8 Questions for Rachel Wasser

Rachel Wasser is the co-CEO of Teach for China, a nonprofit organization that aims to eliminate educational inequity. We sat down with her to talk about the past, present and future of Teach for China.

When and why did you first come to China?

There are two reasons why I’m here. When I was in seventh grade, I had a world history teacher named Mr. Perry—who was absolutely fantastic—who taught me about China and got me interested in it.

Then, in junior year of college I went abroad to Botswana and spent a lot of time working on rural development issues. I realized that I definitely wanted to go abroad after I graduated and continue in this field, and I wanted to work in a country that was making its own policy.

So after my time in Botswana I went back to Yale and took Chinese and started studying different aspects of Chinese history and policy and decided to move to China after I graduated.

How did you get the idea to start Teach for China?

When I was graduating I really wanted to do a program like Teach for China. I wanted to work as a teacher in a rural community, side-by-side with Chinese peers. I thought it would be a great way to give something back and a great way to learn about the country and its culture. I thought that there must be such a program and was really surprised that there wasn’t.

So I ended up doing a very different teaching fellowship. I was a Yale-China teaching fellow at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, which is about a sfar as you can get from rural China. While I was there I was studying nonprofit culture and governance on the mainland. I spent a lot of time traveling in rural areas on the mainland and saw a lot of schools and rural communities. The gap was so huge that I decided I wanted to move to the mainland and work in that area.

So I’ve been in Beijing for almost 6 years now working in rural development and the nonprofit sphere. I’ve been at Teach for China the past four years. We’ve worked to recruit, train, and place outstanding recent graduates from the U.S. and China in low income rural schools with the hope that they have an impact on themselves and the students they serve.

Why should Americans come to China to work or study?

There’s so much happening in China right now, there’s so much change and it’s very exciting to be a part of it. It’s really a privilege and an amazing opportunity. How often can you be in a place where you look back in five, ten, twenty years and see all this change? That’s one reason to come.

I also think the U.S.-China relationship is so important, and for young Americans, understanding China and making that investment is very worthwhile. Whether they’re doing it for themselves or for the world to be a friendlier place, you can’t go wrong.

Was it difficult to find people who wanted to become teaching fellows?

Everyone thought Teach for China was a good idea but impossible. The biggest concern people had was that Chinese young people wouldn’t do it. People said, “Chinese graduates are too materalistic. They want to get a house, a car, a job, and get married. There’s no way you’ll find students who’ll want to do this, certainly not top students.”

But what we found was that people really wanted a platform like this. People were looking to do something meaningful. A lot of people come up to us and say, “This is exactly what I’ve wanted to do but there hasn’t been an opportunity.”

On the U.S. side, in our first couple of years we worked with Princeton in Asia. There was a lot of interest in coming to rural China and Vincent Ng really pounded the pavement in U.S. universities to bring people in. We started our first year with just 20 fellows and a really small core team. Now we have 150 fellows in two provinces and a staff of about 50 spread across Guangdong, Yunnan, Beijing, and the U.S.

What’s one of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your time here and what have you learned from it?

There are a lot of challenges in starting a nonprofit in China because there are very few models of robust, successful nonprofits. It’s a very new concept and some laws aren’t quite there yet. The really important thing is to maintain a sense of possibility, which is one of our core values at Teach for China. Always having an incredibly strong sense of possibility is critical. Sometimes we say that in China, nothing is allowed but everything is possible.

You really need to invest in people who have the ability to understand what you’re trying to do and have the influence to make it possible. There have been times where it seemed like we wouldn’t be able to go forward but always supporters who understand the organization came through and made it possible. But it requires a lot of persistence.

What do you think is one of the biggest misunderstandings about China?

People don’t realize how much poverty still exists in China and how much need there still is and the implications of that. A lot of Americans see China as this competitor and obviously the two nations are competing in some respects. But there’s a lack  of recognition of where the majority of China’s population is in terms of standard of living. There’s not an understanding of how China has developed very very quickly and in such a way that there are still a lot of challenges that it’s trying to address.

Americans also think that the Chinese education system is really good or superior. There are a lot of things America could learn from the Chinese education system but there are also a lot of things the Chinese education system could adopt from the American one. There’s a lot of inequity in the Chinese system and systemic challenges in terms of what sort of learning is emphasized. I don’t think it’s a system that’s really preparing kids to compete in an international economy. I don’t think Americans know that. They hear about the PISA results and freak out.

What is one of your favorite or most memorable China experiences?

Spending Chinese New Year with an important government partner, a huge supporter of the program. We actually went to a nature reserve that’s not open to tourists and spent the night with local officials, entertaining and being entertained—which was mostly a lot of drinking.

This official had just been put into this position and it was his vacation but he went to visit this nature reserve. He saw all of the local officials on the way and they talked about policy and what they were going to do, so really the whole thing was a work trip.

The experience showed me just how hard Chinese government officials work. For me that’s another misconception. I thought that officials in government were not working that hard and that there is a lot of corruption. Well, there is a lot of corruption but the people we work with work incredibly hard. If you spend holidays with them they’re working. If you spend nights with them they’re working. I’ve met a lot of officials who work like that.

What’s next for Teach for China?

We’re expanding quite rapidly. Next year we’ll have around 300 fellows so we’re basically doubling in size. They’ll be reaching something like 40,000 kids. We aim to have 1,000 fellows on the ground by 2016.

I would encourage all young Americans who are interested in China to apply. W’e’re looking for really outstanding young leaders, it’s quite competitive but being a part of addressing the challenge of rectifying educational inequality is a huge opportunity and privilege. I can’t think of a more meaningful way to spend your time or a better way to become a leader.