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Interview: Kunming Keats School co-founder Liu Zier

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Kunming Keats School was founded in 2004 by Xue Feng (薛峰), a former medical doctor, and Liu Zier (刘子尔), a graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For the past 13 years, the two women have worked to carve out a very well-defined niche in Kunming's highly competitive Mandarin instruction market.

Their school on the sixteenth floor of a Dongfeng Dong Lu high-rise caters to students of all levels, and features small class sizes, living quarters and an extensive student services program. We sat down with Liu to talk about educating foreigners, the evolution of a Kunming brand and what she expects for Keats in the near future.

GoKunming: What was the impetus — what made Kunming particularly attractive — for starting a Chinese school here?

Liu Zier: I think Kunming is one of the best cities for foreigners to learn Chinese in China. It's not so big as Beijing or Shanghai and not too many people here can speak very good English. That's actually a positive, and one of the top reasons why some students choose to come here. The city isn't particularly international yet and students can practice their Mandarin on the street. They're not forced to speak English and they speak Chinese as they want in any situation.

Another big reason is the climate. Kunming is called the 'Spring City', right?. Not very cold in the winter and not very hot in summer. It's a perfect place for students to spend a wonderful summer or a comparably temperate winter while they learn the language. Another reason is that the air quality is very good here in Kunming. You know, some students just want to get away from the bad pollution like in Beijing or Shanghai, so I think people here don't have to worry about that. So the air quality is also very important. And I think in Kunming we also have broad cultural diversity because of all the minority groups and people living here from around the county. Cultural diversity is very attractive for students, and on top of that the city has so many interesting places to visit.

Image credit: Yereth Jansen
Image credit: Yereth Jansen

GK: How did you personally get into education?

Liu: I received a bachelors degree in management science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While I was studying, I was also working as a teaching assistant in the school's Chinese language department. In Boston I developed a strong passion for teaching Chinese. I have a lot of fun teaching foreign students because they love the culture, they love the language — and for myself, I also learn a lot from my students. So I really love what my career has become. I love being a Chinese teacher.

GK: What sort of qualifications do you require of your other instructors?

Liu: We have very high standards for our teachers. At the beginning we have a very strict interview process for potential teachers who want to work at Keats. They need to have at least have a bachelor degree in teaching Chinese as a foreign language, or Chinese and English, so that they have a very good sense of the language and also how to impart it to others. After a prospective teacher completes the interview process, we have a very systematic training program they have to finish before stepping officially into a Keats classroom.

During training, we have several steps the teachers need to follow, and they have to pass each part in order to continue progressing. When we select instructors, we prefer teachers who have a lot of experience already in teaching Chinese as a foreign language, either in China or abroad. For anyone who becomes an instructor at Keats, we also have ongoing teacher training. Every Saturday we gather all of our teachers' syllabi from the previous week and do a review. Then, we hold a teachers' conference once every two weeks in order to make sure that the quality of our instruction continues to be top notch.

GK: Does Keats employ a particular instructional philosophy?

Liu: We have 13 years of experience as a school, and have developed our own methodology over that time. It focuses on two types of programs — small group classes and intensive one-on-one instruction. We also try to adapt different teaching methods for different students. For example in the one-on-one program we employ different teaching methods in terms of listening, speaking, reading and writing. We take great pride in the way we use flashcards — it's a bit of a company secret — and it help our students improve their Chinese in a very short amount of time.

In the small group class we employ a lot of fun games and interesting competitions between the students themselves, as well as the teachers. We divide the students into different groups and then they can compete. This really stimulates student interest and helps with motivation.

GK: Where did this approach come from, and who was most influential in developing it?

Liu: Well, I think it came from our founder Miss Xue Feng, who is a genius when it comes to teaching Chinese. Although she used to be doctor, she is very talented in languages as well and also is a very skilled educator. So she began using this method, especially this approach using group critiques of the teachers' team. We've continuously developed this method and expanded, so that our students can benefit.

As I mentioned before, we are adaptable. Some students come here for short-term study, which can be anywhere from one to 52 weeks. For our one-on-one program, it can be either four or six hours of class time each day day, giving students great opportunities to practice their speaking and listening skills. Teachers prepare the lessons and design the entire course according to the students' needs and current level of learning, so it's very interactive.

GK: And what about students who want a group setting?

Liu: Our other program is small group classes. It is two hours each day, five days a week. We designed it for students who live in Kunming for the long-term who already have set up lives here in the city. These types of classes are one semester long, which usually comes out to 16 weeks.

