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1.7 Teacher and Student

The teacher-student relationship is one of the most important in Confucian philosophy. This isn’t surprising when you consider that Confucius was a teacher who was said to have had more than 3,000 students during his lifetime.

Confucius expressed detailed views on the relationship between teachers and students and between society at large and education in general. He thought everyone had the right to be educated. He thought teachers should be patient and adjust their teaching methods to the personalities and characters of individual students. Education should be a life-long process, he believed, with elders learning from their juniors8 and vice versa. Confucius believed that students should approach the learning process with humility and honesty and should not pretend to know more than they do.9

Confucian values are embedded in the Chinese education system. Teachers in primary and secondary schools (especially those in their 40s or 50s) see it as their primary responsibility to pass their own knowledge to students. Sacrifice from teachers is valued and somewhat expected, with some teachers said to spend much more time with their students than with their own children.

In return, it is common in China for student-teacher relationships to live well past school days, with some students known to visit primary school teachers more than 20 years after graduation. Parents and other family members encourage these relationships, insisting that students keep their former teachers in mind. It is common, for example, for important former teachers to be invited to ongoing life events such as weddings. Teachers may also serve as a bridge, introducing senior former students to juniors and promoting an alumni network.

The traditional role of teachers within Chinese society is not without controversy today. After the huge earthquake that struck Wen Chuan in western China in 2008, the Chinese media were filled with stories of teachers who had lost their lives protecting their students. School construction had been particularly shoddy and many collapsed in the earthquake. One teacher who survived, named Fan Meizhong, wrote on his blog afterwards that he did not believe he should have sacrificed himself trying to save his students. Instead, he said his responsibility was to save his daughter and himself. The media helped spread word of his comments, and thousands attacked his actions through their own blogs and on websites, which eventually led to a campaign against him in the press. In the end he was fired, with the reason given being a lack of moral qualifications.

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