Advice for Teachers Scorned

Why stay in an abusive country?

A teacher recently dismissed, I gather, for encouraging critical thinking in her class in (where else?) my native United States writes:

I am stunned by the number of “conservatives” who truly appear to loathe teachers. What is up with that? Why the distrust of educators?

And all I can say is, “Come teach in Asia. They respect teachers here.”

To back that up, a little story that taught me that about four years ago:

Passing Through Customs

During my five or six years teaching secondary history and literature in Shanghai in the early-to-mid ‘naughties, my hobby was going on DVD scavenger hunts. I’d spend a good four or five hours weekly, usually on Saturday afternoons, making the rounds through a handful of DVD shops I’d discovered had the richest selection of offerings, and in each one I would literally check each disc on its shelves for any new arrivals. We’re talking hundreds of discs, sometimes over a thousand, in each shop.

To understand the beauty of this ritual, you have to understand the Shanghai DVD shop at its best. Shanghai is as cosmopolitan as it gets. People from every point of the globe live there, and they’re all potential customers for these shops, which cater mostly to foreigners. So to skim their shelves is to skim through titles in Chinese, Russian, German, Italian, Spanish, Arabic, Hindi, Japanese, Korean, Thai, on and on.dvd shop

For a history teacher totally uninterested in this year’s version of a lame-ass Tom Cruise blockbuster, these shops were a fantasy land. I’d find dozens of films I never knew existed, exquisite things: documentaries from the Soviet Union mashing up footage from the Nazi archives they’d captured when they defeated Hitler, giving the Soviet take on Fascism and the Great Patriotic War; other documentaries from around the globe, like the incredible Darwin’s Nightmare, that Americans would never see or hear about at home; box sets of Tarkovsky, Fellini, Cassavetes, Bergman, Chaplin, Zhang Yimou, Kurosawa, and other international Shakespeares of the Film Age; concerts of Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Gustav Mahler, Beethoven, Nick Cave, Joni Mitchell, and other gods; on and on and on.

(Hey, if you click on all those links above on my blog instead of in your feed-reader, Apture popups will give you some wonderful clips from the directors and my favorite pieces from the musicians, links to Wikipedia, and more.)

Don’t tell anybody, but each of these items cost one to five US bucks. For the price of a fine meal that would turn to feces within four hours (pity the poor “live to eat” types), I’d come home with a feast of hours to last a lifetime — at home and in the classroom.

That weekly habit, over six years, produced a library of at least a thousand discs, whose thousand dollar investment proved Oscar Wilde‘s maxim about people who “know the price of everything, and the value of nothing.” Because this collection was priceless.

And the day came when I expected to lose it all.

That day came because those Shanghai years fell victim to the international teacher’s wanderlust. Wanting a change of Experience, I’d resigned my post and sought employment in a new land. Fate offered Korea, among other possibilities, and I took it. But that turned out to mean, I learned, that I probably wouldn’t be able to take that collection with me. Anybody familiar with airport customs knows what I’m talking about. DVDs from the People’s Republic of the Middle Kingdom scream “contraband.”

So there I was passing through the gates into Life’s Next Chapter: The Korea Years, and I mean that “gates” literally: I was at the [name withheld to protect the guilty heavensent] airport’s arrival gate, sweating bullets, because I’d packed my Collection in my suitcases instead of shipping them with my furniture.  I’d been told the odds of getting them in were higher this way. Picture two large suitcases stuffed with more DVDs than clothes.

My first suitcase had already spewed forth from the baggage carousel without incident, so I was hopeful as I watched for the second one. That hope was shattered when it slid to me with, of all things, this strange yellow collar locked to the handle. Printed on it were instructions for me to proceed to a customs officer.

As my luggage cart approached the customs desk, the lock went all Rabbit Hole on me: it belted out this weird electronic alarm. People within 30 meters stared. I hear convicted pedophiles have to wear such things around their ankles, and that they do similar things when said convicts approach schools. It’s not a pleasant feeling. And it wasn’t an auspicious start for The Next Chapter, this entry as a branded criminal.

