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China Teachers Program Celebrates 35 Years of Building Bridges with China

Sherae Forsyth, one of the deputy directors of the China Teachers Program, with a former student at Peking University.
Sherae Forsyth, one of the deputy directors of the China Teachers Program, with a former student at Peking University.

2024 marks a big anniversary for an important bridge between Brigham Young University and China: it’s been 35 years since the China Teachers Program began sending English-speaking teachers to Chinese universities.

The China Teachers Program, which is hosted by BYU’s David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies, is an academic service opportunity where English-speaking teachers develop and forge relationships with Chinese universities and students. Over the past 35 years, the program has sent over 1500 teachers to China.

It differs from other programs that send teachers to China in two important ways: first, unlike visiting scholar exchanges, the teachers stay long term—at least one academic year and, if the teachers choose to stay, even longer. Second, unlike many programs that send college students and young adults to teach in Chinese schools, the China Teachers Program is for adults in their 40s, 50s, and 60s. These older teachers bring a richness of experience to the program, says Todd Forsyth; he and his wife Sherae are the deputy directors of the program. “It’s something the Chinese universities really appreciate. These more experienced teachers don’t just teach; they get to know the students and are able to help and support them.”

Sherae Forsyth agrees that the program gives the participants a chance to influence their students’ lives in a meaningful and unique way. “We’ve had students who’ve told us, ‘Your class is like sunshine. It’s light; I always feel light in this room. And I feel love in this room.’”

History of the Program

The origin of the China Teachers Program dates back to the 1980s. BYU had some connections to China at that point; in 1979, students from BYU became the first performing group from the West to visit communist China. Some BYU faculty also had academic connections to Chinese universities. But BYU wanted to do more.

“In the late 1980s, BYU was eager to develop more consistent and sustained relationships in China,” explains Jeff Ringer, Associate International Vice President of BYU and director of the China Teachers Program. “In discussions with senior leaders, the decision was made to have the Kennedy Center lead out on a program of professional academic service linking BYU with partner universities in China. The first group of approximately 25 teachers was selected, trained, and sent to China in the fall of 1989.”

Jens and Helen Jonsson were in that first group from 1989; Jens was a professor of Electrical Engineering at BYU, and the family took a number of sabbaticals to visit and live in other countries. In 1989, with all their children grown, they decided to apply for the new China Teachers program and were sent to the city of Qingdao. Their daughter, Diane Thayer, who now teaches with the China Teachers Program herself, shares this excerpt from their journal:

We had a wonderful experience. First, we made friends which will last a lifetime. Second, the cultural experience was most educational. Third, travel to various sites throughout China was extremely interesting. And fourth and most importantly, we had a rewarding teaching experience; we felt the students wanted to learn from us, and indeed, we were party to a substantial metamorphosis during our stay.

As China increasingly opened to the world in the 1980s and 1990s, they were eager for native English speakers to help prepare their students for contact with the West. The number of participating universities in China grew—the program has worked with roughly 100 universities at different points in time—and with it, the number of teachers from the China Teachers Program grew as well; at one point, as many as 75 teachers per year were going to China through the program.

The COVID-19 pandemic changed all that. With travel and schooling interrupted around the world, the program was forced to cut down to just a few teachers who taught remotely. But now that borders have reopened, the Forsyths are looking forward to getting teachers to China again.

“We’re trying to rebuild back up to those numbers so that we can continue to build bridges,” says Todd. “It's something that our partner universities really feel strongly about as well. They feel, as we do, that as relations between our two countries are strained, it's more important than ever that we have this kind of academic interaction to make sure that people on both sides of the ocean know that there are very, very wonderful people on both sides.”

He points out that if the program was to fulfill all the requests for teachers from its partner universities, they would need over 140 teachers. The need is stronger than ever for people willing to participate in this unique academic service opportunity.

Teaching in China

Participating in the China Teachers Program doesn’t require any Chinese speaking skills, as all classes are taught in English. Teachers simply need to have a bachelor’s degree in any subject and speak English natively (although non-native speakers who can speak fluently and without an accent may be able to apply as well).

There’s also an age requirement: teachers cannot have dependent children still at home, as they can’t bring any such children with them to China. And they must not be older than 63 because of Chinese laws about having teachers above retirement age. Because of that, say the Forsyths, they encourage participants to think of it as a sabbatical, rather than a plan for after they retire.

