Zach Engler: Conquering Middle School

For the past two years, Zach Engler has been an international school student in Beijing.  Originally from Key Largo, Florida, he moved to China in the summer of 2015, unsure of what to expect from the country he’d known only from newspapers and movies. 

 “I wasn’t excited to leave the US,” Zach explained.  “I’d just finished the third grade, had been playing baseball and swimming every day with friends.  Getting on the plane to leave was not on my list of favorite summertime activities.”

After arriving in Beijing, the days were initially challenging.  Zach lived in Haidian district but attended school in Shuangjing.  “It was a three-hour commute,” he recalled.  “There’s no iPad app that’s fun for that long.”  This meant waking at 5:30 am to get ready for school and not returning home until 12 hours later – the grinding schedule each day was tougher than any routine he’d experienced before.


Eventually, the days became easier.  Zach grew more comfortable with his new life in China.  With the food.  With the city.  With life as an international school student.  But then this August, Zach was hit head-on again with another life-changing event: the transition from Primary to Secondary school.

“I’d just started to feel that I’d overcome the challenges of moving to a new country,” he explained.  “But now, moving to Secondary school in many ways is equally as difficult.  We have new demands on our time.  There’s higher expectations for our work.  I’ve just gotten comfortable with my environment outside of school, and suddenly school itself begins asking more of me.”

There was one more recent change in Zach’s life, however.  His family moved downtown near Chaoyang Park, and he changed schools to join YCIS Beijing.  This means he has a far shorter commute (20 minutes), leading to more rest, more time for homework and extra-curriculars, and also that he’d be entering the YCIS Beijing Middle School Programme.


YCIS Beijing Middle School, also referred to as the Years 6-8 Learning Community, was specifically designed to help students bridge the gap between Primary and Secondary.  As the final sprint in the preparation for university, Secondary school demands a lot of young students.  The rigours of the IGCSEand IBDP programmes, for example, present time commitments that would be challenging even for adults – the course load can amount to 50+ hour workweeks.  YCIS Beijing cushions the transition to Secondary school so that students are fully prepared by the time the starter pistol fires.

“The year levels at YCIS Beijing are more like what I’d have had back in the US,” Zach explained.  “In the States, we have middle schools so that students aren’t thrown in the deep-end too quickly.  But I saw that at a lot of international schools, the jump to from Primary to Secondary is harsh and immediate.”

Another way that YCIS Beijing supports this transition is through Lower Secondary Skills Week. During the first week of school, a variety of activities and workshops are organised to address students’ social, academic, and emotional maturation.  This year’s workshops included sessions on Growth Mindset, Cross-Cultural Communication, and Organisational Skills, among others.  There were also ice-breaker events and team building activities to accelerate relationship building.  All of the skills that students will develop during their time in Middle School are prepped and primed from Week 1.


And the value of Skills Week isn’t lost on our students. 

“Like me, I’ve met many classmates this week that are new to YCIS,” Zach said.  “Unlike them, at least I’m not new to Beijing.  But because there’s a lot of change already taking place around us, I believe that we all appreciate the chance to ease into our new environment.  It helps us to understand what’s expected of us this year and in the future, and we’re better prepared because we can start pacing ourselves from the start.”

On Friday afternoon, Zach hopped on the bus for his short ride back home.  A sunny weekend to look forward to, Zach could also be proud of having conquered yet another challenge.  He’s conquered the hardships of leaving his hometown.  He’s conquered being the new kid in Beijing.  He’s conquered the 3-hour commute.  Now he’s conquered his first week of Middle School. 

But it’s still just beginning.  For Zach the Conqueror, there’s countless more sunny days ahead.

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