Being a Foreign Language Teacher - Career Talk

When someone asks Brooklyn, New York-based teacher Sayo Yamaguchi about what she does for a living, she is direct, to the point: "I'm a teacher." And then what happens? "The conversation usually ends quickly," Yamaguchi said. "I think they think they know what the teaching occupation is like." Because they were all students at some point. We all were. "I guess, a lot of times, they do say how jealous they are that teachers get a long summer break," Yamaguchi added, "but I don’t know how much they know about the work we bring home or how awesome and super fun working with students can be." To learn more about her life in the profession -- specifically, teaching Mandarin at Poly Prep Country Day School -- we raised our hand and asked "Miss Yama" the questions that aren't normally posed. The Kyoto native obliged us in the language we know best.

The first question is a simple one: Why teaching?

My dad’s an artist and my mom is a full-time housewife so, growing up, I didn’t have too much exposure to all the different occupational options that are out there. The options I saw were doctors, lawyers, teachers and office people, or work in construction or as bus driver. Office work seemed all the same kind; boring and meaningless, being in a cubicle all day. Becoming an artist seemed very cool, but I knew from my upbringing that it could be economically unstable. So I guess without much exposure, I didn’t really know what I could even do as a job. I was interested in medical/body-related work, but I felt like with coming to the U.S. starting with another language, I wouldn’t be able to do that in my second language.

As for teaching, I knew I was effective when trying to train other people to understand things. And being from overseas, having long summer vacations would help me see my family and my friends. I also like languages -- I love learning languages. Teaching Mandarin has definitely been both challenging but also a lot of fun because I got to learn as I taught, and I never have the same day twice working with students.

Having fewer options early on served you well in the long run?

Fewer options, but it also just made the most sense. Right when I was finishing my bachelor’s at Colorado College, there was this master’s program for teaching, and I was able to get in by having some prerequisites, recommendation letters and good grades. By my senior year, I had taken some education courses, taught students and volunteered here and an there. If I could get my master’s so quick -- and not have to pay for it, thanks to my scholarship -- “Why not?”

How did you end up in Colorado?

Colorado College had something called "The Block Plan," which allowed students to learn a subject every three and a half weeks. You could just keep on studying one subject at a time, and that was helpful for someone like me who didn't speak the language. Plus, I got to do study abroad in England and China.

After getting your bachelor's degree, how different was life as a graduate student?

Well, we had classes at night, and we did student teaching during the day, so we definitely had more responsibilities even though we had the status of being a student. And then I was also working as a server so that I could support myself. It was busy, time management-wise, but it was my fourth or fifth year in the U.S., so my English was much better. I was able to handle more. I knew all the people and the environment, which also made it easier.

Did you ever question your decision to teach?

I think I constantly questioned it. I used to, until about two years ago. I thought to myself, "I enjoy it and I like it, but I feel like I could do more." Teaching is definitely not easy, and I think the more uncertainty you have, the more kids smell it, and it’s harder for you to connect with kids too, which shapes your teaching experience

What did you do after earning your master's in 2007?

I applied for jobs in the U.S. and overseas, including places where I could improve my Chinese. I was accepted to an international school in Taiwan and decided to live there to have a new experience, where I ended up teaching Japanese and music for a year.

Then what?

While I was in college, my minor was in music, so I was playing lots of world music and contemporary, experimental music. I played in the Balinese music ensemble and played extensively. And right after spending a year in Taiwan, I got a scholarship through the Indonesian government to live in Bali for a year to learn the language and the music every day. It was one of those “I need to do this before I settle down; you only live once” kind of thing.

And how did you land your first full-time teaching job in the states?

By the time I finished the year in Bali, I was applying for a job back in the U.S. because my green card didn't allow me to stay outside of the country for over two years. To get back, I was applying for jobs and then there was this school in Pennsylvania that found me through this website called Carney Sandoe, which helps independent schools and teachers connect. They flew me to Pennsylvania for an interview. And then I got the job and started teaching Chinese instead of Japanese since Mandarin was getting so much more popular.


What was a day in your teaching life like in Pennsylvania?

You live in the dorm with the kids, eat breakfast and then teach. If we weren't teaching, we could go back to our apartments anytime. Coaching and being an advisor was also required, so I coached volleyball and then did skiing during the winter. And once a week, we stayed in the dorm to actively be in charge of the kids, monitor study hall, see that they were behaving, sleeping when the lights are out. Also, once a month, we had weekend duties and had to stay on campus.

What were your students like?

The school was very organized and well run, and the students were well-mannered and intelligent from families that were very well off in general. There were many international students because it's a boarding school and parents could send them and get full support from the faculty 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Of all your teaching experiences in all these countries, which has been the most formative?

