Teachers as role models: The story of an American teacher in China

“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J.R.R. Tolkien

I understood from my earliest teaching days the importance of my role in the classroom not just as an educator, but as a female role model. While teaching and coaching debate in America, I regularly had students emulate me both academically and personally. This role was certainly magnified as an international teacher. I was many “firsts” for students I taught around the globe.

First native English speaker, first American, first young female, first Jew, first history teacher, first debate teacher; the list goes on. After teaching for 5 years in 4 different countries, and experiencing students of a variety of races and socio economic statuses; as different as my students are, they all have something in common. They are all malleable and the role of educators in their lives is critical to their future development.

The teacher as a role model: Students notice everything!

I’m sure we can all recall a time in our life sitting in a classroom analyzing a teacher. Kids notice absolutely every detail about their teachers; from their clothing to their diction to their friends on the teaching staff. Some kids even get a little too deep in my opinion into “knowing” their teachers these days with the development of social media. A previous student of mine downloaded a picture of a colleague from Facebook and used it as their computer background. See evidence below:

American Teacher in China - STEM Education - CoderZ Blog

With that being said, there is a reason behind this. Students are deeply interested in their teachers, and some spend more time with their teachers than their own parents. I taught a number of students throughout the years in which that was the case. The way teachers present themselves and behave is incredibly important to their success as educators and also how they impact their students. Teenagers especially are shaped by their surroundings and influencers during these years greatly impact them as they grow into young adults.

As an educator I tried my best to be conscious of this and present myself as a positive female role model in all aspects of my life, inside and outside the classroom. The biggest challenge to my mission was during the time I lived in Suzhou, China, where I taught for the last 3 years. I taught college level American history to Chinese high school students. The students that I taught are in the extreme minority of the population of the country. My students educational path was set when they entered our program to pursue their college education abroad; mostly in America. Most Chinese students only experience the Chinese education system and never work or travel abroad.

Given the “Great Firewall of China” and their previous Chinese education, my student’s knowledge of anything outside of China was either non existent or extremely limited. Also, due to the Chinese government’s immigration policies, China is an extremely homogeneous country. There are a limited of the number of foreigners who can live and work inside the country. So, it is very rare to be an American in China; especially a young, female, Jewish one. I was one of few people like me in my entire city and everytime I left my apartment I got stared at head to toe and had my photo taken.

I was certainly the first of many things for my teenage Chinese students. I was the first American for nearly all of them, and they had already committed to going to college in the USA. So how I acted and presented myself on a daily basis was critical for how they would interact with and understand Americans in the future.

American teacher in China - STEM education - CoderZ Blog

Also, I was conscious that how I taught them the history of America would impact their ability to understand it, and the rest of the world. Much of what I introduced them to was completely new information and/or the opposite of everything they had been previously taught. Often I would stop lecturing and look at a classroom of astonished faces.

Many of my students would wait before or after class to ask me more questions! I thought this was amazing.

The teacher’s mission in the classroom

As a teacher I wanted to help bring my students into the progressive global environment which they would soon be entering but new little about.

Teaching American history mandated discussions on all sorts of critical issues: equality, racism, sexism, GLBT rights, genocide, capitalism, and democracy, just to name a few. I helped them think past what they had been previously taught about historical issues and outside cultures. I exposed them to new ideas, and also a new perspective.

This was challenging, but so rewarding. I know my students have a better understanding not just of US history, but of the international world after taking my class.

American teacher in China - STEM EDUCATION - CoderZ's Cyber Robotics

In conclusion, I know I am very different than any other woman my students experienced in their lifetime. I tried my best to be a positive American female role model both with my teaching and my ideas.

About the author

Sara Kirsch, CoderZ, STEM and Cyber Robotics - International teacherSara Kirsch is from Detroit, Michiganand is an experienced international teacher, debate coach, and Business Development Representative at CoderZ by Intelitek.

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