Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Dear Teacher Prestige

Dear Teacher Prestige,

No doubt you vary among cultures having different perceptions of a teacher's social status.  It is interesting for me to see and feel the differences between cultures in the East and the West as a teacher myself.


Chinese School started this past Sunday. My kiddos continue their studies there while I began the year with my new class of two- and three-year-olds.  It was wonderful meeting new families and seeing returning ones.  My day went really well, and I was pleased with the day's work.  Over the last year and a half there, I've realized that even in America, when a group of Chinese parents and teachers are together, many Chinese practices are still front and center.  A particularly noticeable one is the way in which teachers are regarded.

From my memory thirty-plus years ago in Taiwan, teachers have always experienced high occupational prestige.  The respect with which the society regards teachers is visible through words and action.  Teachers are not called Mrs. Smith or Mr. Jackson; they are called Teacher Smith or Teacher Jackson.  They are not regarded as just any other person, but as a person of profession, even by name.  When in the company of teachers, people oftentimes greet them with a slight bow of the upper body.  (In traditional culture, the measure of respect is in the degree of bend in the bow; saving the 90 degree bows for momentous and celebratory occasions nowadays, the greeting bow has been modified to a mini-bow, more like a tip of the head.)  Above all, parents take the words of teachers very seriously, always reteaching to their children what teachers preach in school during the day, in both academic and social-emotional parameters.

A lot of that is cultural affect.  You do what you have learned from the generation before you.  Education is highly regarded in many parts of Asia.  Even though I don't necessarily agree with all the teaching methods in Asia, it is invariably true that teachers are generally regarded with the utmost respect.

Having had this value embedded in me during my early years, I carried it over to my adult life here.  When I first started teaching as a newbie teacher, I would always call my colleagues by their last names: Mrs. Smith or Mr. Jackson.  Another newbie teacher of Asian descent did the same (for the same reason), but we were both reprimanded by our colleagues.  Call me by my first name, for goodness sake! they'd say.  I did, eventually, but it took some time.  Even today, I still refer to my kiddos' teachers by their last names--out of respect--unless they specifically tell me not to.

Old habits are hard to break.

I have always felt that people in general are more friendly than formal here in the States, and that has nothing to do with whether people respect teachers or not.  People show respect in different ways, and that is easily recognizable by interpersonal behavior and a lot of common sense.  But having been away from my birth country for so long, it had been a while since I've experienced Chinese formality, specifically in a school setting.

My kiddos started Chinese School back in Fall of 2011.  We found a nearby school whose tuition is very reasonable.  We thought it would be a good opportunity to get some "Chinese time" in the kiddos' lives.  (We don't speak exclusively in Chinese at home--or much at all, rather--but that's for another post altogether.)  DH and I didn't go to Chinese school growing up here in the States.  We just learned and practiced it at home, after having gone to school in Taiwan and already learned how to read and write Chinese at the 3rd/4th grade level.  We never had to go through the pressure and agony of having our precious weekends taken up by Chinese school.  But ironically, we were going to be those parents that send their kids to Chinese School.  Touche.  Dear Daughter started Chinese school at age 8, which is late by "Chinese standards," but we waited for Dear Son to be old enough to go, since they were more apt to go together.

When I found myself among my native language speakers at the school, all of those formality practices came back to me naturally.  I readily greeted the kiddo's teachers with a tip of the head out of respect.  You remember such things the way you don't forget how to ride a bicycle.

Old habits come back easily.  

New parents to the school met and became friendly with one another, chit-chatting in the hallways while waiting for their children's break time.  Many parents had younger children waiting with them.  Halfway through the year, the school's education directors approached me to see whether I'd be up for teaching a new preschool class, having heard of my previous teaching experience.  Seeing the toddlers and preschoolers out in hallway, I thought, sure, I can teach these cute little ones!  So I took the position.  And here we are.

When I first started teaching the preschool class, there was an interesting transition period.  One semester I was a mom and friend to other parents, and the next semester I became their children's teacher.  I felt extremely grateful that everyone was so supportive of my role change.  Having been in this [western] culture for so long, I felt a bit out of sorts when others regarded me they way I regarded my kiddos' teachers.  Oftentimes grandparents of my students bring me freshly harvested Chinese vegetables that they grew themselves.  Words cannot describe how incredibly grateful I feel.  Every single time.

I need to put the shoe on my other foot now.  Touche.

But the point of all this?  I have a little story to tell.  People come and go throughout our lives.  But you never know how each one will affect you, at least not right away.

