A Chinese Language Teacher’s Experience in American Public Schools

By Meiching Chang

I became a Chinese teacher in America more by accident than by design. After getting my Master’s degree in Teaching English as a Second Language in Connecticut in 1997, I had a very hard time finding a job teaching English in Connecticut without a green card or extensive work experience. However, this changed unexpectedly when my husband and I relocated to Philadelphia for his graduate studies. Philadelphia public schools were looking for bilingual teachers for many different languages, including Mandarin Chinese. I was placed in an elementary classroom as an intern teacher to reduce the class size, and was required to go to school to get educational credits in order to be certified within three years of time.

While I entered American public schools with prior English teaching experience at Taiwan, it took considerable time and effort to adjust to American educational practices. I found that cultural differences were the most difficult part – particularly the school climate, discipline, staff communication, parent communication, as well as my general language difficulties.

There are many major differences between being a teacher in Taiwan and America. In Taiwan, teachers are authority figures. They are highly respected by both students and parents and face far fewer behavior problems in class. As a new teacher in America, I found that much of my class time was spent on discipline rather than instruction. I was also surprised at the lack of respect parents often show for teachers here. I cannot recall how many times I was yelled at by a parent because they felt that I was responsible for their child’s poor behavior, bad grade, or failure to complete their homework. It was very frustrating to put in 11 + hours working at school, and then to often be treated like that.

I am lucky to have had very supportive coworkers who lent me a helping hand. With no experience in American public schools, I really had no idea of what I was supposed to do and how to treat my students in the elementary classes. My coworkers worked with me as a team and helped me through the first year curriculum. However, I must admit that even though I had the same or better credentials than other teachers, I always felt less competent than my colleagues because English was not my first language and I did not grow up in America. I worried that my attitude in class would be too strict for the students, the words I used would be inappropriate, or I would seem distant or cold to the young students. While I’ve become much more confident with time, I can’t deny that these doubts still trouble me from time to time.

Another difficulty I faced was my relationship with administrators. In Taiwan, principals are a distant authority figure – they usually only talk to you when you are in trouble. In America, principals encourage staff to discuss any problems with them. Because of this increased contact, I thought administrators would naturally see how hard I worked and realize my value to their school. What I did not realize is that like many other aspects of American life, self-promotion is key. Because I did not approach administrators and inform them (“brag”) about my accomplishments, I found that the credit for my hard work often went to others who were more aggressive in communicating and who had framed many of my projects as “group efforts”. You can imagine how frustrated I was and angry at myself for not speaking up for myself. The Chinese philosophy of being humble does not work in the professional world here. Even though it goes against my culture, I must learn to market myself aggressively, and learn it quickly.

The great thing about being Chinese is that we are very adaptable. Within one year, I was able to get the feeling of what American elementary school classrooms look like and what the teacher’s role is in the classroom. What I learned in that year has assisted the future years of my teaching, and built my self-confidence in teaching in America.

I taught kindergarten and first grade in Philadelphia for four years before I had my son in 2005. We decided to move back to Connecticut to be closer to my husband’s family. In 2006, I was lucky to get a part-time ESL teaching job at West Hartford in the middle of the semester and worked in that capacity for two years. Even though I was certified in ESL before elementary education, it was my first time being an ESL teacher. In the same year, West Hartford started offering Chinese as one of the world languages in high school and began to gain momentum in terms of student interest and numbers. The idea of teaching Chinese became very tempting for me because I felt that I had more to offer in this field compared to Teaching English as a Second Language. When the opportunity arose, I went back to school to take two required courses to get my endorsement in teaching Chinese and officially became a high school Chinese teacher in 2008.

As I’ve observed the workings of American high school foreign/world language departments, I’ve learned that hiring native speaking teachers is not their first priority. What is most important to schools is getting a certified teacher who understands the school culture and works well with administrators. I think this is in some part why most teachers in foreign/world language departments are American teachers certified in the languages. For example, in our Chinese program, our first teacher in the district was an American certified in elementary education and Chinese. She is very organized and great at promoting the program. When I joined her, she had picked a textbook, written curriculum for level one to three, and set up all the extra-curriculum activities. All I had to do was to follow along. For a teacher new to the field and to high school, this was a great help. I had time to learn about the program, the school, and American high school students. Nevertheless it was a year full of surprises, or maybe I should say full of culture shocks.

The first shock is about American high school students are how much they can achieve. Some of my students do many extracurricular activities such as sports, Model UN, Mock Trial Team, Robotics Team, Math Team, Choir, Band, Orchestra, and so on. It amazed me that they were still able to show their academic excellence in all their subjects despite these other commitments. Their devotion to learning was not limited to the academic area like I was used to in my high school years.

