Category Archives: Teaching

Why Be a Foreign ESL Teacher for a Year?

It’s a new and unfamiliar world out there for recent college grads. When the graduation gowns are stowed away to the back of the closet and the celebration champagne runs out, the sobering reality of life as a non-student both frightens and excites young adults beginning a new chapter in their lives.  Some prioritize traveling for a short period of time, unwinding and celebrating their hard work while others immediately enter the work force to jumpstart their budding careers. Job hunting turns out successful for some while others struggle to enter employment.  Unfortunately, many are oblivious to the surprising amount of high-demand jobs readily available on the other side of the world. One of these unorthodox employment options is rarely considered by bachelor degree holders with a firm grasp on the English language: a traveling ESL teacher.

Nanjing has become a 2nd home to me.
Nanjing, Jiangsu, China.  This beautiful city has become my second home.

A 30-second Google search reveals there is no shortage of ESL teaching positions throughout the world. The qualifications for an entry-level ESL teacher position in China’s booming English teaching industry are pretty straight-forward: be a native English speaker with a college degree and (at least) be TEFL certified.  Normally, you can contact a recruiting agency in the U.S. that vets and places applicants in Chinese schools legally, but I’ve also met expats that came to China on a whim with tourist/non-work visa and found work.  This is pretty risky considering it is illegal to make money in China as a foreigner without a Z-visa and SAFEA work permit, and a non-work or residence visa would require traveling outside of the country (or to Hong Kong) every 3-6 months for renewal. Either method works, but I would personally recommend researching reputable recruiting agencies to help place you in the country of your choice; it’s less stressful being a legal foreigner.

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You may be asked to do sample lessons for your agency’s promo videos and it doesn’t hurt to get paid extra for it either.
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Something I particularly liked about my school is that it didn’t give me any guideline for what I should teach. I didn’t use a book and made my activities and work sheets from scratch or pulled them off the internet.
Your school may even use you in its advertisements.
Your school may even use you in its advertisements.

The craziest part about up-and-leaving to teach English in another country—in my experience, China—is how regularly you’ll surprise yourself. The trials and tribulations (maybe a little dramatic, but it wasn’t easy) I’ve faced during my time here influenced my personality, understanding, and overall perspective on life and this world for the better. The definition of success and happiness completely changed for me. Many of my exploits in the past 11 months make for great stories, but those same situations made for even better learning experiences. If someone told me that a year after graduating college I would’ve began learning Chinese, end up favoring Chinese food more than any other food, befriend both Chinese and other expats from around the world (Australia, South Korea, Zimbabwe, Canada, England, Tanzania, Japan, New Zealand, Hungary, Germany, Spain, Ireland, Scotland, and other Americans), travel a good portion of Southeast Asia, complete the Great Wall Marathon, be rented as a foreigner for promotional dancing, eventually walk into a Chinese classroom with no fear or inhibitions to teach 13-16 year olds English daily, and play tour guide for my parents visiting me on the other side of the world, I would’ve found it difficult to believe.

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First marathon in the books. I never thought I would ever run a marathon much less have it be on the Great Wall of China.
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While knowing you give 100% into your work is its own reward, it doesn’t hurt that your school writes a stellar recommendation for you to be one of the ’14-15 Outstanding AYC Ambassador award winners.

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Dry pot. Sausage, beef intestine, tofu, fried cauliflower, bacon, and shrimp. Also involves the fun game of scavenging through it all to find your favorite.

The life of a foreign ESL teacher is what you make it.  Do you just want to work part-time while also private tutoring on the side?  No problem.  Do you want to work full-time with a heavy workload? The opportunities are there.  Will you have time to travel and explore your surroundings?  Oh yah, you betcha’.  Does it provide a decent living?  You would be surprised.  I make 5,000 RMB (~$800) per month with a little extra on the side from private tutoring and my school pays for my apartment, utilities, visa fees, and healthcare.  My paycheck is spent on eating out, weekend shenanigans, travel, and really anything I want since my only regular expense is groceries. If I decided to stay and teach a 2nd year? I would make 10,000 RMB per month minimum, still have paid holidays, housing stipends, and paid healthcare depending on the school. I’m not living the life of luxury—although private tutoring for wealthy families can get you invitations to expensive dinners, wine tastings, and other swanky events—but I’m truly comfortable.

Wine tasting with Chinese French wine makers.
Wine tasting with Chinese French wine makers.
If you are a party animal there is a pretty...let's say interesting club scene in the larger cities of China.
If you are a party animal there is a pretty…let’s say interesting club scene in the larger cities of China.  Foreigners usually drink for free if you know a promoter (who will seek you out).

