Teachers Need to Learn about Life Too
Starting next year, life education will be a required subject at Taiwan's 330 senior high schools. In preparation for the new subject, a fresh crop of teachers has been taking courses themselves. Often, it has proven to be a life-altering experience.
Teachers Need to Learn about Life TooBy Yu-Jung Peng
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 435 )
It is not yet nine o'clock on a Saturday morning, but Tang Wei-ling, an English teacher at Ankang Senior High School in Taipei County, is already sitting in a classroom on the second floor of the School of Professional and Continuing Studies at National Taiwan University. She is concentratedly reading an English-language handout on today's "basic ethics"lecture, which will be about German philosopher Immanuel Kant.
In another corner of the classroom sits Yu Wen-tsung, principal of National Lo-Tung Senior High School in Yilan County, his head buried in course materials. Yu, who left Yilan very early in the morning, is preparing for the final exam that is just three months away.
Tang and Yu belong to a group of some 130 senior high school teachers who currently participate in a two-year life education training course. The course is held every Saturday in three locations – Taipei, Taichung and Kaohsiung – and is the third of its kind.
Teaching Life Skills to a Pool of Teachers
The courses were launched because life education will become a required subject at the 330 senior high schools across Taiwan starting next year. The teachers who have completed the training course will become the most important driving force for life education.
During the two-year training course, every teacher needs to obtain 23 credits in specialized courses, four credits in experiential workshops and two credits in spiritual cultivation.
The core life education courses are a solid form of mental training. Following a set sequence the participants learn about philosophical concepts, get an introduction to religious studies, and take classes in death education as well as basic ethics. The program gives teachers an opportunity to focus on philosophy, religion, death and ethics – topics that were not on the curriculum at teachers' colleges in the past.
For many teachers the course has brought life-changing experiences and transformations. Back to school again, they are gaining valuable insights from their professors.
"I asked my son, what if I died from the H1N1 flu? What if your mother died? What if both of us died?"says pastor Liu Ching-chien, recalling a dinner-table discussion that he had with his wife and son. Liu, who is also an assistant professor at Meiho Institute of Technology in Pingdong County, is teaching an introduction to classical religious studies. Since Liu suffers from severe asthma, an H1N1 flu infection would mean a severe health threat. So he used the current H1N1 epidemic to broach the possibility of an untimely death with his son.
Tang, whose mother passed away while she was attending the second term of the program, began to cry uncontrollably when she had to write "a letter to a deceased relative"as part of her assignments in a death education course. Her reaction told her she had a number of unresolved issues and painful memories related to her mother. Encouraged by her mentor, Tang mustered the courage to ask her siblings to jointly commemorate their deceased mother, to write to her and to pray together at her grave.
"In my dreams my mother changed back from her old self suffering from dementia into a young, happy woman, walking with a brisk stride,"says Tang, herself a mother of two, describing in a childlike manner the life-changing experience she had in the program. The frequent nightmares that undermined her sleep became rarer, and Tang became more emotionally stable.
Humbly Learning to Think about Values
Aside from gaining knowledge in specialized courses, life education attaches importance to the teachers' personal experiences, emotions and triggers.
For example, Chia-Chuan Wang, associate professor at the School of Medicine at Fu Jen Catholic University, who teaches death education, and Chou Shieu-Ming, president of the National Taichung Nursing College, take course participants for visits to the Fu Jen School of Medicine. There they learn the stories of people who donated their bodies to science, and learn to appreciate the donors' support for anatomic studies and their selfless love for humanity.
In addition, a four-day experiential workshop is held four times throughout the program, in which graduates of previous courses are invited to give teaching demonstrations, demonstrate syllabus design, guide discussions on teaching techniques and also share their first-hand teaching experiences.
"We must carefully tread a fine line. The purpose of life education is to teach students to think about values, not to indoctrinate values,"warns Hu Min-hua, a graduate of the second training program who is developing the life education program at National Lo-Tung Senior High School. "The teacher's perspectives and values aren't necessarily the best,"she adds.
She also notes that life education provides a good opportunity for teachers to apply their newly learned skills and knowledge in their original subject. In math classes a math teacher should, for example, not focus exclusively on the top-performing students, but also try various approaches to inspire weaker students and infect them with a passion for math.
A special feature of the program is that participants are divided into subgroups based on their religious beliefs and personal preferences. Each group of ten gets a spiritual mentor, who may be a Buddhist priest, a Protestant pastor, or a Catholic priest or nun. For the entire two years the participants will follow their mentors on the road to spiritual self-improvement that suits them best.
Tang, a Protestant, has been mentored by Rev. Wang Yangming, a pastor and author of the book Left Poor with Nothing but Money. From the monthly study meetings with the pastor and his wife, Tang has taken home a number of valuable insights that improved her own interactions with her husband and her children.
As an English teacher Tang used to lecture her son if he came back from school with a few mistakes in his English tests, saying, "Your mother's an English teacher, and you dare to do so bad on your tests?"As a result, her son clammed up and would not say a word, even if he didn't understand his English assignments. But after the program brought her to her senses, Tang switched to encouragement and genuine caring instead. Meanwhile, her son, now a junior in high school, is much more ready to ask Tang for advice. Tang draws even more satisfaction from her improved relationship with her son than from teaching English in school.
"I feel as if I shed a layer of skin in order to grow,"Tang says with a laugh as she reminisces about her group studies during the two-year life education program.
Come February next year she will become the very first life education teacher at her high school. Given that she will have to teach seven freshmen-level classes, Tang is eager to be well prepared.
One Seed Can Start a Whole Forest
"Assuming that a single life education teacher can influence at least one school class per year, he or she will be able to influence countless students in 30 years on the job,"asserts Liu Kui-kuang, a teacher at Taipei Municipal Song Shan Senior High School and a graduate of the first life education training program. "Even more importantly, in the process teachers get so much out of it themselves,"Liu says.
Johannes Hsiao-chih Sun, head of the Taiwan Life Education Association and head of the Department of Philosophy at National Taiwan University, welcomes the rising interest in life education. Given that Taiwan has long overemphasized the sciences and engineering at the expense of the humanities, Sun believes that the teacher training program will contribute to a "renaissance of the true essence of education.”
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz
Chinese Version: 老師也要生命教育