BEIJING — As a child living in inner Mongolia, Zhang Lili dreamed of going to a university as a way to reach a better life.
She remembers receiving a letter from a close female friend that had tears on the page because her friend didn’t do well on the national college entrance examination – called Gaokao – and was unable to pursue a higher education.
“Her life, compared with me, couldn’t do any comparison,” Zhang said. “So difficult all her life.”
Today, Zhang is a member of the education faculty at Beijing Normal University and heads a project to open opportunities for women in leadership in schools in China’s rural minority areas, with an emphasis on increasing the number of women serving as school principals.
On Wednesday, Zhang spoke with Kentucky educators who are in Beijing this week to learn about the differences in educational leadership in China and the United States.
The program working with female teachers started in one county in China and is now in 27, she said.
Zhang said some people have questioned the sustainability of her work with rural minority women, but she believes those that have attained leadership positions will keep them.
“I can see, if you open a space, these women, they are very strong,” she said.
There is a myth of leadership in China that holds that leadership is equivalent to power, and power is an area for men, Zhang said.
“We can see that challenge is very real,” she said.
Instead, she is trying to re-frame the idea of leadership so that it is more about direction of a school than power, Zhang said.
Many female teachers initially said they didn’t want to be principals, she said. “You don’t have any role models,” Zhang said.
Another barrier for women reaching leadership positions in schools is the bureaucracy sometimes involved in running a school.
“If the management is political, women do not like to play that game,” she said.
Nannette Stovall Johnston, superintendent of Hardin County schools, said 12 of the principals in her school system are women and 11 are men.
“You’re right about the political part,” she told Zhang. “That’s the part I don’t like to deal with, have had to learn to deal with.”
Johnston said a woman can bring a different set of skills to a leadership position, depending on what a district needs.
“I think a female brings a quality of trying to listen and pull people together in the teamwork aspect to build that culture of caring and unity, rather than ‘It’s my way or the highway,’ ” she said. “Sometimes in my role, it is my way or the highway, but I think you start first by trying to understand the other person’s perspective and get everybody on the same page and working together toward a solution.”
On Wednesday, participants also met with leaders at Beijing Language and Culture University to officially open the trip and to discuss education in China and the United States.
One of the topics discussed was the importance of foreign language education in schools.
Zhang Wangxi, executive assistant to the president of Beijing Language and Culture University and director of the department of Chinese education, said through an interpreter that English is the main foreign language taught in China, but that some other languages are taught in some rural areas.
Some people in China are now objecting to the amount of time spent on English, arguing that it is more time than is spent on teaching Chinese, he said.
Because of this concern, some reforms are being considered, such as decreasing the hours of instructional time dedicated to English language learning, Zhang Wangxi said.