Teacher talks: What it’s really like teaching English in China

what is it like to teach english in china

If you haven’t read it, here’s the first part of our Teacher Talks series with Dave on the differences between teaching ESL to kids vs. adults.

And if you don’t have time for that, let me catch you up. Dave Stewart is a placement coordinator for the Explore Program in China. He spent several years teaching abroad in both China and South Korea. This blog will specifically look at his experience teaching in China.

So, let’s jump right in!

Why did you decide teaching in China was the best fit for you?

If I’m really honest, I’d say to add to my travel-cred. South Korea felt like something a lot of people almost expected to hear when I said I taught English abroad. China had a bit more mystery to it, and I wanted an experience that was different from most.

I was actually curious about teaching in China for a while. I first visited on vacation and there was just so much to see. It’s a much bigger country than South Korea, so I felt like there was a lot more for me to explore. The cities were bigger, there were larger and more diverse expat communities. In Korea, the expat community was mainly ESL teachers but in China there were all sorts of expats working in different industries.

It was also the novelty of it too, there are things you just never forget - like these goat skewers that you could get from street vendors in Beijing. They were delicious, but it’s the only time in my life I’ve eaten food that has been heated by a hairdryer!

Aside from all that, when I actually sat down and did my research, I felt that China had the most opportunities when it came to teaching adults.

Read this: 5 reasons why you should teach in China

What are some of the main challenges you’ve experienced teaching adults in China?

I suppose one of the main things teachers have to adjust to is mostly cultural. There’s a real fear of losing face. Getting students to speak up is probably 80% of the work in the classroom. I used loads of different techniques. Bigger groups weren’t the best for the shy-natured students, so I divided them into smaller groups, focusing on roleplay and pair work.

With adults, they need to know the value of what you’re teaching them. So a lot of the roleplay has to be quite specific, business situations and real-life scenarios played out better than more imaginative stuff.

At first, it can be a bit stressful because there is that feeling of talking to a wall, it’s a catch-22 with teaching ESL. Adults are silent, so you’d give anything to get them to speak up, and kids won’t shut up, so you’d do anything to get them to be quiet and focus for a few minutes.

I’ve heard that English pronunciation is especially tricky for Chinese (Mandarin) speakers...is that true?

Definitely, there are quite a few problems with intonations and phonology. One of the big issues that Chinese English learners have is with vowel sounds. What happens when someone mispronounces a consonant is that you can still figure out the meaning. Like “Coppee” as a pronunciation for “Coffee” in Korea. But if a learner messes up the vowels it becomes much harder to understand what they want to say.

Check out the University of Toronto OISE TEFL course’s specialization in teaching English to Mandarin speakers >>

How did you give students feedback? Was there a grading system in place?

For private lessons and conversation classes we were given feedback reports to fill out after every class. These could be more candid and in depth than anything you might give a child. I would still always try to be encouraging so give them any negatives in a compliment sandwich.

want to teach english in china

Any horror stories you care to share?

I had a student that called himself “Death”, and it wasn’t an accident. He knew what it meant and it was written on all his business cards. He was an odd guy, but part of teaching is accepting people as they are, so you just have to roll with it.

Was anything about living in China ever frustrating?

Using Bing instead of Google.

Maybe the biggest thing for a Westerner teaching in China is the frustration with access to news sources. Many of the sites I would usually go to for current events were blocked or censored.

Also anyone that’s taught abroad appreciates the treasure trove of Realia that YouTube represents. In Korea, I would often incorporate videos into classes, but that wasn’t possible in China. They use a network called Weebo to host videos instead and it just doesn’t have the same number of native English speakers creating content.

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A lot of teachers worry that living in China will be restrictive and they won’t have as much freedom. How would you respond to that?

That’s one of those false assumptions, there are a lot of rules in China, certainly a lot more than in Vancouver - but for some reason I felt freer there. Perhaps because in Vancouver we enforce the rules that do exist, in China I found them quite lax as long as you weren’t disturbing anyone.

It felt safer to go for a walk at night, the culture didn’t have any aggressive masculine undertones like in the West and you could grab a beer and go for a walk without worrying. I loved wandering there, which isn’t something I’d do in Vancouver. In China, I would just stumble across historical monuments or vendors selling weird foods.

China gave me a different perspective on things I thought I already knew. In the west there’s this idea that communism is a bad thing, but they were so proud of their rich history and saw Mao as a liberator of the people. Just witnessing that first hand was fascinating and something I could never have imagined sitting at home reading about China. It’s not a place that can be described, I’d recommend spending time there to anyone who is curious about the country.

Professional development is a big part of Chinese culture and work. Did you get a chance to develop your teaching skills?

Definitely, they encourage all teachers to take courses and even pay for them. While I was there I did a distance learning course in phonology that was so useful in the classroom. It allowed me to hone in on specific issues with the student’s pronunciation and figure out where they were straying.

It was amazing to get a chance to really understand the mechanics of ESL for Chinese students and get a bit more context about how to help them with their specific issues. If teachers are looking to take a TEFL course and know they want to teach in China or Korea, it might be wise to take one with a country specific specialization tagged on. Some of that information will be gold in the classroom.

What was the most interesting thing about teaching in China?

How focused they were on my strengths and the way they helped me grow my skills. I’m a stickler for interesting lessons and they saw that strength and gave me room to research and develop new classes for the school. I loved having that sense of creative ownership and being able to come up with ways to tweak and improve classes other teachers had designed.

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