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Section I: Teaching English in China continued

What Do Foreign Oral English Teachers in China Actually Teach?

For those who are unfamiliar with the field of teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL), it may not be obvious at all what foreign teachers are actually hired to do inside the classroom. This chapter is for you. It is intended to give you a good working idea about what you will spend most of your time doing with your students and what your greatest challenges will be.

...teaching kids at private English language schools is difficult and tiring work because you need to be as entertaining as you are educational...

Of course, what you will be teaching exactly varies considerably by the type of school you will be working for and the age group of your students. Private English language schools tend to rely upon the use of specific EFL textbook series (e.g., New Interchange, Books 1, 2 & 3, etc.) written especially for Chinese students. The curriculum is rather set, if not rigid, as the school is contractually obligated to finish each book in the series within a certain period of time.

Conversely, foreign oral English teachers in the college and university system usually have a great deal of individual discretion and freedom in regard to what and how they will teach (and many appreciate this freedom while others perceive it as a burden). Most universities have not even bothered to select specific textbooks for these oral English classes and the foreign teacher is often simply told "Do what you want" or "Why don't you download some articles from the Internet and use those in class?" Just as long as you show up relatively sober—and even if you limit your classroom "material" to chatting away about your latest Chinese girlfriend for an hour and forty minutes at a time—most university foreign language departments don't care what you do just as long as the students are happy (or, more accurately, not actively complaining about you). In fact, when the departments have gone through the trouble of selecting a textbook, most conscientious foreign teachers won't use them anyway as they are often very poor translations of books initially written in Chinese and are replete with errors in spelling, grammar and word usage.

If you are unfamiliar with TEFL textbooks in China, it is highly recommended that you take a good look at Pearson Education's Asian division website as well as a nice overview of EFL textbooks that are commonly used throughout most private schools (especially New Interchange, sixth book down from the top).

Textbook and Content Overview

Although there are some public primary and secondary schools in China that do hire foreign teachers, the vast majority of this population is taught at private language schools, usually in the evening hours and on weekends (because that's when the students are available).

The most common textbooks used in private language schools with the younger children are the New Superkid Series and, in a few instances, the very old and tired offerings by Louis G. Alexander, the late prolific British author of EFL textbooks in China, such as Look, Listen and Learn! as well as New Concept English (and the posthumously revised editions, especially New Concept English Book 4, are widely used in intensive reading classes throughout China by the Chinese English teachers).

Establishing a good and supportive relationship with your students is probably 90 percent of the task at hand...

Older students, both in senior middle school as well as adult learners, are often assigned the Cambridge New Interchange Series (mentioned above), which emphasizes the facilitation of the students' speaking and listening skills. The New Interchange Series is relatively simple and easy to teach from because the methodology is built right into the curriculum (meaning one doesn't need any prior knowledge of TEFL to use the book). If you are given a copy of the teacher's edition (most schools don't supply this, strangely enough) and possess any natural aptitude for teaching whatsoever, you can do quite well with this series.

Schools that are successful enough to sustain business or corporate training departments will use anything from standard EFL subject-area or exam preparation textbooks, e.g., IELTS, TOEFL, Cambridge Business English, etc., to proprietary materials, depending on their clients' needs and the learning objectives of the class.

Each private school organizes their class schedules somewhat differently but, as a rule, classes run anywhere from 60 to 90, or 120 minutes in duration (with a five and ten minute break somewhere in the middle of class for 90 and 120 minute classes, respectively). Some schools split their classes between Chinese and foreign teachers (e.g., one hour with the Chinese teacher and 90 minutes with the foreign teacher) while most schools use foreign teachers exclusively, some with a Chinese assistant teacher in the room, especially with the younger kids.

Class periods in the university system are standardized at 50 minutes each and two periods, with a ten-minute break in-between, constitute one class. Classes start as early as 7:40 a.m. and run until 9:40 in the evening.

Student and Class Dynamics

Chinese students are typically overworked as well as both physically and mentally exhausted and about the last thing they want to do is spend what little free time they have learning how to speak English: In about 90 percent of all cases, primary and secondary school students are attending private English language schools because their parents told them that they have no choice in the matter. Maybe one out of ten kids will actually be genuinely interested in learning English.

What this means is that teaching children at private English language schools is difficult and tiring work, because, ideally, you will need to be as entertaining as you are educational (for a thorough discussion of this issue, see the article "On Being a Good Foreign English Teacher in China"). Knowing how to balance the need to both motivate and excite with the goal of imparting a reasonable amount of knowledge is not an easy task, and it's one that requires a great deal of experience and aptitude. Consequently and in reality, most lay foreign teachers simply err on the side of just keeping the kids happy and, often, this is more than enough for the school owners as the "good teachers" are the ones who keep the students coming back for more.

Of course, there are always exceptions. The most motivated foreign language students in any country are the ones who perceive a real need to learn the language. In China, this amounts to students who are Western-bound (e.g., prospective college students or Chinese women in search of a foreign husband) and those who require a certain degree of English language skills in order to receive a promotion or better job. Corporate or business clients can be a mixed bag of tricks: If they are in attendance of their own volition, they typically make for excellent students. If, on the other hand, they have been ordered to attend an English language class at their own expense and after working a whole day on the job, they may be very resentful and even oppositional-defiant with the instructor.

University students pose an entirely different set of teaching issues and challenges due to the great variability in their earlier preparation during junior and senior middle schools. Foreign language and tourism majors, especially at first-tier universities—and particularly if they chose their major and were previously educated in a large city—tend to make excellent and thoroughly enjoyable students to work with: They are, generally speaking, highly motivated and can actually follow most of what the teacher is saying.

College students who are just fulfilling a language requirement and know they will probably never use English after leaving school—especially those at low-tier public institutions and at private universities established for "dumb rich kids"—are usually a nightmare to work with, in more ways than one.

There are dozens of excellent websites devoted to EFL teaching skills with downloadable materials, so this chapter will not delve into the nuts and bolts or mechanics of teaching English as a foreign language. Suffice it to say, your primary goal is to get the students (at any age) actively involved with using English as much as possible. You want them to communicate with you without worrying too much about accent or pronunciation (the Chinese teachers spend enough time tormenting the kids about this), just as long as the words and meanings are comprehensible.

As easy or simple as this might appear to be in print, it is often the equivalent of pulling teeth. As stated earlier, the English language skills of Chinese students vary considerably from virtually non-existent to near-native in quality. In addition, about the worst thing any Chinese can do is make a mistake in public, especially if that mistake is in the form of indicating stupidity or ignorance (for more detailed information about this phenomenon, see the chapter on Mianzi and Guanxi as well as the discussion about how fear of losing face affects participation levels during English Corners). Consequently, a good part of what you will need to do is first learn how to relax and engage your students so that they eventually feel that it is alright to make a mistake. Establishing a good and supportive relationship with your students, so that they actually like and feel comfortable with you, is probably 90 percent of the task at hand. Foreigners who know how to accomplish this are quite successful in China, even if they lack any real fundamental knowledge of the English language or how to teach.




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