For all of those studying at Keats we provide visa support as well. And now we have an online Chinese learning program. So for our former students who have left Kunming and gone back home, but who also want to continue learning Chinese, they can take our online continuing education. It's anywhere, anytime, as long as they have an internet connection. The online learning course is sometimes used for HSK preparation and sometimes just for people to keep up with their studies. In the past, we have helped many students to pass the HSK test. So online we not only teach the basics of Chinese or help students build a very solid foundation, but also teach a lot of test-taking techniques and preparation. This is the most special thing about our virtual learning courses.

Image credit: Yereth Jansen
Image credit: Yereth Jansen

GK: What, in your opinion, makes Keats stand out from the other language schools here in the Spring City?

Liu: I think the most important thing is teaching quality, and it's a key factor for the survival and growth of Keats. If the quality of instruction isn't good, then what's the point? What's the point of students putting in the effort, right? So here at Keats we really pay great attention to overall quality of our teaching, and we keep improving month by month. It is extremely important, and it also encourages students to keep coming back to study at Keats because they feel like they make great progress here. That's the number one thing setting us apart.

The second important aspect is our system of management. Because as we have more and mores students, I think the management of the whole school becomes more important and efficiency is key. During the early stages when it was a small school that only has a few students, Keats didn't need structured management. We only needed good teachers. But now with more instructors and more students, things have become more complicated. Rethinking the way we administered the school was important.

Another big plus is our location here in the city center, which is quite convenient. For the one-on-one students who live and sometimes eat at Keats, it's very simple for them to get around. And it's also easy for our small group class students who live in different parts of Kunming.

The last thing that we see as a big advantage is the services we provide. Other than language training we also have good accommodations — single rooms with private bathrooms, located in the same building as our classrooms. The set-up is very convenient, with a small cafeteria where students can have three meals a day. And yeah, the service is very good [laughs]. If someone wants to live off-campus, we can also help them find an apartment and get them set up. So the overall learning environment here at Keats is very strong. Every student is really passionate about studying the language, and they really dedicate themselves to learning. No matter what level you are, you can always find someone who you can talk to in Chinese, including other students.

Image credit: Yereth Jansen
Image credit: Yereth Jansen

GK: Do you organize special events for students or prospective students?

Liu: Yes. Every weekend we organize cultural trips to the nearby places. We visit Buddhist temples, the Western Hills and Golden Temple Park — interesting and culturally important places. We also organize group dinners for students to encourage them to try local food — including street food — because our students are interested to get an in-depth view of the local culture. As the next semester is getting ready to start on February 27, we've organized a big welcome dinner for all of our currently registered students. Prospective students are welcome too, and I'll post more details on GoKunming soon!

GK:We've heard rumors you'd like to expand. What does the future hold for Keats?

Liu: In 2016 we had a lot of students, but in 2017 we expect even more. To make room we are in the process of purchasing more property for the school. Right now we do not have enough space for more students, so we definitely need to expand. As for the future, I think we aim to be the best Chinese language school not only in Kunming, but in China, in terms of both scale and teaching quality.

Image credit: Yereth Jansen
Image credit: Yereth Jansen

GK: Over the years, what have you found foreign students typically struggle with the most when learning Chinese?

Liu: Tones. When someone starts to learn Chinese the tones are really difficult. Many students feel like they are singing at first — like Chinese people are singing all the time. The five different tones sometimes interact and change in different situations, so there are many rules and the adjustment can be hard.

Sentence order is quite different from English and other languages too. Sometimes in Chinese we place the time and place in front of the verb, and the structure can end up being totally different from a student's native language. People often mix it up trying to use the logic of something like English, but in Chinese. That can create confusion for Chinese people who are trying to understand.

Another big hurdle, especially for intermediate or advanced students, is when they've begun to develop a big vocabulary. So many words in Chinese sound similar or have extremely similar meanings, but are used in different cases and different situations. It's common that when using these words, one is used in a bad or negative situation and the other one is used in a good one. It's difficult for students to pick the appropriate word for a given situation. When you already have so many words floating around in your mind, it's difficult to choose the proper one during a conversation. This is a very big challenge, even for many advanced students.

GK: Start of the semester. Expanding the school. Busy times. But have you planned any events for the immediate future?

Liu: Oh yes. On February 19 — which is a Sunday — we're holding a big welcome dinner for all students who registered at Keats, as well as prospective students who may want to study here. It starts at 6pm and anyone is welcome to come to the school and enjoy a free dinner with unlimited beer. The meal will feature lots of Chinese dishes and some desserts. All of our teachers will be there, so people can mingle and have a casual chat with our teachers and students while checking out the school! If anyone has any questions before or after, they can add me on WeChat by searching for 'Mandy - Keats'.

Uncredited images: Matt Chen

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Great article and introduction to Keats. I noticed the article did NOT touch on employee loyalty and retention programs (at the cost of profit). Keats may wish to address this kind of core infrastructure in the future, at the appropriate time.

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