Teaching Philosophy

When I first learned how long you could feed a man by teaching him how to fish, I thought I could finally explain why I was born to be a teacher. I was 14 and tutoring my fellow chemistry students, sharing what critical thinking skills I had, and trying not to give them any of the answers for free. But later, when I looked outward to the languages and cultures of the world, and chose to dedicate my life to teaching Chinese, I found a fascinating problem. Teaching culture and language is not like teaching science. What does it mean, in this context, to give a man a fish? If it is right to favor the second half of this famous saying, as I believe it is, what can it teach me about how to share my curiosity, so that it burns in my students for all of their lives? What if they see no value in learning to fish because their family have been farming for generations? What if they simply don’t live near water?

Traveling the world learning languages and teaching Chinese has been the greatest privilege of my life, and I work hard to keep doing it. My energy comes from two abundant sources, broadly speaking: my fascinations with culture and with language. In a sense, while Chinese is my subject matter, it is not what I teach—I teach world citizens, guiding them to discover the quirks of their own and others’ languages, and to reflect on their native cultures as part of a diverse world of cultures that are, to echo Maya Angelou, “more alike than unalike.” I am attuned to my students’ responses, whether in brief “aha!” smiles or long, constructive course evaluations. I measure my success by their curiosity.

When teaching culture, I use a “self–other–self” approach, in which students reflect on their own cultures before and after learning about my own. Today is the Moon Festival!—or Mid-Autumn Festival, Chinese New Year, or simply a calligraphy lesson with traditional brushes and ink. What are three stories you know about the moon? Why is this porcelain statue wearing such long and pointy shoes, and how did people in your cultures choose outfits in that same century? I’ve hosted students at my house to make Chinese dumplings, brought my ukulele to class to teach Chinese songs, and reinvigorated the Chinese Table at an American university with themes and hands-on activities like Chinese chess and mahjong. Just as importantly for me, I learn from the culture in which I’m a guest, whether I’m celebrating Diwali with my students in India, or asking my American students how football practice went yesterday. Rather than reciting facts and grammar rules to a silent classroom, I find the best teaching moments come when I show up with curiosity and an open mind, looking for a lively discussion.

While I don’t force-feed grammar drills like bitter medicine, I do draw from my expertise in grammar and syntax to craft the landscape of each of my courses. My Master’s research in comparative syntax between Chinese and English informs the progression of grammar points across the semester, to increase comprehensible input and build confidence with easier lessons before moving on to harder ones. I teach most of my material exclusively in Chinese, but I invite students to ask tricky grammar and vocabulary questions in tutorials and office hours, which I answer thoroughly and accessibly in English. I also use these sessions to build a rapport with each of my students as they meet the linguistic and intercultural challenges I set for them.

The future of language teaching may be uncertain, but I remain dedicated to perfecting my craft so that I can effectively lead in any Chinese department in the world. A metaphor from Confucius which I often tell my students, but which equally applies to me, is that learning is like driving a boat upstream in a river. I have accepted challenges at every turn—taking CELTA training to teach English even though it is my second language, learning how to set a context and increase student interaction in class; diplomatically balancing competing claims on the political status of Taiwan, my homeland; learning new languages, including French, Spanish, and even some Hindi, to face the same difficulties I impose on my students; starting out online teaching to take advantage of new technology; and moving to a new city, country, or continent to keep teaching, often never having been there before. If I ever see a day when I’m discouraged, I’ll still have an answer for Confucius, about paddling upstream, or for whoever wrote about that fisherman: sometimes the best way to teach is by example.