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!
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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