Hollywood really has a hold on airports worldwide, I thought. Freaking weird. What’s in it for foreign countries to protect the profit margins of Western corporations?

The customs officer wasn’t exactly warm as he told me to open my suitcase. He was no warmer when he saw the dozen or so DVD wallets stashed inside a folded shirt here, some folded pants there.

He asked me to take them out and show them to him.

“Most of them seem illegal,” he said.

“I don’t know. I bought them in Shanghai. I don’t read Chinese.”

Then came Fate’s Fist:

“You can’t take them in. I have to confiscate them and destroy them.”

I didn’t cry, but I did, just a little bit, whine. But sincerely:

Aww. I use those in my classroom. You don’t know how many hours I put into building that collection.”

Then came Confucius‘ Grace:

“You’re a teacher?”


“You’re going to teach in Korea?”


“Can you prove it?”

I showed him the business card the school had sent me, and my contract, and this blessed man looked at the Laws of Commerce on his left shoulder, and the Laws of Confucius on his right, and had no apparent difficulty choosing which to serve:

“Go ahead. And good luck. Teaching is an important job. Thank you for doing it in Korea.”

I swear to Goodness, he actually said that. Thanks to Confucius, the Next Chapter had started off happily after all.

* * *

I’ve told this story many times, and most people don’t find it as interesting as I think they should. Because it brought home to me, concretely, what I’d only known in the academic abstract in my years teaching Confucianism in my Asian history classrooms — ironically enough, in China, the very homeland of Confucius. The lesson it brought home is this:

East Asia is blessed by its Confucianism. When the Han Dynasty, 2,000 years ago, put its political support behind the teachings of this Master, it unknowingly rooted in the Chinese spirit a devotion to education and scholarship — and that means to teachers, to students, and to schools.

It’s easy to criticize how East Asian countries educate, and what the word “education” means to them, but that’s beside the point here. Because it’s incomparably easier to criticize American civilization for its disdain for education. Its teacher-bashing vogue, its funds-cutting mania, and a million other details speak volumes on this point. The Chinese have a word for such a culture: barbarian.

Somebody said “A person ages into the face he deserves.” The same is true of a civilization. If America has aged into a face of illiteracy, innumeracy, historical, geographic, and scientific ignorance, it’s no mystery why.

So again, to those teachers who put their minds and hearts into managing and designing and sweating blood for the learning of a small army of young souls each year, and are thanked for it with scorn and bile — seriously, it’s not like that everywhere. There are other lands of opportunity in the world, and after a decade of teaching in China, in Korea, and now in Singapore, I can’t recommend the Confucian ones highly enough.

And with that, I’ll close with a few verses from the Confucian scriptures themselves, so remarkably sane and reasonable to this Westerner, and thus so beautifully civilized. From the Analects:

2:14. Confucius said, “The superior man is broadminded but not partisan; the inferior man is partisan but not broadminded.”

2:15. Confucius said, “He who learns but does not think is lost; he who thinks but does not learn is in danger.”

2:17. Confucius said, “Yu, shall I teach you [the way to acquire] knowledge? To say that you know when you do know and say that you do not know when you do not know — that is [the way to acquire] knowledge.”

And most germane, perhaps, to those Americans described by our ex-teacher in the opening quote, is this final Confucian verse:

8:13. Confucius said, “Have sincere faith and love learning. Be not afraid to die for pursuing the good Way. Do not enter a tottering state nor stay in a chaotic one.  When the Way prevails in the empire, then show yourself; when it does not prevail, then hide. When the Way prevails in your own state and you are poor and in a humble position, be ashamed of yourself. When the Way does not prevail in your state and you are wealthy and in an honorable position, be ashamed of yourself.”

–emphasis added, and for good reason: Teachers have “asked what they can do for their country,” and they do it. Daily. But they should have the good sense to also ask what their country is doing for them, patriotic martyrdom propaganda aside. If their country has reached a “tottering, chaotic” point at which it “loathes” them, then teachers do have choices.

