Teach from China – Alumni Entrepreneurs Sharpen the Vision of Students

by Andrew Shirman
Originally published by Teach for China; Photo courtesy of Education In Sight

Andrew Shirman was a Teach for China volunteer from 2010-12. He graduated from Boston College and served in Yunnan. He realized during his two years as a Fellow that his students needed something much more basic than quality teachers to succeed—they needed clear vision. Since completing his Teach For China Fellowship, Andrew and a team of current and former Fellows founded their own nonprofit to deliver free eye exams and glasses to thousands of students in need.

I knew that my fifty students would face many obstacles when I walked into my first day of teaching at Pingcun Middle School in August 2010. My seventh graders faced mountains of academic content which they absorbed at vastly different paces, and had few learning resources at their disposal. The good news was that my training at Teach For China had prepared me to tackle these challenges. It wasn’t until a couple weeks into my Fellowship, though, that I noticed a problem so obvious that no one had anticipated it – my students couldn’t see.

Problems would start at the beginning of class when I asked students to copy their exercises off the chalkboard. Squinting eyes would struggle to see, and many students would copy the English words incorrectly. When I asked those who couldn’t see to come to the front of the classroom to copy the notes, a deluge of children followed. Poor vision would hamper my students through the rest of class and in other subjects, keeping them from staying on task. When their grades suffered, they felt discouraged from continuing their studies. When I asked them the obvious question – why didn’t they wear glasses? – I heard a list of responses ranging from “They are too expensive to buy” to “Glasses will only make my vision worse.” My co-Fellows noticed the same problem in their classes, and upon further research we found that this problem affects millions of students throughout China. According to one study, rural Chinese students who received needed glasses improved by a full letter grade and were less likely to drop out of school.

Determined to tackle this issue, we began working on a project we called Education In Sight. We found a local eye clinic willing to perform examinations at schools, sourced high-quality low-cost glasses, and wrote a curriculum to educate students on the benefits of wearing glasses. George Dong, a Teach For America alum with entrepreneurial experience, joined our team and coached us to develop the idea, and a generous Teach For China donor provided $3,000 in start-up funding.

We launched the pilot in the spring of 2012, examining over 1,600 students. For many of the 330 students who received free eyeglasses, the change we observed in their classroom performance was immediate. Students who once struggled to see the chalkboard could now see clearly for the first time and no longer fought to keep up with their classmates. Having seen the incredible impact we were able to have on just three schools, we knew we were on to something big. We had barely left Yunnan as Teach For China alumni that summer when we began discussing what it would take to build Education In Sight into an independent nonprofit.

It’s been less than a year since founding Education In Sight, but I am constantly amazed by how far we have come. This year, working with current Teach For China Fellows, we provided eye exams to over 8,000 students in 17 low-income schools and delivered 1,200 pairs of glasses. Though we’re proud of our impact in just one year, the challenge ahead is enormous. Millions of children worldwide suffer from undiagnosed vision problems, and Education In Sight’s mission is to deliver quality eyeglasses to every student in the world. Similar to our experience as Teach For China Fellows, there are many obstacles on our path to success. What drives our work now, as it did then, is the overwhelming commitment to close the gap between what students in these communities have and what they need. The skills I gained as a Teach For China Fellow were invaluable to this work, and I am excited to continue to use them to help students in need as a leader of Education In Sight.

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