Cheryl Schweigert never knew much about the country of China. That was until she traveled with 42 teachers from around the United States to interact and observe education in the Asian country.
She was first selected by the Intermediate Reading Program because of her experience, knowledge and, she thinks, her luck.
Schweigert has been an educator for more than 25 years, teaching in Montana, the Bush and the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. Her professional training includes specialties in reading, working with hearing-impaired students and a master's degree in learning disabilities. She is currently a reading teacher at Kenai Middle School.
After making the initial cut for the trip, Schweigert was chosen by the People to People Ambassador Programs to go to China. She then began to anticipate the lessons she would bring home.
On Sept. 29, after a 15-hour flight, she landed in Beijing.
Schweigert and the group spent the first week touring, meeting the minister of education and visiting research institutes and government publishing houses. It was a national Chinese holiday, and students were absent from school.
Visiting the Great Wall of China while touring the country was one of the most memorable parts of the trip, Schweigert said.
"It was just impressive to walk on something that old with that much history," she said.
Schweigert thought meeting with the leaders of education was a great opportunity to learn about the Chinese education system. She began to pick up on the similarities and differences between China and the United States.
Dessert was a bit of a change for many of the people in the program. Instead of having a piece of cake or a bowl of ice cream, the Chinese enjoy a slice of honeydew melon or a few carrot sticks. Although it might not sound as tasty as our own version of dessert, Schweigert quickly got used to the healthy diet.
Besides fruits and vegetables, the teachers experienced many varieties of food from the different regions they visited, such as Beijing and Shanghai. The regional cooking ranged from sweet and sour to spicy meals or bland dishes.
Healthy food wasn't the only example the society's discipline, though.
Sometimes Americans take free public education for granted, forgetting not everyone has this privilege, she said. Students in China are in schools not because it is expected, but because they want to be there, she said.
The education system is controlled by the government, which is controlled by the Communist party. The national government runs the system, including publishing houses, from preschools through universities and monitors all materials used by teachers in the classroom.
The publishing company employees told Schweigert they had gotten into trouble with the public for allowing students to read books written by an "unsuccessful" student. It amazed her how controlling the government actually was, she said.
Schweigert learned that, unlike in America, teachers are not required to have college background in education to teach in public schools unless teaching at the upper secondary level. Principals often test teachers and students to make sure they will pass national exams, and the government spends much more time on in-service training programs to be sure teachers are providing the "right" information, she said. Testing is necessary to determine those students who will pass and qualify to continue on to various programs.
While sitting in on many different schools from the country, she observed that many schools require uniforms.
When asked about behavior problems, teachers in China don't understand the concept, because such problems hardly, if ever, occur, she said.
Schweigert noticed a consistency in the expectations of everyone involved in the reading field in China. Messages from the minister of education, the university programs, schools and students and the parents were the same. She learned that the goal of the country is for 80 percent of China's population to become literate within 10 years.
She also observed the great respect children show for elders in the Chinese culture. After each lesson, she saw students stand, bow and thank their teachers. In elementary schools, exemplary students place a red star on their foreheads, and in high school honored students wear red scarves to signify dedication and willingness to learn.
Getting to know the students, parents and teachers taught Schweigert about Chinese culture, she said.
She noticed the Chinese she met all had the same types of goals, ambitions and dreams in mind as people in the United States. Parents want the best for their children; teachers try to enrich the minds of the children; and students strive to build strong and successful lives.
Of all the lessons Schweigert brought back from her trip, one sticks out in her mind more than the others: No matter how poor or rich, how successful or failing or how advanced a country is, individually, people all treasure the same things.
Shamra Bauder is a junior at Kenai Central High School.
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