One of those choices is Asia. America used to be a magnet for other countries’ brain-drain. Asia seems the better magnet now.

It is for me, anyhow.  I’m thankful that I teach in Asia — because Asia is thankful for it, too.

25 thoughts on “Advice for Teachers Scorned”

  1. Now THAT is an awesome little anecdote. I have filed it away for future reference!!!

    Re: the comment that prompted you to share the story here, I just wanted to point that there are plenty of “thought police” on the left AND on the right – I speak as someone who lost a teaching job in a department filled with political liberals who were, nevertheless, unable to cope with pedagogical innovation of any kind… free thinking in the classroom is a fright to anyone adamant about their own authority, left or right, it seems to me.


  2. Ha ha, well, here’s a short version of the story – I can laugh about it now but at the time it was pretty traumatic.

    I had been hired fresh out of grad school (Berkeley PhD 1999) to be an assistant professor in the Classics dept. at Univ. of Oklahoma. Everybody was surprised when I got hired since I was the opposite of a traditional classicist in every way – my interest is in folklore, and I study fables, proverbs, jokes, riddles, etc.; I have about zero interest in classical authors except insofar as they, like all great literary masters, often incorporated folklore and traditional storytelling motifs into their literary work. I also studied Russian and Polish (lived in Poland for a while, taught Polish) and so I teach Latin in a way that is more like teaching a living language than the usual “translate-and-parse” approach which is the main mode of Latin teaching. Instead of reading super-hard classical authors, I prefer to use simple stories, fables, fairy tales, etc., things that are easy to read, short genres that teach some kind of moral or lesson which you can debate about, and which also lend themselves to being creatively rewritten (anybody can make up their own version of a fairy tale or fable, very fun).

    Sooooo… it was a complete disaster. After one year, when they found out what kind of Latin and Greek I was teaching and how I was teaching it, they took away all my language classes and only gave me literature-in-translation classes to teach – so, I allowed students to enroll in “group independent studies” with me, creating reading groups where we could read easy Latin and easy Greek together. Since I ended up with more students in my independent study groups than in the regular Latin classes, the faculty were furious and went to the Dean to get me fired for “fomenting a curriculum contrary to the classical tradition.” He explained that they could not fire me for that (academic freedom??? hello????), but he did agree to let them take away my privilege to offer independent study courses (although he admitted I would be the only faculty member at the university who was denied that privilege). At that point, my only choice was to cave in, or sue, or quit. So I quit.

    Luckily, I ended up with a great job teaching folklore and mythology courses, online, in the General Education program at this same university (I am a geek, so that works for me; I love teaching online – my courses are at my This means I do not have a department and do not answer to a department, and I have been free to develop the classes in a way that matches my goals and beliefs as a teacher. As an instructor on a year-to-year contract, I have zero job security and I am earning about half what a professor makes – but that is a small price to pay for FREEDOM. :-)

    Meanwhile, let me ask you a question: from the people I knew who did Chinese in graduate school, it is my impression that in the Chinese tradition, there is not this dreadful disconnect between proverbs and fables on the one hand, and literature on the other hand, as has happened in modern-day Classical studies (i.e. Latin and Greek Classics). Is that your experience also?

    It’s crazy to me: even though the ancient Greeks and Romans collected their fables and proverbs with pride, and even though they were much beloved by Renaissance scholars, starting in the 19th and 20th centuries, the academic discipline of Classics purged itself of proverbs and fables. That’s a sad thing in terms of understanding the cultural tradition and it also creates a practical problem for teaching the languages, too!

    It used to be that Aesop’s fables were a core component of the basic Latin learner’s curriculum, but no more. Students are condemned to read Vergil and Caesar and Cicero and other works far too hard for beginners, all because the fables have been cast out into the darkness. Alas.

    1. Laura,

      What a SAD (Standard Academic Discourse) story. I’m not surprised, but I am glad you’ve got good falling-cat skills. Survivors are tops in my book.

