ESL: An average week in the life of an ESL teacher in China

Me, having a marvellous time teaching small children 😂
So first a bit of background. I have worked in two cities in China, in very different schools. My first six months here was spent in a public high school in Jinjiang, Fujian Province in south east of the country. It was a wonderful experience, and one that I look back on and smile and cringe simultaneously. I was such a terrible teacher then!! But I learnt a lot from it and carried those things through to my current school.

Now I work at an English language centre, privately owned with rather steep fees. It’s quite an elitist thing, the kind of place I never wanted to work at previously. It was kind of by chance that we came to be here, as our visas were ending and we needed to secure jobs to get a new visa.

I work in a small city in China. Actually it’s pretty big, but for China it’s on the small side! My school is in the centre of town, and easily accessible by bus, taxi, on foot and (my new favourite) bicycle. There are multiple schools like ours in this city, each with anywhere between 1 and 10 foreign teachers working there. However, I am happy to be working at mine. It’s kind of a special school, though I’m sure everybody else would say the same thing!

However I do think our school is pretty unique. As well as classrooms, we also have a model plane, subway and train, that you can sit inside and role play actually being on a plane etc. It’s exciting for the children and there’s no better way of learning how to use these things than real practice. We also have a restaurant, a big kitchen, a bedroom, a bus, a store (they can collect ‘dollars’ for being good in class and actually use them to buy things in the shop), a garden and a playground. It’s an exciting place to work and to see these things in action.

Green fingers with one of my classes, when we planted onions in the school garden.

Aside from this, I have a regular schedule. My contract states that I can work up to 21 teaching hours a week. On average I work between 18 and 21 teaching hours depending on the week. During the public school summer and winter holidays this goes up to 25 hours – it’s our busiest time and we work 6 days a week. A normal week is 5 days, with 2 consecutive days off, Mondays and Tuesdays.

So Wednesday to Friday we begin work at 2pm, though I am always in a few hours before this. The late start is because the kids are in public school until around 4pm on weekdays. Wednesday is my busiest day, with four classes back to back with a five minute break in between, meaning I have everything prepared and ready to go on my desk before the first one. Thursday is a little easier, with three classes, all back to back. Friday I have one class at 3pm, and the next one at 6pm. Saturday and Sunday are early starts, with 8am classes, all the way until about 7pm. However we do get a two hour lunch break in the middle! Each class is an hour long and they then get 30 minutes with the Chinese TA.

I’ve worked here for some time now and generally I enjoy it. The schedule that you see above doesn’t really suit me very well. Naturally these days I wake up early and then have a long time to wait to go to work during the week. Coming home late means eating dinner late and thus going to bed late which means I don’t usually get enough sleep, particularly true on Saturday and Sunday. I find I’m tired a lot by our weekend on Monday and Tuesday, and I seem particularly adept here at picking up illnesses. If you love to sleep late and work later in the day, then this would be the perfect job for you. Personally I prefer working the normal 9-5 day as it suits my sleeping and eating habits better. That being said, aside from the sometimes irritating schedule, I greatly enjoy teaching.

My classes vary in age, that’s the biggest catch with working in a private school. I have baby classes, with twelve 2 and 3 year olds. I have kindergarten age classes, all 5 and 6 year olds. I also have primary school kids, between 6 and 10 year olds. I used to have a teenage class here, and many teachers have adult classes (that’s one class I cannot teach!!). It can be a downside: if you like consistency or want to focus on one age group, I wouldn’t recommend a language centre. However it can break up the monotony of having one age group. I am best with the youngest kids – my classes with them are so much fun and I feel such a sense of pride when they learn new things with me. However, with four classes that age, I love to go to my older classes, where I play different games, can have conversations with them, and generally have a slightly more relaxed time with them than constantly being on the go with my younger ones.

My youngest class – these guys are adorable!

At the moment it is the summer holidays here in China. This means that we are experiencing our busiest time of the year! We work six days a week, and I have a couple of morning classes here and there on Wednesday – Friday. This is also when we get our biggest influx of one-to-one classes, who vary in age from 3 years old (oh yes. I teach a 3 year old as a one-to-one. It’s certainly interesting!) to adulthood. The most common are teenagers, coming to study with us before jetting away on a year abroad or before going to university. During this time we also run a summer camp, which this year we are only taking part in for a few hours a week each, and also multiple fun activities are held in school for the kids to enjoy where we play summer games on the playground, make crafts, eat picnics… they’re pretty fun.

