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Single Latin Female English Teacher in China

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I have spent almost three months teaching English in China and it has been quite an experience.

Though I am not your typical foreign English teacher, I have had a really good time here. I am a non-white, non-native woman in my 30s and an English teacher in my country. I decided to go to China because I needed a short break from my routine as an English teacher. I received a four-month leave of absence from my job, packed up a few things, and came here after contacting an agency.

My first two weeks were horrible and uncertain. I found myself trapped in a hotel room for 13 days without any indication from the agency that they were going to give me a job. On day 13, I left the hotel and moved to another part of Beijing. I contacted all the agencies I could locate for a job, but it was hopeless. A day after I left, I saw an e-mail from the first agency: They were complaining about my sudden leave and told me they finally got a job for me in a middle school in Anqing, Anhui province. Why? Why didn’t they say that at least one day before? I finally packed up again and rushed to the railway station.

Not only was I constantly questioning myself as a teacher but, at the same time, I was struggling with a terrible sense of isolation.

Before signing anything with the agency, I made it very clear to them that I needed to be back in my country by the first week of May. I told the agency about my situation before coming to China and they promised to rearrange my schedule with the school. That never happened. Basically, they just lied to me to get me to sign the contract. For about two months I reminded them I had to leave in May, but they never helped me in any way. Actually I made a big mistake because—despite my repeated reminders that I needed to be back in May—the agency contract I signed indicates that I will finish in June. I really didn’t know whether to sign it or not, but I did and reminded them at the same time about my situation. I was even asked to sign a second contract with the school. At the end, I decided to talk to my school. They understood my situation and gave me their blessing to go back home. Now, the agency is trying to force me to stay. Though the contract has a breach clause and I am willing to pay the fine to leave early, the agency keeps saying I cannot do it.

Unlike my first 14 days, since arriving at the school, it has all worked out for me. Even though I am a non-white, non-native English-speaking woman, I am treated nicely by the school and town. On days that I go to the stores or take a bus, I find nice people helping me out and smiling at me at all times. Above all, my students were truly happy to have their new foreign teacher, so they kept greeting me every time they saw me walking around the school. Though I consider myself to be an average-looking Latin woman, my students find me beautiful. I mean they keep telling me that during each class. Weird, isn’t it?

Course content and classroom management are another story altogether. I am an English teacher in my country, but here is the catch with teaching English in China. Not only is the education system itself very different from what I’m used to, but my students are extremely different as well.

I have learned that the lessons should be simple and the teacher should be more of an entertainer than a real teacher

For one thing, I didn’t expect 80 students per class, especially in an oral one. I didn’t expect my students to freak out when I assigned their first group exercise (they had to invent a new sport given a certain set of rules). Also it is important to point out that the students are very exhausted. Some of them have classes from Monday to Sunday, and they barely have free time to rest, which complicates things for an oral English class taught by a foreigner. However when I sought information and advice, nobody was willing to honestly talk about the reality of these classes or what I was supposed to be doing.

Actually, I lost my students’ interest after a month. This has been hard for me especially because most of them don’t show any interest in learning English. Out of my 80 students, I might have five to seven who are really working, while the rest of them are glued to their math and chemistry books. I learned that worrying about reaching your objectives or planning very sophisticated tasks doesn’t work. Here, I can’t be a teacher, I just have to be myself, which is difficult if you are an experienced teacher. I mean in order to have any chance at reaching them at all, I have to stop being a teacher when I am in class. How have I been able to reconcile this?

I have learned that the lessons should be simple and the teacher should be more of an entertainer than a real teacher. What I do now is to praise them in front of the class, that really works, and, if they do something very well, they got a candy from the teacher. How their eyes sparkle when I gave them a candy! I have learned that what matters most is the culturally influenced interpersonal exchange that occurs between the students and their foreign teacher, perhaps similar to what might occur between a patient and her therapist. Now, I see the experience as an international friendship (as some of my students say), more than a teaching job. What a shame I finally came to understand this just one week before I have to go back home because nobody saw fit to properly advise me!

QianShan County, Anhui Province

I had a really hard time during my second month here. Not only was I constantly questioning myself as a teacher but, at the same time, I was struggling with a terrible sense of isolation. I feel very isolated because I am the only foreigner in my town, which means not having real conversations with anybody for days! Sometimes I feel like I am a castaway on a deserted island.

