Adam Li teaches Mandarin Chinese, a notoriously difficult language for English speakers to learn. And yet, thousands of high school students have chosen to take his class at Renaissance High School in Meridian since it opened in 2009.
Because of his popularity, the 33-year teaching veteran and native Mandarin speaker was recently named the 2024 Idaho Language Teacher of the Year.
Not only have students taken his class, but his International Baccalaureate (IB) students consistently score a standard deviation above the world average on their proficiency exam.
In honor of his exemplary teaching, representatives from the Idaho Association of Teachers of Language and Culture (IATLC) surprised Li with the award on Monday, where school district representatives, fellow teachers and students gathered to show support.
“I didn’t see this coming!” Li exclaimed, shocked. “When I saw I was a finalist I thought, ‘well, there’s no way it will be me’ because there were so many amazing teachers.”
IATLC narrowed their selection down to four finalists that met their requirements of three years of consistent service within the organization. They then reached out for comments of support for each finalist. According to IATLC representative Danyelle Davis, of the 68 individual comments received, 45 were in support of Li.
In a speech to those gathered, Li thanked his fellow teachers and administrators who “provided rich soil” for him.
He also thanked his students, comparing himself to a small bird “hopping in a circle on the ground year after year” and his students to an eagle, inviting the bird to fly and see the view. “I wanted to learn more, and my students helped me do that,” he explained.
One of Li’s 100 current students is freshman Daisy Magnuson, who had him in kindergarten when he taught part-time at what was then called Gateway Elementary.
Of Li, Daisy said, “he has a good balance of learning Mandarin, but also learning the culture and doing fun things. It’s a hard class…but Mr. Li makes it fun… he supports us.” Just as her older brother did, she plans to take four years of Mandarin.
Li’s classroom is colorful, with bright posters all over the walls, and flashcards hanging down from the ceiling. In the middle of the room hangs a large Chinese lantern which Li says is part of how he exposes students to Chinese culture. A cart in the back houses beautiful tea cups and traditional Chinese tea.“[The students] don’t see a lot of Chinese people in the valley in Idaho.” Li explained. “So I have to provide those [opportunities] for my students.”
After 18 years of teaching English in China, Li moved to the United States with his wife (an Idaho native). He has taught for 15 years in America, and is the only remaining original staff member at Renaissance High.
When Li first arrived in America, he was discouraged by his difficulty understanding the language he had studied and taught for years in China. He “felt inadequate.” “After all those years of teaching English…I doubted myself. I said, ‘what did I do for those past 30 years?’”
His experience not only helps him empathize with his students, but also drives him to create a classroom where students really learn and understand the language.
“As a teacher I want to transform that scary, daunting language into something that is approachable.” Li explained he does this through singing, dancing, and connecting with Chinese culture.
During our interview Li bounced up to the whiteboard, giving us a quick lesson on how to write the character “love.” He explained that when he learned the Chinese characters growing up, his parents said, “write it 500 times and you’ll remember.” But “in America, students don’t have time to write them 500 times,” he said, laughing. “So I created a way to visualize Chinese characters.”
Li shares his innovative teaching methods through BSU’s Pathways project, which makes public education resources accessible for other foreign language teachers and community members. He also recently received a grant from the West Ada Education Foundation he will use towards a Mandarin computer program for his students.
The next step for Li is to create an intense portfolio with videos of his instruction and recommendations. He will be sponsored by IATLC and considered for the award of 2024 Pacific Northwest Language Teacher of the Year at their annual conference in March.