So whether you’re seeking a change of pace, a new life, a convenient and cost-efficient way to travel, or a résumé builder, be aware of the opportunities afforded to native English speakers.  At first, teaching will be intimidating and you’ll embarrass yourself more than once. Do take solace in the fact that it becomes easier and easier each passing day to the point where it begins to feel natural.  In my experience, after the Chinese academic year flies by and the school year is over, it feels odd not hearing the collective”laoshi hao” (hello teacher) each morning as you begin your lesson.

Introducing your students to the Charlie Brown holiday specials sparks some serious nostalgia.
Introducing your students to the Charlie Brown holiday specials sparks some serious nostalgia.

If you have any questions about being an ESL teacher in China specifically, don’t be afraid to ask!

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Faces of Nanjing No. 5 High School (3)

Here we go with the 3rd chapter of Faces of Nanjing No. 5 High School with a larger-than-normal collection of my 7th graders.  Unfortunately the seniors that I teach are less accessible before and after my classes, but I will manage to get a few interviews at some point.

This time we have a good mix of 7th graders from both class 10 and 11.  Enjoy!

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She didn’t want her stuffed animal in the photo.

Name: Zhong Yi, G7C11

Voted the most adorable classmate (apparently her class did this in another period), Zhong Yi brings a large lamb stuffed animal almost everyday; it’s uses range from a pillow during nap time to hug buddy when she has to speak English in front of the class.  Usually she can be found walking arm-in-arm with her best friends during P.E. or enthusiastically turning any English lesson into a time for her to practice her drawing.

When are the happiest?
“When I am with my dog.”

If you could have anything in the world, what would it be?
“More time to spend with my friends and family.”

What do you want to do when you grow up?
“I don’t know.  I have time to think about it.”

If you could give advice to someone who is having a problem, what would you tell them?
“Happy stories.  It will make them feel better.”

If you could only eat one thing the rest of your life, what would it be?
“Something sweet.”  Like what? “Uhhhhhhh…Cake!”


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Name: Xuxin Yu, G7C11

While he is one of the more quiet students in Class 11, Xuxin Yu likes to talk to me in-between classes about Transformers, CS:GO, and various superheroes.  His show-and-tells have included his favorite band being Cold Play and his favorite scenes in the Transformers movies.  You can usually find him playing basketball after study hall or just laying down and enjoying the Nanjing sun.

If you could only eat one thing the rest of your life, what would it be?
“Chocolate.”

What is your biggest dream?
“I want to be a professional computer game player in China.”

If you could give advice to someone who is having a problem, what would you tell them?
“I would want to invite them to my party.”

What is your favorite class?
“P.E. class.” Why? “Sports are my favorite.”


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Deadly serious until she is allowed to have fun.

Name: Zhu Kexin, G7C11

Being the deskmate of Wu Longing comes with an exhausting high energy presence during class and no one handles it better than Zhu Kuxin. Once she starts having fun, the party doesn’t stop until the bell.  Her and Wu Longing foster the energy in the classroom and help people be serious or relaxed when they need to be.  They are pretty much inseparable.  She is the other mind behind making every character in a romantic relationship die during story activities and always claims it makes the love more beautiful because it continues in heaven. Always entertaining.

What is your favorite class?
“Computer class.” Why? “Because I can play computer games.”

What is your biggest dream?
“I want to be an artist.”  What kind of artist? “I don’t know!  There are so many different artists!”

If you could give advice to someone who is having a problem, what would you tell them? 
“I want to play a fun game with you.  Do you want to play and be happy?”

If you could only eat one thing the rest of your life, what would it be?
“I don’t know.”You have to pick one thing.  “Ok.  Ice cream.”


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Name: LiWei Jin, G7C11

A DOTA player amongst the many League of Legends enthusiasts in my classes, LiWei Jin enjoys everything you would find in a boy his age: video games, sports, and nervously teasing girls.  When he is called upon to speak English, he likes to tap at his teeth as his gaze wanders as if he is following a fly zoom around the room.  He also reps the flyest shoes in the class.

What is your biggest dream?
“I want to be Superman.”

If you could only eat one thing the rest of your life, what would it be?
“Beef.”

What is your favorite class?
“The holidays.”

If you could give advice to someone who is having a problem, what would you tell them?  
“You are lucky to be alive.  Don’t be sad!”


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Name: Zhou HongYi, G7C10

Another one of the more quiet students I teach, Zhou HongYi has a tough shell to crack.  His English is actually pretty good for his age, but he can get quite nervous talking in front of his classmates and even just talking with me.  He must think that I am always testing him or something because I can always see his gears grinding for the best possible answer to a question, even if it is a simple answer. He doesn’t ask his classmates for help like many of my other students so he takes the time to think and will then answer my questions 3-5 minutes after moving on.

What is your biggest dream?
“I want to be the manager of the biggest company in the world.”

