Student Story: Xiaohui Tang | Teachers College Columbia University

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Student Stories: M.A. Social Studies Student, Xiaohui Tang

On an ordinary fall day in 2015, Xiaohui Tang attended an unusual class, one that would stay with her for months afterward. Standing beneath the grand Butler Library of the Columbia Morningside campus and later, inside the stately Lowe Library, she followed the intricate shapes and ornate paintings of each structure.

It was history beating beneath her feet. She soon realized that history surrounded her and began to personalize this new understanding.

The class was American History, taught by Assistant Professor of Social Studies, Christine Baron. Students were asked to walk around the Teachers College and Columbia Morningside campuses examining the interior and exterior structures and designs of different buildings.

This was one of many unconventional methods employed to investigate history in the class. “To me, this method of examining historical imagery is more effective than using political cartoons, advertisements or propaganda images to investigate the past because it can demonstrate the social process or system at that time with multiple layers of cultural cues hidden within more accurately,” Xiaohui said. “That stays in my mind for a long time. That’s something,” she added.

Xiaohui, a Chinese international student who recently completed her third and final semester for her M.A. in the Teaching of Social Studies Program, believes history teachers help students see things they were not able to see in the past.

Xiaohui has always been intrigued by the difference between Western and Eastern cultures and how culture impacts social behavior. This divide is what led her to apply to the Teaching of Social Studies Program, because social studies is concerned with culture.

Having studied International Politics at Guangdong University of Foreign Studies, she is intrigued by people’s behaviors from different cultures. She noted that, while race and discrimination are major themes in American society, in China it is the class inequalities that have a bigger impact. “I hope that I can teach students to see those problems. And I hope that I can do something that will inspire them to do something, to change the society. That’s why I applied here,” she said.

Xiaohui taught World History at an international school for three years before attending Teachers College, but says her experience in China was very different from the teaching experience she has gained in New York. “Still, you can feel that in the classroom, the final answer is given by the teacher. So when there is a group discussion, students don’t listen to what other students have to say because they know it doesn’t matter. Eventually, the teacher will give the standardized answer,” Xiaohui said of her experience in China.

Now having served at two separate junior high schools with different student demographics and approaches to education, she has changed her way of thinking about teaching. “Here it’s very different. They encourage you to challenge authority. To see things from different perspectives, to propose open-ended questions. This changes my perception towards education, towards pedagogy... everything,” she said.

Xiaohui said during her student teaching posts, she learned many differentiation methods, particularly from her cooperating, or head, teacher. “I saw how my colleagues from America taught students, and I was really impressed. I realized there was a huge difference between the classrooms in cultures. I feel like I need to do more. I didn’t give enough to my students,” Xiaohui said.

As an international student, Xiaohui felt more pressure to do well in school and secure a job once she graduated. As such, her daily schedule was mostly taken up by regular study in preparation to enter the workforce. During her free time, she attended parties held by her fellow classmates or relaxed in Central Park.

Xiaohui officially graduated in October 2016, but has already begun teaching at a public Brooklyn middle school as a dual language social studies teacher and is also tackling an online course to attain her bilingual teaching certification. She notes that having a goal in place before and throughout the program has helped her be more confident in her abilities as a student. When asked what her advice to prospective or newly admitted students would be, she says to “be aware that you are accepted because you are unique.”

“You can bring a unique perspective to the classroom. First of all, know what you need and what you want. Be determined and go after that goal. Be aware that Teachers College wants you because you have a unique thing in you, don’t be afraid of sharing that out. Just raise your hand and share your voice!”

Picture of Nori KatoNori Kato is a Staff Writer and Office Assistant for the Department of Arts and Humanities. She is also a graduate of the International Educational Development program at Teachers College.