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Transforming the Classroom Ethos

Being an experienced educator, Shu Han or Lily Shu as she is widely known, has thought long and hard about a curious fact in the education systems of China and the United States, where she lived for 15 years.

Chinese middle school students regularly win the International Olympic Contest, but Chinese educational institutes have not yet produced one Nobel Prize winner. The United States, while its elementary schools and middle schools are often enough criticized, boasts some of the best students in the world.

"There are obviously some problems in our basic education. And all these years I've been waiting for an opportunity to take part in our educational renovation," said the 51-year-old, a holder of a PhD in Education from New York State University, in an interview with China Daily.

A year ago, when the sponsors of the newly established Beijing Zhongguancun International School (BZIS) invited Shu to become the school principal, she jumped at the opportunity it presented. "It's every professional educator's dream to be offered a platform to try his or her educational concepts," she explained.

Founded by the Beijing International School Construction and Development of Technology Co Ltd in 2002, BZIS is a teaching-in-English private school for children from kindergarten to high school age.

Spanning cultures

Located in Zhongguancun, Beijing's "Silicon valley", the school is the only international one in the capital sponsored and run by Chinese. Unlike other Beijing-based international schools, which for the most part are restricted to the children of foreign nationals, BZIS seeks to meet the needs of the children of those Chinese who, after spending time living abroad, have returned to China to work.

It is estimated that there are more than 20,000 returned overseas Chinese students in the Zhongguancun district alone, and that number is set to increase in the near future as more and more business opportunities present themselves. Such a trend raises the social issue of how to provide a proper education to a group of children who,with their parents, move between different cultural backgrounds.

Many of the children of such families have already spent some time in school in Western countries, and may well continue to study abroad at a later date. Very often children experience difficulties in adapting to the Chinese educational system when they arrive in China.

Shu herself knows just how difficult that can sometimes be from her own daughter's experience. In 1993, Shu decided to accept a job offer in China. But problems with her 10-year-old's education finally resulted in the plan being aborted.

"Several days after I sent her to an elementary school in Beijing, she could not be persuaded into going there any more. Being used to the relaxed atmosphere and equal treatment in American schools, she was unnerved by the strict discipline and stern attitude of the teachers there."

This episode is where Shu's educational theory began. "Teachers should not let students fear them, they should make students love them. To build up a rapport between students and themselves is the first thing a successful teacher has to do."


"I like this school a lot and I like the teachers," said Wu Fei (Michael), a third grade pupil who was at football practice. "I have many friends. I'm happy here."

Children's bold works are pinned up everywhere around the school, along with records outlining the recent progress of each child.

"We ask our teachers not to forget to praise each child at least once a day. And we hope our teachers will endeavour to discover the different merits and potential in each child," said Shu.

Rapport and encouragement are all part of the aim of getting students to enjoy learning. Shu's theory is, "if you can make students enjoy learning, you have achieved most of the purpose of education."

The BZIS school motto reflects Shu's main emphasis in education. Inscribed over the entrance of the teaching faculty it reads: "Enjoy learning, so that you can really enjoy life."

Shu has achieved success and gained her most important educational experiences during five years of the latter part of the 1990s, when she worked with the Los Angeles-based "AM 1300," the only round-the-clock Chinese radio station in the United States. She produced and hosted three programs for children of three different ages.

Because the programs were both inspiring and interesting, the name "Auntie Shu Han" became well-known among children in Chinese circles in California.

But heading a newly established school poses challenges Shu has never faced before. And her description of the past year can be summed up in a single word: "Difficult!"

She explained: "Apart from supervising the teaching programs in our school, I have to try my best to deal with every aspect of the various relationships - the faculty, the parents, the sponsors, the market, and the municipal and educational authority." The toughest part of her job was how to attract competent teachers and then get them to stay.

The teachers in BZIS are all native English speakers, with most of them coming from the United States. BZIS insists on all its teachers not only having the necessary professional qualifications from their own country, but at least three years experience in the classroom.

The salaries on offer, however, although extremely high by Chinese standards, alone were not enough to attract suitably qualified overseas teachers.

In spite of the challenges Shu has risen to them and enjoyed her work very much. "I know I'm doing an adventurous thing. But I also know that opportunity always coexists with risk," she said.

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