Heather Lewis: A secretly incredible English teacher
JS: What took you on your first trip to China in 2008? Did you anticipate being there longer?
Heather: My first trip was as much a surprise to me as anyone. In April 2006, I saw a short video clip advertising the ACAMU 2006 upcoming China discovery tour. At the end of June, cautious, untravelled, unadventurous little me was on a plane.
After my return, I knew the way I saw the world and my faith would never be the same, but the idea of my going back for a longer period didn’t really occur to me until my second trip early in 2008. That’s when the cogs began to really turn inside me and the desire arose to invest myself long term, one way or another, in the lives of the people I saw, in particular the children.
JS: On your trip you witnessed “real” poverty. What was that like? What hit you the hardest?
Heather: For me, I think the most jarring thing about what I saw was the juxtaposition of material lack with natural opulence. The beauty of the mountains, sweeping fields, rivers and skies I saw in the rural areas contrasted so sharply with the crumbling old one-room huts and corrugated iron shed houses, and run down schools and roads.
In terms of the people I saw, the most shocking things were seeing children using the street as a bathroom, and young children carrying their baby siblings on their back while working in the fields.
I think in addition to seeing the need, it was hard to acknowledge that things on their current course were unlikely to yield anything better for the next generation. I found it very hard to swallow that the precious kids I saw were likely to grow up and become toiling farmers.
JS: You went from pursuing a bachelor’s degree in science to teaching English in China. How do you respond to people who think you are crazy?
Heather: Honestly, I thought I was crazy too. I still have to pinch myself sometimes!
I’m normally quite methodical and sensible, relying on logic and thinking everything through to its conclusions like any good scientist. Doing that in regards to China is impossible. Since the beginning, none of us knew where exactly our work was leading.
All we really knew was that our contacts in this region desired for us to get involved, and the door was open. I knew I was passionate about China in a way that far surpassed the buzz science gave my brain. So I walked through the door.
It is a sacrifice to leave my family and friends, science, and my first-world home country, but science has only captured my imagination and intellect; China has captured these along with my heart, soul and vision, and most of all my sense of purpose.
I know for me the harder sacrifice would be to give up on these kids and their experiences and never know the difference I could have made.
JS: You organized and developed a conference for Chinese English teachers. What is the conference all about?
Heather: English is one of the subjects Chinese students must pass in order to attend high school. Poorer regions in inland China with little access to native speakers of English really struggle to get children past this hurdle.
Due to the squeeze for qualified teachers in rural poor areas, China has created a stopgap teacher training system. Most of their teachers are students that have passed middle school (or close enough!) and are sent to a local teachers’ college for three years, and are then sent back into the schools they came from. Hence many English teachers actually have little teacher training and unintelligible English!
In 2008, our contacts asked us to host a conference for the English teachers in their rural district. We had the resources to make donations to the schools, but not enough to conduct a conference.
After returning from my three-month volunteer teaching stint in 2010, I met Tracy, a newcomer at my church who had taught in China for 5 years, spoke Chinese quite well, and had years of experience teaching English as a second language. I brought up the idea of us writing the conference together, and thankfully she agreed. We have written a series of workshops that will begin in September.
JS: What is the most important lesson you have learned from this experience?
Heather: I think the biggest two lessons for me as a Christian throughout this journey have been: a), God doesn’t necessarily speak through lightning-bolt moments, and b), life is about actively making choices. Some of us know early on in life our purpose and what drives us. For the rest of us, using what we have in hand and the opportunities that come along are what slowly guide us to that purpose.
My journey over the past seven years has changed my life, all because I seized an interesting opportunity. I didn’t hear angels singing or have grand visions, but look what happened as a result – I’m living for a cause halfway across the world. Isn’t that amazing!
JS: What is next for you?
Heather: I am actually venturing back into China as a paid teacher this coming fall semester. I’m going to be based in the same district as before and will help run the pilot conferences in September, and after that it’s really anyone’s guess.
I’m planning to jump in and meet as many individuals and organizations as I can, grow as a teacher, advance in the Chinese language, find out what help key leaders in this area are asking for, and see what doors are open.
I’ve also started a degree in international development by correspondence. There are so many areas of need, and I would love to holistically help these forgotten rural towns become vibrant hubs of growth and promise for their residents, both now and into the future.
JS: I love your story Heather. Especially how you jumped on the plane and went to where the need was. Once there, you were changed for good. Thanks for sharing.
Have you ever seen real poverty? Have you ever found yourself doing something illogical because of a need?
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