Tag 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!