If Everyone Could Take a Small Step Forward

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Editor’s Note:

This passage recounts two heavy-hearted stories. The main characters in these stories—a nameless young boy and a girl named Jiani, are among the most vulnerable kids in society. At the same time Ms. Sun and Mr.Zhang, who deal with these kids, feel guilty and confused when they can’t solve their problems. They have no awareness of the absence of the nation, the system, the society and NGOs that is behind these phenomena. The unique value of philanthropy work lies in the concepts and the heart of the people behind different projects. What really matters is whether project officers treat these sorts of problems with empathy, whether they genuinely try to understand the difficulties faced by the people they serve and empower the powerless. (For purpose of privacy protection, the real names of the people referred to in the article are all left out).


As a project officer working at a foundation, my daily work is not just related to project management, but mainly to the people-to-people interactions behind the projects. During this process, there can be clashes between the frontline executors of a project and other stakeholders, during which human beings’ weaknesses and tenacity all make themselves felt. Such situations are always a challenge for me.

During my work, I have had the opportunity to work together with many frontline educators. I would like to share two stories, stories which may seem rather dispiriting. The main characters in these stories, Ms. Sun and Mr.Zhang, tried their best at the time. If they could have taken just one more step forward, maybe these stories could have had a different ending. Or perhaps the endings might not have changed, but to MS. Sun and Mr. Zhang the stories might have taken on a different meaning.

Educational issues are far more complicated than we might think. They involve not only teachers, parents and schools, but also the surrounding communities and children welfare policies. All these can influence children’s education and development. As individuals, both MS. Sun and Mr. Zhang deeply feel helpless and frustrated. However, these two stories may inspire more field workers like MS. Sun and Mr. Zhang with more reflection and action.

At the same time, what I want to emphasize is that field workers need more support. Not only support regarding educational methods and techniques, but also emotional support. If everyone could take just a small step forward, many stories would have different results and lead to a different future.

 The first story: guilty Ms. Sun

Sun works at a children’s institution. This social organization mainly offers services to unattended children whose parents (or at least one parent) are serving prison sentences. Sun is now over 70 years old. She used to be a prison warden, and after retirement she went into charity.

Sun has been in charge of the institution for ten years. She cares for every aspect of more than 70 kids’ daily life, and sometimes she has to worry about the kids trying to flee. Before arriving at Children’s Village, many kids were leading a homeless life on the streets, and they could not adapt themselves to the rather strict management within the institution. What puzzles Sun is that in the old days, when she used to be in charge of 200 members of staff and more than 2000 prisoners, it didn’t seem to be that difficult, but these 70 kids really drain her emotionally. Sun always says that she feels very tired, and that the tiredness lies in her heart. She would like to find someone to replace her so that she could have a rest, or find someone younger to help her with management. But after employing some college students, she found that “they would at most work for 2 or 3 months, and then they could no longer bare it and would go away.

Working with kids who live in the most disadvantaged sections of society, you hear many heartrending stories. Once Sun told me the story that had most affected her over the past few years.

There was a pair of siblings in Children’s Village, an elder sister and a younger brother. Their father had been sentenced to over ten years in prison for robbery. Their mother couldn’t bear their family’s hard economic conditions and ran away. The kids had lived in the Children’s Village for several years. The sister behaved quite well. She was a good kid and studied hard. However, her little brother would cause trouble for Sun. He often fought with his classmates, and stole things both at school and at the Children’s Village. Sun was often asked to go to his school to solve his problems. Within the Children’s Village, this boy even led some other naughty kids to form a small group, making discipline a problem.

Sun had no choice, and she had to ask the siblings’ uncle to take the younger brother back. Their uncle was unwilling to take the boy home; but under the threat that both of the siblings would have to go home, the uncle finally did took him back home.

After being taken home, the boy was left to live with his grandmother. The grandmother was too old to look after him. At this point the boy acted like a runaway horse and completely lost control. Soon he became a local bully. By the time his father had been released from prison, the younger brother had become a regular visitor at the local police station for stealing and fighting.

The father was in great misery and disappointment. After bailing his son from the police station once again, he poisoned the boy and killed him. Later he was himself sentenced to death for murder. The elder sister thus lost her only relatives overnight.

This incident made Ms. Sun feel quite guilty. She felt that if she hadn’t insisted on sending the younger brother away, the whole family would not have ended up being ruined. At the time however, she had sent the boy away for the good of the other kids in the Children’s Village. When recounting this, Ms. Sun feels both guilty and confused.

Ms. Sun told me that this incident weighs like a heavy stone on her heart. She has always felt that if it had not been for her incapability, the older sister wouldn’t have ended up having no relatives.