The second shock was not as pleasant as the first. When I was in high school in Taiwan, we would never dream of arguing with our teachers, and would never blame our teachers for our bad grades. Along with all the over-achieving students in our school, there are many students who need others to hold their hand as well. Our school works very hard to close the achievement gap and asks all the teachers to pay extra attention and implement interventions for our low performing students. I have also encountered more parents asking me to keep their children after school to give them extra help in their studies. I’ve often found that when I’ve tutored these students, they have been resistant, unmotivated, and sometimes downright hostile – so it has been left to me to motivate them as well. It seems like the teachers are taking over more responsibilities from the students and parents. Sometimes I wonder why no one talks about what should happen if teachers have implemented interventions, but parents don’t take responsibility for monitoring and motivating their children and the students don’t take responsibility for their own studies.

Our Chinese program is very successful and has entered its sixth year. Starting last year, I had the chance to do an alternative curriculum for Chinese three and Chinese four. Our textbook is grammar-oriented and trains students well in reading and writing, but not listening and speaking. To change the situation, I worked in songs, activities, movies, and even TV shows. Unfortunately, there are always students asking if these are going to be included on their tests. If the answer was no, I saw students tune out en masse and take out work from other academic subjects during that time. It was very frustrating, but it inspired me to find a textbook that included the elements that I wished to teach.

The process of choosing an appropriate textbook was an eye-opener for me. I had to call publishers and convince them to provide me with free exam copies and read the texts cover-to-cover in order to find the textbook or units that worked best with my learning goals. Of course I would have liked to find a textbook that included everything I need: a colorful and visually appealing text with a strong thematic focus; interesting text or dialogues; ample and well-designed activities to practice listening, speaking, reading, and writing; and of course a CD ROM with interactive games and assessments included at no extra charge. However, after reading all the materials I could get my hands on I found that, just like other teachers had told me, there is no perfect textbook. We just have to pick the one that comes closest to that ideal. Thanks to my department and my program, I had this amazing experience in choosing a new textbook for advanced levels and gained the understanding of how to structure my lessons with and without textbooks.

Then the reality check came. I was very satisfied with the text and lessons I chose because they covered the real life situations and the knowledge I assumed that students should know about China. However, I found that I grossly over-estimated the background knowledge about China that students brought into my classroom. This created a significant burden for both me and the students – the combination of language learning and content knowledge required was too much. The students and I struggled for a year and I had to modify the text and lessons the following year. While this might look like a failed experiment, I learned a lot from the situation. It helped me to figure out what I can reasonably ask of my students and it also taught them to advocate for themselves, negotiate, and provide input on lessons. We might not have met all our goals, but we had fun with the lessons and still learned quite a lot about China.

In our program, I have also learned that students learn most from doing. Ten lessons about Chinese culture and geography do not measure up to an actual trip to China. Students won’t remember recipes or the names of food talking about them in class, but they will if they’ve actually cooked a Chinese dish. We have incorporated Chinese cooking, arts and crafts, New Year celebrations, moon cake tasting, dragon boat racing, and other activities into our curriculum. Each year we also visit the Museum of Chinese in America and Chinatown in New York and take a trip to China in April. Who could have predicted that my first visit ever to mainland China would be with my American students?

In American schools, teacher self-improvement is also very crucial. In my district, we can take at least two professional days to attend field-related conferences, observe other teachers, or engage in any other activities for improving class performance. I really appreciate these chances to learn to be a better teacher. It shows that schools understand that high performing teachers help support high performing students. We might lose one day of teaching but what we gain from these experiences is immeasurable.

Throughout all these years in elementary and high schools, I have built up my style and goal of teaching. Sometimes I feel lost or lonely on the road of teaching Chinese, but I remind myself of all the Chinese teachers out there working as hard as I am, and all those who have helped me along the way. I hope that Chinese language teaching will continue to prosper and grow in this country, and wish all Chinese teachers good luck on this path. I know we will succeed – it’s not a matter of if, but when. Be strong.

张美晶,1971年生于台湾,中央大学英文系毕业,毕业以后从事过杂志编辑及英语教师。1997年在美国康州念英语教学硕士期间认识了先生,毕业后随先生到搬家到了费城。在费城张美晶开始了美国的教学生涯,她在当地的公立国小担任四年班级教师。2005年,儿子出生后,她和先生又搬回了康州,一年后在West Hartford学区担任小学ESL老师,两年后的2008年,她决定转换跑道,成为高中中文老师至今。另外,张美晶已经在暑期STARTALK相关项目里任教四年,其中两年兼任教学课程负责人。