I will never forget a grandpa of one of my students, a gentleman who had always greeted me in the hallways of Chinese school with a booming and resounding "Teacher!" and even stopped to send the slightest bow my way.  It caught me by surprise the first time because it is a no-brainer in our culture that younger people naturally pay respect to elder people.  For a grandpa to show this sort of courtesy to a mom-turned-teacher was incredibly flattering and difficult for me to accept naturally.  I always bowed right back immediately and greeted him warmly, though sheepishly and gratefully.  I was not only taken aback, but also felt tremendous affection and acknowledgement from this kind man during these weekly encounters.  He and his grandchildren left the school after that semester, and I missed his entire family: he and his lovely wife, his younger grandson who was my student, his elder grandson who was Dear Son's classmate, and his daughter whom I had become friends with in the hallway.

I found out recently that this gentleman passed away last month after a year-long struggle with cancer.  It surprised me how much I was affected by his passing: how sad I was, and how often I thought about him after hearing the news, even though I only knew him for a period of time during those brief moments in the hallways of Chinese school.  His legacy will undoubtedly be a loving husband, father, and grandfather to his family.  But to me, he embodies a spirit that values education and the work that teachers do.  He has touched me in ways that make me want to be a better teacher.  I will always remember his smile, his straightforward, no-nonsense enthusiasm, and his deep, mahogany voice.

The pain of reality are often softened by beautiful memories, and these will be the ones that I think of when I am faced with the many challenges of teaching.

And because I am way too Americanized don't think of myself as a traditional, Confucian Chinese teacher, I have no expectations of anyone paying any sort of formal respect to me.  I only have my students' best interest in mind, and we--my students and their parents--truly all just have a great time in class.  More traditional parents might still call me "Teacher," but if you're "new-age" like me, I'll high-five you down the hallways of Chinese school as a greeting if you'd like.

Old habits can evolve into new ones.  I can roll how you roll.  


So, Dear Teacher Prestige, it has been quite humbling for me to experience such differences in you across continents and countries.  But I know that it's not how one shows respect to teachers, but that we acknowledge that their work benefits our children, and that we appreciate everything they do.  And I'm saying that as a parent.  As a teacher, well, I'll have to earn that, and I promise to put my best effort forward.



  1. Sandra, in Germany the same holds true, while we don't call a teacher "Teacher so and so" we do address them as Mr or Mrs. At my kids private school things are a little more relaxed but I still have a very hard time calling any of my kids' teachers by their first name. It's just too ingrained in me to be respectful of teachers.

    1. Hi, Susi! It's hard for people like us who have been taught differently, isn't it? First names don't mean to be disrespectful here, since some think it's too formal or distant. Like I said, I'm much more flexible now. :) Thanks for sharing your experiences!

  2. Totally know what you mean -- Asian culture definitively regard teachers more highly than Western culture. I hate that teachers in some districts have to fear for their lives. Some teachers have to deal with disrespectful kids AND their parents. Sad. I still call my advisor Dr. (and all college professors by Dr) out of respect too, even though technically we are all colleagues now. I call my son's daycare teachers by their last names too. Sorry to hear about that grandpa passing away. I'm sure he'd be happy that his presence had such a lasting impact on you!

    1. My MIL is a retired teacher, and each time she visits back home, I can tell by her stories that people still regard her as a reverenced teacher. It's pretty incredible how many people here think that this profession has it easy: summers off and less than 8 hours clocked-in. Sort goes along with why teachers aren't enjoying occupational prestige here as much as other countries. Thanks for stopping by to read and comment even when I know you've got your hands full, Lisa!!

  3. It's so true--I still call my kids' teachers Mrs. So-and-so, even though they sign their notes to me with their first names. Can't break the habit--I can't call them by their first names. :)

    1. I know what you mean, Asianmommy! It's too hard; I get my tongue twisted if I tried to say their first names! Maybe it's just embedded in our heads or something... :)

  4. How lucky you are and your children are to have your Chinese community there. I have been mostly envious of my Filipino friends who continue to enjoy the support and camaraderie of Filipino friends around them. This does not say that I do not appreciate my new circumstances now. However, being with people who understands my (cultural) idiosyncracies because they share them with me would be a wonderful thing. Moreover, it would facilitate my children's learning of Tagalog, errr, Filipino (some people back home decided to lump all regional dialects into one name - Filipino - even when we do not normally understand, mush less speak - the other dialects).

    Your post reminded me too of our own culture for showing respect. In my home country, people give prestige to positions and offices. Thus, it was quite common for the elderly - just like the grandfather in your post - to defer to a younger person if the latter is considered to be in a position of authority.