Teacher Preparation and the Roles of Master Teachers in China
Teachers and teacher educators with experience in three different parts of China described the progression that teachers follow as they rise through the ranks of their profession. Though the details vary from one region to another, the overall process is roughly consistent throughout the country.
THE PREPARATION OF TEACHERS
Future mathematics teachers in China are prepared through a variety of routes, according to Yeping Li of Texas A&M University. The minimum preparation required to be an elementary school teacher is the completion of a 3-year program of study at a normal school focused specifically on the preparation of teachers. Normal schools in China can admit middle school graduates, and the graduates of these normal schools can go on to teach elementary school. Teaching positions at the middle school and high school level typically require 4-year bachelor’s degrees.
In recent years, the levels of academic preparation for Chinese elementary school teachers—traditionally lower than for U.S. elementary school teachers—have been increasing. Many prospective elementary school teachers have attended normal colleges that admit middle school graduates for 5-year teacher preparation programs or high school graduates for 3-year programs. In addition, normal or comprehensive universities offer 4-year
bachelor’s degrees for future teachers in middle and high schools, and these programs have been rapidly expanding.
Most future mathematics teachers major in mathematics in college, according to Fang Wei, a teacher at Suzhou High School in Jiangsu Province. If a teacher does not major in mathematics at a normal college, he or she must pass an examination to receive the necessary certification to teach. Students study both mathematical content and pedagogy, though Chinese colleges tend to emphasize content more than pedagogy for future teachers.
Prospective teachers engage in practice teaching during their preparation. Then, once they begin working, apprentice teachers are supervised by mentors appointed by the school and they prepare lessons with their mentors, according to Hua Huang, a teaching researcher at the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission. The apprentice observes the mentor’s lessons, and the mentor reviews the apprentice’s lesson plans, observes the apprentice’s lessons, and gives immediate feedback.
PROGRESSING THROUGH THE CAREER HIERARCHY
Following their apprenticeship, teachers in China move through a clear career hierarchy. They begin at a second-rank level and then can move to first rank, to senior rank, and to a variety of “super” ranks. Teachers at more advanced levels teach the more advanced classes, including the final-year courses. Senior-rank teachers also have more opportunities to demonstrate lessons and to be part of exchange programs within a school system.
Teachers must meet specific criteria to move from one rank to the next, although criteria may vary from region to region. For example, to move from second rank to first rank in Jiangsu Province, teachers need to provide 1 year of lesson plans and be certified in English and computer literacy. They also need to complete 30 hours of continuing education. An additional 75 hours of continuing education are necessary to move from first rank to senior rank. To advance, the school recommends a teacher, and the teacher undergoes an external review process by experts in the teaching profession.
To reach higher ranks of teaching in China, teachers need to conduct research and publish their findings in scholarly journals.1 Typically, this
research is more practically than theoretically oriented. It might involve analyzing a lesson, discussing students’ mistakes with a particular concept, or describing an innovative way of conveying an idea.
Advancing in rank often requires that teachers participate in teaching contests. These contests may be organized by governments at various levels or by education associations. Participants have tryouts in each school and then, at the district level, teach in front of a special evaluation panel. Teachers are judged on such factors as their mathematical accuracy, their instructional coherence, their interaction with students, whether the objectives of the lesson were accomplished, their use of technology, and their expressiveness and charisma. In some cases, they teach in front of their own students; in others, they draw classes at random. Typically, districts choose just a handful of people to progress to contests at the municipal or provincial level.
BECOMING A SUPERRANK TEACHER
Above the level of senior rank, the designation as a superrank teacher (Te Ji Jiao Shi in Chinese) recognizes the professional expertise of the individual. Superrank teachers “represent the honor and professional expertise of the recipient,” mentioned Huang. “They are models for other teachers, expert in teaching, and have great reputations and accomplishments in mathematics education.”
According to Jianxin Qi, director of the Suzhou Research Institute for Education Science, a superrank teacher must have “a distinctive personal style in classroom teaching.” In their instruction, they must exemplify “practicality, innovation, flexibility, and teaching as an art.” Superrank teachers are expected to develop their own ideas about teaching materials, classroom teaching, and teaching strategies. They should have a systematic understanding of mathematics, know how to integrate mathematics education and psychology into classroom teaching, and pay attention to mathematics as a culture. They need to be able to analyze textbooks with deep understanding; focus on important points, difficult points, and key steps during teaching; use students’ mistakes and misconceptions as teaching points; assess students’ learning progress; change teaching methods based on student learning; and reflect on their teaching practice as researchers.
