Rotorua schools embrace Chinese language and culture

This case study looks at the effective Chinese language programme running in Rotorua's primary, intermediate and secondary schools.


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Learning Area: Learning Languages

“We have seen a change in the students since we introduced Chinese – there is a much greater sharing among the cultures about their ideas and values and cultural traditions.”

Key success factors:

  • Have someone with vision to drive, organise and implement the project.

  • Ensure principals share the vision and commit to share practices and resources.

  • Ensure professional learning opportunities and support for teachers is available and ongoing.

  • Make connections with the local Chinese community and businesses.

  • Connect with the Asia New Zealand Foundation, the Confucius Institute and other support organisations for funding and expert advice.


Rotorua city has a very effective Chinese language programme running in primary, intermediate and secondary schools. Large groups of students at all levels are learning the language and becoming familiar with the culture as well. Many of their teachers have been awarded scholarships to China allowing them to learn the language in immersion courses, as well as experience the culture. Principals throughout the area are actively engaged with the programme and give their professional support to its development.

The teaching of Chinese is so widely spread throughout the Rotorua district that students have a continuous programme, even when they move between schools. This case study provides a model for the successful implementation and sustainability of introducing Chinese into New Zealand schools.

Laytee George: woman on a mission

Behind the growth of Chinese language and culture in the city is a Chinese-speaking teacher, Mrs Laytee George. She believes strongly that since New Zealand and its people are part of the Asia Pacific rim, their futures are inextricably linked together. Laytee has lived with her family in New Zealand for many years. Initially she was driven by the desire to ensure that her own children retained their multicultural heritages, but she also wanted to see greater understanding extend throughout the community so that people could make friendships across cultural differences and understand each other better as a result. Eleven years ago she decided to become involved directly with the local schools by teaching students and providing professional learning opportunities for teachers.

“The principals acknowledged me as an expert, not just in teaching the language. They also asked me to teach the teachers how to teach the language.”

Laytee’s plan was not just to involve herself in the teaching, but to set up a pathway so that the teaching of Chinese would become a sustainable professional development option in Rotorua.

“My next step was to look at who was teaching Chinese in New Zealand. I became aware that native Chinese speakers were teaching it to small numbers of students. Some Chinese teachers were anxious that non-native speakers would not be able to pronounce Chinese properly. I felt that it would be stronger if New Zealand teachers were involved. I felt that if New Zealanders didn’t see their own people teaching it, then it would seem as if there was no future for those who were learning Chinese because they would never do it ‘properly’!”

Laytee began recruiting New Zealand teachers into a teacher development programme. She also decided that it could even be better if she used a combination of New Zealand teachers, plus Chinese teaching assistants working alongside them in the classrooms.

“In this way we were able to use our rich resource of Chinese native speakers and involve members of the Chinese community in the schools, getting to know and work with New Zealand children and teachers. At first I asked the schools to fund these original positions. But then I approached the Ministry of Education who agreed to fund the project for two years with me as coordinator. It was so successful that even when the Ministry pilot stopped the principals agreed to go on funding the work. It means that we are developing a strong group of teachers who are growing in confidence in their own use of Chinese, and working alongside the native speakers. And, we have a group of Chinese speakers who are developing their skills and confidence as assistant teachers in New Zealand classrooms. Both ways we are benefiting as a result.”

Professional learning for teachers

Laytee George’s success in establishing Chinese language in Rotorua schools is the result of her building a successful professional learning programme for teachers. She provides weekly classes, and regular Saturday workshops to improve the teachers’ Chinese and their language teaching skills. She runs a biennial mini-conference for Chinese teachers.

Last year for the first time, she organised a major cultural day for all the students and teachers who learn and teach Chinese in Rotorua. Schools contributed to its planning and execution as well. It built on and included the Chinese-speaking competition in its events. Visiting Chinese experts ran a wide range of workshops. Many teachers and students commented on its benefits for them as learners and speakers of Chinese. They were all encouraged to speak Chinese during the day. A Chinese lunch was catered for by a local traditional Chinese restaurant.

To assist with all this work Laytee draws on her national and international contacts, and the Rotorua community for support.

“At the moment I am president of the New Zealand Chinese Language Association which means I keep in touch with a lot of national organisations. I am also in touch with Asia New Zealand Foundation who supported our first city-wide Chinese cultural day. I work with the Chinese Ministry of Education and the Confucius Institute. Through these contacts – local, national and international – I am able to bring a range of visiting people and delegations who can work with teachers and students. We have Chinese who judge our speech competition, run workshops for us, provide food, and perform concerts and drama for us.”