Teachers are assigned to universities across China, where they stay for at least one academic year and can choose to stay longer. About half teach classes in oral and written English skills. However, teachers with certain professional skills may be asked to teach classes specific to those skills; for instance, someone who has worked as a lawyer may be asked to teach a class on international law or English legal terminology. “Teachers might also be asked to teach the students to prepare for dissertations, or how to prepare articles for publishing, because they need to be able to do some of these things in English,” explains Sherae Forsyth.

The program provides help so that participants who’ve never taught before aren’t thrown in at the deep end; there are resources and support for developing curricula, and a training week each August gives teachers a crash course in teaching, Chinese culture, adapting to a new country, and basic Chinese language skills.

Though the China Teachers Program is sometimes referred to as an academic service opportunity, it’s not a purely volunteer program; teachers receive a monthly stipend—generally enough to cover food, transportation, and basic needs—and many universities offer teachers free housing at apartments near campus.

In addition to teaching and spending time in the cities they live in, teachers often travel in their free time, using their Chinese residences as a home base from which to explore the beautiful country. Participant Kirk K. Peterson says, “The time I felt most alive and very happy in life were the days that I taught at Xi'an Jiaotong University and traveled in China.”

A Bridge Between BYU and China

Teachers from the program are often amazed at the connections they form with the students and the positive influence it has—both on the students’ lives and the teachers’ lives. “Every trip I take to China,” says Ringer, “I meet someone who was taught and influenced by our teachers. It has also been a life-changing experience for our teachers.”

Diane Thayer, daughter of Jens and Helen Jonsson who went that first year in 1989, was deeply affected by her parents’ stories of their time in China. “I wasn’t able to visit them in China during that time, and dreamed of seeing China based on their rave reviews,” she says. She finally got there 30 years later when she signed up for the China Teachers Program and was assigned to Xi'an Jiaotong University, where she teaches English presentation skills.

Thayer loves the culture, the friends she has made, and the chance to travel around China. “But most importantly,” she says, “I have fallen in love with my students! It's been amazing to see how much the students value the opportunity to learn English and the culture of the USA. I have had many students tell me that I am the first American they have ever met. All of my students are respectful and diligent in their assignments, and have made teaching so rewarding.”

The Forsyths taught in Beijing for three years before becoming deputy directors. Sherae remembers going to see a doctor while in Beijing. The doctor asked what she was doing in China, and when she explained that she was teaching at Peking University for the BYU China Teachers Program, the woman was astounded and asked whether she knew Carol Otteson, the BYU teacher that she had learned English from many years ago. “Carol had not only been this doctor’s favorite English teacher,” Sherae explains, “but this wonderful previous BYU China teacher had touched this doctor’s life deeply. While this doctor was studying medicine in the US, she had stopped by the Ottesons’ and visited BYU, Temple Square, and the mountains. The praise and memories went on and on.”

In October 2023, the Forsyths’ work as deputy directors of the program brought them back to Beijing and Peking University. Sherae recalls, “As we walked around Weiming Lake on Peking University campus, we stopped a student to take a picture of us. He turned around and said ‘Mrs. Forsyth!’ Leon had been one of my students back in 2019 and was now a grad student. He told us his favorite memory of that American Culture class was when my husband would drop in at the end of class and give me a kiss.” It was a sweet experience, she said, to run into a former student and know that he held fond memories of their class. (See the picture of Sherae and Leon at the top of this article.)

Todd adds, “Because of modern technology, you're able to stay in touch with people. I still have students that reach out and say, ‘I'm going to grad school, would you write a recommendation for me?’ Or ‘Could you look over my application?’ It's wonderful to stay in touch.”

And it’s through connections and experiences like these that the program continues to build bridges between BYU and China. “The program is the most sustained relationship that BYU has in China,” says Ringer. “It has provided an incredibly rewarding experience for our teachers and a real academic service for their students.”

Want to Teach in China?

“I now understand why my parents told me that teaching and living in China was one of the best things they ever did in their lives,” says Thayer. “I am loving this amazing opportunity and will cherish the time I have here. I would recommend this program to anyone seeking to make a difference in the lives of the Chinese people, and enrich their own lives in the process.”

Ringer adds, “This is a unique opportunity to make a meaningful professional academic contribution to Chinese university students and to deeply experience a new culture and society.”

Todd Forsyth observes that many of their teachers end up staying with the program for several years because of how meaningful they find it. “They do it because it's a wonderful experience,” he says. “They find that China changes them, rather than the other way around, and they come home a changed person. It's really something to grow to love people that you didn't know, halfway around the world.”

If you’re interested in learning more about this unique and transformative academic service opportunity, check out, e-mail, or call (801) 422-5321.