Tag Archives: China

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.

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.
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.

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.
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.


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!


My “Rent-a-Foreigner” Experience

One particularly interesting business tactic that has fascinated me during my time in China is the “Rent-a-Foreigner” strategy.  In order to appear more international and exotic, some Chinese companies—ranging from real estate to engineering—will hire foreigners to give their companies an international face to appear more high-end.  The entertaining consideration is you don’t need any knowledge or education to do this; you just play the role you are assigned.  The greatest part?  You can make some good money as well.

Here is the Weixin commentary based on the BusinessInsider article.  It’s a short, interesting read that provides a little more information on why the Chinese perceive the foreign face to be advantageous during events and other business-related happenings.  I mean, it’s a running joke here that you can buy anything off of TaoBao (think Chinese Amazon and Ebay on steroids), but I didn’t realize that you can really buy anything, even foreigners.  Shoutout to Shelby Tuseth for sending this article to me.

I told myself that if the opportunity presented itself, I would at least interview and try to be that foreign face just to experience it.  I would be able to meet new people and possibly have some fun while earning that sweet Mao money so why not?  On April 4th and 5th, experience it I did.

Over time, a few friends I’ve made over here would post in their WeChat feed (think Facebook, but more mobile-oriented) that they knew of a company looking for a “white male, 6’0″ or taller, aged 21-25.”  A few of the times that I applied for the position, I was turned down with the reason being that I wasn’t skinny enough.  Maybe to some that would be upsetting, but you also have to understand the expectation of skinny here in China. I’m a 33″ waist which is pretty common for men my age in the U.S.  The first position I applied to was looking for someone “lankier than me.”  It was just funny having that explained by my friend who originally asked if I was interested.  After a few more attempts, I was finally accepted to help a kitchen appliances company, Robam, advertise during a shopping holiday at the beginning of April 2015 here in Nanjing.  Little did I know, I signed up for something a little more intensive than handing out coupon fliers.

That weekend, I met up with a group who were also in consideration for this event and I quickly realized that I was the only male among about eight Asian women who were around my age.  We get to Robam’s meeting room where we were told to wait.  The leader of this Robam promotional event has the girls stand up, show her how they look with different hair styles, and a few other things to ensure their qualifications and they wrap up after about 20 minutes.  Meanwhile I’m just twiddling my thumbs wondering what they will require from me.  After the girls are ok’ed, we’re told that all of us can leave.  I’m a bit puzzled so I ask one of the girls why the Robam woman didn’t even talk to me.  The woman heard me and told the girl to ask me if I can dance… which I said yes to.  Apparently, with that sole question, I was hired.  Did I just accept a role in an advertising dance promotion?  Yes.  Yes I did.

We were going to be working Saturday and Sunday doing choreographed dance promotions at 4 different Robam store locations in downtown Nanjing.  They would pay me 2,000RMB (~$330) for the whole weekend and while it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting, I went with it.

All of us met again Friday night April 3rd, to finalize the full dance and I was fitted for the outfit that I would rock as the front man of my troupe: a pretty snazzy chef uniform. I just remember thinking to myself what is going on?

IMG_2765 Throughout Saturday and Sunday, we were led around various Robam locations within a shopping mall center and put on a 3 minute show starring Jack the Weigouren Chef and his Chinese French Maids. In total we probably did about 8-10 dances each day and we even got to cruise on Segways a couple of times.  While walking–sometimes Segwaying(?)–between locations, we would carry signs with the girls chanting a slogan in Chinese.  Meanwhile, I would just lead the girls in a line from location to location with the camera crew and assistants directing me.  I have never been stared at so much in my life. IMG_2746 IMG_2747 Every time the music would start, shoppers and passersby would look to the source of the upbeat tempo, see our costumes, and realize that some white guy is making an ass of himself for the sake of commercialism.  We would start dancing in front of maybe 10 people and by the end of our routine, there would be 70+ people recording us on their phones; at other locations, it was much more people.

So without further ado, here is the entertaining video of our dance with the laughing of my friend Tony (the person filming) included.  Sorry it’s not in 4K and surround sound.

Although it was a little odd at first, the whole weekend was fun.  The entire job turned out drastically different from what I imagined and I was paid for something I thought I would never get paid to do.  Sounds like the embodiment of a perfect foreign experience in China to me.

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!