What this adds up to is a flourishing Chinese language programme which is deeply rooted within the local Rotorua community. It will continue to develop as the teachers and students become more confident and competent in their own right. Laytee’s intense involvement and commitment to her vision for developing Chinese in the city is paying huge dividends for the schools, the cultural richness of the city, its tourist industry, and the futures of many students who are recognising the significance of China and Asia in their lives.

There are a number of other cities and communities in New Zealand who have invited Laytee George to share her vision and experience with them. They too are realising the importance of China, and what it means for their communities if their people, especially the school students become more positively Asia aware.

Factors that have brought schools, teachers and principals on board

A vision

Laytee George is the common link across all the schools that are involved with the Chinese language programme in Rotorua. Each of the principals of the schools speaks extremely highly of the professional approach and relationship which Laytee has built with their school.

“Laytee is a friend of our school. She is working with teachers to ensure sustainability of the programme in Rotorua.” (Violet Pelham-Waerea, Principal, Western Heights High School).

“I was aware of the research that learning languages is really important for children at this stage of their development. I also knew Laytee and of her involvement with Chinese language. Our teachers go to Laytee’s classes, and this opportunity for professional growth and support for our teachers as they develop their expertise is really important.” (Deborah Epp, Principal, Mokoia Intermediate School).

“With Laytee running the programme we felt confident about introducing Chinese into our curriculum. The professional learning is quite a commitment for our teachers, but it is run really well by Laytee, and people feel well organised and enthusiastic.” (John Naera, Principal, Rotorua Primary School).

“I can’t over emphasise the work of Laytee. She is inspirational, assertive and we are fortunate to have her working with us. She has got us to the level where we will now sustain the focus on Chinese. She gives us advice, wise counsel and feedback.” (Garry de Thierry, Principal, Rotorua Intermediate School).

Laytee’s influence has meant that Chinese is the strongest language in the school. It is her vision, and she works closely with us. I do think that when Laytee retires we will be sufficiently well established to continue strongly.” (Rory O’Rourke, Principal, Kaitao Middle School).

In addition to Laytee’s leadership, a crucial factor common across the schools and which contributes to the success of the programme is the commitment of the principals:

Many of the principals have themselves been on trips to China, or are intending to go.
These professional development opportunities for the school leaders have made an impact on their engagement with the teaching of Chinese, and developing Asia awareness in their schools.

Garry de Therry is an example: “On my trip we saw the potential that China has to develop, and I recognised the potential for any of our students as they grow up if they have some of the language.”

The co-principal at Western Heights had also visited China, as has Rory O’Rourke from Kaitao. A number of others are anticipating taking professional learning visits in the near future.

All the principals actively encourage their staff take up the opportunities to learn Chinese, do professional development in language teaching, and where possible travel to China for immersion courses on scholarships from the Confucius Institute and the Chinese Ministry of Education.
As Rory O’Rourke said: “We are considered an innovative school and we decided it was important for our kids to learn Chinese. So far we have three staff who have gone on intensive language courses to Beijing. Last year eight of our classes took Chinese, and we intend that they go on to a second year.”
Garry de Thierry reported that one of his teachers went to Beijing. They now have nine classes doing Chinese and are looking to send other teachers on the courses.
At Mokoia three teachers have been on immersion courses.
At Kaharoa two teachers have been on the immersion course in Beijing. Chinese is taught throughout the whole primary school there. They will be starting another teacher on the programme this year. 

Principals reported supporting the development by putting resources, time allowances, and where available paying to have a Chinese speaking teacher assistant work with the teachers in their classrooms.

“We have provided a lot of good resources for the language classes – videos, DVDs, data projectors, and wireless laptops and desk computers.” (Kaitao Middle School).

“Our principal is very supportive of the programme and I am constantly preparing resources for the language teaching, which is quite expensive.” (Rose Powley, teacher, Kaharoa School).

All the principals said that teaching Chinese had made a difference for their schools.

“I think we have seen a change in the students since we introduced Chinese – there is a much greater sharing among the cultures about their ideas and values and cultural traditions. It ties in with our school values of respect for ourselves, respect for others and responsibility for our actions.” (Garry de Thierry).

“We have quite a lot of Asian students in the school. I think that it is both because of their presence and the teaching of Chinese that our children have got a good awareness about Asia. It is not just the language. It is the culture as well, and that is good for all our students.” (John Naera). 

