Today I want to share the top 5 things I wish I knew before teaching English in China! In case you’re new here, I lived in Nanjing and Beijing for most of 2016, alongside my husband who was studying Chinese. I came with him on an S1 visa (I’m American if you’re curious), which technically says I can’t work, so I really never intended to teach while living in China. But one thing led to another (in other words, some Chinese people found out there was a native English speaker with time on her hands) and I ended up teaching weekly one hour English lessons to a small group of Chinese kindergartners as a volunteer.
The lessons took place in an empty university classroom with no books, no colorful mats – just desks, chairs, a chalkboard, and a projector. The kids also showed up with nothing. No books, no pens, nothing. It was completely unstructured. On top of that, none of the parents or chaperones spoke English, and I couldn’t speak Chinese. The first class was awkward to say the least.
After that first negative experience I prepared for the next class like crazy and made a trip to our neighborhood stationary store. The next class went MUCH better and it improved even more from there. Here were my main takeaways from those 17 weeks I spent teaching English in China:
5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Teaching English In China
1. Teacher-Student Relationships Are Different
Comparing Chinese classrooms to American ones, the traditional teacher-student relationship is essentially the same. But way the class unfolds and the minute-to-minute interactions are much different. I was teaching 5 year olds, so of course I expecting them to be distracted and energetic, but they weren’t. They were quiet and respectful from day one, genuinely listening to the things I was saying and they even seemed to care about school. Of course, as our lessons went on they became more comfortable with me and therefore more distracted, but never as much as a group of American kindergartners. If I became displeased with their behavior, they snapped out of it without second guessing my authority.
Why It’s Different
I realize now that they respected me more than I respected any teacher at their age. It’s probably because being a teacher in China (a lăoshī 老师) is a highly regarded profession. You, my dear reader, probably have respect for teachers, but imagine if Americans across the nation suddenly started advocating for teachers to get paid more and be respected as much as doctors or lawyers. Imagine if parents started encouraging their kids to go into teaching instead of saying things like “you have to be REALLY dedicated to want to go down that path”.
If I had known the gravity of this fact before I started teaching, I may have planned my lessons differently. The main takeaway is that you’re going to be able to fit way more content into each lesson than you think, and you’re probably not going to have any issues with participation. Don’t think things like “the kids will think this is so boring” or “no one is going to want to do this”. If you include a game in every lesson plan, I guarantee you they’ll look forward to your class.
2. Chinese Kids Are Different With Foreigners
As a white person in Nanjing, I was like a celebrity figure. I got noticed when I walked down the street and strangers would constantly ask to take pictures with me (or they would just sneakily snap a picture when they thought I wasn’t looking). The adults were bad, but the kids were worse. They lack the wisdom to realize that staring and screaming “FOREIGNER!” isn’t the nicest thing to do to a stranger.
From what I understand, the average Chinese kid pictures an English teacher as a white foreigner, but that doesn’t erase the celebrity-like nature of foreigners in China. The kids wanted pictures, they wanted to talk about America, they wanted to hold my hand, and they would stare. It’s not a big deal, but it’s something I never thought about in the context of a classroom. And keep in mind this was in Nanjing, a city of more than 8 million. If you are teaching in a rural area, this factor will be more intense.
3. Not Speaking The Same Language Is Hard
You probably read that title and thought to yourself “no shit, dummy”. Of course not speaking the same language as the people around you is always going to be hard, but it’s the norm for English teachers in China. Chinese teaching institutes actually want teachers who do not speak a word of Chinese because that’s the kind of environment the parents want their kids to be in. They want you to talk at the kids in English as much as possible with the hopes they’ll pick up on your accent and pronunciation. But just because it’s the norm doesn’t mean it’s easy.
There are 3 huge reasons it would have been beneficial to learn a little Chinese:
1) When students asked questions, I would have been able to answer. My response would have been in English, but that’s better than what they got from me which was no answer at all.
2) Having the ability to give instructions in Chinese would have allowed me to add more games to our lesson plans. Getting the kids to sing songs in English was easy, but games were on a whole different level. We were limited to games that had VERY simple, visual instructions.
3) Being able to have simple interactions with the parents would have boosted my confidence. The kids had a parent or guardian with them during every class, and the most we could do was acknowledge each other with nods and smiles. Ultimately it was fine, but the environment would have felt less awkward if I had been able to communicate a bit more.
4. There Are A Lot of Free Online Resources
I was a volunteer teacher in China, and teaching is not actually my profession, so not only did I not have any tried-and-true lesson plans to pull from, I also had limited resources. These factors led me to search for free online resources. Through the long process of scouring various websites for lesson plans, game ideas, worksheets, and songs, I came to realize not all free online resources are equal. Some of the websites are absolute shit. Some say they’re free, but as soon I hit download it wasn’t looking so free anymore.
Here were the 6 ACTUALLY FREE websites I used to plan my lessons:
I swear, if my students ever discover this website in their adulthood they’re going to wonder why they know the lyrics to every song. I got nearly EVERY SINGLE song that we sang from the Super Simple Learning YouTube channel. And we sang a LOT of songs. I didn’t discover the website until much later, which is unfortunate because it has quite a few free flashcards, games, and worksheets.
The majority of my lesson plans were based off of ones from this website. Printing anything beyond the lesson plan requires a subscription ($29 USD for a year), but the lesson plans are completely free. Not only that, but they flow nicely and are full of great ideas. If you have to plan your own lessons and lack the time to do so, pull them from here!
Despite the title, some of their books cost money, but there are still plenty that don’t. In fact, I didn’t spend a dime on books for my classroom and most of the stories I read to my students were from this site. Their favorite was definitely Firenze’s Light.
This South African website is full of open-licensed, beautifully illustrated FREE books. You can download them as PDFs, print them, even translate, and freely distribute them. The kids favorites were Sleepy Mr Sloth and Who Is Our Friend.
I didn’t use this website much to be honest, but the free classroom games and endless printables are awesome.
Most of this website requires payment, but there are a few materials you can pull at no cost. I got a few flashcard sets and worksheets from here. They’ve got some free resources on their YouTube channel, too.
5. You’re Going To Miss The Kids
Preparing for the last lesson was bittersweet. Although teaching English in an unpaid and unstructured environment was draining, I had grown close to my students. I had actually given 2 of them their English names, something they would potentially carry with them into adulthood. On the last day of class, I brought gifts, and they had gifts for me in return. They gave me handcrafted art, a class photo with signatures on the back, and an incredible piece of Nanjing Brocade. Their parents all added me on WeChat, too. A few times a month I would receive voice messages from the kids in broken English. Here’s how it would go:
“Hello Misses-a-Brown! I meess you”
“Hello Aria! How are you?”
To this day I cherish those hysterically sweet WeChat messages and the photo of our class that has all their wiggly handwritten signatures on the back. My advice to you is to not let the hard times get in the way of the fact that these kids are part of your life’s path, as you are to theirs. Savor it, because it won’t last forever.
Fore more advice about living in China, click here to check out my China Travel Video Guide!
Talk to you soon,