Instagram Combined Shape quotation Created with Sketch. 69

Sailing into the Classroom

Much like the character in her children’s book, Katie Yang ’23 has been on her own adventure—taking a bullet train out of Shanghai to teach English in China for a year, volunteering as an ESL teacher at Fort Drum, and now completing her master’s degree in childhood education at SUNY Potsdam.

The SUNY Potsdam graduate student, who is pursuing an M.S.T. in Childhood Education, recently published a children’s book at Barnes and Noble. “Sailor Sam and the Crab Invasion,” which is now available on the bookseller giant’s website in paperback and as an ebook, started as a project in her Literacy I class with Carolyn Stone. Yang crafted a quirky tale about a sailor named Sam who heads out to sea, only to have his ship overrun by crabs.

“One of the best things about the MST program is the collaborative work. I used to be a very shy person, but I’ve learned a lot about how to work more with my peers. Every class, there was some kind of group project.”

Katie Yang '23

“When I turned it in, my professor told me that I should try to publish it. So, I reached out to my sister-in-law, and she illustrated it,” Yang said. “At first, it’s just a few crabs but then they take over the ship and the sailor doesn’t know what to do about them. A big storm comes and washes them all away, but then he realizes that he doesn’t have any food, so he wishes that he had kept some of the crabs for dinner.”

Yang’s path to the College’s MST program first began in 2019 when she decided to teach overseas.  When her husband, a soldier in the U.S. Army stationed at Fort Drum, was deployed to Afghanistan, she decided it was the perfect time for her to also travel abroad. She set her sights on China after seeing an ad looking for an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher in the country. “I just applied on a whim. I didn’t have any teaching experience, but they contacted me, we did the interview and then within a few months I had my visa,” she said.

Yang packed up her things and hopped on a plane to travel more than 7,000 miles to China. After arriving in Shanghai, she continued by train to Kunshan, a suburb of the major urban center. Working for a company called Education First, she taught English to children at an afterschool program in the city. “They would come in not knowing a single word in English, and then after a month or so, they were saying their ABCs. One of the things that really stood out, that made me want to keep teaching, is how much kids enjoy learning,” she said.

In August 2020, she moved back to Watertown, N.Y., and then lined up another opportunity to continue teaching English to Chinese students, this time fully online from her home in Northern New York. Over the next year, she taught ESL to children in China, until the country changed its regulations. “Basically, overnight everybody lost their jobs, and you couldn’t teach anymore if you were not living in China. So that’s when I was like, ‘I want to keep teaching, but I don’t know what to do because I’m not certified,’” she said.

That’s when Yang discovered the teacher education program at SUNY Potsdam, and as she dug a little deeper, she realized that she could get her master’s degree fully online, before starting her student teaching placements. “There are a lot of online programs at those for-profit colleges, but SUNY Potsdam is a real school. That’s one of the reasons I moved toward SUNY Potsdam, because it had a good reputation,” she said. “One of the best things about the MST program is the collaborative work. We did a lot of that, and that’s something that used to intimidate me. I used to be a very shy person, but I’ve learned a lot about how to work more with my peers. Every class, there was some kind of group project.”

Katie Yang ’23 works with students in a fourth-grade classroom as part of her student teaching placement this semester at Maynard P. Wilson Elementary School.

For the past year, she has been laying the groundwork for a career as an elementary school teacher with courses ranging from literacy to classroom management. One of the most impactful classes she took focused on how to work with distracting, and sometimes unruly children in the classroom. “I really liked Classroom Management. That’s probably my biggest weakness. I read a book in that class called ‘Teaching with Love and Logic,’ which has shaped my educational philosophy. I base a lot of what I do on that book,” she said.

Now in her final semester, she’s completing two student teaching placements at Maynard P. Wilson Elementary School in Adams Center, where she’s been implementing lessons from her online classes into her day-to-day routine. Using smart board technology, students follow along in their textbooks as Yang moves from one topic to the next on the large display at the front of the class. To emphasize certain words, she flexes her arms to relay the strength of verbs or other action words. “I try to use a lot of TPR (total physical response), physical actions and movements to help them remember things,” Yang explained.

Outside of the classroom, she was also busy last year teaching English to the family members of soldiers at Fort Drum. After developing her own curriculum, Yang provided weekly lessons to the wives, sisters, and parents of enlisted soldiers, whose primary languages ranged from Spanish and Russian to Arabic and French.

After she graduates in May, she plans on teaching English Language Arts at an elementary school, or English as a Second Language to children and adults who recently moved to the U.S. Yang also plans on bolstering her degree with an ESL certificate this summer to create additional career opportunities. “There’s a surprising need for ESL in this area. Even though it’s not quite as diverse as a big city, because of Fort Drum, there are a lot of people who don’t speak English,” she said. "The best part of teaching is when you see a light bulb go off over their head. That always made me feel excited and satisfied.”

Article and Photos by Jason Hunter