Ms. Sun feels that she could have done better. What if she had talked with the boy more often, asking him why he was so rebellious? Or what if she had asked his sister to talk with him? At that time, she thought she couldn’t let the boy get in the way of his sister’s studies. It didn’t occur to her that maybe his sister might have been the right person who could best influence him and change him. Maybe the first time she was called to talk to the boy’s teachers, she should have tried to look into the situation more closely rather than just sit there and watch the school’s headmaster criticize him. Maybe she could have talked with his uncle more often after he had been sent back instead of being so careless. Maybe…

What I am getting at is that if Ms. Sun had received more professional and systematic advice and guidance when she encountered these problems, she wouldn’t have to feel so guilty and confused now.

The Second Story: conflicted Mr. Zhang

Mr. Zhang is an ordinary rural teacher, who told me the story of his student Jiani.

Jiani was a seventh grade student in Mr. Zhang’s class. In his eyes she seemed very shy. She couldn’t get good grades in practically any subject. Especially in math, she could never get a satisfying grade. During every class she seemed to be listening and carefully taking notes. Every time she took a test however, she could only get a score of 30 or 40 out of 100. When it came to kids like this, Mr. Zhang didn’t know what he could do.

At the beginning of the second semester of seventh grade, Jiani stopped showing up in class. Being the head teacher, Mr. Zhang had to look into the reasons why Jiani had quit school. Mr. Zhang tried phoning her family, but the phone would always be picked up by Jiani’s father, who would reply with phrases like “she is not here”, “I am not clear” or “call her mom”. Mr. Zhang finally got Jiani’s mother’s mobile number from the other students in the class. Her mother told Mr. Zhang that their family was living on a tight budget, and Jiani had to work to support her family. Jiani was not good at her studies and she wouldn’t make it to university, so it was a good idea for her to start making money earlier.

Later on, Mr. Zhang came to know that there were nine kids in Jiani’s family. She had four elder sisters, two younger brothers, and two younger sisters. Three of her elder sisters were already married, so her mother asked Jiani to work in a clothes factory and make money to support the family. A close friend of Jiani at school told Mr. Zhang that Jiani herself also didn’t want to go to school. She couldn’t understand most of what the teacher taught in class and she felt studying was boring. Jiani’s mother also told her that she was a girl, so no matter how long she studied, she would marry someone and then a different family would benefit from her. On the other hand, if her younger brother kept on studying well, in the end their own family would benefit from his hard study.

When Mr. Zhang told me about Jiani’s story, he repeatedly told me that things like this often happen. Parents don’t attach enough importance to girls, and they prefer boys. Some girls are even asked to quit school and work in factory when they are in grades 5 or 6. When it comes to boys on the other hand, no matter how bad they do at school or how naughty they may be, parents will leave them in school. What makes Mr. Zhang feel conflicted and frustrated is that he can see that for students like Jiani staying in school has little meaning. In the end, she wouldn’t learn much by continuing her studies. On the other hand, he feels it is not right for such young kids to quit school and work in factories.

Mr. Zhang told me how he wished there were ways to make the students love studying. It is a big challenge for him that while most students come to class every day, but do not study, you can never tell what is going on in their minds. Those who are able to answer his questions are always the same few. He says that every time he finishes class he feels a great frustration. It feels like talking to a wall, without response.

Once Mr. Zhang took part in teacher training programs, he listened to many experiences of participatory teaching methodology shared by other teachers. After going back, he also tried to teach in groups and bonus points for class management, but he only experimented for half a term. When he found it was hard to maintain discipline, and saw that the grades that the school and parents attach great importance to didn’t improve much, he decided to give the new methods up.

In my mind most teachers like Mr. Zhang don’t lack the desire to change, but what he lacked was adequate support, such as external support (training resources, a community where teachers support each other), and internal confidence and technical support. Mr.Zhang didn’t make enough preparation for innovations and experimentation in his teaching, so it was very easy for him to give up when he encountered difficulties.

These are the two stories. Looking back at them, you will see that working in the field is like working in a complicated maze. It’s very hard to find the key to solve all the problems you encounter. Many educators work with kids for decades. When we see their miseries and confusions, share their happiness and bitterness, feel their acknowledgment and enthusiasm towards their work, and sense the trust they place in us, I can realize the meaning and value of my job. Thanks to the strength and confidence which all the people and things I have come across have given me, I have stuck to this cause.

After all, the basis of education is people working with each other. During this process, the most important things are understanding, consideration, acceptance and the actions based upon all of these-a small step forward made by everyone.


In Brief

Project officer Ma Lingling tells us two sad stories on disadvantaged children and their teachers. She calls for empathy and genuine efforts from project officers to understand the difficulties faced by the people they serve and empower them.
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