Long-held dream and passion for teaching take USF alum Gardner to China

July 20, 2016

USF Education Alum Chris Gardner giving the peace sign with his Chinese students

Ever since choosing China as a sixth-grade research project, Chris Gardner felt destined to go there. After a year teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) to college students in the country’s Shandong province, the 2014 USF education graduate recently decided to extend his stay.

“I plan to teach in China as long as I am passionate about it,” he said. “I hope it will be for many years. China feels like home to me now.”

During the past year he taught freshmen and sophomores oral English. While most have about 10 years of English study already under their belts, that learning has been under the tutelage of Chinese instructors. “Their sole purpose of learning English is to pass a college entrance exam. So the knowledge of English is there, but they struggle to apply and use it effectively. So the rewarding part about being their foreign English teacher is that I get to witness them taking their knowledge of English and applying it to practical situations,” Chris said.

“I help my students make that leap by beginning each class with pronunciation skills and then providing different phrases and skills to be used in certain situations, such as small talk or ordering food at a restaurant. I try to give them plenty of opportunities to practice. I scaffold the instruction and slowly release responsibility to them and take some of the ‘training wheels’ off.”

Since many of his students have lived such a structured life before they started college, it’s fun watching them take wing, he said. “For most of them, this is their first taste of a significant amount of freedom, more so than the transition for American students from high school to college. In China, students attend high school from sunup to sundown with limited opportunities for any extracurricular activities to break up the academic schedule. So when they come to college, they are away from home and the tedious schedule of classes and studying.

“This allows me to help them adjust and provide some guidance and tips. Their childlike demeanor and this new sense of freedom has some of them lost. I get to come in, talk about life and help them get a firm grip. It’s refreshing to help them mature into young men and women. The language and cultural barriers are challenging. Sometimes it’s difficult to understand where they are coming from because I have only lived here for about a year; I am still a long way from understanding the culture and speaking the language, but thankfully they show me a lot of grace.”

He learned his passion for teaching and for understanding humanity at his first home—the USF Department of Education.

“During my coursework at USF I was placed at different types of schools, including private, public, low socio-economic and diverse. These schools helped me adjust to the different atmospheres of a classroom. It has taught me that no two students are the same, no matter where they are from,” he said.

All of my education professors instilled in me a passion to teach, to always reflect and look for ways to improve. – Chris Gardner, ’14

“All of my education professors instilled in me a passion to teach, to always reflect and look for ways to improve. USF is a family that cares about each individual. To reverence the unique dignity of each person is to lay aside our own interests for the interests of others and to understand their perspective on life. This certainly has helped my experience here in China. China has a lot of people, with so many voices that want to be heard. I have the great privilege to be their teacher and listen. USF helps us to develop a servant’s heart.”

The pace and complexity of life in China can put that heart through its paces. “Chinese culture is like a Rubik’s cube,” Chris said. “China has presented many challenges and confusions, but it also many beautiful sights and friendships. It is often said, ‘If you’re not confused, you haven’t been paying attention.’ The language is difficult. Navigating the traffic of people and cars is difficult. But it is an amazing sensation when you successfully communicate with a street vendor about how many apples you want to buy or ride your bike to the shopping center without having a close encounter with a pedestrian or moving ‘thing.’ It’s complicated and breathtaking. As soon as I start to understand this culture or an individual student, I am thrown into a whirlwind of possibilities that can turn out well or cause more confusion. Although it takes a lot of patience and humility to learn the culture and language, it has given me a new appreciation for how beautifully different the culture is.”

He has plans as he considers long-term teaching in China. “I envision getting my master’s degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) to grow in my ability to teach here and to keep up with the increasing requirements of Chinese universities. A dream of mine, once I have achieved a proficient level of Chinese, is to start a basketball camp for the Chinese youth.”