by Logan Gruber
Qian Zhang has traveled a long way to be in Sauk Rapids-Rice, and she is sure she wants to stay.
She taught kindergarten through fifth-grade classes last school year in Rice, Pleasantview and Mississippi Heights elementary schools, and she is excited to be back again this year. Two additional teachers, Wei Liu, also known as Holly, and Huan Liu, also known as Eva, will be joining the schools.
“The idea of global confidence is very exciting to us,” said Dr. Daniel Bittman, superintendent of Sauk Rapids-Rice schools, in a Newsleader interview.
“We recognize these learning opportunities are very important, to prepare for college and life,” Bittman said of having native Chinese speakers in the classroom.
Independent School District 47 has developed a partnership with St. Cloud State University and the Confucius Institute that has allowed them the opportunity to host native Chinese teachers and send a group of nine high school students to China to serve on youth delegations.
“The staff and community are so excited to have Zhang back and to welcome Holly and Eva as well,” said Pleasantview Principal Aby Froiland.
Froiland said the PTAs and PTACs, as well as the “Green and Gold” group, really stepped up to help prepare for the teachers from China, from helping provide goods for the teachers’ apartment to offering to help throughout the year.
In June, Bittman had the chance to travel to Beijing, China to interview additional candidates for teaching positions in ISD 47. Bittman spent about two weeks in China, and Zhang was able to join him to help interview for new teachers for Sauk Rapids-Rice. Zhang not only was able to help prepare the teachers for what they will experience overseas, but she also helped the school pick better candidates and her roommates since the three Chinese teachers will share an apartment in Sauk Rapids.
Last year, Zhang lived with a different family each trimester and taught in a different school every trimester as well.
This year, the teachers will each have a specific school they work with.
Holly will work in the Middle School, teaching eighth grade and in addition will co-teach a World Cultures class with a teacher from ISD 47. Eva will be at Mississippi Heights teaching third through fifth grade, and Zhang will be at Rice Elementary one day per week and Pleasantview the rest of the week, also teaching third through fifth grade.
The three teachers will ride the school bus from their apartment to school every day. The apartment was furnished through donations from parent-teacher groups as well as individuals through a Target gift registry.
The salary, airline tickets and apartment for the teachers is provided through a grant that is funded by the Confucius Institute, SCSU and Hanban, an abbreviation for the Chinese National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language.
Zhang said she has been using WeChat, a mobile text and voice messaging app from China, to keep in touch with Eva and Holly as they prepare to come to Sauk Rapids-Rice. She says they are very excited to arrive in a few days, and she is excited to have Chinese-speaking friends nearby.
Zhang, who is also known by her chosen English name, Diana, comes to the area all the way from Jilin province, China. Jilin shares a border with both North Korea and Russia, and is about as far north as Minnesota is.
About a year ago, the Confucius Institute at SCSU helped Zhang find a position in the Sauk Rapids-Rice School District. Zhang had joined the Confucius Institute program in China after earning her master’s degree in teaching Chinese as a second language.
“Dr. Kathy Johnson [director of the Confucius Institute at SCSU] said to me, ‘Oh, you want to be a teacher? I’ll find some interesting jobs for you.’ And I love it here!” Zhang said during a Newsleader interview.
Last year, Zhang lived with multiple host families across the district. She spent each trimester in a different elementary school.
“I feel like I have a home here,” Zhang said. “One family was a hockey family, and they played hockey every week; I went to a lot of hockey games! . . . Another was a farm family, and it was my first time touching a horse!”
Zhang said the family she lived with over Halloween last year gave her quite a scare.
“The son wore a scary costume and knocked on my window at night, and it really scared me!” she said, laughing.
When Zhang first came to the district, she stayed with Brad and Xiao Ling Olson. Brad is a teacher at Pleasantview, and his wife is a native of China. Zhang said Olson took many photos of her time in Sauk Rapids-Rice so she could share them with her family.
“Sometimes I think teaching here is a dream,” Zhang said during her interview, “because when I was a little girl I was quiet. When I went to college, I gained more confidence. And now I have this great opportunity!”
Zhang said sometimes she worries about her English pronunciation, but the students tell her not to worry since their Chinese pronunciation is not perfect either.
“When Zhang first started teaching in Sauk Rapids-Rice, a little boy in one of her classes said, ‘One more step closer to getting to China!’ It was so exciting for him to know he was this much closer to achieving his dream because of her,” Froiland said.
“The challenge with teaching anywhere is how best to communicate with students . . . but I didn’t have to worry about that, because the students here are very curious and friendly!” Zhang said. “Yes, I am a teacher, but sometimes I am also their friend.”
“Sauk Rapids-Rice is my home, and I would like to stay here longer than just these two years,” Zhang said.