July is an interesting month of change and reflection. As the summer semester draws to a close,
many of my friends are already considering their next adventure teaching in different cities or
schools in China. When working in the ESL industry, this cycle of people coming and going is
entirely normal but bittersweet at the same time. For me, I have reached the halfway point of my
graduate program experience and I seriously cannot believe how fast time has flown. I have
been teaching in China for almost five months and cannot wait for the summer break to rest and
travel. When I think back, it’s impressive to think about how much I’ve changed in just five short
months. I’ve gone from fairly disorganised student to a (reasonably!) competent teacher. I don’t
have too much wisdom to share yet, but I wanted to share something that one of my Chinese
colleagues told me during my first week of school. Like all experienced Chinese professors,
everything she said was absolutely right so I want to pass her wisdom on!
1. Go With The Flow
In Chinese schools, I would argue that last minute schedule changes are often more
commonplace than being aware of what you are required to do with a good amount of notice. To
give an example, I came into school today to find two of my classes cancelled because of my
students needing to take extra national exams as my school has been selected to take part in a
provincial-wide education assessments. The management team at my school only found out this
information early this morning, meaning it did not get passed down the chain until twenty minutes
before my class was due to start. This is entirely normal and its best not to let these minor details
bother you. In fact, these cancellations actually worked in my favour as I discovered later that day
I was required to write a semester-wide assessment for the local Education Department which
needed to be completed by this afternoon when I only heard about it two hours before it was due!
It seems like those extra hours in the office came in handy after all! Life in China moves incredibly
fast and it’s better to be swept up with it than left behind. Although these minor details can be
annoying at times, it’s best to keep upbeat and keep your school happy.
2. Be Prepared
With these schedule changes can also come extra, unexpected responsibilities. I like to keep at
least two extra lesson plans complete with resources for each of the grades I teach in case I have
a class added to my schedule at the last minute which I did not prepare for. This is especially
common during school open seasons where parents will come to view potential schools for their
children by viewing open lessons. In my case, I like to keep a spare general lesson for extra
classes and one for potential open classes which contains more visual content so the observing
parents, who may not necessarily have a high English level, can follow along. It is always good to
have back-ups or a fun game up your sleeve in case a lesson isn’t going so well too. Stick your
extras on a spare USB drive and carry them around with you, just in case! In most classrooms,
you will be well-equipped with a projector and computer to use but Chinese computer systems
can sometimes be a little temperamental so also consider a tech-free plan B such as some fun
ESL blackboard games or songs to keep fifty little ones entertained and still learning.
3. Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously
There are definitely some benefits to being a foreign teacher in a Chinese school; the concept of
‘face’ or ‘saving face’ does not apply to us foreigners. I think that’s incredibly lucky, I have lost
count of times I have done something or been caught in a hilariously awkward situation which has
been a huge embarrassment. One incident that springs to mind is a miscommunication error
between myself and a colleague; my class was moved to a different room in a school, but through
translations problems I managed to write down the wrong room number and ended up walking
into a serious business meeting between the deans of faculty and finance staff at my school. Can
it get worse? I was wearing rabbit ears because it was an Easter themed lesson I was supposed
to be attending. I definitely think I won the award for the strangest foreigner in Xingwei that day!
There will be all sorts of situations like this in your daily teaching life. From strange questions or
comments from your students, to finding yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time due to
communications errors, just take it all in your stride and laugh it off.
4. Ask For Help
This is the most important piece of advice, but it’s not always the easiest to follow. It is also
something I wish I had learned faster. As a new teacher, it is only natural that you will come across
situations or processes which you find difficult and it can be difficult to reach out for help when
you are new to a school and not sure who you should turn to. Even if you are considered the
English ‘expert’ at your school, it is worth noting that it’s unlikely that your school will expect you
to be an amazing, independent teacher right from the start. What I have found at my school is that
if you are very visually struggling, other teachers will step in to help as they can see that you need
it, but they are unlikely to reach out to you. This is especially true for teachers who find
themselves alone in the classroom; I have been teaching grades 3, 5 and 6 without the assistance
of another teacher or support assistant from my first week. As nobody is watching your
performance daily, other teachers are very busy with their own work to realise there may be a
problem. However, not once have I reached out for help and been turned down. Put simply, you
don’t have to struggle in the classroom alone. If you ask, there will often be a small army of
Chinese colleagues all to eager to help you out with all sorts of situations.
As the end of the summer term approaches, I find myself reflecting more and more on what I have
learned during my first semester of teaching. I was able to put the skills I learned during my
Masters degree to the test in a classroom environment which is quite honestly, full of surprises.
Although it seems a shame to see the year passing by so fast, I am proud of what I managed to
achieve during these first months and can’t wait to get back in the classroom again this
September. But first? I want to reward myself with a quick trip to Shanghai and a long summer
sipping iced coffee on the Shenzhen Bay.