In search of my dream
- Liu Xiaoling, Chinese teacher, Confucius Institute at the University of Montana, USA

[Source]    Confucius Institute at the University of Montana [Time]    2016-04-14 08:49:10 

Teaching Chinese as a foreign language is something that sounds simple, but that in reality is very difficult.

The first time I walked into a Chinese language teaching (CLT) classroom more than 10 years ago, I remember how my curiosity and interest turned in an instant to something heavier when I met those friendly exchange students who came from every corner of the world. I don’t know the source of the anxiety I felt, nor do I remember the material I skipped sleep and meals to review and prepare for my classes. What I remember is the joy and satisfaction I felt when my students wrapped their heads around a point of grammar and used it to form sentences in fluent Mandarin, and the frustration and anger I felt when my students questioned traditional Chinese culture and accused Chinese people of bad habits.

More than 10 years passed in what felt like the blink of an eye, and I watched as many of my colleagues lose their original passion for the work. But just as the practical difficulties of the job were grinding my own passion down to frustrated confusion and hesitation, I had the good fortune to be selected by Confucius Institute Headquarters to teach Chinese in the United States. In the classrooms at Beijing Language and Culture University, where I heard lectures from countless Chinese and foreign expert linguists, their rich experience teaching languages turned my frustration to admiration, and their broad knowledge and understanding turned my confusion to awed realization.

Some were nearing retirement, while others were in the prime of their lives, but in them I found a strong sense of something lost to me for so long it felt almost alien – the persistence, passion, and sense of duty one should feel as an emissary of Chinese culture! In an instant, I was no longer confused. The pride and heroism that coursed through my heart in that moment made me understand this would be a new start for me. I wanted to be like them, taking up the heavy task of spreading Chinese culture, leaving my home, and using my person confidence and dedication to serve the goals of erecting a good image of my people abroad and spreading my culture far and wide!

Brimming with confidence, I rushed to my new post, where I discovered I’d set myself on a path full of challenges and opportunities in search of a dream.

In search of a dream

Thanks to cultural differences, there is vast divide between the educational philosophies and institutions used in China and the US. There, CLT is an integrated course, rather than separate listening, speaking, reading, and writing courses, and class is focused on teaching practical, useful skills. At first I taught strictly according to the textbooks, but the results weren’t very good, because my students weren’t interested in the curriculum; some even actively avoided it. Later, after repeated run-ins and difficulties, I found a new vector for my teaching – interest. Interest was the best means through which to engage my students. If my students weren’t interested in the classroom, my teaching was at fault.

After being overwhelmed by the initial flurry of things I didn’t know, I read as much as I could about the advantages and disadvantages of immersion study, communicative language teaching, and other language learning methods, and as quickly as I could I adapted my own teaching methods. I incorporated Total Physical Response (TRP) and games into my curriculum, found interesting lesson material (games, debates, lectures), and built classes around new cultural topics (tea, food, manners & etiquette, etc.). I tried to stir and foster my students’ interest in learning China’s language and culture, and help them channel their interest to learn and practice Chinese.

Outside of class, I invested my own hobbies and personal time in the task, attending Chinese cultural promotion and exchange activities where I made papercut figures and paper lanterns, put up couplets, cooked sweet dumplings, created Chinese opera masks, and sang Chinese folk songs with my students. I gave them a world laden with Chinese cultural elements to explore as they studied, helping them gain a sharper, more accurate, and more complete understanding of China.

At the Missoula “Chinese Talent Show”, in its third consecutive year, when I saw my students performing their acts in fluent, natural Chinese and receiving awards to the thundering applause of the audience, I felt a pride, and it’s impossible to describe in words.

It takes much more than professional training and background in education to become a CLT teacher worthy of the title! Teaching is a job that demands a lot of love for the profession, because our passion has a direct influence on our students’ passion.

An emissary of Chinese culture

On May 8-10 of 2014, I had the opportunity to take part in the 7th National Chinese Language Conference. What touched me most at the conference was an over-50 teacher who composed and performed a song and accompanying dance to teach students different ways to remember Hanyu pinyin. The persistence it must have taken to sing and dance in the classroom and to ignite the students’ passion with her own at her age left me gaping in admiration. After that, no matter how tired I was from preparing class the night before, each morning I welcomed the students who walked into my classroom as passionately as I could. The stream of “good mornings”, “thank yous”, and “you’re welcomes” I heard every day reminded me that speaking and using Chinese was already a natural part of my students’ daily lives! Isn’t that something I should be proud of as a Chinese teacher?

Today in my classroom, sweet smiles, outrageous expressions and silly looks, immaculate Chinese pronunciation, and all kinds of fun interaction and discussion have become the magic charms I use to keep children interested in learning Chinese! Flashcards to practice Chinese characters, shooting Chinese movies on our cell phones, and learning through song, dance, and role play are the educational tools I’ve shaped based on what interests my students, to help them have fun as they master vocabulary, grammar, and conversation and enjoy the process of learning Chinese. I believe passion motivates people, it gives us strength and tells us to act. With passion, we can turn a sterile classroom lecture into an interesting, lively game. We can infect our students with our own passion, and bring them into the world of Chinese culture.

From the happenstance beginnings of my career as a Chinese-language educator to finally entering the hallowed ranks of true international CLT teachers, I’ve been lucky enough to become an emissary for Chinese culture and an educator who works to promote the spread of Chinese. There have been ups and downs on that road, but it’s because of my passion for this work, and my persistent pursuit of my dream to become an excellent international CTL teacher, that I’ve been able to make it to where I am today.

Just like Director General Xu Lin said in a speech, going abroad makes every teacher a living book on Chineseness. Our passion, our humor, our tenacity, and our dedication will lead the way in helping the rest of the world come to know China. By giving our students the most powerful key to understanding Chinese culture, our influence will help them see the developing China as it opens its arms, and with unparalleled confidence and strength, welcomes everyone who falls in love with China and its culture.

Text by Liu Xiaoling