If you could only eat one thing the rest of your life, what would it be?
“Pizza.”

If you could give advice to someone who is having a problem, what would you tell them?
“Should we go to the sea?  We can be at peace.”

What is your favorite class?
“English.”  Why?  “It makes me feel good talking English and I have fun.”


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Name: Jin Joaquin, G7C10

Although many of my students are avid gamers, Jin Joaquin takes the cake when it come to being a League of Legends fanatic and loves tying the game into our current unit.  His drawings and stories?  League of Legends.  His past 3 show-and-tells?  Each have been about the various aspects of the game.  At the beginning of the 2nd term after Chinese New Year, I asked the students what they wished for going into the new year and he replied: “I hope Teemo gets deleted from the game. I hate him so much.”  (Teemo is a character who embodies the soul of Satan and is frustrating to play against.)

What is your biggest dream?
“I want to be a successful computer engineer.”

If you could give advice to someone who is having a problem, what would you tell them?
“This is nothing.  You must think of the good things and you will be lucky.”

If you could only eat one thing the rest of your life, what would it be?
“Hamburger.  No cheese.”

What is your favorite class?
“Math.  I think it is cool and I wear glasses so I have to like math.”


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Name: Wang WeiChen, G7C10

It can be both funny and annoying at times, but Wang WeiChen is one of the more vocal students in my G7C10. He likes to give his opinion on everything we do whether it be to me, his deskmate, or the entire class. Thankfully he enjoys 99% of what we do so it is never really a problem, but some of his classmates tell him to quiet down sometimes. He has joined Jack’s Super Awesome Lunch Crew a few times and even bought me a few yogurts much to my surprise.  Jin Joaquin and him are very close friends.

What is your biggest dream?
“I want to be a teacher when I grow up.”  What kind of teacher? “A math teacher in China.”

If you could give advice to someone who is having a problem, what would you tell them?
“I will take care of your problems. You should be happy everyday.  I am always happy.”

If you could only eat one thing the rest of your life, what would it be?
“Beef.”

What do you do with your family during the 2 months of summer holiday?
“We will often have a big dinner at my grandparents home many times during the week and we have a good time.”


I love doing these.

Advice From an ESL Teacher Who Didn’t Have a Clue What He Was Doing The First Day of Class

(I would like to thank GoGlobal for asking me to write an advice piece for future teachers in China.  If you are interested in ESL teaching and are toying with the idea of traveling while working, make sure to look them up.)

After talking to students and teachers from Australia, Canada, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Italy, Ireland, and many other countries around the world, I’ve understood that your academic experience is going to be different depending on where you grow up; China is no exception.

Different classrooms and different students require a range of techniques to effectively teach without driving yourself or your students crazy.

You're going to be nervous the first day no matter how confident you feel.
You’re going to be nervous the first day no matter how confident you feel.

Just to re-iterate the title of this post, I went through an orientation through the AYC program about teaching in China, but I still  had no idea what I was doing in the beginning.  It was nerve-racking, downright intimidating, emotionally exhausting, and there was a lot of trial and error.   Now, I get excited about teaching my classes, the students have fun, and I can walk into my classrooms with full confidence and leave at the bell with a smile as they wave and say “goodbye Jack.”

In my first year of teaching China, I’ve learned so many new things regarding this work that it is hard to pin them down.  I hope that the advice I offer here, to foreign teachers entering the Chinese classroom for the first time, allows you to have some traction as you begin teaching the first couple months of class.  Just remember, you are not alone in your anxiety and it only gets easier.  Much, much easier. Let’s get into it.

1) It’s all about the environment.  You want to start off your classes well? Smile.  Laugh.  Embarrass yourself a little bit.  I introduced myself the first day with a Powerpoint that had awkward baby photos and the students loved it. Just prove to the students you’re human.  Try to speak some Chinese (even if its wrong or terrible) because that shows you understand their struggle with English. Your students will be a lot more willing to try English when they feel comfortable.  Also, seeing you make mistakes with their native language lets their guard down.

Your students may even ask you to come participate and watch during Sports Day and go on field trips.
Your students may even ask you to come participate and watch during Sports Day and go on field trips.

2) Questions.  Your students have been taught since day one in primary school that the teacher’s word is law and you don’t question it…ever.  Remind your students every single class that they can ask questions if they are confused or if they need help with an English word.  Just make sure they know you are ok with questions and that you WANT them to ask questions.

3)  Who will answer?  You have to directly pick out a student if you want them to answer a question or speak in front of the class.  No one will raise their hand if you ask “Would anyone like to answer the question?”  Learning 80 different Chinese names can be a bit difficult so (if they already don’t have them) assign “study numbers” to your classes.  If you call out “21,” you’re asking the student with that number to answer or speak and they will do so.

