[lg policy] Oklahoma: Guest-Teaching Chinese, and Learning America

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Mon May 10 15:24:31 UTC 2010

Guest-Teaching Chinese, and Learning America

LAWTON, Okla. — Zheng Yue, a young woman from China who is teaching
her native language to students in this town on the Oklahoma
grasslands, was explaining a vocabulary quiz on a recent morning. Then
a student interrupted. “Sorry, I was zoning out,” said the girl, a
junior wearing black eye makeup. “What are we supposed to be doing?”
Ms. Zheng seemed taken aback but patiently repeated the instructions.
“In China,” she said after class, “if you teach the students and they
don’t get it, that’s their problem. Here if they don’t get it, you
teach it again.”

Ms. Zheng, 27, is teaching Chinese in Lawton — and learning a few
things herself about American culture — because of a partnership
between an agency of China’s Education Ministry and the College Board.
China wants to teach the world its language and culture, and Ms. Zheng
is one of about 325 guest teachers who have volunteered to work for up
to three years in American schools, with their salaries subsidized by
the Chinese government. A parallel effort has sent about 2,000
American school administrators to visit China at Beijing’s expense.
Ms. Zheng left her teaching post at a provincial university south of
Beijing two years ago to come to Lawton. She is out of her usual
element in this city of strip malls and car dealerships surrounded by
cattle ranches and an Army base. The culture of American schools is
also different.

“My life in high school was torture, just studying, nothing else,”
said Ms. Zheng (pronounced djung). “Here students lead more
interesting lives,” partly because they are more involved in
athletics, choir and other activities. “They party, they drink, they
date,” she added. “In China, we study and study and study.”  In
interviews, several other Chinese teachers said they had some
difficulties adjusting to the informality of American schools after
working in a country where students leap to attention when a teacher
enters the room.  One Chinese teacher who has built a successful
language program in Wisconsin, Hongmei Zhao, said a few students
sometimes disrupted classes by speaking English so rapidly that she
cannot understand them.

“Then the whole class laughs, maybe because of my accent,” Ms. Zhao
said. Ms. Zheng said none of her students had been disagreeable, and
Samantha Weidenmaier, an assistant principal at the school, MacArthur
High, said that in Ms. Zheng’s classes “the respect levels are kicked
up a notch.”  Still, Ms. Zheng said she believed that teachers got
little respect in America.  “This country doesn’t value teachers, and
that upsets me,” she said. “Teachers don’t earn much, and this country
worships making money. In China, teachers don’t earn a lot either, but
it’s a very honorable career.”  Ms. Zheng said she spent time clearing
up misconceptions about China.

“I want students to know that Chinese people are not crazy,” she said.
For instance, one of her students, referring to China’s
one-child-per-family population planning policy, asked whether the
authorities would kill one of the babies if a Chinese couple were to
have twins. Some students were astonished to learn that Chinese people
used cellphones, she said. Others thought Hong Kong was the capital.
Barry Beauchamp, the Lawton superintendent, said he was thrilled to
have Ms. Zheng and two other Chinese instructors working in the
district. But he said he believed that the guest teachers were
learning the most from the cultural exchange.  “Part of them coming
here is us indoctrinating them about our great country and our
freedoms,” he said. “We’ve seen them go to church and to family
reunions, country music concerts, rodeos. So it’s been interesting to
see them soak up our culture.”

Ms Zheng’s situation is fairly typical of other guest teachers working
in American schools: China pays about $13,000 a year toward her
salary, and the school district provides her with housing and a $500
monthly stipend. Some districts pay more, but Lawton is one of the few
that lends their guest teachers a car — in Ms. Zheng’s case, a
lumbering blue Buick Century once used for drivers’ education.  At
MacArthur High, Ms. Zheng teaches three hourlong Chinese classes a
day.  One day last week, Cynthia Thompson, a senior, worked with Ms.
Zheng through a dialog in Chinese about attending the Beijing opera,
showing considerable fluency. Another student, Raymond Veal, who said
he wanted to be a plastic surgeon, stumbled often, confusing the
Chinese words for movie theater and Beijing opera.

“I’m not good at memorizing Chinese characters,” Mr. Veal said. Ms.
Zheng has described to her classes the high-pressure schools she
attended in the city of Pingdingshan, where students study six days a
week from 8 a.m. through a mandatory evening study hall ending at 10
p.m.  “No way I could do that,” Mr. Veal said.  After her morning
classes, Ms. Zheng drove west through Lawton in search of lunch,
passing a seed elevator. The Buick fought a stiff wind that had kicked
up a vast khaki-colored dust cloud. Pulling into a Burger King, she
ordered a fish sandwich.  “I’ve gained 10 pounds in Oklahoma,” she

Between bites, she recalled how earlier this spring a student brought
her newborn to school to show it off to admiring students and
teachers. “Teenage pregnancy is rare in China,” Ms. Zheng said. “I
thought it was nice that when the girl brought in her child, people
were happy for her. But I found it shocking, because we think girls
should focus on their studies and get into college.”  That afternoon,
Ms. Zheng taught classes at Central Middle School, drilling 22 eighth
graders on how to count to 100 in Chinese and explaining some Chinese
holidays before turning her back to write a Chinese tongue twister on
the board.  Out of the blue, a girl with long brown hair asked her
classmates loudly: “Where’s France at?”

“In Europe,” a boy with baggy jeans called out from across the room.
“France is not in Europe,” another boy said. Ms. Zheng just kept
writing Chinese characters on the board.
“American students don’t know a lot about the outside world,” she said
later. “Mostly just what they see here.” Ms. Zheng says she is hoping
to do her part by teaching them more than how to write characters. “I
want my students to have a sweet, sweet memory of taking Chinese,” she
said. “They won’t remember a lot of words, but I want them to remember
the beauty of the language and the culture.”

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