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Language Immersion Success: Invest in Teachers

There has been incredible interest in Chinese language immersion programs at the elementary school level. A decade ago, there were fewer than a dozen successful Chinese language programs in American schools. Now there are well over one hundred—by some estimates, almost two hundred. Immersion programs are some of the most robust and impactful programs and therefore are great places to look for models for the rest of the field. The intensity of an immersion program means that teachers need to be exemplars of effective and creative pedagogy, and parents need to be intimately engaged in supporting the learning process for their children. This week my colleague Chris Livaccari has invited guest posts that focus on the role of parents and teachers, respectively, in the immersion context. While especially relevant for immersion practitioners, their lessons and perspectives are broadly applicable for teachers, leaders, and parents at all levels of instruction.

By Maquita Alexander, Elizabeth Hardage, and Pearl You

Imagine teaching English in China with little experience or familiarity with Chinese culture. Every lesson you plan, every resource you use is totally American and, as such, won’t work with your Chinese student population. Who can help you to navigate this course successfully?

This situation is similar to one in which our new Chinese immersion teachers find themselves each August. Without targeted administrative support they will fail.

Starting from the premise that most Chinese language immersion teachers have been reared in Chinese-speaking countries, it may be assumed that they have not personally experienced an American-style K–8 programs before their first placement. Many teachers have matriculated from American graduate schools with degrees in higher education, some specifically in education, and some in other fields like TESOL. Very few programs provide more than a practicum, or at most a semester of clinical work, that would allow Chinese teachers to receive a real teaching experience in an American classroom. Those who do spend time in American classroom settings may not have connections with Chinese immersion schools, and their classroom experience often does not afford them an opportunity to practice in a model for which they will be employed.

At Washington Yu Ying Public Charter School we have found that Chinese teachers benefit from having strong teacher advocates in administrative roles. If the teacher advocate is able to speak Chinese, understand Chinese culture, understand American pedagogy, and previously has taught in a Chinese immersion setting, the teachers feel they have the support they need to be successful Chinese lead teachers. Finding a teacher who possesses all of the qualities is the goal but is not essential.

At Yu Ying, we benefit from the close collaboration of our Chinese program coordinator (on-site), who is a native Chinese speaker and a Chinese Program Consultant (remote), who is a non-native Chinese speaker. Together they are able to support the new Chinese Immersion teachers through their transition from novice to experienced teacher.

As a result, when new Chinese immersion teachers enter the classroom as lead teachers, a well-planned, multi-step transition program is in place. This program will help them integrate their own educational experiences and training into their American school’s expectations and comply with American standards for education. Washington Yu Ying Public Charter School has worked hard to create a program that provides continued support to pre- and post-service Chinese Immersion teachers.

Using a lesson plan framework as a guide, we structure our multi-step transition program as follows:

We link their previous knowledge and experience with our expectations for classroom management and teaching theory.

We provide the pre-service and in-service teacher with on-going targeted staff development on a variety of topics, such as classroom management and creation of formative and summative assessments. The education happens not only at the beginning of the year but monthly.

Active Learning
The teacher has multiple opportunities to practice new skills in a supportive setting. The Chinese program coordinator models lessons and co-teaches. The school administrators observe and provide feedback on lessons, The Chinese program consultant supports the teachers through Skype video meetings.

The Chinese immersion teachers have Chinese-only meetings where they are given the opportunity to share concerns, plan lesson ideas and teaching strategies in a safe environment. Their ideas and comments are used to strengthen the Chinese program.

Speaking the Same Language

American educators are often guilty of speaking in pedagogically laden language, using educational acronyms, and of casually speaking about curriculum, instruction, and assessment in a manner that is confusing to new Chinese teachers. Having a Chinese- speaking teacher advocate allows the teachers to ask difficult questions in a manner that makes it more likely for them to relate to their American peers.

Introducing American-based pedagogy in a culturally aware way to new Chinese immersion teachers is a critical component in helping the teachers feel empowered. If the teacher advocate has a strong background in Chinese culture, s/he is able to work together with the new teacher to draw comparisons between American and Chinese ways of providing instruction, assessments, and building curriculum. Again, without someone on staff who is knowledgeable in both educational practices, Chinese teachers tend to feel that only one way to do things—the American way—is being promoted at the expense of the teachers’ own valuable education and experience. In pointing out the similarities and differences between the two practices, the Chinese team can work together to use both American and Chinese methods to solve the educational challenges they face in the classroom.

Leading with Experience

Taking advice and direction from someone who has done what you are being asked to do has its benefits. If the Chinese advocate has taught Chinese or Chinese immersion in an American school with American children, his/her experiences go a long way in guiding the Chinese teachers and building confidence in them. Chinese immersion schools have so many unique challenges, such as, the scarcity of Chinese immersion programs in the United States; the differences between acceptable Chinese and American classroom management strategies; and the lack of a Chinese immersion curriculum that it is powerful for teachers to learn from someone who has seen how truly difficult yet rewarding immersion teaching can be. At Yu Ying, we provide multiple opportunities for the teachers to work closely with the Chinese Program Coordinator, in the classroom, and the Chinese Program Consultant via Skype.

Support from the Top

If the leadership at the top, such as the heads of school or principals, do not acknowledge and support the important role Chinese teacher advocates can play, they run the risk of not providing the vital, collaborative environment within their schools that helps the teachers feel connected. At Yu Ying we are proud of our Chinese administrative support team. Yu Ying attributes many of its successes such as high teacher retention, growth of our Chinese literacy program, and popularity of our model to our support team. In the end, the combination of the right people makes for a successful immersion school. From the teachers, administrators, consultants, and support staff to the parents and the community at large, all have vital roles to play in building a strong and vibrant Chinese immersion school.

Follow Washington Yu Ying Public Charter School and Asia Society on Twitter.

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