Some students will shout out their friend's
Some students will shout out their friend’s “study number” for fun.

4) Critical thinking.  One of the most confounding things I’ve noticed in the Chinese classroom is that rote memorization is love, rote memorization is life.  They are taught to pass multiple choice tests, not answer open ended, opinionated questions. Students memorize their vocab books and activity logs, but when you ask them to apply that knowledge, you are met with blank stares.  In all of my lessons, there is at least one activity that requires students to speak their opinion about the topic and explain their opinion.  Each class they are expected to be called upon with this activity so they remain engaged and are more willing to ask questions.  Get them solving problems too.

5) The chattiness.  Students will jibber jabber while you lecture or try to explain an activity.  The students don’t talk to personally spite you; get that through your head.  Just understand that they only understand 50% (if that) of what you’re saying so their attention can be fickle.  Eventually your students will know not to talk when you are talking (I have a loud, booming voice which helps too).  Make sure to establish some type of attention seeking device for when your students are less than respectful and make that device clear. A sharp whistle (works wonders) or three quick claps are effective.  If you look intimidating, a silent stare can get the class to quiet down, but you will be met with looks of fear.

6) Ask your students what they want to learn.  I did this with every single class of mine on the first day. Asking students what they want to learn will basically write your lesson plans for you. Different cultures and food, conversational English slang, how to talk to an American girl, U.S. politics and history, English humor, and how to make friends were a few things my students listed. Obviously I couldn’t teach all of this, but it gives you an idea on what your students expect from you.  They’ll respect that you actually took their suggestions seriously and in turn, your lessons will be more enjoyable to them.

Christmas card making right before the holidays.  Make sure to set aside some arts and crafts days.  Older students don't really have the opportunity to be creative during school.
Christmas card making right before the holidays. Make sure to set aside some arts and crafts days. Older students don’t really have the opportunity to be creative during school.

7) Remove your “ums” and “likes.”  I’m still challenged with this aspect of public speaking, but your ability to teach and lead a classroom will exponentially increase with the less filler words you use. Whenever you use these stallers in your speech, your kids pick up on it which can be a bit frustrating.  Be conscientious of your speech and it doesn’t hurt to write out notes on your PPT or a note card.

8) Word Choice.  So you have graduated college and you use an array of vocabulary to communicate, great!  Now that goes out the window when you are teaching a class of 7th and 10th graders who barely know English much less understand you.  Although it may sound–and feel–like you are talking down to your students, make sure you use the simplest of words and talk at 50-75% speed.  You just have to gauge your class’s English level to realize what vocabulary you can use to communicate your lessons.  Otherwise, your entire lesson will go in one ear and out the other.

9) Lesson Planning.  Plan your lessons ahead of class.  It’s much easier going into the week knowing exactly what you are doing each day with all the materials ready instead of scrambling at the last moment.  Make sure you make the purpose of the lesson clear to your students so that you are not met with”Why are we doing this?”

  • Preview: Show students what they are going to learn.
  • Presentation: Present the material to them and if you able to, use videos.
  • Practice: Have the students repeat new words, have them do dialogues, have them ask and answer each other’s questions, fill in the blanks, etc.  Just get them using the new information.
  • Production: This is where I have games come into play.  The students enjoy competing and they are using the new information without really realizing it.
  • Performance: Homework, finishing activities, talk to their parents in English using the new words, etc.
Once you get familiar with it, lesson planning becomes a breeze.
Once you get familiar with it, lesson planning becomes a breeze.

10) You are the fun class.  These kids are at school from 7am-6pm everyday and their study habits are ludicrous.  They have no time for creativity or leisure.  You’re the class that allows them to participate; they don’t want to passively listen to you.  I’ve had success with games that require conversation between classmates, talking about themselves and their interests, or activities that are competitive (e.g. Team hangman, 20 questions, tongue twisters). Arts and crafts days (use sparingly) allow the students to decompress after a rough midterm week. Monthly show and tells are my bread and butter.  Make your students be creative, imaginative, and original.

I've had students that present on video games, their pets, grades, classmates, movies, tv shows, books, music, and many other things.
I’ve had students that present on video games, their pets, grades, classmates, movies, tv shows, books, music, and many other things.

Here are some resources available for ESL teachers: ESL cafe, TEFL.net, iteslj.org, and eslkidstuff.com. This advice mainly applies to middle school and high school students, but some of it is applicable to primary school; I just don’t have an experience with primary school children.

If you are working with 1st graders, good luck and god speed. Have any questions, comments, or want me to elaborate?  Just ask!