Personal and professional development
The teachers’ experiences also have a lot in common in terms of their growing confidence, expertise, satisfaction and ability to sustain the programme.

With encouragement they had all spent some time in China on an intensive language course, also developing their cultural knowledge and understanding.

“I was on an AFS scheme in China, and as a result I was attached to a school for a whole term. It means that I can talk to the children about my actual experiences in China, and show them real photos from my experience and the resources that I bought.” (Pauline Smith, teacher, Mokoia School).

“I have been on a one month intensive language programme at Beijing University, which included oral, written and the cultural side.” (Debbie Law, teacher, Rotorua Intermediate School).

“I got a scholarship to go to the one month intensive language school in Beijing." (Waiki Edward, teacher, Kaitao Middle School).

All the teachers involved have had professional learning opportunities. This has included tuition in the language itself, development of second language teaching skills, exposure to new resources, and development of their own resources.

“I had a one on one session with Laytee, and I could observe her teaching. Our developing resources are great too.” (Waiki Edward).

“I have started my professional learning with Laytee, learning the language too. We have a whole day, Saturday, with her once a term as well, developing resources etc.” (Debbie Law).

“Our two teachers have done the PL with Laytee, which is quite a commitment because it involves some weekend time as well, each term.” (John Naera).

“When I first started learning the language with Laytee it was a real challenge, but it had a spin off for me as a teacher in reminding me what it is like for the children to start their school learning. Each week we prepare resources with Laytee, so we make sure our teaching isn’t just chalk and talk. There are games and all sorts of participatory activities as well.” (Rose Powley).

For teachers the experience has given them leadership opportunities within their schools and some have taken on different roles as a result.

“This year in the teaching Chinese team which I am leading we have five teachers at various stages of development. I make the point to the new teachers when they come in that we are learning and teaching a language which is going to be important for our future and our students’ futures.” (Waiki Edward).

“I am going to be working on taking a student group to China next year. We are really increasing the profile of Chinese this year, and I am leading a team of eight teachers.” (Debbie Law).

“I have another responsibility now as a class release and advisory teacher which is how I get to teach Chinese throughout the school. I really needed the new challenge after a long time as a teacher.” (Rose Powley).

For the teachers the support of their principal has been paramount, not just in providing time and resources, but also in giving them the opportunity to go in a different professional direction. They have noticed a number of benefits in terms of their satisfaction, their ability to contribute to the school and lead some innovations.

“I thought that the opportunity to introduce Chinese would be good for the students and I was putting myself in a totally new space. There are more developments coming too – establishing a close contact with a school in China so that we can travel there with a group of students, and also featuring the teaching of languages more school-wide, in assemblies for example.” (Waiki Edward).

“Having the opportunity of going to China made me more aware of how it is going to be important for the development of our culture. Many Asian people want to experience what we have hare in New Zealand, so we need to be much better informed about what they are like. I enjoyed the cultural day as well, because it gave my students the chance to really use their language with others.” (Debbie Law).

“Learning and teaching Chinese has really livened me up in my teaching because I have something new and different to do. It has broadened my opportunities and made me more employable too.” (Pauline Smith).

“One of the approaches I take is using cultural comparisons. So as the children go up through the school we are seeing a progression. It is really opening their eyes to another language and culture. My next step is to develop an e-pal relationship with a Chinese school. And also this year I have decided to do NCEA level Chinese, just for myself.” (Rose Powley).

Teacher assistants
Kwei-Yi Wang is one of the teaching assistants working with a number of teachers across several of the schools. She came to realise the value of having more than one language through the experience of her own children. Because she encouraged them to be bilingual in English and Chinese they feel at home in, and understand both Taiwanese and New Zealand cultures.

She had the guidance of Laytee in developing her skills as a teacher aide in Kiwi classrooms. She had to adapt her teaching from her own childhood experiences of school to the ways of New Zealand classrooms.

Many of the children she teaches are young but she believes it is important for them to have access to another language.

“Maybe it will open up new possibilities for them, for work and travel. I think when children know another culture they get another view, and realise that people do things and think about things differently. Then if they travel to China they will be glad that they can understand the language.

It is very interesting working with New Zealand teachers. You have to get used to it on both sides. They are sometimes nervous at first because of the language, and I was nervous at first learning how to teach in a full classroom. But Laytee organises us all very well, and I am getting used to walking round in the classrooms and sharing in the lessons.”

What have students gained from learning Chinese?

