Kelly McPhail teaching English to adults in China. Photo courtesy of Brian and Kelly McPhail. Download full resolution image.
Wil LaVeist
Wednesday, September 17, 2014

ELKHART, Ind. (Mennonite Mission Network) – Tao’s extremely sheepish demeanor as he approached teacher, Kelly McPhail, revealed why he and his classmates were nervous about their English grades – they hadn’t been speaking much in class.

To confront an authority figure for such a reason is out of cultural character for Chinese students, such as Tao, who, even at the college level, typically sit quietly.

But McPhail, the foreigner teaching in China, had been encouraging her students throughout the semester to speak and engage her and each other in a style typical of American classrooms. Since the course was taught in English only, Tao and his classmates had to speak the language to learn it.

The confrontation was inevitable.

Brian and Kelly McPhail serve in China as English teachers. Download full-resolution image.

“I told the students that in order to earn a good grade in English, speaking out was essential,” said Kelly McPhail, who with her husband, Brian, serve in China with Mennonite Mission Network as professors and administrators through Mennonite Partners in China. “There were painful days where no one was talking or answering questions.”

But Tao explained to McPhail that it was very difficult for any Chinese student to speak often in class. He asked her to “be patient with them.”

Soon, there was transformation. The students began to talk more openly in order to practice English. Kelly McPhail would lead students in discussions about life values. Eventually, discussions on values, world events, and the need for peace led to students asking her deeper questions about life.

“I saw a great deal of change among the students,” Kelly McPhail said.

This has been the experience for both Kelly and Brian McPhail, who began their three-year China service assignment in July 2013.

In China, like most community-oriented cultures, authority figures are respected highly. Elders, foreigners and teachers are among those treated with honor. Appearing to “talk back” to them is frowned upon.

The McPhails anticipated that having open dialogue with students would not happen instantly. Both alums of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where they met, the couple had previously served in China from 2005 to 2007, living in Kunming, Yunnan Province. Nonetheless, they were still taken aback by the silence in their classrooms at first.

“We’ve definitely had very similar experiences getting students to open up,” said Brian McPhail, who gradually began turning the students’ reluctance into a teachable moment for himself.  He asked for their thoughts and ideas about what China is and who the Chinese people are.  They began teaching him about the ancient culture and modern ways. The overall comfort level in the classroom increased.

“On a daily basis, I had people in front of me who could authentically help me to understand their culture and country,” Brian McPhail said. “I definitely learned from them.”

He noticed that the emphasis on respect, honor, and not causing shame to the family remains a constant theme.

Aside from discussing current events, the McPhails also incorporated lessons on peace-building and conflict resolution. In these lessons, they asked students to identify the various causes of conflict and to develop potential methods of peacemaking. Such discussions not only stretch students’ English abilities, but also expand their understandings of the world, the McPhails said.

They also invite students to their home for informal English lessons. Each Tuesday afternoon, Kelly McPhail hosts “English Corner” in their living room. Small groups of seven to eight students practice speaking English. Among the topics discussed include cultural differences, education, travel, religion, family, and love.

 “Kelly and Brian have been outstanding in their ability to jump into teaching and building relationships with students and faculty colleagues,” said John F. Lapp, Mission Network’s director for Asia and the Middle East. “Coming with Chinese experience has allowed them to quickly understand nuances of interpersonal dynamics that would require much time to learn for persons new to the culture.” 

Brian McPhail said that the couple has been asked to serve in other capacities, such as preaching at the new (and small) English-speaking service within the church they attend.

“Opportunities abound here,” Brian McPhail said. “We see that God is at work, and we strive to figure out how we can partner with the Chinese church and Chinese Christians.”


For immediate release

Mennonite Mission Network, the mission agency of Mennonite Church USA, leads, mobilizes and equips the church to participate in holistic witness to Jesus Christ in a broken world. Media may contact


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