Faces of Nanjing No. 5 High School (2)

If you didn’t get the chance to see my last post about some of the wonderful students that I have the privilege of teaching, you can check out my motivations for doing a HONY type human-interest piece here. I get a kick out of doing these interviews, which allow my students to showcase their personality outside of the classroom. This post includes four of my 7th graders that hail from Class 11.  Cheers!

In the rare times that I take pictures of my students, it sometimes scares me that smiling for photos isn't an automatic reaction here.
In the rare times that I take pictures of my students, it sometimes scares me that smiling for photos isn’t an automatic reaction here.

Name: Yang Sen, G7C11 (I didn’t do this in my last post, but from now on I am going to put the surname first since that is typical in Chinese culture.)

Yang Sen is a pretty calculated student.  He chooses his moments to speak and in general, he is naturally curious.  He usually eats lunch with Flint Lockwood and I, but somedays he will not even say a word; he will just listen.  He is constantly puzzled why I always get beef and rice and even though he already knows the answer, he likes to ask me why I don’t get noodles and pork (not very filling).  He is a Minecraft junkie who loves to do everything during class except speak English.

What has been the happiest moment of your life?
“When I go to my grandparent’s home.  I can watch TV, they take me shopping for nice things, and cook with them.  That is where I am always most happy.”

If you could give advice to someone who is having a problem, what would you tell them?
“Don’t worry. I will help you.”

What is your biggest dream?
“I want to do something amazing.”  Like what? “Fly in the sky with no help.”


One of the more popular and eccentric students in my class.
One of the more popular and eccentric students in my class.

Name: Wu Longing, G7C11

Harboring a hatred for boredom, Wu Longing puts 100% effort into any activity or lesson during class.  She motivates students with the energy she brings to classroom, but on the 1% chance she is not rarin’ to go for Foreigner English class, it can be a struggle.  During her group story activities, she will somehow steer her team into writing a romance story that ends up with the lovers dying in the end.  Every. Single. Story.  The first story I can remember had the couple dying of heartbreak and the latest one has them falling off of a cliff.  I don’t know.

What is your biggest dream?
“My biggest dream is to be an artist.”  What kind of artist?  “I will use Chinese gardens, flowers, and trees.”

What is your favorite class?
“Chinese.  It’s easier than English.”

If you could give advice to someone who is having a problem, what would you tell them?
“I will show you some interesting and happy things.  I want to tell you happy stories to make you feel better so you will smile.”


He tried his best to pose as Ezio Auditore from Assassin's Creed.
He tried his best to pose as Ezio Auditore from Assassin’s Creed, the video game.

Name: Wang Si Miao, G7C11

The self-labeled “nerder” of Grade 7 Class 11, Wang Si Miao is the most video game and comic obsessed student I teach.  He runs around with his hood up, arms flying behind him, and a pencil hidden in both of his sleeves so that he can practice being an assassin. His knowledge of Marvel based superheroes is unparalleled and his passion shows; he became extremely flustered with a classmate who would not copy the Avenger’s story during a group “make up a story in English” activity.  He is the third member of Jack’s Lunchtime English Speaking Crew and never stops talking about Assassin’s Creed…never.

What has been the happiest moment of your life?
“When I came to this school as a top student. Also I was able to finally play and beat Assassin’s Creed Victory. So happy.”

If you could give advice to someone who is having a problem, what would you tell them?
“I will say ‘don’t worry’ and then I go help them.  No matter what.”

What is your biggest dream?
“Which dream do you want.”  What dreams do you want to tell me about? “I want to be an assassin with Spiderman’s powers.  I will make the world better. Technology and practice will make it possible.”


“Do I look more business with my jacket like this?”

Name: Ma Wenjie, G7C11

The head honcho and class decision maker, Ma Wenjie is quite vocal.  If she doesn’t like something, if she is bored, or if she is done with an activity and wants feedback, she will make sure you know.  She is the most popular girl in Grade 7 with many friends in the two classes at the high school and with the junior school 7th graders.  She went to primary school with most of her classmates and her decisions are final among her friends.  I swear she is the class mother as some students will check their homework with her or ask her to speak for them if Warren is not around.

What is your biggest dream?
“I want to be a teacher.  A Chinese teacher.  Maybe travel, but I don’t know.”

If you could give advice to someone who is having a problem, what would you tell them?
“I can cry with you.  No problem.”

What is your favorite thing in the world?
“Hong Kong films.”

Why are their two 7th grade classes at this high school?
“We are the best in all things at school. Much better students than junior school.” (I 100% agree with this statement).

Faces of Nanjing No. 5 High School

I’ve always found Humans of New York to be one of my favorite human-interest pieces that I peruse daily.  It reminds me that every single stranger I walk past each day has an entire life that I have no clue about. They have their own problems, interests, and personality that I will most likely never know of. The amount of events that occurred in our lives to lead each of us to that exact location in the world is crazy to contemplate.   I guess you could say these are my shower thoughts?

