The large ballroom in UCLA’s Covel Commons resembled a bustling day-care center one recent day, as laughter rang out across the room.
A boisterous game of Twister was being played in one corner, charades were set up near the refreshments and the occasional shout of “Uno!” sounded from the front.
But the participants, speaking in rapid-fire Mandarin, were not children. They were dozens of Chinese teachers in Los Angeles for a nine-day crash course to prepare them for what they consider the opportunity of a lifetime: to teach Mandarin in American schools.
In a few weeks, 176 Chinese teachers will head to kindergarten through 12th-grade classrooms across the country, from rural Kentucky towns to the tidy suburbs of Salt Lake City. Only two will remain in California, assigned to schools in Redding and Ojai.
Most had never before left China. They had come armed with hopes of succeeding in the classroom, with fears that American students would be difficult to manage and with impressions of U.S. culture based on a diet heavy in Hollywood films.
The guest teacher program, started in 2007 and partly funded by the federal language initiative, Startalk, is an effort by the College Board and the Chinese government’s Chinese Language Council International, also known as Hanban. The agencies want to expand Chinese instruction in the United States. UCLA’s Confucius Institute is in its second year of hosting the program.
On a recent Saturday, in UCLA’s ballroom-turned-playground, Jin Shan, a slender 33-year-old from Shijiazhuang, played the games with gusto, looking momentarily like an schoolgirl. (The contests serve as teaching aids, which they dissect in a later debriefing.)
Shan and her colleagues prepared for their visit by attending workshops in Beijing and studying American culture and teaching methods. But so much preparation can be mind-boggling. “I feel nervous,” Shan said. “There are so many things to remember.”
On their tightly packed schedule, for example, were sessions covering classroom management, how to use technology in their teaching, as well as practical tips for life in America (such as how to find Chinese cooking staples). Time was also carved out for karaoke and a Southwest-themed dinner complete with a mariachi duo and Mexican folk dancers.
On another day, the guest teachers visited Bell High School to see theory in action in Nada Shaath’s Arabic class.
They furiously scribbled notes, observing Shaath’s lively teaching style, which involves a steady stream of questions to students and, on a recent Friday, having them sing along in Arabic to the Christmas song “Jingle Bells.”
This opportunity to observe foreign language instruction in Bell does much to ease their nerves, but it also reveals a stark contrast in international teaching styles.
In China, teachers frequently lecture their students and interact far less with them than their American counterparts, said Bao Zhu, 29, a college professor in English from northern China.
Zhu and his wife, Tian Qing, are both in the U.S. to teach, but they won’t be anywhere near each other. Zhu is headed to Utah, his wife to Florida. His parents will care for the couple’s 3-year-old son, who remains in China.
The yearlong separation is worth the heartache they expect to experience because the U.S. work will elevate their professional standing upon their return home. “We will be viewed as experts,” Zhu said.
And because most will go to small rural districts in the U.S. that generally don’t have a pool of instructors who can teach Chinese, they may find themselves welcomed like rock stars and featured prominently in local newspapers, said Jacque Van Houten, an international education consultant for the Kentucky Department of Education.
As a group of teachers chatted over fajitas last Saturday, a mariachi duo’s song floating in the air, many seemed worried about the little things. How much does a bike cost? Where can you find Harry Potter books? What will the kids be like?
But Shan thinks she’ll be a quick study, and her strategy to win over her students is simple:
“If I am kind to them, they’ll respect me. In China, all my students love me.”