      I can’t speak with any expertise to your question about the Chinese attitude toward its folklore, fables, and proverbs. You ask the question precisely as I prep for a summer of diving into China’s literary classics, which I know only superficially. But from what I’ve gathered so far, that divide doesn’t exist — and part of the reason for that is probably the essential difference between the West and China, when it comes to their ancient literature: Latin and (almost) Greek are dead languages, foreign languages, to Westerners, so Western classics are a strange sort of “ESL” for Westerners wanting to read them in the original.

      It’s not the case for China. From the Oracle Bone inscriptions of 3,000 years ago to today, China’s literary tradition is unbroken and in the same (though obviously evolving) language. Instead of being faced with having to learn a dead language at the beginner’s level, their situation seems more akin to that of English speakers taking on Shakespeare or Chaucer. Not nearly as tall an order. Thus they have the advantage in being able to range across a fuller spectrum of their classics than Westerners do.

      And then there’s the entirely different stylistic and rhetorical taste of Chinese literary expression. From what I’ve read (from Chinese scholars as well as Western ones), Chinese classics eschew the stilt-riding gravitas of the West in favor of an earthier and more poetic style even in their greatest of writers. And this makes me suspect the “high/low culture” dichotomy of our hrumph-hrumphing Western academics is less present among the Mandarins.

      More on that as I read away the summer as a mental time-traveling tourist in Chinese literature — and write about it here.

      Funny coincidence: I’ve found your site and bookmarked it as a resource long before we connected.

      And it’s totally cool that you’ve translated for Oxford Classics. You’re interesting.

      All for now.

      1. Hi Clay, I think I benefited from the “life imitates art” thing: if my area of interest were tragedy, I’m sure all those events could have seemed very tragic indeed… but since I work on Aesop’s fables, where the whole point is to learn from your mistakes and have a good laugh about them, well, that definitely helps to cultivate good falling-cat skills (ha ha, I like that one – our very fat cat is fond of climbing up high in the trees, very ambitious when it comes to birds, and always manages to land just fine).

        As for the split between folklore and literature in European traditions, argh, what a mess it has made, especially in the loss of proverbs (so often eschewed as cliches in a hyper-glamorized Romantic quest for “originality”). When I was teaching Latin at Berkeley to a very international group of students, the Asian students were fabulous with the proverbs (we would do 20 proverbs per day in Latin, every day) – they understood the metaphorical meaning of them instantly (while many of the American students were just baffled by the riddling metaphorical quality of many of the proverbs) and, even better, they were able to share with me the proverbs from their own countries that expressed the same idea but in a different way, using different natural metaphors to express the same psychological message, while the American students were often totally unfamiliar with the English-language equivalents to the Latin sayings. One of my favorites, for example, Latin Inter os et offam multa intervenire possunt, “between the mouth and the morsel many things can intervene” = “there’s many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip” met with stares of bafflement in a room of very bright undergraduates, who were stuck on the idea that it had something to do with being careful not to dribble when you drank something… they were stuck on the literal. The best proverbs are tiny little metaphorical poems – the medieval Latin ones even rhyme. Delightful stuff that used to be fully part of the cultural tradition, but hardly so anymore.

        I am doing a huge Aesop book this summer in Latin and have been persuaded that I should do an English translation after I finish the Latin version. I will send you a PDF copy; it’s going to have 1000 fables in it – covering the whole range of medieval and Renaissance fables, too, unlike the Oxford book which had 600 fables, pretty much strictly Greek and Roman because that’s what they wanted for that series. But the medieval ones especially are so much fun! :-)

  3. I’m a conservative and I don’t “loathe” teachers. I do however withhold automatic praise and respect for teachers. (I also do same with those in the military).

    In the US, teachers and their culture are overrated. Yes, I still recall my 3rd grade teacher fondly, (Mrs Parman) and had the good fortune of having studied under an AAUP “Professor of the Year” among others.

    But K-12 instruction and “teachers” are full of mediocrity. Moreover our society no longer values education. (When upwards of 40% of urban HS students dropout/flunk out, your community does not respect the value of learning.) That failure is something worth “loathing”. And teachers are an icon of that failure. Not solely responsible but visible participants in the demise.