I really should’ve thought about doing this type of thing when I first arrived and started teaching at Nanjing No. 5 High School.  My students are all friendly, love to talk English with me, and enjoy taking pictures (although I thought it might be a little weird if I were taking pictures with/of my students with my phone, but I guess it isn’t here).  So I started interviewing individual students outside of class, and eventually my coworkers will work their way into this mix, to help introduce the wonderful people that have made my work this year both fun and rewarding.

My main classes are Grade 7 Class 10 & 11 so it can be pretty funny trying to teach English to 13-year-olds who know just enough English to be knowledgable and who clever enough to make jokes at my expense. Some of my students are middle class and some are super rich. Some have excellent English and some struggle a bit.  Some can be found out on the basketball court during break time while others can be found leisurely walking around the track or sitting, nose buried in a book.  I’m more than thankful to be consistently teaching 90 students who are diverse in their interests and—if their math teacher didn’t completely fry their brain in the morning—enjoy my classes enough to freakin’ clap when I enter the room. Most likely, it’s because my class is less stressful than any of their other classes.

So without further ado, here is my first edition of “Faces of Nanjing No. 5 High School,” introducing three of my 7th grade students.

The name is Lockwood.  Flint Lockwood.
The name is Lockwood. Flint Lockwood.

Name: He goes by Flint Lockwood, G7C10.  He won’t tell me his Chinese name…
Flint is probably my most helpful and most intelligent student.  He taught himself English through American movies, has a deep fascination with “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” and “Men in Black,” and even eats lunch with me while asking the most random of questions.

What is your biggest dream?  What do you want to do in your life?
“I want to be an inventor and make the world a better place.”

How are you going to achieve that?
“First, keep working hard at my studies and learn many new things.”

What is you favorite thing in the world?
“Science.”  Just science?  “Oh and scientists.”

If you could give advice to someone who is having a problem, what would you tell them?
“No matter how bad it gets, it will be good.  Everything gets better.”


She is really self-conscious about the scratches by her eye and refuses to tell me what happened.  I did here it was a PE accident.
She is really self-conscious about the scratches by her eye and refuses to tell me what happened. I did here it was a PE accident.

Name: Meiwen Gu, G7C11 (technically GuMeiwen since Chinese names typically put the surname first.  Her first name could mean “warm beauty,” but I may be wrong.)

Meiwen is shy around me, but very popular in her class.  I have to coax her to speak English and when she does, she speaks it well. She has a habit of meowing in my class at random times and enjoys tongue twisters.

What is your biggest dream?  What do you want to do in your life?
“I want to be a teacher.  Maybe teach in different countries, but I don’t know.”

What is your favorite thing in the world?
(stone-faced and stares at me) “Cats.”

If you could give advice to someone who is having a problem, what would you tell them?
“Get a cat.  Pets make everything better and will make you happy.”


When I asked where he wanted his picture taken, he said," That looks like a nice tree."
When I asked where he wanted his picture taken, he said,” That looks like a nice tree.”

Name: Warner, G7C11.  He just likes to be called Warner…

Warner is one of my favorite students.  He is the class mega-phone; I can always count on him to translate instructions, get people excited, or help me understand how the class is feeling during class.  If I explain an activity we will be doing, he gauges class opinion, stands up in the nicest way possible, and says, “I think that the class will not like this the most, but they will still do it.”  I have to resist laughing because his voice is still a bit high, but is always very calm. He is a huge gamer who plays League of Legends and Minecraft, and is obsessed with the show, “Fringe.”  He always refers to J.J. Abrams as a genius.

What is your biggest dream.  What do you want to do in your life?
“Policeman.  I want to help people as a policeman.”

What is your favorite thing in the world?
“Nature.  It is the world.”  

If you could give advice to someone who is having a problem, what would you tell them?
“You just need to be brave.”

7 Surprising Differences Between the American Education System and the Chinese Education System

My time in China has totaled to a little over a month now and I can say that I am incredibly thankful that I took advantage of this opportunity.  My classes are fun (though exhausting), my coworkers are nothing less than convivial, and Nanjing is a vibrant city with much more for me to discover in the next nine months.  Here is my video edit covering my school, my classroom, a typical day for a Chinese student, and Nanjing No. 5 High School’s “Sports Day.”  Sports Day was quite entertaining and surprised me more than once.  Check it out.

I understand that this is a long post.  There are a some pictures below to accompany the text.  Here is a quick run-down of my points and you can find my expansions on each point below the TL;DR.

TL;DR: The American education system and the Chinese education system differ greatly concerning students, school administration, and teaching methods. My main observations are:

1) The extreme lack of personal time for students is astounding

2) The students do not move between classrooms for different classes.

