Inviting Conversation as We Honor Confucius and Teachers

September 28, 2017

Today, September 28, 2017, is Confucius’s 2,568th birthday according to tradition. Since Confucius was a teacher, Teachers’ Day is also celebrated on September 28 in Taiwan. Chinese American International School has historically honored the occasion with a message from the head of school to commemorate Confucius’s birthday/Teachers’ Day; this year I do so in a manner inspired by both events. Most of Confucius’s teachings, according to tradition, were oral. They weren’t recorded until well after his death in a thin volume called the Lún yǔ 《论语》, often translated as The Analects of Confucius. Confucius’s teaching style was apparently a little like Q&A. Mostly A, actually; a student would ask him something, and then he’d answer. So, in the spirit of Confucius, and of Q&A, ie, teaching, I have a question, and it is my sincere hope that this question seeds a rich, learning conversation in our community. If this happens, then I will have succeeded at honoring both Confucius on his birthday and teachers on our day. If my question doesn’t lead to any meaningful conversation, well then that will be an interesting data point, too.

Before I pose the question, however, I want to provide a little context. A few weeks ago, I was having a conversation with a CAIS parent. We were talking about the access and affordability of private school in the Bay Area and the accompanying angst that this parent felt about raising her children in a community where family vacations to Tahoe, Hawaii, and Europe were commonplace. This parent was positively disposed to considering allocating school resources toward achieving greater socioeconomic diversity within our school community. At the same time, she suspected, there were many families in our school community—Chinese families, she said—for whom these considerations were less important than Chinese language and culture, rigorous academics, high test scores and admission to selective high schools. I would maintain that this is a false dichotomy, and in fact our school says so in our philosophy statement on diversity, equity and inclusion. However, this parent’s point was that some families didn’t sign up for this. For the record, she identifies as Chinese American.

This conversation did not surprise me. I have had many, many conversations with CAIS parents over the last five or six years in which parents have expressed to me that some school focus or another—social emotional learning, educational technology, support services for struggling students—was somehow diluting the core purpose for which our school was founded. We were becoming “less Chinese,” “more Western,” or “less distinct from other private schools in the city” (their words, not mine). When I hear comments like this (either directly or, more commonly, second or third hand) the rational, data-driven part of me thinks: we have tripled the number of kids studying in China or Taiwan each year. We have raised Chinese assessment scores to a full two grade levels above the average scores at other immersion schools. Our Chinese language faculty have presented more papers at the annual National Chinese Language Conference than any other school in the United States. But the more intuitive, emotionally attuned side of of me (seldom on display, I admit) thinks, “Maybe I’m missing the point.” Maybe some people do experience CAIS as increasingly suffering from some form of mission drift. Maybe the school does feel “less Chinese,” “more Western,” and “less distinct from other private schools in the city” to a lot of people. What is even more troubling to me is that there may be people who really do feel this way but do not feel comfortable speaking up for some reason or another—whether it’s politeness, conflict aversion, an unwillingness to swim against the cultural tide, or some other reason.

So here (at long last) is the question: does the direction of the school feel like we’ve drifted from what you thought you signed up for? Discuss and let me know your thoughts. And enjoy Confucius’s birthday—he’d enjoy the intellectual exchange.