ACTFL Teacher of the Year 2018: A Journey of Discovery

Ask the Experts

by Ying Jin (金璎)

The date was November 17, 2017. The place was Music City Center, Nashville, TN. I was on the stage, with four other ACTFL 2018 Teacher of Year finalists, waiting for the announcement of the result. When ACTFL President Ms. Desa Dawson opened the envelope and read my name, so many emotions went through my mind and, of course, I could feel tears filling my eyes. Later, many Chinese teacher friends who were present to witness this moment told me that they also cried. It was the recognition of generations of Chinese teachers who have put their hearts into the teaching of Chinese language and culture in the United States. Little did I know that this award would set me forth on a new journey to a new frontier.

2018 was such a special year for me. A very unique experience was to participate in the Language Advocacy Day organized by the Joint National Committee for Languages (JNCL) in February. I was in Washington, DC, along with many other colleagues from across the nation advocating for World Language education on Capitol Hill. We visited our representatives’ offices and shared how important the teaching and learning of World Languages is for the future of the United States. I was surprised at how many representatives and their staff understood the message and how well it was received. I got a chance to visit the office of Congressman Ro Khanna, who was the representative from my district in California. We chatted about public school education and agreed to arrange a time for him to visit my classroom.

As ACTFL 2018 Teacher of the Year, I attended 19 events across the country. Attending four regional conferences, NECTFL (Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages), CSCTFL (Central States Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages), SWCOLT (The Southwest Conference on Language Teaching), and SCOLT (Southern Conference on Language Teaching) gave me an opportunity to learn best practices of language teaching from fascinating teachers of all languages.

The most illuminating lesson that I have learned from all these visits and conversations around the nation is that the language field is no longer just about teaching and learning a language in the classroom; rather, we should bring more content to our students to nurture future citizens and leaders who will be equipped with a global vision, intercultural competence, and strong communication skills. We language teachers need to expand our minds and ways of thinking about the content that we deliver to our students. Language learning is truly about cultural understanding, tolerance, and empathy. Do we feel confident to go beyond textbooks? Are we ready to adopt authentic materials on global and social issues in our teaching? Is it possible to discuss topics such as gender, ethnic, and racial relationships with our students? We need to work together to help our students face these new challenges.

It was a pleasure to interact with Chinese language teachers from every part of the nation. I was thrilled to see so many Chinese teachers receiving recognition from leaders around the world for their dedication and hard work. World language teachers’ associations in many states have awarded Chinese language teachers as their Teacher of the Year––New Mexico, Florida, Indiana, and Washington are some examples. At the opening ceremony of 2018 ACTFL annual conference in New Orleans, I was so proud to see Ms. Yan Wang, a Chinese language teacher from Alaska, standing on the stage as one of the finalists representing the Pacific Northwest Region. With the leadership of all of these remarkable Chinese language teachers, we surely can foresee a bright future for Chinese language education.    

I enjoyed going around the country and providing professional learning workshops with Chinese teachers. When I talked with them, a question that popped up frequently was, “How did you become a Teacher of the Year?” My answer to that question is, “It might not be a good idea to focus on how to become a Teacher of the Year, but rather to focus on how to become the best teacher you can be.”

Nine years ago, I started my teaching career fresh out of graduate school. Although I was convinced that I had received the best possible teacher preparation, I have come to realize that teaching in itself is a constant evolutionary process. I clearly remember my first year of teaching, being overwhelmed, lacking direction, and dealing with an insurmountable level of stress. I desperately began to seek for any assistance I could find in my local area. Months later I stumbled upon the Stanford World Language Project (SWLP), a professional learning program designed to support teachers of world languages and cultures. Since discovering SWLP, I have become a committed member of this professional learning community. It has become the bedrock of my professional growth as both a teacher of Chinese language and culture and as a member of the teaching profession. I know there are many wonderful professional learning programs out there, and I’d like to encourage my Chinese language colleagues to take every opportunity possible to enrich your toolbox, find your learning partners, and join a professional learning community.

Another challenge that many Chinese teachers face is that you might be the only Chinese teacher in your school or the only one in your school district. Where to find resources and support is another concern shared by many of us. One suggestion I have is to be open-minded and believe that we can benefit from working with teachers of other languages. Sure, Chinese language is quite different from Spanish and French; yet, the fundamental language teaching principles are the same. Before jumping to the conclusion that a certain Spanish teaching strategy will not work for Chinese, let’s think twice and ask ourselves if we can tweak the strategy a little bit and make it work for Chinese. At the same time, we can take advantage of local and national Chinese language organizations and associations, who strive to provide platforms for Chinese teachers to learn, share, and collaborate. For example, the Chinese Language Association of Secondary-Elementary Schools (CLASS) has a Resource section on its website, with student work showcases, teaching resources, and conference presentations. The Chinese Early Language and Immersion Network (CELIN) at Asia Society is another useful resource.

We all see that more and more K–12 schools have launched Chinese programs in recent years. It is a great start, which can be followed by a critical question: “How do we maintain and grow these programs?” Teachers need to possess 21st century skills and 21st century vision in order to teach 21st century students well. I have often been asked the question, “For your level 1 students, how many Chinese characters do you teach in one school year?” Undoubtedly, learning characters is a very important part of our instruction. However, we shouldn’t forget that there is a bigger picture, to build students’ language and cultural proficiency. Can they communicate about various topics in culturally appropriate ways? Do they feel confident when they interact, in the target language, with peers, teachers, and even with people outside the classroom? Are they going to continue learning Chinese after graduating from the program? Our ultimate goal should be helping our students become lifelong Chinese language and culture learners. Simply counting the number of Chinese characters will not help them achieve this goal.

One aspect of Chinese culture offers the metaphor of a “gardener” to describe the role of a teacher. In this cultural landscape, students are depicted as flowers. There are many different types of flowers, and they are all beautiful and have equal potential for growth and development. As a “gardener,” a teacher yearns to have all of the flowers bloom with all of their majestic colors, beauty, and splendor. My dear Chinese teacher friends and colleagues, let’s work together and work hard to cultivate the soil, plant seeds, and provide them with adequate sunshine and water so they will bring us joy in marveling at the beauty of our blooming flowers!