2018-07-11 / News

North Branch teacher returns from nine-day trip to China

BY NICHOLAS PUGLIESE
810-452-2601 • npugliese@mihomepaper.com


Taking a moment to appreciate the view of Victoria Peak in Hong Kong, North Branch Area Schools teacher Jill Verburg said her recent trip to China as part of her participation in the Gerstacker Foundation Fellowship was “life-changing.” Taking a moment to appreciate the view of Victoria Peak in Hong Kong, North Branch Area Schools teacher Jill Verburg said her recent trip to China as part of her participation in the Gerstacker Foundation Fellowship was “life-changing.” NORTH BRANCH — As students and staff at North Branch Area Schools headed for the door on the last day of the year, Jill Verburg, sixth-grade math teacher, went home to pack. And as her coworkers and students rose the next morning ready to relax as they began summer vacation, Verburg boarded an international flight, and 14 hours later, was in Beijing, China.

The 20-year teaching veteran was nominated and selected for the prestigious Gerstacker Foundation Fellowship, which culminated last month in a nine-day journey to China to tour education facilities, interact with Chinese students and educators and, of course, enjoy the culture. But it hasn’t been a vacation — as part of the Gerstacker Fellowship, Verburg, along with 11 other teachers, principals, and program administrators from across Michigan received concentrated leadership training over a one-year period. Verburg said that when she was nominated, she didn’t know what the fellowship entailed, but after doing some research, she knew it was an opportunity of a lifetime. “I felt it was a pretty big honor to be a part of that,” she said. Verburg said she and the 11 other educators in the fellowship met once a month during the school year to discuss topics related to educational leadership, and in between kept up on required reading. “We’d read three or four books, do activities, listen to speakers,” she said, citing examples of topics that included diversity, culture, communication and foreign education systems. “That’s what I’ve been doing in my spare time.”


During her recent trip to China, North Branch Area Schools teacher Jill Verburg was able to see the sights, including a hike up the Great Wall. During her recent trip to China, North Branch Area Schools teacher Jill Verburg was able to see the sights, including a hike up the Great Wall. Of course, “probably the most cool and awesome part,” she said, was the trip to China. Verburg and the other 11 fellows met in Detroit on June 15 and flew to Beijing, where they spent three days before heading to Shanghai for another three days, then wrapped up the journey with a final three days in Hong Kong. “If anyone stops me and asks about my trip, beware,” she said with a laugh.

While she was able to visit many of the more notable tourist destinations, including the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, she and her cohort were there to learn, and learn they did. “If you talk to anyone in China, education is their number one priority,” she said. “They’re very passionate about educating their youth.” Verburg said she was surprised to learn that despite the differences between the education systems of China and the United States, the two systems also share similar roadblocks. The Gerstacker Fellows visited public and private schools in the three cities, including a private school in China whose principal was from Marysville, Mich. “Chinese national curriculum is very rigid and they were jealous we were able to be creative and think outside the box,” she said. “Maybe jealous might not be the right word, but there are things they felt we did very well and there were a lot of conversations about that.”

Verburg said one of the schools she visited, a private school that cost the equivalent of nearly $30,000 in tuition yearly, was “very traditional” in its approach. “It was very different,” she said. But for its differences, students are students, and Verburg said she had a bonding moment with a student as she received a crash course lesson in traditional Chinese calligraphy. “They’re just kids, the same as here in Michigan,” she said. “It’s eye-opening what we think about the world or China, it wasn’t anything like what I thought it would be.”

According to Verburg, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education often took the fore in Chinese schools, and as a math teacher herself, she saw Chinese educators face many of the same challenges she herself experiences in her own classroom. “It was exactly what we’re trying to do here, trying to get the kids to think of the ‘why’ and the ‘how,’” she said. “It’s all about STEM, making math and science real for the kids.”

One cultural difference that stuck out to Verburg was the view of education as a career. “I love being a teacher, I think it’s the best job in the world, but there the top people go into education, and it’s very prestigious and a very good living,” she said. Verburg said that when she mentioned the high turnover rate among teachers in the United States to a Chinese educator, she was met with confused stares. “He didn’t understand what I could mean,” she said.

Now that she’s back in Michigan, Verburg is excited to start looking for ways to apply her experiences to her own classroom and school. She said she’s going to look for ways to continue collaborations with educators she met while in China, and she hopes to share her now-expanded worldview with her own students. “You get so busy with what you’re doing you might not know what’s going on outside your district, let alone internationally,” she said. “For a person that’s lived most of her life in a small town, it was life-changing for me.”

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