2018-04-29 23:07:33 Commentary

Behind the picturesque play areas and photos of smiling children, China’s kindergartens are neglecting their kids in pursuit of money.

In 2015, I started working at private kindergartens in Chengdu, the capital of southwestern China’s Sichuan province. My first school had only been open for a couple of years and was frantically establishing partnerships with other schools and businesses to bolster its status and — potentially — secure priority placements for its students at competitive primary schools.

When the head teachers of other schools came to visit us, we would start preparing several days in advance. Management would tell us to stop teaching while we put up decorations, drilled the kids in singing songs they didn’t understand, and memorized endless speeches for lengthy official presentations.

Once, I arrived to see that my school had installed a woodwork area. The following day, I gave a tour to around 100 principals from all across China, almost none of whom spoke English. Not that it mattered: My presentation was just a performance they had to sit through.

“This is our woodwork area,” I explained, slipping effortlessly into my prepared speech. “It’s a tremendously useful area for varying the crafts our kids work on, and introduces them to different practical skills they wouldn’t usually have the opportunity to develop at other kindergartens.”

We never used the woodwork area. At that time, I’m pretty sure the children hadn’t even laid eyes on it.

At first, I was happy to do school tours; after two months spent with 3-year-olds, being around adults was a welcome change. But in time I came to resent my school’s esteemed guests. These were people who were in the business of education, who claimed to care about it, yet who couldn’t — or wouldn’t — see past our absurd illusion. They never questioned why the crafts laid out in the art room were so obviously beyond the capabilities of a 3-year-old, or why the children stood so unnervingly still during our flag-raising ceremony and walked back to class in such perfect lines, having been disciplined into doing so over several weeks of rehearsal.

Children stood unnervingly still during our flag-raising ceremony and walked back to class in such perfect lines, having been disciplined into doing so over several weeks.

Some of the visitors’ ignorance was excusable — we did work very hard at the illusion, after all. But as each tour drew to a close and the principal invited our guests back into the meeting room, they’d compliment us on our teaching resources and educational philosophy. Then they’d all shake hands and agree to work together. At these times, I wondered whether they were playing the same game as us. It felt like both parties were touting a “holistic” approach to education in order to distract parents from their real goal: making money.

Given the exorbitant cost of kindergarten tuition in China, school staff take parental satisfaction extremely seriously. In the so-called international departments of the high-end kindergartens I’ve worked at, tuition fees can range from 80,000 to 200,000 yuan ($12,500 to $30,000) per year, not including meals or extracurricular activities.

As increasing numbers of Chinese parents attain middle-class incomes, and family planning policies are relaxed, the number of private kindergartens in China has risen dramatically. From 2003 to 2015, the number of private kindergartens tripled from 55,000 to around 143,000, while in the same period only around 15,000 public kindergartens opened their doors. This has bred intense competition among parents for preschool places. It has also led many kindergartens to make unscrupulous decisions.

At the core of almost all these decisions is an obsession with appearances. It is hard not to be impressed when a kindergarten has a soccer field, or a baseball batting cage, or a greenhouse. Too often, however, such assets aren’t used. One school I worked at had a number of indoor playrooms for winter months when the air pollution prohibited outdoor play, but we rarely used them, as the school had struck partnerships with sports training schools that booked the rooms for their classes. With nowhere to go, the Chinese teachers would keep kids in their classrooms and watch cartoons on the internet or read books they’d long since grown tired of.

Kindergartens spend vast sums on state-of-the-art facilities while neglecting basic necessities. In one of my previous schools, teaching staff had to print all their materials on a home-use printer, which soon broke. When we asked to use the office printer in reception, we were told we were not authorized to and were threatened with fines.

The practice of fining teachers lies at the heart of an education bureaucracy so broken that an adult conversation cannot exist within it. I remember an incident at my first kindergarten when my colleagues were told to come in on four consecutive weekends without pay. In China, it is common practice for teachers to work unpaid overtime: Many risk losing their jobs if they refuse — jobs that rarely pay enough to enjoy free time anyway. One young teacher with whom I shared a class earned just under 1,000 yuan a month and lived in a room with five other people.

The practice of fining teachers lies at the heart of an education bureaucracy so broken that an adult conversation cannot exist within it.

Yet even such paltry wages can be subject to arbitrary deductions. Once, a parent refused to pay their child’s tuition fees, claiming that they had been charged for after-school classes their child had missed due to illness. The principal responded by docking the pay of all the Chinese teachers in the child’s class by 50 yuan a day for the first week, and then 100 yuan thereafter. Most of the teachers only made roughly 150 yuan a day.

In protest, I refused to come to school until the decision was reversed. I told the principal I would tell our students’ parents the truth about why I wasn’t in class. While I wasn’t sure that they’d care, the principal seemingly didn’t want her abuses of power exposed to paying customers. The decision was reversed; later that week, I came back into work and tendered my resignation only eight months after starting there.

Most commonly, kindergarten teachers are fined when a child gets hurt. Anyone who has spent time with young children will know that they accrue an impressive portfolio of scuffs and scrapes. But scuffs and scrapes can mean docked pay, so teachers force their kids to stand in straight lines and sit quietly whenever possible — something that is anathema to a crowd of restless toddlers. Free play is replaced with teacher-led dance. Recently, a teacher in my class tried to ban running on the playground.

Because aesthetics are key, kindergartens often hire foreign teachers with barely a glance at their credentials. Their appearance, however, is of far greater importance. One school I worked at was offered a black teacher with seven years’ teaching experience in China. Instead, they hired a white teacher with no prior experience, who was later deported for working while on a tourist visa. The principal simply said the parents would not be happy if the school hired a black person.

While many foreign teachers are very good at their jobs, a great many more are obviously unfit to teach small children. I’ve seen English classes where the whole lesson consists of the kids drawing eggs, where children are brought up to the front individually to say “hello” and then sit down again, where a hungover teacher has put on a Chinese cartoon and fallen asleep. I’ve seen teachers slap their students because they don’t know how to deal with outspoken children.

It strikes a sad chord that such problems can plague places that market themselves as brightly colored havens for children to grow into smart, thoughtful, kind people. Yet my experiences pale in comparison to stories of abusive teachers force-feeding wasabi to naughty kids, or the horrendous alleged drugging, stripping of students in some kindergartens in China. 

These acts are abhorrent, but we must see them as symptoms of a diseased industry. When shareholders’ dividends drive early-years education more than basic levels of child care, why do we find it unbelievable that such atrocities occur? When I was told about these scandals, I was saddened and appalled. But I was hardly surprised.

Editor: Matthew Walsh.

(Header image: Children prepare to kiss their foreign teacher at a kindergarten in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, April 13, 2006. Wu Xuan/VCG)