Teach in China, Tips for Teaching English Abroad

Teach in China

Student teachers are spreading the good words of English in China, but it’s not all fun and games at these Party schools. Here are tips to teach abroad and teach in China.

 The instant you step off the plane in China, you realize you’ve arrived in another world, on the other side of the looking glass. China is the same distance from San Francisco as it is from Paris, but it might as well be in another galaxy. The simple fact is that everything is different, from food to social interaction, work environments to accepted norms of conversation. If you are on the other side of the desk and need tips to study abroad, we have you covered.

When you come to China as a student teacher, you’ll face a phenomenal learning experience and a supreme test of your values.

Teaching in China
Teaching in China. Image courtesy Flickr vagabondrhythm

Because China is still not as popular a destination for foreign teachers as, say, England, there is no established way of getting yourself there. This means finding teaching jobs is both less restrictive and less certain than finding similar programs in other countries. You’ll have far more freedom to negotiate your salary, vacations and various perks, but you’ll also have little upon which you can fall back if you should be dissatisfied. Chinese universities have an attitude of, “what are you going to do, quit?” when dealing with American teachers. By the same token, you are a rare and prized commodity, so you can use that to your advantage in the face of an especially overbearing boss.

There are two ways of getting yourself to China: through an established organization or on your own. Both have benefits and pitfalls of which you should be aware.

I came to China through the Colorado China Council, a headhunting organization of sorts that places American professors and recent college graduates in teaching positions all over China. For $3,500, they took care of everything from my work permit and round-trip airfare to a one-month stay in Shanghai and a training course. Other independent organizations that provide similar services worth checking out are the YMCA, and WorldTeach. University affiliated programs at Western Washington University, Yale, Princeton, and Johns Hopkins all run their own programs; all but the Western Washington program cater strictly to their own high-brow crews. A variety of religious organizations also send teachers to China, but be warned that these tend to be very, well, religious (and might not tell you this on the phone). If you want to go save souls, by all means go for it, but be aware that you will be connected to the church at the hip.

The benefit of going through an organization is that you have back up from the moment you arrive in China to the moment you leave. There is always someone you can call upon if something goes wrong, and oftentimes they will think of things that you would otherwise forget. At the same time, there is no standard for programs that send teachers to China, so you have to do your homework. There’s nothing worse than arriving in Shanghai and finding that the person responsible for your American rear end is a drunkard.

Before you decide to make your way to China alone, take heed: unless you know what salary and hours to expect and what sorts of perks to request, you may be locked into a very unpleasant contract. Only 20 class hours a week doesn’t sound like much, but your job also includes office hours, class planning hours and the surprisingly realization that 3,000 Chinese students will want you as their private English tutor. When you discover the other teachers at your school are carrying 12 to 14 hours, you’ll be the butt of endless jibes from your fellow student teachers and foreign experts. There are enough challenges to living in China without adding to your stress load. Think of your teaching hours as class hours in college and you’ll have a rough estimate of how many to accept.

I discovered quite unexpectedly that there is no such thing as a course plan for English teachers in China. My boss took me up to the classroom, said with flourish, “Teacher Chris, meet your students!” and left. Standing in front of 30 of the most expectant faces I have ever seen, all I could think to say was: “Um.” It’s also possible for you to be thrown into a class of more than a 100 students within a week of arriving, with no book, no course outline, and no clue. So be prepared, be very prepared.

It is well worth your while to take a Teaching English as a Foreign Language course and get certified before you leave, and to collect as much teaching material as you think you can stuff in your suitcase. Grammar and vocabulary books are key, as is anything that could be remotely considered typically American (“Yes, class, this Denny’s menu represents a typical American meal. And stuff.”). Chinese students go crazy over newspapers, fashion and car magazines, videotapes of American television, which can all be used as learning aids. Do not for a moment expect your department to have any teaching resources for you at all.

A final word of advice: take at least a semester of Chinese before you leave. While you will pick up the language by virtue of being immersed in China, it is not like French or Spanish, where you can root through several words for the same object with a 75 percent success rate. I arrived not knowing a single word, and for the first two or three months of my time in China the vast majority of my conversations were identical (Hello, how are you? Yes, me too! My, it sure is hot today! Good-bye!).

The resources are out there for those of us who want a slightly different experience after graduation. Consider this last tidbit: since Deng Xiaoping began “Reform and Opening” in 1979, only about 20,000 foreign students have come to China. You will be in a very rare group of people who will be uniquely prepared to face the world of the 21st century. The challenge is there — it’s a matter of taking it.

Guest post from Chris LeGras, of Boston College.