teaching in china

December 13, 2016, by Alice Gould

Your Questions Answered: Working as an English Teacher Abroad

By Alice Gould, LLB (Hons) Law with European Law (2016)

In April of this year I was very excited to find out that my first ever assessment day had been successful. This meant that in a few months’ time I would be teaching in China. Fast forward seven months and I’ve been through a terrifying visa process, intense training camp in Beijing, and three months of teaching in the city, Suzhou.

Here’s answers to some questions the Careers and Employability Service told me you want to know:

1. How did you get certified to teach English abroad? What was the training like?

I was very lucky that my company organised – and, more excitingly, paid for – my certification to teach abroad. I took the TEFL China examination, which is specifically designed around teaching Chinese students.

The first stage of the training was a 60 hour online course and exam, which I had to pass by June. In
August, myself and around 150 teachers attended a training camp in Beijing with 30 hours of TEFL lessons and 30 hours of practical teaching experience. I had been in China for less than 12 hours before I was thrown in front of a class and asked to teach them for three hours. While I was terrified that morning, it really helped me gain confidence. The training was intense but useful – I still use what I learned now.

teaching china

What does your average working week look like?

My schedule is really relaxed. I work at two schools in Suzhou with 10 classes in the first school and eight in the second, as well as an English club for gifted students. As I teach 18 different classes once a week, I use the same lesson plan – changing it to suit different abilities. I usually spend an hour or two planning. I’m in school from 9.30am to 3pm with about 30 minutes travel time, although bad traffic can double this!

Every Tuesday, I have a weekly meeting  with 12 other foreign language teachers. These meetings can involve:

  • training
  • fun cultural activities – next week we’re making dumplings
  • teaching lessons in low income schools
  • demo lessons where we teach a class in front of our colleagues and are given feedback

What’s it like living in China?

China is unlike any country I have ever travelled to before. I visited six countries in South East Asia in 2015 and thought China would be a similar experience. It’s not at all. The biggest difference is the language barrier. Hardly anyone speaks any English and there’s little English writing, which can make life quite difficult at times.

“Nowism” culture – the idea that there is no need to plan before the moment – is a prominent part of life that westerners, myself included, struggle to deal with. I’ve had friends wake up at 6am, take an hour long bus-ride to school, get to their class at 7.30am, wait 30 minutes to find their lessons were cancelled and no one thought to mention it.

Despite this, these differences are quickly forgotten. I’m so used to my routine that I often have to remind myself that I am actually in China.

What would you say are some of the pros and cons of teaching English abroad?

As cheesy as it sounds, the best part about teaching abroad for yourself, and your CV, is how much you grow as a person. Every day in China gives me a new answer to “name a time you’ve been in a stressful situation and handled yourself well.” I genuinely believe everyone should live in another country at least once in their life and actually working in another country can provide you with a whole set of new skills. Particularly teaching: if I can control 50 kids with a basic grasp of my language for 45 minutes, I can do anything!

Another pro is how much free time you have. As I mentioned before, I’m only scheduled to work 10am-2.45pm, aside from Wednesday, so I have plenty of time to work on my other hobbies. I’m learning Chinese two evenings a week, going to the gym and travelling around the country.

In my opinion the worst part about being a foreign language teacher is that our classes are often not taken seriously. Students sometimes feel that my classes don’t matter and often do homework for other lessons or even sleep instead! Other teachers often mirror these opinions and it’s horrible to feel devalued by your colleagues.

Another con is how difficult teaching is, both physically and mentally. It’s not a matter of walk in, chat about verbs and move on: teaching is an intense 45 minutes facing up to 50 students who often don’t want to be there. It is exhausting. You will constantly have a sore throat. You will constantly be craving Fridays. You will miss so many things from your home country, like Cadburys and cheese. Maybe your family too, but mostly cheese.

What are your top three pieces of advice for students thinking about teaching English abroad?

My main piece of advice is to think about how much you want to teach abroad. I don’t think you have to be passionate about becoming a teacher, but don’t apply if you just want a gap year experience. You need to know that this is what you want and that you’ll be able to live away from home for at least a year.

My second piece of advice would be to throw yourself into every situation. There have been so many times I’ve been asked to do really strange things that I don’t feel qualified for. I’ve given a speech on the regional news in Chinese, which I didn’t speak, and next weekend I’m judging a debate competition. Take every opportunity you are given.

presenting china

In a contradiction to my first point, my last piece of advice is just do it! You might be scared of being in a new country or controlling a class, but if you think you’ll enjoy it, do it. Teaching abroad is an amazing experience and I recommend it thoroughly.

If you’re interested in finding out more about teaching in China, my personal blog can be found here.

Alice started her application last January, so if you’re thinking about teaching abroad next year, now is a great time to start searching for opportunities. You can find lots more information about Teaching English as Foreign Language (TEFL) on our website or log into your My Career account to search for vacancies. 

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