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Voelker using cultural roots to create community

Safiya Azam
Coppell High School Mandarin Chinese teacher Andrea Voelker decorates her classroom with many references to Chinese culture including art, literature and porcelain. Voelker made the switch from business to teaching and has taught Mandarin at Coppell for12 years, spreading the language and culture at CHS.

Hung up in C113, the flag of Taiwan displays a blue square and white disk sun amongst a field of red, cutting through the sea of Chinese characters, flags and artwork.

Unlike the other decor, it serves to do more than educate. Its purpose is far more personal: a connection to Coppell High School Mandarin Chinese teacher Andrea Voelker’s upbringing.

The flag juxtaposes the Chinese features of the classroom. To Voelker, the flag represents not only her heritage, but her lesson beyond the language she teaches in order to share, promote and value different cultures.

Although Mandarin Chinese does not seem like a common language credit for high schoolers, all four levels of Mandarin including AP, are offered at CHS and have been taught by only one teacher, Voelker, for 12 years.

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Prior to CHS9 opening in 2018, Voelker was a shadow teacher for the subject and had to shuttle from New Tech High @ Coppell to CHS daily.

“When I was shadowing between two campuses, I felt like I didn’t belong to either,” Voelker said. “I didn’t have this classroom, I didn’t have this representation.”

Coppell High School Mandarin Chinese teacher Andrea Voelker expresses her culture and language throughout her classroom. Voelker switched from business to teaching and has taught Mandarin at Coppell for 12 years, spreading the language and culture at CHS. (Safiya Azam)

As Voelker utilized whatever classrooms were available back then, her class often did not reflect the subject she was teaching. Now that she has a permanent classroom, she emphasizes decorating to showcase her heritage and language.

“I deliberately try to include where I come from and where the majority of kids in this class come, so they can tell this is a Chinese class,” Voelker said.

Having to shuttle for her first few years of teaching was not the first time Voelker adapted to an unstable environment.

Voelker grew up in Taiwan and came to America when she was 22 for graduate school at UT Dallas, where she received her management degree and worked in business for almost four years.

“It was my first job and the environment wasn’t what I wanted,” Voelker said. “You know, you can’t really get your dream job at your first job.”

Voelker continued to push despite not finding complete fulfillment in her original career and with encouragement from her husband, New Tech High @ Coppell assistant principal Garrett Voelker, she decided to switch to teaching.

“Business is [Voelker’s] bread and butter, she worked at a company where she wasn’t very happy at,” Mr. Voelker said. “I said, ‘you know, you could try something new for a little bit, see how you like it.’”

Mr. Voelker encouragement extended beyond a need for a new career but spoke on the character of her, and the traits she displays that build up a passionate teacher.

“If you want to be a good teacher, especially these days, you can’t just get up and lecture in front of a room,” Mr. Voelker said. “She does a lot to teach about not just the language, but the cultural side of the Chinese speaking world, getting into movies and holidays and celebrations and talking about family and food.”

Mrs. Voelker’s background of growing up in Taiwan helped her teaching career as she was  surrounded by the language she ended up teaching. Her experiences moving to America and having to speak her second language English helped her understand her student’s perspective learning Mandarin.

“When I came here, I actually had to talk to the Americans, nervous and use the wrong tense, because in Chinese, our verbs do not conjugate,” Mrs. Voelker said. “So you feel frustrated at first and then you try again.”

Mrs. Voelker’s struggles reflect her approach to teaching the language through immersing students in Mandarin and Chinese culture.

“She teaches half the class in Chinese,” sophomore Emma Zhao said. “Which can be kind of difficult for non heritage learners but she makes sure they understand, but that’s just one way. Our projects are also very Chinese-culture based.”

One of many projects Mrs. Voelker facilitates is a Lunar New Year’s event where the Chinese students travel to Cottonwood Creek Elementary School to teach students about different aspects of the Chinese New Year.

“It’s by class, so Chinese I was games, Chinese II is calligraphy, Chinese III is food, and then AP is performances,” Zhao said. “Then we work on that for a month or so and take it to Cottonwood Creek Elementary School  to teach kids about Chinese culture.”

Mrs. Voelker’s classroom has served as a hub for Chinese culture to flourish but it doesn’t stop there. Rather, her open and cultivating approach influences other students to open up about their own culture.

“I think by learning Chinese [students] will be more interested in finding out about their own culture, own roots, because we share a lot of similarities and differences,” Mrs. Voelker said.

From different backgrounds to those sharing Chinese culture, students have come to appreciate what Andrea and her classroom symbolizes, a safe space to explore and mix culture.

“Here I’ve encountered a lot of different cultures, so we are exchanging stuff and that’s the beauty,” Mrs. Voelker said. “I love to learn new things, let’s be open minded so we can know each other better.”

Voelker beautifully sums up her mentality in her favorite idiom from the Analects of Confucius, “三人行,必有我师” (sān rénxíng, bì yǒu wǒ shī).

Translating to, “Three people go together there must be my teacher” meaning you have something to learn from everyone.

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This story was originally published on Coppell Student Media on April 16, 2024.