“Nihao, Hou Laoshi!”-- the Best Moment for a Chinese Guest Teacher

By Amanda Yan Hou

One winter morning in Philadelphia, the MaST Community Charter School was woken up by the smell of coffee, as usual. Teachers arrived in their classrooms early to prepare for the day’s work. In the Chinese classroom, I was also thinking about how to help my kids learn more Chinese and understand more Chinese culture on that day. As a guest teacher in the US from China, the most important thing every day is to use Chinese language and culture as materials to “cook” the language dishes for my students. When I see the kids enjoy my class with big smiles, I feel more like a mother than a cook, watching the kids eating the dishes with happiness and satisfaction.

In the summer of 2010, I became the guest Chinese teacher at the MaST Community Charter School, via the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) and HANBAN programs. The teaching of language and culture has been my focus for a long time. Since 2005, when I was still an undergraduate, I began working part-time teaching children foreign languages. From 2009,I continued my study in teaching Chinese as a second language in graduate school. Before coming to the US, I took part in a one-month orientation held by HANBAN with more than 200 Chinese teachers who were going to different countries. In addition to teaching theories and practices, we also had a taste of calligraphy, paper-cutting, Chinese martial arts and even fan dancing. In August 2010, we arrived at San Francisco, the first stop in the US, to take part in a one-week intensive teacher training program at the Mandarin Institute. In that program, I practiced my teaching in a real American class for the first time, and benefited so much from it. Before the start of the new school year, I tried my best to get information about the school and students, and wrote the Chinese learning curriculum for my 5-9-year-old students.

When the bell rang on the first day of school, I felt the anxiety and excitement boiling in my heart like a volcano ready to erupt!

I walked into the classroom. The kids were sitting there nice and quietly like little angels, looking at me with sweet smiles. During the rest of the class, they followed all my directions to talk and play and sing and dance. That afternoon when they saw me in the hallway, the kids who knew no Chinese in the morning were already able to say “Nihao, Hou Laoshi! (Hello, Teacher Hou!)” The first sentence from the kids’ mouth is as beautiful as the best melody in the world.

But the second day, something unexpected happened. The kids suddenly changed. They acted out and ignored my rules. I totally lost control of my class. This was a situation I never had in my classes in China. After work, I walked into my bedroom, fell into my bed and felt tears rolling down my cheeks. I fell asleep exhausted and woke up in darkness. The homesickness I dare not face filled my heart all of a sudden—I missed my husband, my parents and friends in Beijing. When the good food in my hometown came to my mind, I realized that I was hungry but I had no strength to get up and cook.

But a few minutes later, I realized that I have to cheer up and do something for the next day. First, I needed to get some advice. Every day after class, I talked to my experienced co-workers about the problems in my class. Sometimes I also invited them to my class to find out the problems. Secondly, I needed to get good information from books. The kind librarian gave me a classic new teacher guide book about classroom management--the first days of school. From that book I found that there are many ways to prevent the problems in my classroom from happening. Thirdly, I needed to observe other teachers’ classes. In two months, I visited many teachers’ classes, not only foreign languages, but also music, art, computer and regular classes. I learned something useful from every teacher. Fourthly, I observed my own class. I bought a Flip camera to videotape my teaching everyday and watched them after work. While watching, I wrote “reflection cards” to record the progress and the places that needed to be improved. Though it’s torture to see myself struggling with the kids, this is the most efficient method I have ever used. While my reflection cards piled up into a notebook, the kids in the first quarter finished 9-weeks of Chinese study. At the beginning of November, the students for the second quarter stepped into my Chinese class. They enjoyed the Chinese class as much as the kids in first quarter, but were very much in control!

As my classroom management skills improved, my focus moved to the content in my class, for example, how to put more culture and language elements into the classes that are multi-intelligent. In the first quarter, I tried to put more art elements in my teaching and the kids liked it. So in the second quarter I tried putting music elements in my teaching. I found that American kids are very sensitive to rhythms. The Chinese children songs are usually too slow and boring for them. In order to understand the music they love, I began to observe the music class whenever I got a chance. I also used the Disney melodies that all the kids love to make up, and Chinese songs and chants, like greeting songs, numbers chants, animal chants and fruit/colors chants. Those songs and chants greatly improved the efficiency of the kids’ Chinese learning. I also found that picture books can greatly assist children’s language learning. When I have time, I go to the library to check out the picture books one by one. Sometimes I get inspired by the English books and make a Chinese version with that same form. For example, when we learn about colors, we like reading Elmer. When we learn about the body parts, we use Gingerbread Man and Snowman. Most of the time I just borrow the main idea and pictures, but I change the content into my own. For example, I combine the book Gingerbread Man and I Spy. I told the story of the gingerbread man losing all the body parts while being chased by the fox, so the kids needed to find all the body parts in the I Spy pages. Before I knew it, the kids quickly learned all the vocabulary while playing with this story. As a result, I believe that being creative is the most important thing in lesson planning. With creativity, even the most ordinary teaching resource can sparkle.

The environment is crucial for language and culture studying. As well as teaching classes, I also tried my best to create a multi-cultural atmosphere in MaST. If you take a walk around the school, you will find signs with Chinese characters above the water fountain, on the door and near the bathroom that tell you the history of this character. In the cafeteria, a big plate with American food pictures and another big plate with Chinese food pictures reminded the kids to think about the food in their lunch bags in a comparative way. Every Monday, the Chinese Culture Club who gathers to get a closer look at this beautiful eastern culture. We also exchange pen-pal letters with a primary school in Beijing. I believe that a multi-cultural environment will broaden my students’ views and help them learn to think in different ways, which is a bigger treasure than just learning another language.

In December 2010, a reporter from the Northeast Times came to interview. At the end of the interview, he asked me: “What is the best part of your life in the U.S.?” Suddenly, a lot of things came to my mind. The help from my friends and co-workers moves me every day. I also enjoy traveling in the US. However, as a Chinese guest teacher, the best moments in my life here always have something to do with my lovely students at MaST. When I see them enjoying the Chinese classes with a big smile and hear them greet me in the hall way: “Nihao Hou Laoshi!” I believe these are the best moments in my life in the US.

Amanda Yan Hou has been a foreign language teacher for children since 2005 and currently is the Chinese guest teacher via the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) and HANBAN program at MaST Community Charter School in Philadelphia, PA. She majored in Chinese Language and Literature as an undergraduate and Teaching Chinese as a Second Language in graduate school at Beijing Normal University. Please visit Amanda Yan Hou’s teaching blog.