Teacher of the Year Jean Chen: It’s God’s story

How did a daughter of educators in communist China, who vowed she would never teach, enter and then leave medicine and, years later, end up teaching at a Christian school in the middle of…

How did a daughter of educators in communist China, who vowed she would never teach, enter and then leave medicine and, years later, end up teaching at a Christian school in the middle of America?

“It’s God’s story,” Jean Chen explains, as she unpacks the astonishing journey that led her from China to Kansas – and just last month, to The Herzog Foundation Excellence in Christian Education Awards Gala in Washington, D.C., where she was honored as one of 12 national Teachers of the Year.

Jean Chen receives her award from Herzog board member John Elliott.

It’s an unlikely chapter in a narrative that begins with a Chinese upbringing in an atheist, Communist Party household.

“I never thought I would teach,” Chen says, recalling how her sense of the responsibility of teaching drove her away from it. “Growing up in a family with three generations as educators in China, I wanted to do something else because I saw what an important role a teacher plays in a student’s life.” 

And so, Chen pursued clinical medicine instead.  

The first unexpected turn in her story took place during the first year of a five-year medicine program at Hebei North University in China, where she met two American English teachers from Wisconsin.  

According to Chen, the Chinese government knew many such English teachers were actually Christian missionaries hoping to share their faith. So, the government limited the time they could stay in one place to teach.  

In Chen’s case, however, it was just long enough. 

“My first year there in the college was their last year,” she remembers. “So, they didn’t really share the gospel directly. But I could see the difference in their life.” 

Their lives, in fact, starkly contrasted those around them, Chen says, as they would host events, open their home to students and share their faith in subtle ways. 

It’s a big college, and a lot of medical students. Everyone’s busy carrying their big books around and just trying to get to the next appointment, next class. Nobody smiles. Everyone’s just so serious. But every time I saw my English teachers, they were always smiling, saying hi. Just that joy and the life in them really attracted me. 

What made this Wisconsin couple so different? As they packed up to leave Hebei, Chen would find out. 

“I went to visit them with a friend to just say thank you and farewell,” she recalls. “And I said, ‘I really appreciate you and just how you shared your love and care with us students.’ So they ask, ‘Do you want to know why?’” 

They then shared the Christian message of the gospel, which Chen’s friend accepted that day.  

For Chen, that final conversation was a planted seed that would bear fruit in the coming year, as she joined a Christian fellowship of some 40 people the Christian couple left behind. 

“Throughout the next year, attending the small group fellowship and churches, I think God worked in my heart. And really, the Spirit touched me. And it’s almost like my eyes opened.” 

After becoming a Christian that year, it wasn’t long before Chen was ready to abandon medicine and pursue ministry.  

“God is the great physician and His Word is the best cure for people’s physical, emotional and spiritual illness,” Chen remembers thinking. “I found the real cure for my sin and others. I am so hungry and thirsty to read God’s words.”  

However, she was told by Christian mentors that God had a purpose for bringing her to the medical college, and she should finish her degree.  

That purpose would become clear through the new English teachers at the college, a Christian couple from Britain, who showed Chen what it looks like to love orphans as the Bible commands. 

“They [would] often go to the orphanage during the weekend and they needed a translator to help them. … So, that’s the first time I stepped into an orphanage in China. Even before, I never knew there was an orphanage in China. … It’s really eye-opening for me too.  

“It’s not nice; it’s very dirty, smelly, and the condition, you know, a lot of special needs kids now, with all different sorts of mental special needs.  

“But I watched my English teachers, how they served those kids. They even changed diapers. They wiped [runny noses]. You know, [a] really dirty environment … just how God’s life and God’s love showed through their life and their serving there. So, I fell in love with those kids then.” 

It was that love for orphans that brought her to the United States in the early 2000s to work for two orphan ministries based in California. 

Just before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Chen recalls, she accompanied a Chinese orphan girl to Boston to receive medical care – a trip arranged by a woman in New Jersey who had previously volunteered in a Beijing orphanage while her husband worked as an expatriate. Amazingly, that young child was later adopted by the extended family of the couple, and she is now finishing a medical degree, inspired by her experience with Chen. 

“She’s in a medical school,” Chen says. “She wanted to become a doctor to help kids like her.” 

A few years after coming to the U.S., Chen completed a biblical counseling degree at Calvary University in Kansas City, Missouri. Her counseling training led to a decade of counseling ministry near Chicago before she moved to the Wichita, Kansas area to be close to a family member in need. In 2018, she began teaching at Sunrise Christian Academy in Bel Aire, Kansas as an ESL and Chinese-language teacher. 

This year, on Sept. 24, she joined 11 other Christian educators from around the nation, each honored as among the best at what they do. Chen was selected for her immersive approach to language-teaching, as well as her commitment to Christian education at her school. 

During the awards gala at the Museum of the Bible, Chen was joined at her table by some special guests who are part of her incredible story – or as she likes to say, God’s story: 

The orphan Chen brought to Boston 21 years ago, Zhao Yi, was accompanied by her adoptive grandparents, who are the in-laws of the same New Jersey couple that arranged their medical trip to the United States all those years ago.  

Jean Chen, with her guests at The Herzog Foundation Excellence in Christian Education Awards Gala in Washington, D.C.

They’ve all been such an important part of the story,” Chen told The Lion, before the event. “And so, they’re very excited to come along to celebrate.” 

And that Wisconsin couple who helped lead Chen to faith – do they know how her story has turned out? Indeed, they do. Chen says she keeps in touch with her former English teachers, who now live in Florida. 

“They’re just so, so happy to see how God directed my life and wrote my story.” 

In fact, Chen’s story is still being written.