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Too much shade thrown on teacher in umbrella kerfuffle
By Doug Young

THIS week’s Street View takes us to the Baoshan District, where a series of pictures of a teacher and one of her students has created a bit of controversy online.

Anyone looking for a scandal involving inappropriate teacher-student relations should stop reading now, as this particular incident has none of that and seems quite harmless in my view.

Instead, it involves photos of a primary school student holding up an umbrella for his teacher to protect her from the sun.

The controversy arose because some people considered the act inappropriate, presumably because it implied the teacher was demanding this kind of subservient and possibly degrading behavior from one of her students.

As a teacher myself, the controversy made me think about whether I had ever done anything similarly controversial, and what kind of reaction might occur if something like this happened in the US.

Much has changed in public education over the last few decades not only in China but also in the West, meaning behaviors that were acceptable just 20 or 30 years ago might be considered inappropriate now.

For example, it wasn’t at all uncommon for US teachers in the 1940s and 50s to give out mild forms of corporal punishment like slapping a student on the wrist for bad behavior. Such action now would almost certainly create a huge controversy that would result in disciplinary action.

In China, the image of the strict teacher and subservient student is certainly an old one that goes back for centuries, reflecting the traditional emphasis on respect for teachers.

That relationship sometimes led to behavior that many would consider degrading today, such as loud and very public scoldings by teachers of poorly performing or misbehaving students in front of their classmates.

No one likes to be scolded by their teacher, and in face-conscious China such public rebukes seem particularly sensitive.

During my early days of teaching in China I made the mistake of scolding a student in front of the class once for not doing his homework, and later regretted it after he came to me afterward and was quite upset.

Perhaps some people felt the student at the center of this latest brouhaha was also losing face, hence their concern.

The photos at the center of the controversy were taken when some students from Gucun Central Primary School were on a trip and walking along the sidewalk. In one, a young student can be seen stretching out his hand to make sure the umbrella he is holding protects his teacher from the sun.

The images somehow found their way online, where they drew criticism from some as inappropriate behavior. As a result, the local school said it had reminded teachers to care for their students, and the teacher herself had admitted to being at fault. The reports also noted that no complaints had been filed by any students or their families over the incident.

I mentioned the controversy to a friend, and we both agreed it seemed like much ado about nothing. Anyone who has ever taught or managed others knows there are always people in any group who want to curry favor with the boss, which perhaps was what the student in this photo was doing. Or perhaps he just wanted to help out his teacher.

Not a big deal

In some ways the story also seemed like China’s own version of the US “politically correct” movement, where people go to extremes to avoid saying or doing anything that could even be mildly offensive.

I tried to imagine what might happen if this story occurred in the US, and realized that most likely no one would even care if, for example, a student helped his teacher by carrying some books for him or her.

Personally speaking, I would be embarrassed to let students perform such tasks for me. After all, I’m quite capable of carrying my own books and performing other similar tasks, so why should I ask a student to do that for me?

If I was injured, of course that would be different and I would be grateful for assistance. But I would do the same thing for a student in need, and consider such assistance something most people would do independent of any personal relationships.

At the end of the day, assisting someone in trouble is certainly natural, and performing small acts of assistance to a teacher or boss also doesn’t seem offensive or degrading.

In this instance the Internet users who criticized the teacher probably had too much free time and no better things to do than post their comments on the Internet.

I commend the school for its low-key handling of the situation, and certainly sympathize with the teacher who admitted fault even though in my view she really did nothing wrong.

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