The Changing Face of Foreign Teachers

People sometimes hear about face changing actors in the Peking Opera—they change masks with their changing moods, revealing a new dimension of their personalities. Similarly, and perhaps surprisingly, there is a group of teachers at Dana Hall School who also have changing faces. In a diverse community like the Dana Hall School, there are not only international students but also teachers from countries all over the world, especially in the Language Department. They bring over first-hand knowledge of a foreign language, and also cultural habits and beliefs that are different from American teachers.

“Other teachers think there is a magic environment in my classroom that makes students treat me especially respectfully,” Ms. Wu said. Ms. Wu, a Mandarin teacher at Dana Hall School from Jiangxi, China, believes her teaching style is a fusion of her training in China and her experiences in the United States.

At 10:45, on May 20th, the students taking AP Mandarin walking towards Ms. Wu’s classroom prepared for her unique approach to teaching. On the wall right across the classroom, colorful, graphic posters celebrate China’s Spring and Mid-Autumn Festivals. In contrast to the bright, cheerful scenes, some students in Ms. Wu’s classroom were using their forearms to support their sleepy heads before the class began; however, as soon as the bell rang, all the students straightened their backs, and focused their sight directly upon Ms. Wu. Ms. Wu’s classroom is organized and tidy: neither food nor drinks are allowed, and students all sit in a proper and serious posture. During the class, Ms. Wu turned off the light and played a Chinese video of New Year’s Gala. About half way through the class, one student raised her hand and asked in Chinese: “Teacher Wu, May I use the bathroom?” Ms.Wu asked her whether her request to go to the bathroom is an emergency, and the girl shook her head. Ms. Wu said: “I am sorry, can you wait until the end of this class if it is not emergency? You should prepare for this class during the five-minute break.” The girl frowned and sat down.

Although Ms. Wu and her requirements seem strict, the strictness is rooted in the values of Confucianism, one of the oldest and most powerful beliefs in China. One essential part of the thousands-of-year-old philosophy emphasizes the hierarchy in the student-teacher relationship. “Students have to pay full attention to me to show respect; [they must] exchange eye contact [with me] frequently and raise their hands if they want to speak,” Ms. Wu said.

In Confucianism, students should listen to the teacher with no complaints; however, Ms. Wu mixes this concept with the friendly, flexible American concept of the student-teacher relationship. Ms. Wu explained that there are times when students “express their will” during her class: “Teacher Wu,” they said on that sleepy Monday morning, “we are very busy these days, so will you push the quiz to tomorrow?” After one student made this suggestion, many others started to chime in, in agreement, and beg her for an extension. Ms. Wu asked each student about her workload from other courses and thought for a few moments. Finally, Ms. Wu expressed her sympathy and moved the date of the quiz. She often considers students’ workload and listens to their complaints about the pressures in their academic lives. According to Annie Jung’15, Ms. Wu’s teaching style provides a supportive kind of pressure. “She is like a father to [me]: strict in a kind, loving way.”

Students are similarly influenced by other teachers with instructional styles imported from their home countries. Ms. Villalobos, a Spanish teacher from Chile, described the differences between classes in the United States and Chile. In Chile, there are thirty to forty students in one class, as opposed to the 10-15 of students per class at the Dana Hall School. Because of this, students in Chile do not walk from classroom to classroom to meet with their different teachers; instead, they sit in one classroom and wait for teachers to move and offer them their lessons for the day. Ms. Villalobos believes that “this simple change in foot traffic impacts the student-teacher relationships.” When students go to the teacher’s classroom,” she said, “they have more time and space to communicate with teachers and get to know them.” This means closer bond are formed, and a more relaxing learning environment is created.

Chile’s education system is also different from the United States because the primary school level for students begins in 1st grade and ends with 8th grade. Ms. Villalobos, a Chilean native, described how students in these grades have many opportunities to know each other well; however, if they do not get along with each other, they have to bear unharmonious relationships for a long time. Compared to system of the United States, Chile’s system is considerably less diverse than the educational system in the United States because there are almost no international students. Students stay with the same students for years, without new factors added into the school. “This may potentially restrict the diversity of school and students’ social circles,” Villalobos added.

Formerly a philosophy teacher in Chile, Villalobos approaches her teaching at Dana differently because she is teaching students who speak Spanish as their second of third language. “When I teach the students at Dana, I assume they know nothing about Spanish, and we have to start from zero,” Villalobos said. Ms. Villalobos treats her students in the United States as beginners. “You cannot tell a baby to do something; you have to show the baby how you do it, and then the baby repeats and repeats [what you say] in order to learn.” A baby’s approach to a language is totally different from an adult’s approach, Villalobos explained.

In Chile, Villalobos’s students were asked to reflect on this world; students at Dana are asked to describe this world. Ms. Villalobos believes “the process to master a language is to describe, to explain, and finally to reflect the world.” Dana students study grammar, vocabulary, and sentence structures in order to share an explanation of the world.

Mumana Ahmed’ 14 describes Ms. Villalobos as “the most passionate and supportive teacher” she’s ever had at Dana. Angela Wang’14, from China, “feels home only at Ms.Wu’s classroom because it reminds her of Chinese classrooms.” The Dana community welcomes both international teachers and students with their diverse teaching and learning styles. Together they create a more worldly environment for all students, at Dana, to study and grow.

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