The two Chinese teachers who helped me at the beginning were nice. They took me shopping and showed me the town, they even cooked dinner for me once, but, after a month, one of them drifted away. The other one remains as friendly to me today as the first day I met her.

I decided to write this personal story because of my appreciation for this website, Middle Kingdom Life. This site put into words what I have been feeling all along but couldn’t quite verbalize or explain in the same way. The various articles and Guide chapters finally opened my eyes to everything I was going through at that moment. I didn’t know very much about Chinese culture and customs and the awful difficulties they could lead to. I found out I was one of the lucky ones and I decided to have fun. Thus I traveled by bus and by myself all I could and made some Chinese friends, I even dated one!

From the experiences I read from the personal stories of other foreigners published on this website, I learned I was not the only one struggling with all these emotional and psychological issues. Also, I found out how lucky I was since the school has been fair enough in regard to my schedule, English corners, and payments.

There were, however, some issues related to the termination of the contract. Since the agency has been forcing me to stay until June 2012, this would mean losing my regular teaching job in my home country. When I talked to the school in China, they gave me their blessing to go back home.

Finally, this cross-cultural experience has given me a lot to think about in regard to myself and my profession. I appreciate even more how teaching works in my country. I think I have grown professionally because my teaching experience here was both very different and challenging and required that I develop new class management and interactional skills that I believe could be helpful to me in an ancillary manner back home. I really learned how to be creative and fly by the seat of my pants.

In the end, what I learned is that EFL teaching in China is simply (yet interestingly) an exchange of knowledge about life and culture between peoples from two very different cultures, teacher and students. Prior to teaching EFL in China, this was something I had heard and read about but never truly experienced until now. I am looking forward to returning home and teaching English to a population that truly values and understands the need for the English language. At the same time, I feel I have been personally and professionally enhanced by my brief stint in the Middle Kingdom.

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Comments  

 
# RE: Single Latin Female English Teacher in ChinaJohnty 2012-08-10 14:04
I think overseas English teachers in China consistently endure an undefined role as to what it is they are supposed to do or achieve. This is partly because there are varying expectations [or instructions] from institutions, students, colleagues, administrators, [leaders], parents, etc., and partly to do with the people in the Chinese education system not fully exploring the nature of education, which in itself leads to unnecessary stress, not least confusion. It’s interesting that it has been argued that an overseas teacher has to be more of an entertainer than a teacher, which took a single month only for the novelty of a new foreign teacher to wear off, which is normal; though it’s been suggested on this website that providing a safe environment, a relaxed atmosphere, getting students to trust and like you, reaching out to them etc would arguably make for effective language acquisition from unmotivated students; that for Chinese students this is the best strategy; though this strategy only promises to connect with a minority of students.

I still question the Chinese mentality of expecting overseas [and Chinese] teachers to be a friend [or parent] to students, which is considerably prevalent away from the three big cities in China; I have mostly taught in the less developed parts of China. Is being an English teacher simply about teaching English, or as professional educators should we have a much broader role? What I mean is I’ve heard it mentioned verbatim that our [only] job is to help students with their pronunciation, because we are native speakers. This is backed up by overseas English teachers being somewhat systematically excluded from the lifeblood of education in China. Shouldn’t overseas teachers as professional educators also be contributing to what can be called life skills; things like, concentration, deferred gratification, tolerance, perseverance etc all of which prepares students for the world they will join and seek to be successful in? This, of course, has a differing impact on overseas teachers who stay for only three months or a term, as opposed to long-term teachers.

Again, what do Chinese students mean when they express that they want to be friends with their overseas teacher, or that overseas teachers should be more of a friend to their students? How is that even possible, if friendship is as much about equality as it is mutual support? Wouldn’t that be a one-sided, unfair friendship, not to say a negative impact on the professional role of teachers? However, let’s not forget, in the countryside it is normal practice for parents to buy their child’s teacher a gift, so that the teacher will sit their child at the front of a class of 80 +.

Again, it’s interesting that the author ends her story with how wonderful the experience has been for her, which I’m sure it has. I have seen many overseas teachers pass through China, taking a career break etc, but I’m still left wondering what the students got out of it, how it contributed to their education?
 

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Middle Kingdom Life is the premier award-winning educational website for foreign teachers and Western expats in China. It was founded by an American professor in psychology and sociology for the purpose of disseminating valid and reliable information about living and teaching in China. The site's mission is to protect and enhance the interests and social welfare of foreign teachers and Western expats in China.

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