I think here at Poly because they didn't have a Mandarin program, so I have started the program from zero, and I also had never really taught younger kids. I started teaching fifth grade, sixth grade and also at the upper school, level 1, which later expanded all the way from 5th grade to 12th grade. Poly is also the place I have taught for the longest, and it has been getting better and better since you really feel like you are part of the community. You get to know the parents and the students' siblings, which is really cool.

My focus is now middle school Mandarin. Now we are lucky to have another Mandarin teacher, who is a native speaker and has been a great addition to the Mandarin program at our school.

What is especially different about teaching younger kids versus older ones?

At the high school level, they are still kids, but they've grown up enough that you can talk to them like we're talking right now and they'll get it. But then with middle-school kids, you have to really start very, very differently. If I say, 'Write down your name,' they’ll ask multiple questions like, 'Where? What color? Black? Pencil? And then what do we do?' Kids in the younger age-group function so much more at the subconscious level, so the key is to have them learn without them knowing that they are learning. They might not be able to do simple tasks, but if you do things right, and work with their style of learning, they can learn the material like a sponge, literally.

Is it possible for a non-native speaker like yourself to get to a point where you could teach the higher level on equal footing?

Yes, but it's different because non-native and native speakers have different strengths and approaches. Non-natives, like me, can understand the learner’s side and cater to them with clear explanations with the approach that the audience is used to. Native speakers, on the other hand, can provide vast knowledge and experience that he or she has while being able to speak in the most natural way possible, but the teaching style/approach can be something the learners are not used to.

Sometimes, non-natives can see things natives cannot see. For example, I feel like I learned so much about Japan and Japanese after I left the country and tried teaching Japanese to foreigners because I was able to see it objectively.

What is a day in your teaching life like now in Brooklyn?

I wake up at 7:20 or 7:30 a.m., leave by 7:45 a.m. and get there around 8:00 a.m. Then at 8:20 a.m., I have the sixth-grade morning homeroom. After that I teach up to four or five different classes, different levels, different preps, 45-minute-long to 75-minute-long sessions, in different classrooms. When I'm not teaching, I'm prepping, grading, writing emails to parents and colleagues, talking with other teachers in meetings, or I’m proctoring study hall.

In the class, I try to keep every activity about 10 minutes long or so. I try to make sure the instruction is clear visually and audio-wise, and I try to have a rhythm. This activity, OK done, next, next, next. If we’re playing games, it’s better to finish when they still want to play.

By 3:30 p.m., teaching time is over. Teachers stay until 4 p.m. for extra help or maybe until 6:00 for club/sport responsibilities. I leave either around 4:00 or stay late to work and drive home. If I’m not driving, I can take the school bus with the kids.

So your work day continues even after you leave school?

Yes, I mean, just creating one exam can take up to an hour or two, and then correcting papers or exams can take hours at a time. Then you grade, do the calculations, and have reports to write. Writing just one email to a parent can take up to an hour because I want to make sure that every word is correct and that I am being professional and clear. In terms of prepping, it’s like preparing for multiple presentations full of activities and clarifications.

But a lot of things are computerized now, and this has been very helpful, I think. We have class websites with Google Classroom, where I post the class content, worksheets, assignments, and announcements, so there's a lot less paper and it’s easy for all of us to be on the same platform. It’s also helpful to manage who’s missing what and to keep track of pretty much everything, including what you covered in class in which class. None of the, “Oh, I didn’t know there was a homework due for today,” or, “Oh, my dog ate my worksheet" anymore. Also, If the parents want to be involved, I can first have them go on the website to have the general idea.

How else has technology made teaching easier or faster?

Well, with Mandarin, writing characters can take forever for new learners, so typing the characters instead helps speed up the writing/note-taking process. Also, when we're in the classroom, I can say, “Answer these questions right now,” or, “Share your sentence,” and they can all do it. I can gather all of it, and I can put it up on the projector at the same time. Everyone can be involved, and we can see and share the output right away not only in the speaking format but now in written format too. There are also online textbooks as well as many apps for learning. The ones we use a lot are online flashcards such as Quizlet, or quiz games like Kahoot!.

Why do your students choose to study Mandarin?

Some of them love characters so much and they think it’s the coolest thing. Some of them thought it was easy to learn since the basic Mandarin grammar is actually quite simple compared to Spanish and French. Some of them are the children of parents who are in business, and they might have hinted the importance of learning Mandarin. The younger ones are just simply excited by the crazy-looking characters.

