Chinese language teacher Joanne Lee is on a mission to help her students nurture a love and appreciation for the subject, and break the stereotype that it is a dry and difficult one.
The first inkling Ms Joanne Lee had of her calling was while role-playing with her younger brother as children. “Back then, I’d pretend to be a teacher, and my brother would always be the student,” she chuckles.
Later, while studying for her A-level preliminary exams, she recalls how her Geography teacher didn’t hesitate to stay with her till 6.30pm after school every day for a week to coach her in her favourite subject. She went on to score a B in her prelims, and an A in her A levels.
Ms Lee, 28, shares: “I had to miss school for two weeks because I was down with chickenpox. So with just one week to go before my exams, he offered to help me catch up on the lessons I missed.
“I started to appreciate how much personal time he was sacrificing then just to help me. That made me realise that it’s teachers like him who make a difference, and further cemented my desire to do the same.”
After graduating from junior college in 2012, Ms Lee – who has a particular interest in Chinese Literature – applied for the Ministry of Education (MOE) Teaching Scholarship, and enrolled in Peking University’s Bachelor of Literature programme in 2017.
She spent four years studying in Beijing, before beginning her Master of Arts in Chinese studies at the University of London. In 2020, after receiving her postgraduate diploma in education, Ms Lee joined Edgefield Secondary School.
Engaging minds, breaking stereotypes
Currently a Chinese language teacher with the school, she hopes to gradually change students’ impression that the subject is a dry, boring and difficult one.
Besides experimenting with interactive teaching methods such as holding lively class debates, she has also introduced and co-conducted fun activities during Mother Tongue Fortnight, including a song-writing workshop to nurture an interest and appreciation of the language and culture.
“During the workshop, we brainstormed for lyrics using food like bubble tea, for example. Some of the students who were weaker in their Mother Tongue realised that it didn’t matter how simple their grasp of the language may be; they could use their creativity and imagination to bridge the gap. They saw the possibility and became more willing to try,” says Ms Lee.
As part of the Mother Tongue department’s Reading Team, she helps promote programmes aimed at cultivating reading habits in students. The initiatives provide an entry point for students to get into the habit, with specially designed activity packages to guide them in their reading of selected texts – through activities such as Sketch Noting (a form of visual note-taking) and class-based discussions.
A firm believer in the importance of being effectively bilingual, she also led the school in its first participation in the National Secondary Schools Translation Competition this year.
To prepare her students, Ms Lee introduced them to the basics of translation and helped them finetune their abilities in translating certain terminologies, phrases, nouns and even video subtitles. After the competition, she was heartened to learn that the students had enjoyed the process, and were keen to participate again.
During her lessons, she makes it a point to share some thought-provoking moments she experienced as an overseas scholar, as a way to challenge students’ cultural biases and learn to keep an open mind.
“For example, when I first arrived in Beijing, it was an eye-opener for me to see the polished, modern infrastructure blending in so well with the quaintness of the ancient capital. When I moved to London next, I was initially surprised when I first arrived that some parts of the streets were quite different from my perception of modern metropolises.
“Subsequently, through observations and interactions with schoolmates and the locals in the two cities, it was interesting to see how current affairs and literary topics could be portrayed and interpreted in different ways depending on cultural context. Based on these insightful experiences, I now encourage my own students to always consider things from different cultural and language backgrounds, before arriving at a conclusion or opinion.”
Reaping the rewards of teaching
In her first year of teaching during the pandemic, Ms Lee struggled to connect with “a particularly stoic group of students”, who were slower to warm up to her despite numerous attempts on her part to get them to open up to her.
She tried various ways to engage with them, using games, peer reviews, group work and even digital software such as Kahoot, Mentimeter and Nearpod in an attempt to boost participation and spark interest, but nothing really panned out.
Still, she persisted in reaching out to them, and her consistent efforts paid off when her students returned to school after home-based learning and were excited to see her. “I bumped into them along the school corridor, and they began waving to me. I was shocked but also very happy to see them finally opening up,” she adds.
A piece of advice Ms Lee would like to share with would-be teachers: Always remember that the students are your main focus.
She explains: “Teaching is hard work, and there are many responsibilities, such as co-curricular activities and being part of various school committees, on top of teaching. It’s sometimes easy to lose sight of the goal of teaching.
“We need to remember that we became teachers because we genuinely care for our students, and we want to motivate them to be the best that they can be.”