A focus on the future
Having a strong Chinese language programme in so many of the Rotorua schools means that students’ programmes are not disrupted as they progress through the school system. Bringing in the high schools means that by the time they leave school a number of students are sufficiently well qualified in Chinese that they can go on to tertiary level. Some are planning to combine their Chinese with other tertiary qualifications that will widen their employment and travel opportunities. Both students and teachers commented on what this means for them.

“I remember a while ago another boy did a speech on the benefits of learning other languages. I was convinced by that so that’s why I have continued with Chinese, and I have no regrets. I am considering going on with it at university. If I become an international pilot it will be very useful having Chinese too.” (Jack, student, Rotorua Boys’).

“My son picked it up at school, and is now going on with it at high school.” (Rose Powley, teacher).

“I am considering doing journalism and university, so I might continue my Chinese as well. For journalism there could be a lot of travelling so Chinese will be really useful.” (Andrew, student, Rotorua Boys’ High School).

“It could benefit me in terms of picking up a job. Or in New Zealand I could be a translator, or a Chinese teacher, so it could provide a lot of job opportunities.” (Kierin, student, Rotorua Boys’ High School).

“I plan to become a translator, I have a passion for languages now. China is going to be so important for everyone, it is so big now.” (student, Western Heights High School).

“I came here from Korea about eight years ago for the education and to learn English. I keep my Korean going, so with Chinese I now have the three languages. I could work all round the world.” (Sangyoung, student, Rotorua Boys’ High School).

A focus on the tourist industry

The schools and community of Rotorua recognise the city’s role as a key tourist destination. The development of Chinese language and culture programmes is important for producing people who can operate successfully within the tourist industry. It is also a positive development in terms of making a broader section of the population aware of the importance of Asia and more informed about it. The Waiariki Institute of Technology is able to build programmes on the strength of the students’ experience in their schools, especially in their specialist area of the hospitality industry.

“I could help a Chinese student now who came to the school or city. I can read the odd sign I see around here in Chinese and in some other cities” (student, Western Heights High School).

“A couple of us work part time in a hotel and we can use our Chinese a little in that situation when there are Chinese speakers visiting Rotorua. We feel reasonably confident using the language a bit, in basic things” (student, Rotorua Boys’ High School).

“In terms of travelling and meeting new people it has been good (to learn Chinese), or if I wanted to I could start a business” (student, Western Heights High School).

“I want to travel, so knowing how to speak Chinese will help when I visit other countries. Also there are many tourists coming to New Zealand and I will be able to talk with them. Maybe that will get me a job in tourism” (student, Western Heights High School).

“We are thinking about travelling to China, perhaps teaching some English, maybe as part of a gap year. It would be great, and improve our Chinese too” (Anthony and Jack).

“I am thinking of travel and tourism, maybe as tourist leader and going to China” (student, Western Heights High School).

Increased Asia awareness

Student trips to China have been in place in some high schools for a long time and some of the primary and intermediate schools have plans to introduce them as well. These provide invaluable educative and cultural experiences for the students.

“I have been to China twice already. The first time was kind of school work because Rotorua Boys’ has a sister school in Shanghai called Shangde. I have also been part of a Chinese camp in Beijing, during the holidays. I have really benefited from this travel.” (Andrew).

“Anthony, Keirin and I have also been to Shangde. It was fantastic. We really saw how fast China is growing.” (Jack).

“I would definitely encourage my staff in developing a relationship with a Chinese school. We have other cultural exchanges and I look forward to there being a Chinese one as well. We do have a loose relationship with a school in Beijing already and that is a good start.” (Rory O’Rourke).

“We used to have a sister school in Taiwan. But it was expensive for our students. We are starting a contact with a school in China and our plan now is to arrange to go every second year, which will give a real focus to the Chinese classes.” (Garry de Thierry).

Rotorua Boys’ High School now has its own stand-alone Chinese programme which is compulsory for all its accelerant classes in years 9 and 10. It continues through to year 13. The school has employed full-time a Chinese speaker who is a trained teacher with New Zealand registration. Principal, Chris Grinter has been to China and has driven this development. Laytee had been involved with the language programme at Rotorua Boys’ High School over many years. She is very pleased that the school was able to find a suitable qualified teacher and sees the commitment to a full-time programme as a major step forward for the school and for Rotorua as a whole.

Taking Chinese to other communities

Laytee George has created the foundation for this development in Rotorua schools. She has already visited other places in New Zealand to help them begin their own projects in promoting the teaching of Chinese in schools. Every area of New Zealand can benefit from the implementation of such a programme.

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Last updated: 18 Dec 2012