At Poly in fifth grade, students get to sample three different languages; Spanish, French and Mandarin for three months each. After they complete the three-month sample class, they get to choose. No matter what, they need to do that three months of Mandarin, three months of French and three months of Spanish. The other day, I asked one student, “So why should you even take Mandarin?” And then they said, “Well, if I don’t take it, I won’t know if I like it or not. It’s like trying out new food,” which I thought was true but also really cute. Another one said, “Well, I’ll be able to communicate more with so many people,” and then some also said it would help them in the business world.

How many of your students continue on with the language, signing up for intermediate and advanced courses in Mandarin?

In the ninth grade, students can decide if they would like to stay in Mandarin or switch to another language. Last year, I taught 20 or 21 eighth-graders, and this year, maybe three of them dropped, either because they transferred to a new school or are switching to a new language. Once they choose their language in high school, they usually stay until level 4 or AP.

What kind of class environment do you try to establish?

My goal is to have the balance of warm, fun and serious in my classroom environment. If the environment is too serious, students might not feel safe to make mistakes. If they feel too relaxed, it’s hard for both the students and I to push ourselves to the point we could attain. If the class is loud but has good energy, I try to use that energy, but in another direction so that I can use it academically. I think it works so much better than controlling the class to be in absolute silence. You’ll get energized if you can do this successfully, and it usually ends up being a great class. This way, time usually passes so quickly for both me and these students, and you walk out of the classroom feeling how you would feel after a great workout or karaoke session. If I am a boring while I'm teaching, students will be bored too.

What is gratifying about teaching language to these kids?

The improvement I see in my students, or when I see how excited students are about learning Mandarin, or to see them having that light bulb moment about anything. In Mandarin level 1, everyone starts from zero; you see those crazy-looking characters and you have no idea. And after a couple of months, students will see the same alien characters but they now see more than that and are making sense out of them. It magically becomes a language to them. That moment is really powerful. They’re only 10, 11, 12 years old and, all of a sudden, Mandarin has a “meaning” and becomes real, or a part of them. It's a wow moment.

Chinese question

Do you share examples like this with your teaching peers?

Yes, sometimes at places like STARTALK workshops and the National Chinese Language Conference. And then the New York State Association of Independent Schools has their own network too, so there are workshops there. I'm also constantly exchanging ideas and tips with the other Mandarin teacher at Poly, and other teachers in general regardless of the subject or grade that they teach.

On the other side of the coin, are there challenges in teaching that you and your peers commiserate about?

One of the challenges is to connect with these kids in a real way and on the same platform. Sometimes I feel like we focus only on academics. There's the human side of this job too. Some students adore teachers and befriend us, and some see us as just another person who works for them. It sounds like, in some schools, teachers are seen as the enemy, especially when you hear stories of violence against teachers, which is unfortunate. I heard from someone, “Students don’t remember what you teach, but they will remember who you were.” I want to be able to be the teacher who can make a difference in their lives somehow not just by teaching but also by showing who I am.

Of course, there are also the challenges of drugs, cheating, bullying and also maintaining courtesy and respect to one another. For this, I believe both teachers’ and parents’ role-modelling, educating, supporting and showing enough love and care are all critical.

What advice would you give your younger self about teaching?

You don’t have to be a perfect teacher to begin with. When your teaching doesn’t go well one day, embrace it and don’t blame yourself. Focus on what you can do next class. Focus on practical, measurable steps you can make. Have fun because if you have fun, the kids will have fun, no matter what the subject matter is. You don’t need to aim to control everything and maintain absolute silence; it’s about using the energy there and shifting it somehow. Students will probably forget most of the actual content of what they have learned from me eventually, but they will always remember what kind of person you are.

What's the next stop on your career path?

I think some teachers want to do the administrative side of it eventually, but I have no interest in that. It has always been my passion to work in medicine or natural medicine since I was in high school. So that’s why a couple of years ago, I started working on my second master’s, in traditional Chinese medicine, toward becoming an acupuncturist.

Originally, I thought I would leave teaching once I got my acupuncture license because I wanted to experience a totally new life. Studying acupuncture has been amazing so far, and my life has been enriched a lot. And interestingly enough, I started enjoying teaching more and more as well, so much so that I don’t want to leave teaching even after I get my acupuncture licence. My ideal world would be to continue teaching or working with kids and also to practice acupuncture to help people. It would be awesome to give treatments to my colleagues for stress or physical issues or those parents with little children who are with their kids all day and cannot leave their children anytime. I want to be the visiting acupuncturist on weekends or during my breaks to give treatments. As I gain experience as an acupuncturist later in my life, maybe I will try teaching acupuncture classes at acupuncture schools!

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