Personalized Learning: An International Perspective

This post is from PLP Pathways contributor Alison Gauthier who is

currently teaching at an international school in China.

My husband and I grew up in Vermont, and taught in central Vermont for several years at a public high school. While discussing purchasing a house one evening during dinner two years ago, we realized that we wanted a different near-future for ourselves. We decided to pursue careers as international teachers. Our mutual love of traveling and adventure was a large contributor to the decision. However, we also wanted to push the edges of our professional comfort zones. Extensive applications, Skype interviews, a job fair, and two contracts later, we signed on to teach Business and Biology in Qingdao, China for two years.

Prior to leaving, we posed every possible question. How different would life and work in Qingdao, China be? Would we be able to handle the transition and continue to be successful teachers in a foreign place? What cultural barriers would come between us and our students? Would we experience “tiger moms” that we had heard about from friends that had visited China? Would the students be able to understand us? Would we fit in?

Since arriving in China to work an all-Chinese private high school this past August, I have found more similarities than differences in the “cultures of education” present in central Vermont and Qingdao, China. While the food eaten and the words spoken look and sound very different between these two cultures, there are several common educational paradigms.

Know Your Students

I have found that circle share-outs to start and end class have been the most useful tool to really get to know my students. By posing a “softball” question to the group (Share one thing you found interesting in today’s lesson, What is your favorite food?, Where is your hometown?, Share one thing you still don’t understand about respiration), I have learned who my students ARE.

Halloween 2018 in Biology class

Individual conversations before or after class, or at lunch time, have also helped me to better understand my students. While the minutes seem limited during the day, being *present* for my students, and taking time to ask them how they are doing and how they families are, has gone a long way in knowing how to help them both academically and socially.

Parents as Partners

In China, the majority of our students are not local, and they board at the school dormitory. This would appear to create a disconnect between home and school life.

In Vermont, it was commonplace to call parents, email updates, or invite parents in for a discussion. Due to the language barriers and boarding-nature of the school, this connections cannot happen directly between teachers and parents. However, each student has a Chinese-speaking tutor. The tutor is the student’s point person at school, and knows the student best.

The tutor stays with them all four years at the high school, and sees their small group of tutees each morning for 25 minutes. The tutor plays a crucial role as the link between the parents and the school. Through the tutor maintaining trust and a positive relationship/dialogue with the parents (who often live a plane flight away from the school), parents are still partners in the decisions made related to the students.

Listen to your Students

“Feedback is a gift.” When I worked in Central Vermont, my students completed Google forms to give me valuable feedback related to my teaching.

Students in Biology Lab

Within the first two months of teaching Biology here in Qingdao, I devised a similar feedback form for my students. I asked help from a Chinese-speaking Biology teacher with the translation. I was nervous that my students, out of respect and/or fear, wouldn’t give me feedback that I could employ.

However, I was thrilled by the various ideas students had to help me become a better teacher. My students were constructive yet kind in their feedback. Some ideas included using more visuals, having students in the class translate Biological concepts that are confusing, more labs (which I have integrated to once a week at minimum), and more homework problem sets. Accepting feedback and being able to change to accommodate the learner is challenging but essential in the world of education.

Analysis of the Feedback - This was showed to students following the survey.


While the move to living and working in China has been, as is expected, a transition, the core aspects of my teaching have not changed.

The same principles that enabled me to find success in a public high school in Central Vermont are still present here. Best practices don’t change just because the language and food does. Parents still want to be involved in their child’s academics. Students still want to be heard by their teachers, and know that they have a voice. Relationships are still at the heart of the educational culture here in Qingdao, China.