daughter, Qianqian, was in the kindergarten established by Hu Aimei, and now is enrolled in the new primary school.

Wang Shoumao has been teaching more than 20 years. He studied the Waldorf educational methods in Germany. He will be the primary school’s main grade one teacher. He will teach the same 20 pupils for six years: from grade one to grade six. Duoduo and Qianqian are among his students.

Parents are school resources. They donate money, and have worked as volunteers in the school to establish it and now to manage it. In these photos, parents and children are dyeing clothes with organic materials for the new school.

A boy is playing in the mud, looking for a frog while his father prepares work for the school. From frog hunting, the young lad moves on to play on the rope nets.

A girl reads.

Pupils are curiously examining cyan worms.

A grade one window.

A path to the school.

The school at the foot of the hills.

Zeng Jinyan is a Chinese blogger and social worker. Born in Fujian in 1983, she writes about various topics related to civil society in China. She co-founded an HIV/AIDS care and support charity, Loving Source, in 2004. In 2007, Zeng was named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 People Who Shape Our World. Read Zeng’s previous work here and here.

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