3) Teaching your students while not embarrassing them is a difficult balance.

4) The shyness of Chinese students takes awkwardness to an entire new level.

5) Chinese physical education does not involve the immersion of sports found in American physical education.

6) Power distance between you and the headmasters/principals is 1000 miles and then some.

7) Do not expect your school to give you information concerning the future.

I do not highlight these points in a negative light and mean no disrespect towards the Chinese culture.  They are purely my observations as a foreigner and guest to this country.  It is one thing to hear about it, but another to be surrounded by it.


Now the Ameson Year in China program puts in an astounding amount of effort to prepare you for teaching, giving cultural sensitivity lessons and sharing tons of information regarding how and what to teach; you still do not comprehend how enormous the contrast between the American education system and Chinese education system truly is until you experience it.  I kept a list this past month of what I noticed during my classes regarding: the Chinese classroom, student hobbies and interactions, and the school administration.  Some of these observations are known to us before we are shipped to our host locations, but I want to add my own personal anecdotes and experiences as I circumvented these differences.

1) The extreme lack of personal time for students is astounding.

My students begin their school day at 7am.  This does not even include them waking up, getting ready, eating breakfast, and getting to school.  They wear their school uniform comprising of a nice undershirt, a baggy pullover, and baggy pants.  Why?  So they do not wear clothing that accents or shows their body.

Their main classes go from 7am-5:20pm with a lunch break from 12-1:30pm, but their day is not quite over.  After 5:20pm, extra-curricular activities begin. These activities range from astronomy class to more English classes to playing sports, but they are still on the school campus.  Most of my students have 3-5 extra-curriculars after school and do not leave the school campus until 9pm.

Just picture that: you are at school for 14 hours, 5x a week, and you still have to eat dinner and complete your homework each night.  Not to mention that the Chinese school calendar starts the first semester on September 1st and ends February 7th, with only one week off for holiday break from Oct. 1st-7th.  Then you get about a month off in February for Chinese New Year, return at the beginning of March, have one week off for spring holiday break in the middle of the semester, and then you end the school year on June 30th.  You get July and August off for summer vacation and then you are right back in school for another 9-10 months.

I had students make me posters introducing themselves to me during the first week of school and a minority were well-done, others lacked a sense of personality and creativity.  Some just handed me an essay that gave me no insight into who they are outside of facts like: “I am a son,” or “I am in Grade 7 Class 10.”  Just blatant facts about themselves with no insight into their interests.  I cannot fault them as they have no time to develop their individual identity; school dominates their entire life and limits their social circles.

I do not fault the Chinese education system, but I would say that Americans and others are more than lucky to have a great education while having the free time to develop a strong personal life.

Here are a few of my favorite posters that my students made:  (EDIT: I have added a gallery of the better made posters.)

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2) The students do not move between classrooms for different classes.

In America, I had one classroom and one or two teachers—depending on the grade—each year I was in elementary school.  Once I hit 6th grade, periods and moving between classes were introduced and this remained the same all the way through university.

Elementary through high school Chinese students are in the same classroom for the entire year.  The students do not move to different classrooms for different subjects and they are with the same exact classmates for the entire school year. The teachers are the ones who move between classrooms, teaching their specific subject.

This makes students ansy and impatient throughout the day.  Classroom management techniques are a must if you want to have any control of your classes.  I have found that a sharp whistle will quiet the classroom down, but I already have a loud voice that can grab their attention when necessary.  Sometimes they can be too riled up and you succumb to playing hangman with words that pertained to the lesson for the last 15 minutes of class.  

3) Teaching your students while not embarrassing them is a difficult balance.

I cringe when I remember how awkward my years as a 13-15 year old were and I know I am not alone.  I take this into account when I teach my 7th and 8th graders.  It is adrenaline-inducing when the teacher calls you out in front of 39 other students to speak a language you are not comfortable with, but I find it necessary for building confidence in my students.

The Chinese prioritize saving face; it is extremely disrespectful to embarrass them in front of their peers and lose credibility even when you are trying to help them learn.  I have heard from other teachers that a student has shaken and even cried when he or she was called to answer a question in English.

In American schools, students avoid embarrassment, but I would not say it is a big concern in the classroom.  In China the fear of embarrassment is mortifying; it is the number one motivator for students, even at the expense of the teacher’s lesson.

You have to establish a comfortable classroom environment and patiently coax the answer out from students.  I have them teach me 10 minutes of Mandarin every now and then. They see that I make mistakes speaking their language, which creates a more relaxed atmosphere. 

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4) The shyness of Chinese students takes awkwardness to an entire new level.

