Fan Zeyuan, one of four teachers from China newly arrived in Wake County schools, asked the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders shes teaching to write a little essay on this topic: What is the relationship between the Chinese language and your dreams for your life?
Fan says shes trying to teach her students at East Garner Magnet Middle School to appreciate her countrys culture and history, and show how China is changing all the time. At the same time, she wants them to see how learning about China will be relevant for them.
The students nowadays know our world is smaller, so they will have some connection with China, she said. Knowing the Chinese language is very helpful.
Fan is one of four teachers assigned to Wake County out of a group of 129 teachers who arrived in the United States late this summer from China as part of a guest-teacher program supported by the College Board and the Confucius Institute Headquarters/Hanban, a public institution affiliated with Chinas Ministry of Education that promotes the study of Chinese language and culture.
Started in 2007, the Chinese guest-teacher program is now in 30 states. North Carolina, along with Utah and Ohio, has the largest concentrations of guest teachers.
This year, North Carolina added five schools in Wake County to the guest-teacher program. In addition to East Garner Middle and Garner Magnet High School, the guest teachers are in three elementary schools: Smith in Raleigh, Farmington Woods in Cary and Aversboro in Garner.
Those five schools are among 48 in the state where more than 7,000 students will be learning Chinese this year, mostly taught by guest teachers from China.
U.S. government officials say Chinese is one of the languages essential for U.S. economic and strategic interests, but the federal government has halted much of the funding for K-12 language-learning.
Technically, the department has no specific funding for K-12 language instruction, U.S. Department of Education spokesman Stephen Spector said.
Most of the $63 million appropriated for international education this year will go to higher education programs.
Last year, Congress eliminated grants under the Foreign Language Assistance Program. Elementary and secondary schools had used the grants to create or expand foreign language classes.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, speaking at a foreign languages summit the CIA hosted in December 2010, listed the education system as one of the reasons so many Americans arent learning other languages.
Foreign language instruction in the United States is spotty and, unfortunately, on the decline, Duncan said.
In 2008, one-quarter of elementary schools offered language classes, down from one-third in 1997. And a shortage of foreign language instructors often prevents schools from hiring teachers, Duncan added.
Guest teachers fill shortage
Fan, like others in the Chinese Guest Teacher Program, is a fluent English speaker who learned the language entirely in China, beginning in middle school. Today, most Chinese children start learning English in elementary school, she said.
She also has taught Chinese in Thailand. While in North Carolina, she plans to visit museums and take some fun classes, such as American cooking, to get to know people.
She said she also wants to learn more about American education.
In China, most of the people think the education in America is almost the best in the world, so I want to know what kind of education is here, she said.
This is the fifth year East Garner Middle has offered Chinese classes, but the first year that the elementary schools that feed into it also are offering Chinese, said Cathy Williams, East Garners principal.
Fan is by far the best teacher weve had, Williams said. My parents are already amazed how much Chinese their kids know.
Fan and other teachers in the guest program in North Carolina attend professional development classes through the University of North Carolinas Center for International Understanding. The center is in its fourth year of promoting the guest-teacher program in the state.
Center spokeswoman Stephanie Caplan said the guest teachers help fill a shortage, and support from China makes them easier for districts to afford. The Chinese government offsets $13,000 of each teachers salary, said Matt Friedrick, the director of the centers K-12 education program. The Chinese government also pays for their travel.
Theyre coming over here to help us out and to have a great experience and learn a lot more about American education and how we teach, Friedrick said. They learn a lot about North Carolina and go back with a whole new set of friends and experiences.
Language classes disappearing
Desa Dawson, the president of the National Council of State Supervisors for Languages, which helps select the guest teachers, said there were critical shortages of language teachers in all languages throughout the country.
School districts are giving up language programs because they cant find teachers, she said. Because the classes are disappearing, its difficult to say how many more teachers are needed.
The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages says learning a language gives students many life skills, including practice in understanding others, and communicating ideas, developing flexibility in unfamiliar situations and better understanding other cultural perspectives.
The College Board, the not-for-profit organization that runs the SAT and Advanced Placement tests, helped start the Chinese guest-teacher program in 2007. That same year, it rolled out its AP program in Chinese language and culture, which is comparable to second-year college-level Chinese. The guest-teacher program helps prepare students who want to take the AP course.
The number of students taking the AP Chinese exam nationwide grew from 3,261 in 2007 to 9,357 in 2012.
But in language-learning as a whole, the United States is far from filling the need, Dawson said.
With all the emphasis on 21st-century skills with the globalization of the economy, with the world becoming smaller because of technology, we have so many opportunities out there, and I think were behind really, were behind most nations in teaching second languages, she said.
Schoof: 202-383-6004; twitter: @reneeschoof