The past week in China saw the suicide of two middle school students in Nanjing and the attempted suicide of one middle school student in Henan province. Coincidentally, China was in the midst of celebrating the Labor Day holiday and the Youth Day holiday.
Why are we seeing this tragic spike in student suicide at a time when students should be relaxing and celebrating their hard work and contributions with their families? The answer stems from the complicated struggle between the current testing-oriented system and educational reforms nationwide.
In the case of the two Nanjing students, teachers piled on homework during the Labor Day vacation period. When they didn’t finish their homework before the end of the short three-day vacation, the two students independently decided to take their own lives. In the case of the Henan student, a teacher called in his mother to discuss his poor performance in school and asked him to write a letter guaranteeing he would no longer misbehave. This happened on a Saturday, the May 4th Youth Day holiday.
What ties these three students together? They never got a chance to rest.
A three-day holiday might as well be spent in school if your teacher assigns you enough homework. In the case of the Henan boy, he was required to attend school for two of the three-day holiday anyway. There was also no rest for him on Youth Day, but instead, a humiliating day that included his mother kicking him out of frustration.
Most educators and parents do not wish to run students ragged, but the pressure to prepare students for the high-stakes high school and college entrance exams leaves them feeling like they have little choice. Though the China Ministry of Education (MOE) has prohibited elementary and middle schools from holding classes on weekends and holidays, many schools ignore these rules. In the case of the Henan school, the Vice Principal told reporters that between needing to prepare students for the entrance exams, conforming with the practices of other schools in the area, and meeting the expectations of parents for a rigorous curriculum, the school has “no choice” but to run the extra classes.
Numerous changes must take place in order to avoid the recurrence of these tragic events. At the most personal level, students and parents need to learn how to relieve stress at home, take psychological stability as a serious health concern, and recognize psychological instability if it begins to take shape. In local schools, teachers and staff should be trained in providing positive incentives (instead of punitive “letters of guarantee” and “misbehavior deposits“) to their students, in addition to hiring full-time school counselors for troubled students.
At the broadest level, and certainly most ambitiously, China must find a way to break away from the exam-oriented system. But it is exceedingly difficult to move away from a testing cycle that requires complete dedication of time and educational resources from day one in order for students to move on to the next level. As can be seen from the sad examples of the past week, gradual reforms like prohibition of weekend classes have only left students feeling more pressure from all parties, with little serious support from any one.
This guest post was written by Elliott Bernstein. Elliott Bernstein is Manager of Student Life at NYU Shanghai, as well as translator and purveyor of China’s education related news at Education News China (ednewschina.com).