Staffing Your Chinese Immersion Program


By Jeff Bissell and Kevin Chang

Whether it be an immersion or other setting, it is imperative to select teachers with the basic qualifications to be effective in the classroom. For more commonly taught languages in the United States (for example, French and Spanish), the teacher pool is a combination of native or heritage speakers of the language and English speakers who major in the language in university studies and become certified to teach it. Less commonly taught languages, such as Chinese and Japanese, have fewer English-dominant teachers, though that situation is changing. Because of the linguistic demands of teaching in an immersion setting, it is extremely important that non-native speaker teachers have a high degree of proficiency and naturalness in Chinese.

An effective Chinese language educator needs to possess the following qualifications:

  1. Has a solid background in Chinese and speaks the standard variety (putonghua). For all teachers of Chinese, their pronunciation in Mandarin must be putonghua. Different states set different linguistic competency requirements: some require the demonstration of a speaking proficiency in Chinese of Advanced-Low or above on the ACTFL scale of speaking proficiency; some states also require a rating on the ACTFL Writing Proficiency Test, while others require proof of credits or a major in Chinese.
  2. Has the required teaching certification. Certification requirements differ by state. In most cases, elementary school teachers need to be licensed to teach in the elementary grades, and may not need to hold foreign language certification. For middle school teachers, some states may require both language and content area certification.
  3. Is well-versed in American foreign language pedagogy. Prospective teachers of Chinese should have credits in foreign language pedagogy courses such as methods of teaching, curriculum design, assessment and testing, second language acquisition, and materials design.
  4. Is knowledgeable and skilled in managing students in a U.S. classroom.
  5. Is certified or willing to pursue certification and continuing professional development.
  6. Is willing to work with the school and community at large.

Teachers of Chinese may include:

  • Graduates of American university teachers preparation programs;
  • Educated Chinese native speakers already living in the U.S., who have or might obtain teaching credentials; or
  • Chinese nationals who come to the school district on a short-term visa (one to three years) through a visiting faculty arrangement.

Like all flourishing teaching practices, even the newest and most veteran language immersion programs share a common feature—they are works in progress. Like successful leaders in many fields, the best language immersion teachers are able to reflect on and refine their practices to meet changing needs. These teachers’ key qualities are flexibility, adaptability, and creativity.

The biggest logistical challenge for any growing program is adapting to mandated requirements. Because all educational institutions (public school, charter school, or private setting) must adhere to strict licensing regulations, teachers need to quickly adjust to new requirements. Immersion teachers must be particularly flexible in their thinking. They must be open to recognizing cultural differences, especially in relation to instructional practices, classroom management strategies, and differentiated instruction.

In an environment where the target language is used less than the first language, immersion teachers must modify age-appropriate academic content for second-language learners. Effective immersion teachers integrate target language instruction into both daily academic curriculum and second language acquisition. They also exude confidence in their reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills. In Chinese language immersion, they should be proficient in the program’s chosen writing form (traditional or simplified).

Language immersion teachers are not just foreign language teachers. They have the same responsibilities as mainstream lead teachers to provide a challenging, subject-based curriculum for their students. Language immersion teachers, however, must also work within a learning environment where the dominant language does not match their target language. Because most teaching resources have not yet been amended for language immersion learning, teachers must be creative and resourceful in order to provide a curriculum comparable to learning in the dominant language.

When the target immersion language is Chinese in an Anglophone environment, immersion teachers must demonstrate confidence in English, since English is the primary means of communication with parents and the rest of the school’s English-speaking staff.

Below are a few key questions to consider when selecting Chinese immersion teachers.

  • Where do you find teachers?
  • Can you sponsor international teachers, provide visas? What do you do if your district is unable to provide that funding and support?
  • How do different entities at the state and district level handle the certification of immersion teachers? There is a range of practices, and you need to determine what your state allows.
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of hiring guest teachers who are not staying with the program long-term?

