Seven students from low-income families in Birmingham, Alabama—a school district fraught with dysfunction—took on a challenging opportunity this Summer: They spent the month of July studying in Beijing, China. Their story is one of a teacher going to extraordinary efforts to open an opportunity hosted by the Jiayu School, Youth Leaders of America and China (YLAC). It is also a story of students gaining exposure to an entirely different language and culture; these students are closing what their teacher, Wyatt Smith, calls “the exposure gap.”

After graduating from Vanderbilt, Smith used a fellowship from the University to travel the world studying emerging democracies. When he returned to the United States, he soon began his training for Teach For America’s new Birmingham Corps. As a social studies teacher at George Washington Carver High School, Smith began to work with students facing the familiar challenges of poverty. When he was able to follow up on a contact he made while traveling in Beijing a year before, Smith realized the possibility of opening an entirely new world for his students through YLAC. But how could such a thing ever come together? Time, effort, and commitment.

Smith and his students went to work building a website to accept donations and reaching out to potential donors. They posted YouTube videos to express their dreams for the future and how a trip to Beijing could help their dreams become reality. Rodney is interested in being an international entrepreneur and wanted to learn more about auto design and production in China. Kenneth is an aspiring entrepreneur, and experience in China has equipped him with an early impression of that country’s rapidly expanding economy. De’Anquinetta wants to go to West Point, and YLAC enabled her to learn firsthand about China’s place on the world stage.

By sharing their dreams and leveraging social media, Smith and his students raised more than $40,000 to fund the trip, and the group took off for China on July 4. Before the trip, Smith set up after-school Skype sessions with a Mandarin-speaking friend living in China, who would rise early in the morning there to lead virtual language lessons. The group continued their Mandarin studies in Beijing, while also visiting an area of abject poverty outside the city, the Great Wall, and the headquarters of computer manufacturer Lenovo. All the while, they learned from and shared their own stories with their Chinese peers.

This story is an inspiring one, and it is also a story of a teacher capitalizing on his past experience to open an exciting opportunity for his students. At its core, however, this is a story about a teacher being creative and inspiring his students to want to expand their views of the world by showing them another side of it. A teacher does not have to raise $40,000, guide students through the passport application process, and make international travel arrangements to inspire students. By showing daily determination to open educational opportunities for their students, teachers can set a positive example class by class, student by student. Research and experience tell us teachers can hold the keys that open new doors for their students.

As my colleague, Erika Berry has written, teaching is leadership. It is a profession that enables committed instructors to have a real impact on the lives of students placed in their charge. When students take the step to tackle a large challenge and invest themselves in student learning and their own development, teaching is at its finest. The Birmingham to Beijing story may inspire us, but it also serves as a real reminder of the value of committed teachers. Every student may not go to China for the Summer, but all students deserve the kind of teaching that pushes them to take a deeper interest in the world and build a foundation for their future success.

You can learn more about Birmingham to Beijing by reading the students’ blog at