    Still an interesting post. Thanks.

    1. In the US, Americans and their culture are overrated and mediocre too, aren’t they? From Congress to Wall Street to the pulpits of our churches to the board rooms of our corporations to the guns flooding our cities, the junk fattening our bodies, and the values fattening the spirits of our consumer-citizens.

      So let’s withhold praise from all of them equally, or else damn them all equally with the same broad brush: logically, if all are mediocre because some are, then let’s apply that attitude across the board.

      In other words, I don’t get your logic.

      And I wonder what evidence you have for your claims.

      And seriously doubt you’ve known the teachers I’ve known — some of whom were indeed mediocre, and some of whom were most emphatically not.

      Thanks for checking in anyway.

      But that’s neither here nor there.

      1. Clay— Teachers are not special as a group. Though they certainly think highly of themselves as you have demonstrated. It’s hardly deserved in the US.

        I am the son of 2 Phd’s the brother of a public school teacher and have taught at the Graduate level in University. (with student reviews among the highest in the department) While that is hardly “evidence”, I’m comfortable with the assertion.

        The world beats a path to America’s door. They drink in our vulgar culture. Emulate us. And want to live here. And the teachers here are very much a part of that low brow culture. As are the 75% of American youth unfit to serve in the military (obese/uneducated/criminal conduct/ mental health/ etc.— and yes it matters) or the near 50% of urban youth who drop out/ flunk out of high school, or the fewer than 50% that matriculate/graduate from the widely acclaimed California community college system.

        Cheers from Pasadena


  4. That story is amazing. I wish teachers got more respect here. Maybe then the problem teachers that a few commenters are pointing out would rise to meet the public’s expectations.

  5. I am one who is very interested in what you are saying here. I have the same problem even among teachers when I do tech trainings. Most are appreciative, but others make one wonder. I told your DVD story to my wife and she said let’s move.

    1. Hi Terry,

      If you’re serious, I wrote this post a while back about the interview process.

      This Google search will take you to recruitment agencies (I used ISS, and Search Associates is the other one I most often hear about — disclaimer: you’ll get mixed reviews of all such outfits, so I’m not recommending any particular one) to learn the ropes of registering for and planning to attend one or more recruitment fairs. Give yourself several months to get your ducks in order for the Winter fairs.

      Let me know if I can help in any way, and I’ll try.


  6. l love this posting, all postings for that matter, right to the last two lines. I really do. Always informative and entertaining.

    Thank you for the invite to teach in Asia, Clay. I would like to be thankful to Asia. I would love to accept that noble calling, literally, if only your host would extend the same courtesy to their descendents in form of ABC/CBC (American/Canadian Born Chinese) as to our lighter pigment brethrens and sisters. Sigh, many are called, white are chosen. Woe to the person who looks Asian but wants to go to Asia to teach. Yes, my lament is echoed ad nauseam on EFL message boards, but it doesn’t seem to cause a ripple of improvement. Sorry if I sound like a whiny little boy. I am not looking for a soapbox to vent. After years of toiling for the profit motive I changed careers to fulfill my long held naïve boyscout ideals.

    This brings back to mind of a sign, “No Dogs or Chinese Allowed” that Bruce Lee split in half in one of his movies in a fit of anger — full of symbolism. When I am looking to teach in Asia, all kinds of words and visions swimming in my head like “colonialism” and “imperialism” in the “concession areas”, but I can’t say that. It’s perpetrated by the Chinese themselves. I know, there are plenty of ABCs who are hired to teach English over there. There are more progressive administers granted, if progressive is the right word, I would venture to say they are in the minority. Wish me luck. I am continuing to apply to China and Korea.

    Whatley’s post is another matter. I had to bite my tongue.

    1. Hi Chuck,

      I hear you on all points, but have known a good number of “foreign Asians” with jobs in Asian international schools.

      Sounds like you want to teach ESL though, which is way gnarlier in this respect, I know, and totally unfair. But as you say, that’s the native Asian prejudice. They want whitey. Saw it in Korea all the time.

