What Mandarin learners can learn from Kay McLeod’s career

When Kay McLeod was given a Teach Yourself Chinese Characters kit for Christmas, she became instantly fascinated by Mandarin. Her love of Chinese language and culture has blossomed since then, giving her unforgettable experiences and leading to her current role as Coordinator of the Mandarin Excellence Programme (MEP).

The MEP is an intensive language programme for schools in England which currently has almost 7000 students on track to fluency in Mandarin. In a guest lecture at our Business Confucius Institute in February 2021 MEP Coordinator Kay spoke about her own Mandarin learning journey, what led her into teaching, and what her current role has taught her about Mandarin teaching in the UK. 

In this post we share some of the lessons we can learn from her story. You can also watch the talk on Facebook, where it is separated into a series of short videos on different topics.

Lessons for aspiring Mandarin teachers

What makes a good teacher?

Having taught Chinese herself and worked closely with Mandarin teachers around the country, Kay is ideally placed to comment on the qualities that make a good Mandarin teacher.

People skills

First and foremost, Kay believes that being a caring person and enjoying working with others is paramount. In addition to spending every day with students in the classroom, teachers have lots of pastoral responsibilities.

The ability to cope with pressure

Teaching is not an easy job and you must be able to manage your time and efforts to work with a busy schedule and tight deadlines. As Kay noted, your ‘free’ periods are not actually ‘free’ time!

Know why you’re doing it

Kay highlighted the importance of having a real passion for your subject. After spending time in China she was really driven to give other people that kind of experience.

It amounted to an experience which I fervently wish for every young person learning Chinese.

Sound subject knowledge

As a Mandarin teacher there is a good chance you will be the only subject expert in your school – so you have to know your stuff, and be adept at finding resources and support.

Watch this section of the talk on Facebook.

Career development for Mandarin teachers

Kay outlined various opportunities and routes for progression open to Mandarin teachers. Watch these clips on Facebook to hear more from Kay on this:

Overcoming reservations about offering Mandarin

Pupils have to start from scratch with Mandarin and this can make schools nervous about the effect on their results. Kay pointed out reassuringly that curriculums in schools reflect this fact, so teachers and students alike should not be put off from embracing Chinese.

Lessons and inspiration for all Mandarin learners

Don’t be afraid to push beyond your comfort zone

Kay’s experiences show that embracing challenging situations can pay off later in ways you couldn’t have predicted. For example, Kay described the “completely overwhelming but fantastic” experience of being put into a native speaker undergraduate literature class whilst studying in China.

She reaped the benefits when she took on an intriguing role writing English subtitles for Chinese opera and was able to draw upon her knowledge from that class. Learn more about that job in this clip from the talk.

Get yourself out to China!

Kay’s advice to anyone considering starting their journey in China is to ‘just get out there!’

As the only foreigner in her work unit at the Chinese Opera company she was thrown in at the deep end, both linguistically and culturally. During her two years in this role Kay formed close friendships with her colleagues, improved her spoken Chinese, and also gained valuable insight into the culture of narratives and storytelling in Chinese literature, including details such as the significance of colour, character and plot.

Seize all opportunities

From Kay’s story we can see the importance of grabbing opportunities with both hands when they arise, and actively searching for them when they don’t.

She said there are some examples where aspiring Mandarin teachers have successfully made the case for offering Mandarin in their school, and encourages teachers to go for it if their headteacher is open to the idea.

To those looking for work experience she suggested identifying organisations that might want to expand globally and pitching your skills as a Chinese speaker who can help them work with China.

Self awareness is key when choosing your career

Kay admits that she isn’t a born academic – she motivated herself through her Sinology MA dissertation by choosing a subject linked to her personal experiences from her role at the Chinese opera. Using the opera troupe (her friends!) as a case study she wrote about how leadership dealt with the ebbs and flows of mainland Chinese political requirements of cultural organisations.

She knew that as a ‘people person’ she would enjoy teaching, and she now thrives in a role that allows her to spend each day supporting Mandarin teachers around the country.

What lessons do you take from Kay’s story?

Kay’s positive approach to challenges, strong interpersonal skills and genuine passion for Mandarin have all contributed to her successful career path, from writing subtitles for a Chinese opera to coordinating the Mandarin Excellence Programme. Which lessons resonate with you?

If you are considering a career in teaching Mandarin or you would like to hear more about Kay’s inspiring journey, watch these clips from the talk to delve deeper into her unique experiences.