Every school is different. If you work in a public school obviously they are all pretty similar, though the salary is lower (so are the hours though). Language schools vary so much, in hours, salary, teaching styles and available materials, and it all depends on the company itself. Having worked in a public school and a language school I think that the schedule day to day in a public school suits my habits more. However I love teaching at my school, and there are definite advantages to working here.

This was their first ever reading class and it was a joy to see how they reacted to the lovely story 😊

Sometimes surprise things happen that can be irritating but if you learn to just go with the flow then it’s not so bad. I adore my classes and though on occasion I might have a class not go so well, I still look forward to teaching each of my classes. I like to see them grow up and develop their interest in things, not just in English, and I am privileged to be a part of their young lives. If you do decide to take the leap to work in China, it can be exhausting and stressful at times, but fun and intensely rewarding most of the other times. I’m glad I decided to come here, and teaching here has changed my outlook on what I want to do with my life. I know now that I love to teach and whenever I decide to leave the world of ESL I want to be a kindergarten teacher. Or at least do something where I’m helping children. These kids are a blessing, and I am forever proud and happy to be in their lives. ❤️

My favourite babies – my first ever class in this school, a class I opened myself and teach to this day. I’m forever proud of these kids 💕

Tips for Teaching Teens in a Chinese Public School

The very lovely High School.
For five months, my boyfriend and I taught 16-18 year olds at a public high school in South China. Just a month prior to that we completed an online TEFL course, and then we had an intense few days in Beijing putting what we had learnt into practice. To other foreign adults. Which needless to say isn’t the most ‘real’ of situations in which to practice being a teacher.

So actually getting to the classroom and standing there in front of thirty eager students is pretty different, and no amount of studying back at home can prepare you for it. Not everything here will be relevant to you, and everyone will find themselves in different positions, but here is what I learnt about teaching teenagers in China! 🙂

1. Don’t over-stress about learning names

I worried incessantly about this and tried so many activities and strategies to help me learn all their names. However, in the course of a week I would teach 360 students, and I would only see each student once a week.  In the short five months I was there, there was just no way I could remember all of them. In the end a kindly student told me not to worry about it. So I tried not to, because it turned out they were just ecstatic to have a foreigner teaching them!

2. Give them name tags

Don’t worry about it, but do at least make an effort to learn names. They will be over the moon that you’re at least trying, even if it fails miserably! The easiest and most obvious thing to do is give them each a name tag to display. I then played some ice breaker games with them, and at the end of the second class I swapped all the name tags around and tried to get them back to their owners using the ice breaker questions! It was fun and sort of helpful, and at least it made them laugh!

3. Abandon the rows of tables

My classroom wasn’t particularly big, and with 30 desks all in neat rows it felt cramped. As an English oral teacher, where my role was to improve their communication skills, I found the rows to be restricting. So I pushed the aside and laid the chairs out in a horseshoe shape. This facilitated communication quite well and made the students (and me!) feel more at ease. It made for a nice change of atmosphere to their other classes, where everything is serious and strict for them.

Horseshoe chairs instead of rows is good for communication practice.
4. Display their work if possible

It may sound quite primary-school-esque but even at this age I found they really liked seeing their work displayed around the class. I did a few presentation classes and they designed very arty posters showing off their English written skills to go with the presentations, and they enjoyed reading them all on the walls. Not only does it make your classroom feel more homely, it also makes them realise that you’re proud of the work they are doing.

The time my class became travel agents – they had 15 mins to make a brochure then try and sell a holiday to the rest of the class!
5. Do play games with them

You’d be surprised by how much these kids like playing games! Not all the games you learn about in the TEFL course are suitable for this age group, or class size, but there’s many things you can try. Pictionary was my go-to favourite, and works super well with new vocab. Bingo is a classic, and so are quizzes. Put them in teams and they get really competitive.

When one of my classes decided to decorate my bare room 🙂
6. Teach them things about your culture

This may not be possible for everyone to do, but it was for us and the students enjoyed it. We had textbooks to follow but there were culture lessons within it, giving us a good opportunity to let them ask us what they wanted to learn. They wanted to know everything – what Welsh people eat, the language, our traditional dress, nice places to visit, what it was like to live in a house rather than an apartment… – to deeper topics like education policies in the UK. It also gives you a chance to learn about their culture, as they liked to compare China to the UK.

A homemade gift from one of my students – how sweet and giving they all are! 🙂


First impressions of teaching in China

So on March 9th, 2015, Marc and I began our 5 month internship teaching English in South China. Wanting a change from teaching assistant jobs back home in Wales, we completed the online TEFL course and paid for our internship, then jet off to China. Upon arriving in Beijing, we were enrolled onto the intensive practical training part of the TEFL course. And then, a few days later, we packed up our suitcases, and were shuttled off onto a bullet train 10 hours south (by a super-fast G train) to the little-known city of Jinjiang, on the coast of Fujian province.