To develop this level of expertise, they need to interact with other teachers, researchers, and other experts and share what they have learned. They also need to reflect on their own practice from the perspective of
theory and challenges in the classroom. They need to find and bridge gaps between existing ideas and innovative ones and between innovative design and implementation. Teachers should “pursue perfection,” commented Qi. They should take every new day as a new starting point.
The numbers of superrank teachers are very low. The city of Shanghai selects just 12 mathematics teachers every 3 years as superrank teachers for all of its schools, representing less than 1 percent of mathematics teachers. The evaluation process for these teachers is very strict. They are observed by other teachers and independent judges as they teach classes. They also discuss their lessons and teaching with other highly ranked teachers. Typically, they have published extensively in the research literature, and they are often the recipients of various teaching awards and honors.
In contrast to second-rank, first-rank, and senior-rank teachers, which are nationwide designations, the titles and responsibilities of superrank teachers vary by province or city. Thus, if a teacher moves from one province to another, he or she must apply to be a superrank teacher in his or her new jurisdiction.
Highly ranked teachers may have a variety of responsibilities. They may check the lesson plans written by new teachers or teachers who have been identified as ineffective teachers by students and parents. They typically do research and publish articles. They help other teachers understand mathematical concepts, the objectives of lessons, difficulties in teaching a given lesson, or the most effective way to teach a lesson.
In the past, most superrank teachers did not reach that level until they were in their 40s or 50s, according to Shiqi Li from East China Normal University. More recently, some teachers have been reaching these levels in their 30s. In response, some jurisdictions have established even higher levels of recognition so that teachers continue to have goals toward which to aspire. As Li mentioned, “Such a mechanism may push more and more master teachers to devote their effort to do their best work.”
For example, the highest honor in teaching in Jiangsu Province is full professor rank. Such teachers need to demonstrate outstanding teaching, publish articles in provincial-level and national-level academic journals,2 and earn a first-level prize in a provincial or municipal open teaching contest. Teachers apply for professor-rank status, are recommended by their
schools, and then are reviewed by experts. These are similar to the steps taken in higher education institutions in moving from assistant professor to associate professor to full professor.
There were 28 mathematics teachers who were made full professor or superrank teachers in Jiangsu Province in 2006, according to Jiansheng Bao of East China Normal University. These teachers were responsible for:
demonstrating a deep theoretical and content knowledge about their teaching area,
demonstrating strong teaching abilities and rich experience in their teaching,
demonstrating abilities to reform teaching methods creatively and lead local teaching and research activities,
knowing newly developed ideas in teaching around the world and demonstrating highly creative teaching ideas and research abilities,
demonstrating abilities to use modern information technologies in their classroom, and
demonstrating high-level professional and moral responsibilities.
THE PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT HIERARCHY
Besides the career hierarchy designated by ranks, China has a parallel hierarchy organized around professional development. The professional development of teachers is meant to be a life-long learning system, with communities of teachers organized into groups. Teachers generally participate in research groups in their schools or districts. These activities encompass the training of new teachers, professional training, the training of master teachers, and degree program study.
For example, in Jiangsu Province, teachers progress from provincial-, district-, or city-level master teachers to teacher leaders to excellent teachers, with each new designation involving additional responsibility for the professional development of other teachers. These teachers might organize activities to improve classroom management, do research on student abilities, or discover and disseminate the best practices among teachers in the city. “Professional development of teachers needs to be rewarded, just as students need encouragement,” commented Qi.
The professional development structure is different from, but overlaps with, the ranking system. In Beijing, for example, there are three levels of professional development expertise, according to Jianming Wang of the
Beijing Institute of Education. The first is master teacher at the municipal level, the second is leading teacher at the municipal or district level, and the third is superrank teacher. Elevation of teachers to these positions is approved by the Beijing Commission of Education. Master and leading teachers are selected every 3 years for 3-year terms, after which time they have to be reselected. Only 2 percent of teachers fall into the master teacher category, so there are fewer than 2,000 among all K–12 teachers in Beijing. In mathematics, there are only about 140 master teachers in all of Beijing. The designation of leading teachers is even more selective. In Beijing, there are only about 30 leading K–12 teachers in mathematics, mostly in high school. At the highest level in the professional development hierarchy, there are only about 150 K–12 superrank teachers in all subjects in Beijing. The superrank title lasts a lifetime, so a teacher needs to retire for someone else to be named.
In Shanghai, levels in the professional development hierarchy are known as city-level and district-level teaching researchers. The individuals in these positions might play the role of a coach to teachers, demonstrate exemplary practices, do research on teaching, and conduct open lessons. Every school has a teaching research group, and there are research offices at the city and district levels as well. The system combines the training of teachers and research on teaching through a long-term and gradual process of professional development.