West Park principal learns a lot in China

Principal Shane Pratt of West Park Elementary shows off some of the souvenirs he brought home from China. Sarah?Britain/ The Hermiston Herald

Kids will be kids - no matter where in the world they are.

That's one lesson Shane Pratt brought back from China.

"I was surprised that the structure of the schools was not as 'military' as I would have thought," said Pratt, principal of West Park Elementary School. The kids are sometimes late for school, he said, and the so-called quiet time during the afternoon often is anything but.

Pratt and his wife, TeAnn, toured several elementary schools on their spring break trip to Beijing and Jinan, the capital city of Shandong province in central China.

They hoped to immerse themselves in Chinese culture and experience a little of the day-to-day life of the country, Pratt said, so they were surprised when they realized they had become educational ambassadors for the United States.

"We really kinda got off the beaten path," Pratt said of their visit to Jinan. "Many people there had never seen Caucasians. They'd ever seen hairy skin before."

When Pratt's parents, who teach English at the Shandong Normal University through a Brigham Young University cultural exchange program, arranged for Shane and TeAnn to tour local schools, they got the royal treatment from the schools' headmasters.

"They catered to us - they would take us out to lunch, chauffeur us around and loan us cars," Pratt said.

In return, the school administrators wanted information. They wanted to know about American teaching styles, particularly behavioral control techniques. Pratt was surprised, he said, to learn the Chinese sometimes use self-criticism as a form of punishment. A student stands in front of a classroom and criticizes himself aloud for up to an hour, he said.

Pratt said he was happy to talk to them about "positive behavior supports" - punishment-free ways to help children behave.

But the principal said he also found a lot to admire in the Chinese educational system. In the kindergarten he visited, for instance, he saw small classes of 12-15 children being taught by three teachers. China has a deep respect for teachers and family, Pratt said.

"They really like the English to teach their English because of the pronunciation," he said.

The Pratts enjoyed dinner with the prime minister and foreign affairs director of Shandong Province. They were instructed, Pratt said, to help the dignitaries practice their English.

When they weren't working as ambassadors and English teachers, the Pratts found time to see some of the sights. The Great Wall and the Forbidden City, Pratt said, were indescribable.

The Chinese consider the number nine sacred, he said, so the Forbidden City's palace has 9,999 rooms and doors decorated with 81 knobs in nine rows. In ancient times, Pratt said, no one else in China was allowed to have such doors. And the sacred dragon, which is so ubiquitous in China, comprises nine different animals.

Pratt also noticed the clash between modern and traditional China.

"You see where they have torn down older, traditional housing to build high-rise apartments," he said. And you might see a three-story television next to a building that is several centuries old.

One bit of modern China Pratt will not soon forget are the taxis.

"They are crazy drivers," he said with a laugh. "There are rules to the road, but they can be made up and changed at any time." By ERIN MILLS

East Oregonian Publishing, Co.

Dean Brickey of The Hermiston Herald contributed to this story.

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