When interviewing possible Chinese immersion teachers, be aware of cultural differences and, whenever possible, include an experienced Chinese teacher in the search and selection process. Be careful, too, not to put undue emphasis on English-language interview skills at the expense of Chinese teaching abilities. Interviews should include a writing sample as well as a demonstration lesson, which may need to be presented via video conferencing.

Areas of Professional Development

Areas of development for all successful immersion teachers include curriculum and instruction, classroom management, social-emotional development, communication, and technology.

Curriculum and Instruction

While a sound curriculum and careful unit and lesson planning are essential for high academic achievement, it’s also important to avoid a cookie-cutter approach to instruction. The most successful teachers bring fresh content to their academic material in order to effectively reach students. Chinese immersion teachers must be able to make academic content accessible to students who are learning language through the medium of a new language. Teachers also need to know how to foster language and literacy development in second language learners of Chinese. Two-way programs that also serve heritage students with Chinese proficiency acquired outside the school setting must know how to help these students con¬tinue to grow in their Chinese skills.

Classroom Management and Social-Emotional Development

Expert classroom management hinges on efficiently building a learning environment with a minimum of behavioral issues and distractions. Teachers must be readily equipped to address and handle any issue that may detract from the goal of learning—including the changing landscape of social-emotional development. Each generation of children brings new challenges that might have not been apparent in previous students. Successful teachers are not only cognizant of age-relevant issues, but they also know how to support the development of each student. In addition, immersion teachers from outside the United States must be aware of cultural differences in developing classroom management strategies.


Beyond individual student–teacher communication, teachers are also responsible for managing an entire class, conferring with parents, collaborating with other teachers, and reporting to directors and head of school. Observing and refining communication methods at each school and community will help teachers work efficiently with these various audiences. Cultural differences affect communication styles, making it important for both English and Chinese faculty to understand one other’s culture, thus helping to avoid misunderstandings between teachers, administrators, and parents.

For example, in Chinese cultural behavior, someone may be indirect out of respect and politeness. From an American cultural perspective, though, indirectness can be taken as vague and unclear. In Chinese culture, people in authority and of older generations command significant respect and they are generally addressed conservatively, with acknowledgment of hierarchical roles. In groups, Chinese cultural behavior often leads to a greater sense of reserve, while American customs encourage active expression. With such differences to consider, educators and administrators should work to find a balance of communication and cultural understanding. For instance, Chinese teachers may express themselves more fully in a one-on-one meeting rather than a group session.


Teaching twenty-first-century learners involves a strong grasp of technology. Having a system in place that supports the integration of technology into the curriculum can help teachers keep pace with ever-evolving options and products. For instance, if a lead teacher is particularly interested in technology, he or she should receive professional development and a chance to help other teachers learn a new program or device.

Finding and implementing technology resources that are both useful and reliable can greatly help teachers and, in turn, students in the classroom. Technology-based tools can assist with researching and testing. There are online translation tools to introduce, while iPad applications can help students with character learning and writing. Used thoughtfully, technology can help students see their lessons as fun, purposeful, and relevant to their futures. It can extend learning to the world beyond the classroom.

How to Support Professional Development

Consistent efforts to support professional development are particularly necessary in newly launched immersion programs, as both the staff and the community settle into their new arrangements. Professional development should always include opportunities for guided practice, reflection, and review. Below are some suggestions for professional development.

  • Reach out to organizations such as the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), Chinese Language Association of Secondary- Elementary Schools (CLASS), and the Chinese Language Teachers Association (CLTA). These groups, among others, provide workshops, conferences, and social networking for Chinese language teachers.
  • Make an open effort to promote learning about the cultural norms within your community, especially as they touch on communication; responses to the students’ strengths and needs; achievement; issues of confidentiality; strategies for discussing behavioral or academic concerns; and the level of need for differentiated instruction.
  • Assign a skilled mentor teacher for support with both classroom instruction and communication.
  • Development of leadership among Chinese-speaking faculty should be encouraged to help coordinate and improve the curriculum. Leadership can be internally nurtured by involving Chinese program leaders with task forces, projects, and professional development.
  • Encourage teachers to attend and present at the annual National Chinese Language Conference.