The Full Teaching Experience

Trained as a biologist, Department of Languages Head Zhaohong “Jenny” Li found her passion in teaching Chinese.


Languages Department Head Zhaohong “Jenny” Li strives to be an excellent teacher, trusted adviser, and supportive coach. Li taught molecular biology at Tsinghua University in Beijing prior to moving to the U.S. in the 1990s. After receiving multiple degrees, Li briefly worked in high tech before discovering a passion for teaching Chinese. Before arriving at SPS six years ago, she started Chinese language programs at McDonogh School in Maryland and The Hockaday School in Texas. She holds the Fung Family Chair in Chinese. She spoke with Alumni Horae contributor Debbie Kane.

What inspired you to become a teacher?
In China, you decide what you want to study and that’s what you do for the rest of your career. Moving to America gave me an opportunity to pursue my American dream, which was being a high school teacher. My family was living in Dallas and, in the Chinese community there, we had a Sunday school for Chinese Americans. I was principal of one of the schools, teaching 500 students Chinese. The Hockaday School contacted us about helping them start a Chinese language program. I began as a part-time teacher and stayed there for seven years.

This is your first experience living and teaching at an independent school, including being head of house in Ford for two years. What is that like?
When I first became head of house, I thought my role was literally being a mom. If the girls in my house were hungry at 10 p.m., they could have any of the dumplings I kept in my refrigerator or I cooked them chicken and ramen noodles. I quickly realized that wasn’t enough. I had to step into my students’ shoes to understand and support them, whether it was implementing the LinC curriculum or working through diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) issues.

You applied to be an assistant coach for the girls JV lacrosse team this term. Why?
Before I came to SPS, administrators told me I was a great Chinese teacher. But my dream is to be a great all-around teacher. To me, that means not only teaching, but advising and coaching. In China, you’re not exposed to sports as a student. I didn’t understand the culture of athletics. After I came to SPS, I was a timer for girls sports, but I wanted to do more. Now I’m getting the full teaching experience.

Tell me about the Asian American Footsteps Conference to be held on campus next year.
The AAFC is a student-driven conference that gives Asian prep school students space to discuss their identity. Through my own DEIJ work, I learned to respect my Chinese culture and own my feelings around it. I saw that our Asian students struggle in this area, too. As an adviser to the Justice and Social Equality for Asians (JSEA) club, I attended past AAFC conferences and they’re very powerful. We applied to be a host school for AAFC in 2023. SPS students will decide the theme, design a logo and website, and coordinate the presentations.

What excites you most about your job?
As head of the Languages Department, I’m proud of my teachers. They’re extremely dedicated and serious about their jobs. Our goal is to help our students become proficient in the languages they study and continue their studies in college. No matter what track they’re on, our students are diving into programs that help them learn how to deal with our diverse, complex world. I support them from my heart — that’s not part of the job description.