Stephen Robinson Brittainy Harris
Education is an ever-present concern for parents, especially for expat parents, who often don’t feel that they have the same options for educating their children as they would back home. Every parent only wants the best for their kids, so before signing up for a school, it’s best to get to know the educators at the forefront of your children’s education.
To help facilitate this, we interviewed Brittainy Harris, principal of Xi’an International School to find out more about the school and their approach to teaching.
Could you tell us a little about yourself?
I am a bit of an introvert with a dry sense of humor. I am a hidden gem of a nerd who enjoys a good fantasy or science fiction book, and with a love of tabletop games. For the nerdy types, I say I am a socially-awkward robot with a deadpan sense of humor, and people kind of get it.
What is your background as a teacher?
I received my Bachelor of Science in elementary education in the United States, Pennsylvania for the core subjects (math, English, social studies, and science) and minored in middle school education for the same subjects. For my Graduate studies, I decided to pursue curriculum – my second love of education other than the students – and received my degree in Curriculum Design and Instructional Strategies. I’ve taught 4 years as a 4th grade teacher as well as 6 years as a Middle School English teacher. I have been principal of XIS for two years.
Could you describe your approach to teaching?
Let me give you a peek into my approach to teaching by telling you a short story.
“Hold on one second, I think I see my friend in the hallway” I told my 4th grade students as they finished their 7 times table practice. Their heads down and focused, including the students finished early and reading quietly on their own, I dashed outside where I’ve left a few important objects on the ledge outside my classroom. Good! They hadn’t been taken by some curious 2nd grader. I snatched up the calligraphy brushes I got from the Chinese department, I put the brown eye shadow in splotches all over my face, and put on the large- brown hat with mosquito netting and picked up the fish net. Crouched next to the door, hand on the door knob, I waited for my cue. I didn’t have to wait long.
“Where’s Ms. Harris?” A student called as I burst through the door in my best impersonation of Indiana Jones. The students excitedly began to whisper, “Archeological Harris!”
That little story is a sneak peek into my personal approach to teaching. As a teacher, I made sure I studied the content as well as connected with the students personally. That year, a student was obsessed with Indiana Jones…well, the Lego version of Indy, so how better to make Social Studies come alive than to make it as real as possible for the students.
So boiling down my approach to teaching, I always say it’s only about two things: content and connection. Once you know your student’s interest, it’s easy to make the content come alive for them (and when I say ‘easy’, I mean excruciating hard work).
In your profile on the XIS website, you mention that you were diagnosed with dyslexia. How has that influenced you as a teacher?
Did you know there are different types of dyslexia? I have all of them, which makes life interesting.
I didn’t know I had dyslexia until I went to university (my parents didn’t want it to define my educational experience) and so the diagnoses of dyslexia hadn’t influenced me as a teacher, but my experience as a person with dyslexia has shaped who I am as a person. My creativity, tenacity, and ability to solve problems in a unique way all steam from how my brain is uniquely fashioned.
In elementary school my parents sat down with me for hours each night reviewing and reviewing spelling words and the times tables. Each time I would fail the test, I would think to myself, “I’m dumb”. Going to a special learning bus during recess time was demotivating and I had to work twice as hard every time to get lower grades than my classmates. Super bummer.
The turning point for me happened in 8th grade. First, my English teacher failed me so I would have to take summer school. Second, she told me, “you may always have to work more than twice as hard as your classmates and that’s what will make you succeed.” Something miraculous happened: those words really struck home, but not in a demotivating way. Instead, it felt like I finally had a teacher who understood me, and in that moment, I knew I could succeed. In high school, I saw my grades flip and my teachers told me they were happy to see my progress. I graduated with honors, which surprised me, and then for my undergraduate degree I graduated Summa Cum Laude.
As an educator, and especially now as principal of XIS, I can better help struggling students.
What do you enjoy most about teaching?
I know teachers shouldn’t have favorites, but struggling students have a special place in my heart. Students who are having a bad day, can’t connect with the curriculum, or need some extra help because of the language used in classroom or a learning disability are the reason I stay in education. As a principal, my favorite part of the day is when students are sent to the Principal Office. Usually it’s because they had a rough time and I take time to slow down and listen. I have a notebook where I write down everything they talk about before reading it back to the student. Then we decide where the issue was and make an active plan to get back on track.
What is your approach when a student is struggling with a subject?
In the classroom, students are usually struggling because they haven’t connected to the content. They don’t know what makes learning adjectives special or why a thesis statement is the most important sentence in a 5-point essay. So my approach is to first connect with the student. As a teacher, it’s great to have students write down their history on that subject. I gather the writing and put them in different groups to decide how to engage that group of students. The ones that already love the subject? Easy! They could practically teach themselves and are great helpers in the classroom. The next step is to decide which activities will help the struggling students the most, because there are so many different activities to utilize in the classroom! My favorite is to create my own games for students to play and their favorite one I created is called ‘sink or swim’ in which students have to race to the front to put the correct answer in the basket first for the most points so they can ‘swim’ to the top of the lake one step at a time.
What would you say are the benefits for a student attending XIS?
Where to begin? There are too many benefits, but I’ll say a few that I hear from other people:
a. Most caring teachers
b. Challenging and engaging content
c. Sincere and caring parents of students
d. English Only environment (including during lunch and recess!)
e. After School Activities and English Language Program one hour after school with busing provided.
f. AP Capstone Diploma offered in the spring of 2023!
g. A packed learning day! (daily English, Chinese, Social Studies, and Science classes with weekly electives/specials)
How can parents help their children with their education at home?
If you’re a parent and you’re asking yourself that question, I can say with confidence you’re already on the right track! Providing encouragement and a listening ear are the two keys to helping your child with their education at home. Remember whether your child is 3 or 18, they are still a kid and learning. Be patient, yet lovingly firm because they are learning and growing daily.
When you’re not teaching, what do you like to do in Xi’an?
The people of Xi’an are the best! Wherever I go, I can make a friend or two and I can practice my Chinese with anyone I meet while going around town. Being on lockdown has helped me realize that I have amazing neighbors! Usually, I’m so busy with work and going out, I didn’t make time to get to know the people living right next door. I think my peppermint cookies are now famous in my neighborhood and my neighbors are so sweet! Their hearts are so warm and rich and so they have gifted me chocolate, iced tea, fruit, and more! Thank you, sweet neighbors!
Naturally I’m an introvert and a nerd. So I enjoy having a weekly tabletop game I play with friends and enjoy going to places early in the morning, before the crowds come in droves.
I still enjoy going to any museum, the city wall, or terra cotta warriors. Those never get old!