Teacher Candidates in China Spark Innovation and Student Learning
Half way around the world from St. Louis, in a town eight hours northeast of Beijing, you’ll find Fuxin Experimental Middle School and its partner elementary schools. Since 2004, dozens of UMSL College of Education students have made the trip to teach English in those Chinese schools. They include students seeking certification in elementary, middle and high school teaching, with a variety of emphasis areas. Some are completing their bachelor’s degrees while others are completing post-degree certification programs.
The three months our teacher candidates spend in Fuxin, China fulfills their student teaching requirement — but they gain so much more. They are immersed in an educational environment that challenges them to hone their teaching skills, pushes them to be creative in unusual ways, and encourages them to reach within themselves to grow in appreciation for other cultures. No Chinese language skills are required and courses are conducted in English.
Fuxin is a northeastern China industrial and mining area. Education is mandatory only through age 10. “By the 9<sup>th</sup> grade, less talented children no longer attend school,” said Laura Westhoff, the COE faculty coordinator for the program.
While all participants teach English classes (ranging from elementary to secondary level), each is free to use any subject matter in the courses they teach. The Chinese students are interested in American culture, history lessons, and are particularly enthused with lessons about American music (Michael Jackson being a popular favorite). One school requested that our student teachers develop and introduce American debate, which is quite unlike Chinese teaching methods that typically rely on rote responses. The students developed curriculum using elements of persuasive argument, resulting in a very successful unit that has been expanded.
“Fuxin was without a doubt more challenging than staying in the States for my student teaching,” wrote Nathan Shubert (BS Secondary English 2012) about his experience. He believes that having full control to design and try out lesson plans and new approaches to reach his students led him to more sharply hone his skills. “This let me discover weaknesses and strengths that I would never have discovered here in America,” he concluded.
With 1.3 billion people living in China, classrooms are large. Very large. The average class size in Fuxin schools is 50-70 students – so our teacher candidates become thoroughly engaged from day one, figuring out ways to manage a large group and develop meaningful lessons. They are challenged to think how to adapt and develop a sense of presence in teaching to and managing large groups and quickly learn to innovate and test various differentiation strategies.
“Our student teachers have to fall back upon themselves and the skills they have acquired in their coursework and field experiences,” Westhoff said. “They become creative. Most find that grouping the children into three-member teams works well when it comes to class participation. Instead of having the students volunteer their participation, they must take the initiative and call on students — something that our American teachers are not used to.”
Perhaps the most deeply felt lesson that our students take away is culturally responsive teaching Westhoff explained. “It is true immersion learning,” she said. “As outsiders, they gain new insight and empathy for learners who are different. Our students are the ones experiencing the barriers and learning what that feels like and what they need. They are dealing with new food, new language, transportation issues. The tables are turned.”
The UMSL students complete their seminar work online. There is a supervisor on site in the schools and cameras video captures their teaching, which is evaluated by the COE program coordinator. Fengyu Wang from the Shenyang Normal University visits the classrooms to observe and sends Westhoff regular reports and evaluations.
“Each challenge I faced helped me to grow as an educator and as a person,” wrote former participant Eleanor Taylor (post-degree teaching certificate, 2010). “Once I returned home, I was able to begin taking a more concrete direction in my teaching career because of my international experience. My time teaching in Fuxin definitely changed the course of my career by helping me develop connections I hadn’t before thought possible.”
College of Education faculty member Cody Ding and former Associate Dean Helene Sherman (Founder’s Professor) (retired) were instrumental in setting up the program in 2014. The college works with UMSL’s Center for International Studies to offer students this exceptional teaching experience. More information about student teaching in China can be found <a href=”http://www.teachinfuxin.org/”>online here</a>.
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