By Dr. Joel Tapia, Expat Principal in China
I often get asked by Chinese people, “Why did you choose to come to China?”. These inquisitive individuals usually tell me that if they could choose anywhere to live, they would go to the United States. So, they wondered, why come to China?
My answer to this question is simple, “The world is changing. I want to change with it.” We are becoming more globalized. China is enchanting and becoming more influential day-by-day. In America, every day we read news about China’s economic, political, and educational ambition. So, I wanted my family and I—including my 2-year-old son—to grow and change culturally and linguistically with the world by personally experiencing the beauty and power of China and its education system.
The Joy of Education
If you haven’t met me yet, let me introduce myself. My name is Joel, and I joined Hangzhou Greentown Yuhua Primary School (GTYPS) as the foreign school principal in August of 2018. Prior to GTYPS, my career began in California, USA, as a bilingual teacher at age 22. While working as a teacher-leader in some of the most diverse and poverty-affected schools, I earned two master’s degrees. When I was promoted as one of youngest school principals in my district, I was able to help multiple schools win awards and recognitions for increasing student achievement. I was so proud to finally earn my doctorate degree, but even prouder the day one of my students said to me with bright eyes, “When I grow up, I want to become a school doctor like you!”
In this article, reflecting on my career of 17 years in education, I would like to share a few personal, inspirational stories of two former American students. Their lives transformed because of educational opportunity provided by means of caring, loving, and skillful actions. These stories of hope, of overcoming challenges and improving learning, motivate me to keep working diligently and skillfully on behalf of all children—in America, China, and beyond. I hope they will do the same for you.
Stories of Two Unique Students
Julio was a happy but very shy 3rd grade student. In the classroom, he could not keep up with other students. He could barely write legibly and his reading level was well-below grade level. People said he was dyslexic. Suddenly, one school day, he came up to me with tears in his eyes and said, “Mr. Tapia, I am stupid.” My heart stopped. I responded, “No, Julio, you are not stupid! You are very hardworking and intelligent. We just need to give you a little more help.” That night, I conferenced with his parents, who confessed that they were just as frustrated that Julio could not seem to learn like other students. I shared with his parents that with a few strategies, we could help Julio get on track. His parents felt hope for the first time in a long time. They invited me to have a special dinner at their house, and I accepted on the condition that I would bring a box of teaching materials and that I would show them how to help Julio to study at home.
When the dinner day came, as I approached the door of the house, I could smell the delicious food in the air. I love lasagna and salad. Sitting at the dinner table with Julio and his family, in their dining room, was a moment I will never forget. We laughed, ate, and connected as one family. Now, Julio had tears in his eyes again, but this time the reason was different: he felt that his teacher really cared about him and believed in him. After the meal, I sat with Julio and his parents. I showed them, one by one, how they could use different educational resources, materials and strategies to help him improve his writing and reading at home. This would also support my work with Julio at school. We discussed this for about two hours, and his parents felt not only encouraged, but also empowered. I promised them that in the school classroom, I would also give Julio differentiated instruction. At the end of the school year, Julio’s results on the state exam were a reason for all of us to tear up again! He went from “Far Below Basic” in English and Math to “Advanced” in both areas. When he received his results, he shouted, “Mr. Tapia! I did it! I am smart!” I responded, “Of course you are smart, Julio! You always have been. And you worked hard to improve and to show it. I am very, very proud of you!”
Working with Julio’s parents, and going beyond the basic requirements to help Julio, resulted in Julio being polished into a beautiful diamond. He always was a great student—we just had to bring it out. Julio taught me to never give up on a student who is struggling—you just need to care enough to help polish students and bring out the beauty that is already deep inside!
When I first met my student Sam, I knew there was something different about him. He wouldn’t look into my eyes. He would talk in every direction, except towards me. He kept moving back and forth, shuffling his feet and moving his arms around. His words were extremely articulate; it was almost as if there was a prestigious tenured professor locked inside the body of this 5th grade student.
His mother, Rachel, moved closer to me and whispered into my ear, saying, “I’m sorry. My son has autism.” I had heard of autism before, but this was the first time that I had a student with this condition. I was the new school principal, and I quickly learned that Sam had been treated poorly by students and adults because he was “different”. It was hard for others to understand Sam’s unique personality.
Luckily for Sam, he had a wonderful, supportive family. Both of Sam’s parents were very intelligent and successful in their careers. His mother was a scientist and his father was an engineer. Sam also had a younger sister—who did not have autism—and she was not only one of the best students in school, she was also an accomplished athlete and musician. Sam’s autism, however, complicated the family’s life. His mother confessed to me that Sam’s autism had been a very difficult situation for the family to endure. It had caused a lot of stress to the point that the parents almost became divorced. But, they persevered, and they renewed their commitment to stay together and to help Sam to have a successful school career. In spite of his autism, they wanted him to be best prepared to have a successful adult life.
After a few school days, I did notice—and it broke my heart to see—that Sam was being mistreated at school. Kids would ignore him. He didn’t have friends. Adults avoided him. I thought to myself, “What could we do to make Sam’s school life better?” After much thinking, I enrolled our school, for the first time, in a regional Science Competition where Sam could shine because of his great scientific knowledge. I even recruited Sam’s mother to be our parent coach. You’ll never believe what happened next.
Sam became motivated like never before. Every week for ten weeks, our team of 20 students would practice for the different science competition events like robotics, astronomy, creating rocket designs, and more. Our entire school rallied around our new science competition team, and it became clear to all that Sam was our scientific superstar. Sam’s knowledge of astronomy was incredible. He became our team captain. Sam even started making real friends as he practiced weekly for the competition with his classmates.
When the science competition finally arrived, with Sam’s help, our school exceeded all expectations. We became one of the top schools. We won many of the science competition’s highest awards for 1st and 2nd place, beating most schools in our region. Sam even led the astronomy team to achieve 1st Place, beating more than 75 schools!
I’ll never forget when Sam and his teammates—who were nervously sitting in auditorium—eagerly awaited the competition results to be announced. Event by event, our school was named on the loud speaker for winning a competition award! When the results for the astronomy event were named, Sam and his teammates all shouted for joy together and they embraced one another, jumping up and down. It was a triumphant moment. Sam’s mother, with tears in her eyes, turned to me and said, “Thank you Joel because you helped everyone to believe in my son. People now see how talented Sam really is, even with autism. He is much happier now. People are accepting him.”
Sam taught me that even the most difficult conditions, like autism, are not the real obstacles to student success—the real problem can be our negative judgement of student differences. All students are special and valuable, regardless of their unique challenges. Sam became a successful leader of the science competition team, and he was polished during that process into a fine diamond in the eyes of everyone.
Helping Here and There
Deciding to leave the United States for China has been one of the best decisions I have made in my life. Although I had great success in helping school children like Julio and Sam for 15 years as an educator and school leader in the United States, China is also proving to be a very rewarding time and opportunity in my education career. I am discovering many reasons why China is surpassing many countries as a global leader: its people, including its school children, are extremely dedicated, hard-working, goal-oriented and united. My students at Hangzhou Greentown Yuhua Primary School, for example, are happy, eager to learn, ready to love, and ready to become their best versions of themselves. But they, too, have unique differences and challenges that require caring actions and skillful attention. Fortunately, we are polishing them, like Julio and Sam, into the most beautiful diamonds in the world. What an exciting adventure!