When New Zealand native Marie Fiorello was a youth, she spent a year in the United States as an exchange student.
Now a Howard County resident, Fiorello wanted to share that experience with others. She and Jenny Davis, regional manager for AFS Intercultural Programs, have been instrumental in bringing AFS' teacher exchange program to the area.
Davis heard about the teacher exchange at a national meeting. "You know how someone is excited and it's contagious? I started to think ... maybe there would be enough interest to start the program here."
Although AFS Intercultural Programs has sponsored teacher exchanges for 30 years, it is new to the Baltimore area. Three teachers, two from China and one from Thailand, are spending the year at local schools.
One of the teachers is Ningchi "Jessie" Wang, whose host school is Howard High in Ellicott City. She is from Hangzhou, in southeast China, where she teaches English at a foreign language immersion school. The other exchange teachers are at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia and Loch Raven Academy in Baltimore County.
"The reason why I want to come here is I want to improve my English and to see a different world so I can also improve my teaching techniques when I go back to China," Wang said.
Local principals volunteered to be hosts for the teachers. "I think that whenever we have an opportunity to bring people of Jessie's background to our school, we benefit," Howard High Principal Mary Day said.
In addition to teaching at Howard, Wang and the other teachers act as cultural ambassadors to county schools. This week, Wang visited Bollman Bridge Elementary in Jessup.
In her presentation, Wang said, "I talk about ... the school system in China, what students do in different levels. Also, I talk about the food and how people live, and also our music, our customs."
Said Day, "She's been an asset to us as a visiting teacher. ... She's had a lot of information for us on Chinese history and culture, and that's important as well, when we can bring diversity to our school community."
Wang also spent one month at Long Reach High School. Working as an assistant teacher, she was able to help teachers with students who speak Chinese and Vietnamese, which she also speaks.
"I think I've picked up some teaching techniques," Wang said. "I think in China we teach everything very difficult. ... But here, teachers make things easier so that students feel a sense of achievement. I think it's a good way. I want to encourage them."
In addition to teaching styles, Wang said, American high schools differ from those in China because of their flexibility. "The students can choose the subject they want to learn, but in China everyone has to study the same," she said.
Davis said that such differences can be overwhelming when teachers arrive. "They don't know how to work the system," she said. Exchange teachers are assigned mentors from the school staff to help them adjust.
"This has been a year where we've had to learn how to do the program. All the mentor teachers -- they've really worked hard to try to make it work," Davis said.
After living with one family in the Howard High area for several months, Wang is looking for a new host family. She is living with Fiorello, who is an AFS volunteer. Fiorello is Wang's liaison to schools and host families and co-chairwoman, with Davis, of the teacher exchange program .
"We do try and have them at two or three different spots so they will have a variety of experiences of how different families work," Fiorello said.
"Here people like to speak up when they have problems, but Chinese people are more conservative," Wang said. "I have to learn to speak and to tell people what I'm really thinking. And I think that's not really easy to do in the beginning, but now I think I'm much better."
More schools, families
Said Fiorello: "It takes a while to get these things going and for the schools to appreciate exactly what the teachers can do for them. Hopefully, with each passing year ... more schools and families will participate."
Information: 800-876-2377, Ext. 122, or go to www.afs.org/usa.