      Singapore, by the way, seems different in its attitude toward Western Asians. Have you checked it out?

      As for the colonialism bit, I’m sensitive to it too, and rankle when I see some of my compatriots acting the dumbass in my adopted countries. But it’s a global world, immigration cuts all ways now, and Asia is reasserting itself against the old imperialists in ways that don’t seem like they’ll stop any time soon.

      Anyway, I do wish you luck. Thanks for the kind words.

      1. Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Laozhi. My other “teachable” is Business, which I find most schools over there are limited to Economics. Strangely, most of Canadian, Ontario schools anyway, throw Econ in the Social Science Dept mix bag. I do find teaching ESL more rewarding. Certainly, I would love to teach Business too, as you know the pay could be far more lucrative. So be it then, Business in Asia jt is then. Happy Independence Day. The Queen is visiting us now :-) Still July 1, Canada Day here. It seems I’m behind the times once again.
        Good luck in Korea. I just might you see you there if I have any luck, in YongIn anyway.

  7. Clay,
    It’s a nice story and an inspirational post, but I have to question the idea that your experience with the customs official is based on a universal Korean (or Asian) respect for teachers.

    I taught English for a year in a Korean elementary school; as a public school teacher here in the U.S., too, I was fascinated with comparisons between the two systems and had many, many conversations with the teachers at my school (all Korean except for me). They repeatedly told me that, while teaching is considered by many Koreans an enviable job because of the job security (once you’re in, you have a job for life), teaching as a profession is not highly-regarded in modern Korean culture. Teachers are not treated as professionals with expertise, but expected to present a cookie-cutter curriculum. The public school system is widely considered useless and parents spend $1000s a year sending children to private after-school institutes. People looking for a prestigious career with social admiration do NOT choose teaching.

    Of course, I was only there a year and these opinions are from only one school’s worth of teachers; maybe you got different opinions about teachers and public education from other Koreans while you were there. But I suspect that a Korean teacher transporting those same DVDs, with the same explanation, through airport customs would have gotten no such consideration. I think the customs official gave you that break because you are an ENGLISH-SPEAKING teacher, and as a nation (not every single individual), Korea is obsessed with mastering English and anxious to make a positive impression on foreigners.

    Again, I know my experience there was limited. But my friends who are Korean public school teachers would strenuously disagree with the idea that Korean culture uniformly respects and admires teachers.

    1. Hi Megan,

      All your points are well-taken, and point to Korea’s oddity as — in my experience, anyway — the most Americanized of East Asian nations. (The jaw-dropping density of Christian crosses per block in Seoul is one indicator, and the density of Western conspicuous consumption vanity brands adorning each Korean body another.)

      The hagwon mania, the overworked and scripted teachers, the corruption of families and students to get the grade and learning be damned — all of these fall under the

      “It’s easy to criticize how East Asian countries educate, and what the word “education” means to them, but that’s beside the point here”

      caveat in the post. (The conservative Lee administration is only making things worse in all these respects.)

      As for the “prestige” factor, you’re right: Koreans equate prestige and money (as do most other cultures everywhere today), and I didn’t mean to imply that teaching was seen as an “elite” occupation. I did mean to suggest, though, that it’s not disparaged with the vitriol so common in the US.

      And that customs officer? Maybe you’re right, maybe not. He did initially move to destroy my collection, which doesn’t suggest an initial impulse to treat me favorably to create a good impression of Korea. It’s only when he found out I was a teacher that he changed his position.

      All good points, though. How much they apply to China, Singapore, Taiwan, and Japan is a different question. I’m in Singapore now, an English-speaking but still largely Confucian country, and don’t see or hear the teacher-bashing I see and read from American sources online.

      I think the bottom line is, again, the Confucianism. At the heart of that belief-system is that education is the most important thing in life, and family next. Money and wealth fall far, far below both in that values hierarchy (and are in fact seen as “vulgar” interests from Zhou times to Qing). There’s no doubt that modern Western consumerism complicates Confucian values in Asia now, but it hasn’t replaced it, and probably never will.

      Thanks for dropping in.

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