Editor’s note: This is the final article of a three-part series about Sarah Bellmer, a 2010 graduate of Christian Academy School. She is currently a teacher in China.
SHANGHAI – One of the most important supplies for Sarah Bellmer’s teaching job in China is black hair dye.
“I have it dyed black because it helped my students not freak out when they first met me,” Bellmer said of her hair, “because I had hair that was more red and the students would look at me and they would be scared because I was the first experience they’ve ever really had with a foreign teacher. And when I dyed my hair black, they just became, ‘Oh, you’re one of us.’”
Bellmer, a 2010 graduate of Christian Academy Schools in Sidney, has taught at Transformation Academy in Shanghai for the past five years. The bilingual school employs both Chinese and English speaking teachers but conducts most of its lessons in English.
The goal is for the students, who range from 3 years old through high schoolers, to come to the United States in high school or college to study then move back to China to help their families and their country.
To prepare the students for the United States, the private school provides what is essentially an American education in China.
“We’re teaching them Thanksgiving, we’re teaching them all of our English songs that we know and grew up with and have a very similar curriculum to what the schools have in the States,” Bellmer said.
Bellmer moved to Shanghai in January 2015 after completing her studies at Wilmington College. She had planned to become a high school history teacher in the United States but was offered a job teaching in China after talking to one of her former Christian Academy teachers, Bethany Kirkpatrick.
“One of my teachers at Christian Academy sent me a Facebook message asking if I wanted to go teach overseas because her brother had an opening,” Bellmer said. “And I didn’t know where it was, and I didn’t know what I would be teaching, but I just said yes.”
Kirkpatrick’s brother, Luke Elie, was an administrator for the school in China. When one of the school’s American teachers had Visa issues, he immediately needed a new teacher.
And it just so happened, Kirkpatrick had recently talked to Bellmer and learned she was looking for a full-time job.
“The two things went across in my brain, and I said, ‘I might have somebody for you,’” Kirkpatrick said.
Bellmer, who had heard Kirkpatrick’s tales of teaching in South Korea for seven years and Afghanistan for two years, was excited about the opportunity and accepted the overseas position.
“I listened to Mrs. Kirkpatrick, who was my Bible teacher at Christian Academy, and she would tell me stories of how she was teaching overseas, and I always thought they were amazing,” Bellmer said. “And when I was little I always wanted to teach in like England or Japan. And this opportunity rose up, and I just took it because I didn’t think I would ever get an opportunity again.”
Bellmer started as a math and science teacher for third-, fourth- and fifth-graders when she first arrived in China. She also was a fourth-grade homeroom teacher and an art teacher for the entire school. Now she teaches preschool children.
“My 3-year-olds can speak and read in English and in Chinese. It’s eyeopening because I have a 3-year-old nephew, and my kids are so far above him because they can do everything in both languages,” said Bellmer, who added many of the school’s students also are learning a third language such as Korean or Japanese.
Classes at the school were supposed to resume on Feb. 17 after a break for Chinese New Year but were put on hold as China tries to contain the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, that has infected more than 80,000 people across the nation.
Lessons resumed on March 2 with online courses replacing in-class education, and Bellmer and other teachers are able to conduct calls and video chats with the students.
“Everybody is freaking out and like ‘We don’t know how to do this! It’s going to be terrifying!’ And I’m like, ‘Just take your lessons, figure out how to make it hands-on,’” the Christian Academy graduate said.
Bellmer expects the online learning to offer very similar experiences for her students as in-class education, in part because of China’s emphasis on technology.
“Tech is a huge part of life here,” she said. “Whenever I go back to the States, I forget how kind of almost backwards it seems. Like when I travel in China, I don’t take a purse or anything. I just take my phone because I pay for everything through QR codes on my phone and I can do everything on my phone. I don’t need credit cards or membership cards or anything. It’s just all there on the phone.”
There are rumors that schools will reopen in April or May, but Bellmer is unsure of what to believe. For now, she’s working on her online lesson plans and waiting for official word about when her school might reopen.
The school year is scheduled to run through the end of June, at which time Bellmer plans to permanently return to the United States. She’d like to go back to college and study special education.
“Every class that I’ve had I’ve had someone with autism, and that has really spoken to my heart to help them learn better in the preschool or early elementary setting,” she said.
She’s also considered returning to college to study library science then become a librarian and help people research and learn how to research.
Whatever path she takes, Bellmer looks forward to returning home and being closer to her family but knows it will be hard to leave her students.
“That fifth-grade class that was my homeroom, they’re now 10th graders, and next year they’ll be 11th graders,” Bellmer said. “And that just … they were my little kids.
“They’re just a little piece of me.”
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