Teaching reflections through a Chinese Lens: Part One

Jude McKerrecher

Jude McKerrecher started teaching Modern Languages in Edinburgh. She was curriculum leader at Liberton High School and then curriculum leader at Craigmount High School. She is currently on secondment to The Confucius Institute for Scotland’s Schools based at Scotland’s National Centre for Languages in the University of Strathclyde. This remit takes her to schools across Scotland to support teachers in Primary and Secondary schools with the introduction and progression of Mandarin and includes supporting projects, designing and delivering Professional Learning for teachers and supporting the Hanban teachers with training throughout their time in Scottish schools.

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You’re off to great places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, so…get on your way!” – Dr Seuss

The opportunity to be immersed in the language and culture of another country provides a valuable opportunity for increasing cultural awareness first-hand, interacting with native speakers and developing new perspectives. A little over a year ago, I left Scotland to spend two full weeks in China with a group of Scottish teachers. Our group was composed of Primary and Secondary teachers. We were all heading to the Beijing Language and Culture University to learn Mandarin, enhance our understanding of Chinese culture and gain new ideas we could bring back to our own work contexts.

The first time I had met many of these teachers was at Glasgow Airport prior to our departure, which would take us to Amsterdam and then Beijing, flying across time zones and experiencing Chinese cultural activities. Here are some honest reflections, experiences and memories from the teacher immersion visit, which is organised annually by the Confucius Institute for Scotland’s Schools in partnership with the Chinese Hanban.

The Journey Begins – “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” – Lao Tzu

The journey to China was exciting, with that uplifting feeling of going somewhere, the anticipation of new adventures with new people in a different country, the fantastic opportunity to take in some spectacular views of land and mountains from afar and the vast, blue sky with its puffy white clouds below us. At one point there was just a huge, shining, glowing light and a massive stretch of orange as dusk fell and the sun set. I felt completely in awe of the world beyond the window and the wonder of our planet. I remember being struck by a feeling of total respect and sense of how small and fragile we all are in comparison to our massive world, much of which we never really see! This brought home the importance of such an immersion opportunity for school students who can benefit not just from their time in China but also from the new ways in which they can see their world.

Being Bold in Beijing! “Be brave, take risks, nothing can substitute experience.” – Paulo Coehlo

We arrived mid-morning Beijing time to a bright and sunny day. In fact, the first thing to hit me as we left the airport was the heat. This, combined with a complete lack of in-flight sleep, gave me the feeling that I was moving for the remainder of the first week. The student accommodation really was like going back to university days, with the single bed in the corner, the desk and lamp, the shower and the tiny space. It was not long before we were all into the swing of the experience and adapting to the heat and time difference!

I found our group incredibly supportive of each other, eager to make the time together was a positive and upbeat experience. It was great to have such a mixture of people: men and women, young people and older people, Primary and Secondary colleagues and teachers from different subject areas. It was very interesting to see, as the time progressed, which activities people took to and how different we were in our approach to learning and the enjoyment we got from differing tasks.

The campus itself was brilliant – we arrived during Beijing International Week, and flags from many different countries lined the streets. There was an abundance of sports facilities, a launderette, a student refectory for which we were issued a card and which had the most amazing choice of delicious and reasonably-priced food, and a comfortable little café, with a metro station and shops within walking distance. The shops were really handy for trying out phrases we had learnt in Mandarin - even asking for a bag or how much something cost provided a real context for trying out our new learning, and seeing the Chinese people understanding us and responding to our requests was a good confidence booster.

The Learning Experience – “I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures.” – Lao Tzu

The entire trip was made up of very meaningful learning experiences; some of them planned and some of them quite random. Since the nature of our visit was an immersion course, we did have a very comprehensive programme with a range of activities. Each week we had Mandarin lessons over three full mornings with our helpful and friendly teacher, Cai Laoshi, who demanded much audience participation and individual contributions. We covered a lot of useful content in a fairly short space of time and the chance to learn in a university setting in the country itself brought the language to life.

Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” – Benjamin Franklin

Being asked to participate in new phrases and language activities in front of a class of colleagues reminded me of how learners must feel at times in school, learning a language with their peers. It is not always comfortable to use words and phrases we are not familiar with in front of others. Seeing teachers getting embarrassed, whispering to each other to check the correct answer and working out how far down the line they were going to be asked an answer was both funny and a gentle reminder of being on the other side of learning and not facilitating the lesson!

As the Mandarin lessons progressed, there was more and more to remember, and we had work to look over in the evenings. Personally, out of all of the various lessons, I gained much more enjoyment and benefit from the Mandarin sessions. They were always challenging, very full and very progressive. Throughout the time it was important to reflect upon how we might extend our learning to our own professional contexts at home and make our experiences valuable to our learners. Otherwise there would be little point in participating.

The capacity to learn is a gift; the ability to learn is a skill; the willingness to learn is a choice.” – Brian Herbert

The culture classes consisted of paper cutting, calligraphy, Tai Chi, a tea making ceremony, Chinese film and Chinese music. Again, some of these took us out of our comfort zones. Some of the group were excellent at these activities and loved the intricacy and attention to detail required of the tasks. We also participated in Tai Chi sessions, a relaxing tea making ceremony and sessions which included music and film. We watched a Chinese film and sang two Chinese songs together, which made us laugh but which also reinforced aspects of the language. I could see the need to have the range of activities as the teachers were able to take their learning from the cultural experiences to their learners at home and give them a more relevant context for learning Mandarin. The value of language learning via film and song was also reinforced.

On one of the days, we visited senior students from Scottish schools completing an immersion course in Tianjin. Like us, they were working hard to learn the language and engage with the many cultural activities available to them. It was excellent to speak to them about their learning and compare what they were doing with our course. We welcomed the opportunity for a look around the cultural markets in the ancient town to practise our haggling skills in Mandarin. A superb boat trip on a day that was so hot, the local people were swimming in the river by the huge lion statues at the foot of the bridge.

Don’t miss the second part of Judith’s journey here!

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