Mount Airy City Schools is preparing for its next school year, and one administrator is getting back into his routine after nearly a year abroad.
Jesse Hiatt, director of accountability and student services, appeared before the city Board of Education in July, fresh off a return trip home from China after a 10-month stay to work at a middle school.
Hiatt grew up in Surry County and graduated from North Surry in 1981. He earned a degree in geography teaching from Brigham Young University in 1990 and a master’s degree from Radford University in 1995 for school administration.
He began as a teacher 18 years ago in Patrick County, Virginia, then served as an assistant principal in Carroll County before joining Mount Airy in 2004.
In that time, he’s learned what he likes most about teaching. “I like being around the students, working with students the best.” In his current job, as the role is defined right now, he doesn’t get to do that as much as he’d like.
So when the chance came to brush off the rust and try leading a classroom again, he jumped at the chance — especially getting to do so in a foreign country.
How did this chance come about?
Mount Airy High School has offered Mandarin Chinese as a foreign language for the past three years. Each year a different teacher has come to lead the class so that many people can have the experience in the U.S.
About a year and a half ago, members of the central office and school board traveled to China, and Hiatt was among them. That led to an itch to have a longer stay, so he checked into getting a position with the contacts he had made.
By the time he got an opportunity, went through interviews and demonstrated class lessons (over Skype), the school year had already started.
“We headed off Sept. 11,” said Jesse’s wife, Louise, who is also an educator. “We hit the ground running because their school started a week and a half earlier. Other teachers were covering our classes until we got there.”
It was a full family affair as their 17-year-old daughter Nicole also made the journey.
She would have been going into her senior year, but she already had accumulated enough high school credits that they were able to get her diploma before they left.
The couple worked at the Beijing Royal Foreign Language School, which was for students equivalent to grades sixth through ninth here.
The Hiatts worked as English teachers. The first semester, the students had three different English classes to take: an English literature class, comprehensive English and oral skills. Jesse said he taught oral English with another foreign teacher.
In the second semester, there was no oral skills class for the eighth grade, so he switched to literature for that grade, with a Chinese co-teacher. He said the books used that semester included “Alice in Wonderland,” “Holes,” “Long Walk to Water” and “My Name is Malala.”
Jesse said he doesn’t speak Mandarin or Cantonese, so his classes were fully in English. However it wasn’t a full immersion school as the science and math teachers spoke in their native Chinese tongues.
And the teaching experience abroad?
“Teaching is teaching, and that is true even at the school I was at,” said Jesse. “Students are students, and I found that to be true at the school.” Sometimes Jesse and Louise would be working with a student in Beijing and be reminded a student back home with a similar personality.
“I enjoyed the interaction with the students,” he said. “It was fun teaching, getting to know the students.”
“The setting created some differences,” said Jesse. “It was a boarding school so most, not all, but most students lived there Sunday evening to Friday afternoon.” A few stayed all the time because home was too far away for weekend stays.
Of course, that worked out well for the Hiatts. Since students were there all the time, the cafeteria offered three meals a day, and they ate there about 80 percent of the time since it was free for them.
“I had some unusual foods,” he admitted. “Duck tongue, ox tail.” The market vendors kept fish in tubs of water, and when someone ordered a fish, the vendor pulled it out and killed it on the spot. Beef at the local markets was very expensive and yet not very tasty. Chicken breasts were okay, but their legs and thighs weren’t that good.”
“Outside the classroom, I loved … getting to try and understand and appreciate the culture,” he said. It was interesting how some things were similar, but other activities were different.
When he hurt his finger and went to a hospital, Jesse had to sit patiently for 45 minutes while a doctor made a splint for his hand. Rather than pull a split out of storage, the doctor used boiling water to shape and reshape a piece of plastic to fit Jesse.
There are 23 million people crammed into Beijing, so it can be crowded like a large U.S. city. However, they were on the north side of town so they weren’t in the worst of the traffic and could get out to tour easier.
It was probably 12 to 15 miles to get from the outskirts to the center of Beijing, and most folks don’t have cars, so small local stores pop up all over the place to serve little sections of town, he said.
The family did get to go to church on Sundays; there was a Mormon service with 150 to 200 people each Sunday. But, he said, you had to have a foreign passport to attend. And the foreign Mormons weren’t allowed to attend other Mormon services for the locals. And there could be no missionary work or spreading their views to Chinese citizens.
As for being far from home Louise said she realized, “I survived just fine without my house full of stuff. Some things I really struggled with; it was the relationships with people and the experiences that I missed more than things.”
The Hiatts flew home on July 16.
“Someone asked me if it was hard to leave,” said Louise, “and I made the comment when I said goodbye to everybody here I knew I was coming back. Saying goodbye to people in China was difficult.”
Jesse said that professionally speaking, he didn’t experience anything new that would further his education knowledge or career.
“But I feel like I’m a better person, and being a better person will make me a better leader and make me better able to inspire our students,” he said.
“I had a crazy idea about going to China and teaching, and it has been one of the best experiences of his career,” he said.
“If you have inspiration, go with it because it just might help change your life.”
Jeff is the news editor and can be reached at 415-4692. Some information for this story was contributed by David Broyles, of The Carroll News.