It turned out that, despite being placed in this obscure little (well, little by Chinese standards, which really isn’t that little at all) city, we got the lucky straw. We completed our internship in a very lovely high school, teaching classes of 16-18 year olds. A relatively small school of just over 2000 students, the classes were 60 students strong.

Yes. Sixty. Sixty teenagers in one room.

As an extremely shy person, this was my worst nightmare. Nothing in the TEFL training I did prepared me for this situation.

Again, we got lucky! Marc and I actually shared the classes. During class time, half of a class would come to me, the other to Marc.

Still, 30 kids are still pretty scary if you’re as shy as me.

So! Being on an internship, we had just 12 classes each a week, each one 45 minutes long. Twelve classes of 30 students gave me about 360 teenagers walking through my classroom door each week.

At first I dreaded it. I got all sweaty and my heart pounded hard just thinking about it. I planned my first classes meticulously, almost down to the second and panicked if I thought I would run out of time or (worse still) have time left over at the end.

The original layout of my classroom.
The original layout of my classroom.
Yet after Week One I realised that I loved it. I loved greeting the kids as they flocked in and sat down in our horseshoe-shaped chair layout. I liked writing on the blackboard with the powdery chalk (my feelings towards this gradually changed over time!), and putting up my homemade PowerPoints on the projector. I actually enjoyed standing in front of them, giving them task instructions or teaching them new vocab, building ideas with them. I liked watching and helping them complete their work and I loved displaying their work all over the walls of my otherwise very bare, very simple classroom.

I even liked my bare, simple classroom. It wasn’t overly large, but it was certainly a squash for sixty people. It had old-fashioned wooden desks with the metal shelf underneath for the students to store their books, and most had the typical high school graffiti scrawled across them. There were two huge blackboards at either end of the room, and about ten fans hung on the high ceiling, for those hot sticky summer days. My desk was parked squarely in the centre at the front of the room, a massive metal cabinet thing with inbuilt shelves and compartments for all my books and chalks and stationary. There was also a speaker system, controls for the projector, and a space to plug in my laptop. I couldn’t imagine ever feeling like such a teacher, but this classroom made me feel like one. Just being in there, knowing it was my room for 5 months, boosted my confidence.

On another note, depending on where you teach and how familiar the school is with foreigners, the resources provided to you may be of differing levels of helpfulness. At this school we had generic Chinese-English textbooks that were so unhelpful and poorly laid out, with a target number of new vocab words per lesson set at forty-five. No kid can learn forty-five new words a lesson, so I never once aimed for that. I tried to find words with links between them, a commonality, and taught only a few per class.

Having fun in English Corner Club.
Having fun in English Corner Club.
What about the hardest thing?

Without a doubt, it was trying, and ultimately failing, to learn all their names.

Like I said, with 360 kids walking in every week, but also taking into account the fact that I talked to many from Marc’s classes, as well as all the students that attended our weekly English Corner Club after school, I should have known from the word ‘go’ that I had no chance. But I kept trying! I tried all sorts to try and learn them. I had nametags for each and every one of them, and I’d take them in at the end of the classes to attempt at the beginning of the next one to give them out correctly (this always failed but the students found it hilarious so it was okay). I would try and seat them in the order of the register. I played Get To Know games. I desperately wanted to be a good, likeable teacher who knew all of her students.

Until one student told me kindly that it didn’t matter to them if I didn’t know all their English names, they just liked that I taught them full stop. Awww.

Still, I kept trying until, five months on, I still didn’t know half of their English names.

I learnt the odd ones though. If you ever teach in China this may be worth noting. Don’t be too alarmed by their choices of English names. There are the cute ones like Orange (pronounced Orange-ee), Bear, Sheep, Echo, Nemo, Duck and Spirit. There’s the ones based on characters like Damon (The Vampire Diaries) and Severus (actually I thought he looked more like Harry Potter but there we go). There are the gender-confused ones like girls called Eric, Jack and Christopher, or boys called Belinda or Summer. There are the slightly arrogant ones called God. Then there’s the plain bizarre ones like Oven, Curry, Love, Ifever, Creamy, Jollibee, Bin and Become. And then there’s my personal favourite…the one I just hated to call out on the register every week – Hymen. A boy called Hymen.

Ahh China ❤

Everyone will have different experiences but China is certainly an interesting and often very entertaining place to teach English! 🙂

The very lovely Jiyan High School.
The very lovely High School.