This goes hand-in-hand with my previous point.  Their motivation to not embarrass themselves hinders them socially as well. While it does not reflect upon their academic intelligence (as 95% of my students are very smart, great artists and musicians, and even better with technology than I am in some cases), my students are no social butterflies.

This is not isolated to my classroom and I have observed this during free time and in other classrooms that I have sat in on. It is not common to see students have more than 1-2 friends. One instance that made me chuckle was when I watched a P.E. class at my school and during sprints, the girl in last place looked at me as she passed, lowered her head, and covered her face.  I didn’t chuckle to be rude or mean.  I just did not think that her being in last place in a P.E. class was worth embarrassment.

Students will look down and even cover their face when they talk to you. Even if the student knows the answer, it sometimes takes three minutes to answer my question because he or she is turning red and giggling due to nervousness. This I have found to only occur in my classroom as Chinese teachers are much more direct and strict in getting answers from students.

Social aptitude is not stressed in Chinese culture so interaction with students may be difficult.  They get embarrassed easily and either laugh themselves out of the conversation or shut down completely.  I have yet to fully understand how to overcome this.

5) Chinese physical education does not involve the immersion of sports found in American physical education.

Static exercises. Running.  Jumping jacks.  Stretches.  This comprises the typical Chinese P.E. class.  On abnormal days, a basketball cart may be brought out for the students, but that is the only change-up I have witnessed.

As you saw in my video, during the “Sports Day” segment, there are very few competitors wearing athletic clothing as the students do not change clothes for their P.E. class.  How my students run in baggy jackets, I do not know.

Students have limited exposure to sports during school hours although some can be seen playing ping pong, badminton, and soccer during lunch and/or free time. Otherwise, this completely contradicts American physical education where I was introduced to ice hockey, floor hockey, soccer, baseball, softball, kittyball, basketball, pickleball, scarf juggling, volleyball, tennis, dodgeball (and variations like jailbreak and pinball), badminton, swimming, track and field, and kickball before I even hit 7th grade.  I just can not imagine a P.E. class with basically no sports, but that’s how I was schooled.

Senior drills/morning exercises.  Waking up to this at 7am almost every weekday isn't too bad since I begin teaching at 7:20am.
Senior drills/morning exercises. Waking up to this at 7am almost every weekday isn’t too bad since I begin teaching at 7:20am.

6) Power distance between you and the headmasters/principals is 1000 miles and then some.

I had not met any of the headmasters at my school until last week during “Sports Day” and that is because they wanted to make a good impression for their superiors.  Do not get me wrong, they were nice, but did not delve into deeper conversation outside of shaking my hand and introducing themselves.  Due to this power distance, I communicate through my coordinator if I have a questions or concerns.  Some of my friends in the AYC program met their headmasters the first day they arrived, but have not seen them since.

In America, seeing your boss/manager in your work environment is common and found to be necessary for productivity. In China, power distance is a sign of authority and mingling with your subordinates is frowned upon and unheard of.

You must phrase your questions carefully in order to receive the answer you are looking for because your coordinator is asking for you.  Sometimes you have to tell your coordinator the exact answer you desire so he or she knows what to specifically ask.

7) Do not expect your school to give you information concerning the future.

This is one of my biggest frustrations working here.  Chinese schools do not do this to purposefully anger you.  In Chinese culture, prudence is not prioritized and information is given on a need-to-know basis. For example, I was told that I would have a holiday break for Chinese National Day from Oct. 1st-7th just two days before it started. I received last minute class cancelations and switches almost constantly in my first month and it still occurs.  My school initially set me up with 11 classes for the first two weeks, but in my third week, I was told that I would have 9 more classes tacked onto my schedule.

While I would not call my schedule strenuous, having nine 7th grade classes behind a few lessons than the others can lead to confusion if I am not diligent; switching between different lessons and different age groups on the same day is straight-up fatiguing.

Patience and tolerance are necessary when handling the Chinese manner of dispersing information.  Most of the time, you have to continuously badger your coordinator or school contact to get the information you desire.


I do not bring these things to attention to put them in a bad light or disrespect the Chinese culture.  None of this is wrong; it is how the Chinese school system operates within its culture and its different than my schooling, which I find intriguing.  This type of perspective is one of the main reasons why I embarked on this adventure.  These are just simple observations that I have gathered from my first month teaching here in China. I find it truly interesting to discuss the cultural differences and differences in academia with Chinese students that have been to America in an exchange program and other teachers and foreigners who have experienced the culture shock. Obviously some of these observations may vary based on location and type of school, but after hearing the experiences of other program participants and veteran teachers, most agreed upon these observations.

Follow my blog and experience China with me.  I want you to WANT to read about my experiences.  Comments, feedback, and content requests are more than welcome as they will help me engage you, the reader, in a more effective manner.  Stay awesome.