Highly-motivated students and a warm greeting from the staff have made visiting Chinese teacher Bai Jinguo feel welcome in his first month at Willmar Senior High. Bai clasped his hands and bowed slightly to greet the Willmar School Board on Monday in a traditional Chinese greeting.
Bai told the board about his background and talked about his first impressions of Willmar during a work shop meeting. Senior High Principal Rob Anderson and Chinese instructor Todd Lynum also talked with the board.
Bai, 29, is one of just 15 English teachers from China chosen to spend a year teaching in the United States in the Teachers of Critical Languages Program.
Willmar is one of 10 high schools in the nation to host a Chinese teacher. Some other teachers are at middle or elementary schools. The program also places Arabic-speaking teachers in U.S. schools. Grant funding is provided for the visiting teachers.
Perhaps it's a sign of how much he misses his wife that Bai showed board members several photos of his wedding while he was telling the board about himself.
"This opportunity is a great gift," he told the board, but it does come with a price. He spent his first anniversary half a world away from his wife. He is spending a year away from his job teaching English and serving as head of lesson preparation at the top high school in Harbin, population 5 million.
Bai also told the board about his school and about the books he's worked on and the awards he's won in his career. Students apply to public schools and are admitted to different schools depending on their test scores, he said.
Bai told the board that he has found a warm welcome in Willmar.
"I feel very comfortable at Willmar High School," he said.
His home is at about the same latitude, so he is used to cold winters, but he has found Willmar to be warmer than his home area so far. "Willmar is warmer, both the weather and the people, I think," he said.
Anderson talked about his trip to China last summer as part of an American education delegation. He toured schools and was able to meet with principals and students.
A Chinese principal was surprised that American public schools accept all students, and said, through a translator, that "it can't be done," Anderson said.
At one meeting, students were asked to offer advice to their American counterparts, he said. Four things were offered: Don't party so much, study each day until 9 p.m., do your duty to make your country better, and always do your best to honor your family.
Anderson explained why Chinese is offered at the high school.
By 2025, 55 percent of the people in the world will live in Asia, and just 5 percent will live in North America.
That and the increasingly global nature of commerce are two reasons growing numbers of students in the United States are studying Chinese.
"If our kids aren't aware of China, they need to be," said Willmar Senior High Principal Rob Anderson said.
Every Chinese child studies English from kindergarten through high school, he said. With the country's huge population, that means 200 million Chinese students are studying English. The United States only has 55 million total students. Of those, just 7 percent of those studying foreign languages study a lesser-taught language like Chinese or Arabic.
Lynum said he wasn't sure how many schools in the state offer Chinese classes. Willmar has one of the few programs outside the metropolitan area. Some outstate schools offer Chinese through online or interactive TV classes, but "in-class teachers are very unusual," he said.
Having Bai in the district offers a number of advantages for the 184 students in Chinese classes this school year, Lynum said.
It gives students immediate access to a native-speaker, so the classes can emphasize the spoken word even more strongly. "It's just thrilling to see that excitement," he said.
Because Bai is an experienced teacher, they can break classes into smaller groups. "He's been a delightful person; he just jumped in," Lynum said.