Meet your Local Leader: Shenzhan Liao, CI Mandarin Immersion Preschool

Pre-school Director in Lower Manhattan

By Anu Kapur, Publisher, Lower Manhattan Macaroni KID & Upper West Side Macaroni KID February 7, 2024

Please tell us a little about yourself, your background and what led you into educational leadership.

I have been devoted to education in a cross-cultural setting since the beginning of my career, after getting my graduate degree in anthropology and education from Teachers College, Columbia University. I came from a small town in southwest China, and see myself as an example of how transformative education can be in one’s life, which motivates my work in educational leadership.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I believe in inspiration, communication and defined management structures where everyone feels empowered. New ideas and implemental challenges happen all the time. A good leader should be adaptable, accessible, and always prepared to learn and encourage the school community to do the same. 

What is China Institute’s Mandarin Immersion Preschool’s philosophy? Teaching style? How do you encourage cross-cultural understanding?

We want to create a caring community that cultivates curiosity, creativity and open-mindedness to embrace new things and support their life-long pursuit of knowledge. Learning Mandarin provides an immersive opportunity for children to learn both Chinese language and culture as they form the basic skills that will make them productive future leaders.

How is early exposure to Mandarin beneficial to kids?

It’s a golden time between 2 – 6 years for kids to be exposed to various languages as it’s a critical period to form one’s linguistic skills. To learn Mandarin during this period - a language that helps develop both sides of the brain simultaneously - will set a firm foundation to develop a sense of pronunciation and rhythm in speech as well as building blocks to reading and writing skills and advanced engagement with mathematics.

Do you’ll have a separation process for kids entering school?

Yes. We, typically, will engage a 2-week transitional period for the family, when the child and parents will gradually ease into separation. The first two days are deliberately half days in order for the family to get used to a new schedule and, for the child, a new school environment. Parent(s) can stay outside of the classroom and be available when needed during the transitional period. In addition, our lead teacher and school staff will be in close communication with the parents to discuss the child’s behavior in school and at home to best manage the separation.

What steps would you take if you are dealing with a student discipline incident?

Depending on the nature of the incident, the steps may have different levels of urgency. Typically, the lead teacher will immediately bring the incident to the school administrator(s) who communicates with parents involved. Classroom observations may subsequently take place to assess the situation for further actions. The school will make the best effort to first look for solutions with ample communication with the families. The rules are to protect the safety of the student in question, as well as other students and teachers involved; to ensure a positive and engaging experience for all; and to provide opportunities for both students and adults to learn and grow together.  

How do you recruit and maintain quality teachers and staff members?

We set exacting standards during the recruiting process to get high-quality teachers and staff members. Communication, a collegial office culture among teachers and staff members, while offering ample professional development opportunities as well as fair compensation are all measures we have taken to maintain a strong educational team.  

What are some of your family favorite events that you host? Do you host any that are open to the public?

Each year we have an annual Chinese New Year Family Festival and our colorful Autumn Festival that bring together a large community from across NYC to celebrate Chinese holidays and culture. They provide our school families and students a diverse, festive way to experience the many classes we offer children and adults, as well as involving general public to have a good time to engage in various cultural activities at China Institute.

Please tell us what makes your school unique from others in the area?

It’s a 100% Mandarin Immersion preschool, where students get the most exposure to Mandarin during the critically formative period for language skills. In addition, the preschool is at China Institute, which for over 94 years has been the leading authority to bring the most authentic and holistic Chinese cultural resources to the public in New York. The immersive cultural environment provided by this rich history and its authenticity, as well as the community that places Chinese culture as its core to learn, are critical for an immersion school. China Institute is simply the best place to experience all that Chinese language and culture offers young learners.

Strong leaders are constantly learning. What is a great book or resource that has helped you grow and that you would recommend to others?

I am constantly searching for books that are closely related to education, as well as fields and topics beyond my profession. A recent book I found inspiring (yet I did not 100% agree with everything I read) was “Attachment-Based Teaching: Creating a Tribal Classroom” by Louis Cozolino. An example of books out of the zone of education would be “The Story of Philosophy: the lives and opinions of the great philosophers of the Western World” by Will Durant. And I love children’s illustration books too - I am constantly building out my library!

We want to get to know you a little better. Tell us the first thing that comes to your mind:

Where are you originally from?  Chongqing, China

Do you have kids? How old are they? None

In which Hogwarts house would you be sorted? Ravenclaw

Your favorite movie? Blade Runner

Your hidden talent? Drawing, perhaps?

What is your dream vacation? Visit London, Egypt and Crete in one trip

What would the students be surprised to find out about you? I have a cat that bites but is still loveable!

What’s a typical Saturday night like for you? Reading, writing and practicing Chinese music

How do you spend your summer breaks? I take a vacation with my family or friends

What are your “trapped on a desert island” books or movies? The Three-Body Problem (In the end we humans are trapped on earth for now anyway!)

What is your favorite dessert? Sea-salt ice cream

What accomplishment fills you with pride? Learning something new that I have never tried

Do you have a morning routine that gets you ready for school? Make a latte 

What inspires you? Making connection with larger cause other than the immediate needs of oneself

What is the best thing about being a principal? Everything you do is meaningful and has an impact!

A gift from your student/s that you value the most? A drawing of the profile of a terra-cotta soldier 

Is there a quote or saying that you live your life by? I don’t go with one quote but get encouragements and inspirations from various quotes from time to time.

What song do you know all the lyrics to? A Chinese song (of course!): 大海啊,故乡 (Ocean, my sweet home)

Your favorite Spirit Day in school is… We are yet to identify one, but there are many ideas: planet day; cartoon day; “Journey to the East” Day; Crazy Math Day; etc.

Thank you!

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