Humans of John Jay: Xiaomei Tang


Ms. Xiaomei Tang is the longtime AP Calculus AB teacher at John Jay High School. Her words of wisdom and positive attitude make her classroom one of the most enjoyable places on campus. She is known for her school-famous saying, “it’s not about the grades, it’s about learning.” I had the pleasure of sitting down with Ms. Tang and discussing education and her amazing life story. 

What made you want to teach? 

I always wanted to be a teacher. When I was very young, growing up in China, I always wanted to write on the board. But my teacher didn’t let me, she only let me clean the board for her. So I said to myself that when I grow up, I’m gonna be a teacher so I can write on the board every day. 

That was only my initial reason. As I went through the high school system in China, where they’re very strict. They embarrass students using words that hurt students’ feelings. There was almost no encouragement. I always felt that there was a better way to teach, so I wanted to be the best teacher in China. Then I came here [the United States], and I still wanted to be a teacher, so I became one. I love teaching and I think it’s very important. 

What do you enjoy most about teaching?

I enjoy helping young people to learn. I also think it’s more than just teaching the subject. There are definitely other things you teach by showing students the value of effort in the real world. You hand in your assignments on time, you work hard. These are all the skills you need for the future. Young people are the future of the world so it’s very important to teach them.

Can you give a brief overview of your life? 

I came from China. That itself is very unique. I had a very different childhood life. It was difficult, we had very little food. And I considered myself lucky because I always had food. It was very little, but I always had food. I had no idea what the outside world looked like. We were taught by the Communist Party that they were the only ones who could save us and that the people in the rest of the world were suffering. They told us we lived the best life we could. 

When China was opened to the Western World in the early 1980s, the government sent my father, who was a famous artist in China, to visit other countries to show his artwork. Then he came home and said, “Wow! Xiaomei, we’re gonna get you out there so you can live the life they have. Everybody has a house, refrigerators, TV.” We had none of those. The first time, he went to Canada. That was around 1980. He said it was so beautiful, with flowers and clean air. In 1985, he came to the United States. He asked the person who invited him to sponsor me to come to America. As a foreign student at that time, you needed someone to sponsor you to come. 

It was very hard after I came. I did not speak the language very well. I had no money. I was a fulltime student and a fulltime nanny at the same time. I was a nanny because I needed money. But the American Dream came true I’d say. 

What is the most important piece of advice anyone has ever given you? 

I don’t know. I think I had to figure out most things for myself. My father did say a lot of things to me before I left. He told me to work hard, try my best. I never fully understood all of that until I had to learn it for myself. I had a lot of obstacles and failures, but I kept going because I didn’t want to go back because I really didn’t want to have no food. So when I was down at certain points, I prayed a lot. I write and that makes me feel better. I don’t remember if anyone specifically said something to me that stuck with me. I knew I had to do it, so I just did it. 

Why should school not be about the grades? 

Education is really not about the grades I’m sorry to say. Grades are important temporarily. Just for the four years of high school. Compared to your whole life, that’s very minimal. It’s more important to go through the process and learn rather than focusing on grades. I don’t think you should do anything just for the sake of doing it. You don’t want to be the slave of grades. You want to learn so you can use it in the future. Sure, you can argue that good grades get you into a good college, but that’s not the ultimate goal for life. It’s better to learn something and hopefully you can use this knowledge. I just think that when you’re my age, when you meet new people, you don’t say, “Hi, my name’s Xiaomei. What’d you get on that test?” I know this is something people have to go through, but I don’t think that, at any stage, you should do anything for the sake of doing it. There has to be meaning to it. That’s why I always say it’s not about grades, it’s about learning. You have to look far. Don’t limit yourself by what happened today.