So, you’ve decided to embark on the once in a lifetime opportunity of teaching in China, congratulations! Your time abroad will be filled with transformative, exciting, and life-changing experiences. You will face challenges and experience triumphs every day. While moving to a new country and beginning a new teaching job can certainly be intimidating, preparing yourself ahead of time will ensure that you are starting off on the right foot.
Some of the difficulties you’ll face while teaching in China will be unique to you, but others will be challenges common to every teacher. Here are some challenges you may face, as well as best practices to overcome them (tried and true by former teachers!):
1. Making your class a priority for your (often overworked) students.
THE CHALLENGE: In many cases, English-speaking teachers will be teaching oral English in China. Since your class may not have structured exams or assignments, like other classes taught by local Chinese teachers, it is often seen as the “fun” class. As a result, students may not take your class as seriously as they would their math or Chinese class. They may want to work on assignments from other classes or socialize, and your school may even cancel your class last minute in order to free up students’ time for other things. This can feel anywhere from a little disheartening to downright insulting.
HOW TO GET THROUGH IT: First and foremost, you should educate yourself on the pressures that Chinese students face. Students must take competitive exams for entrance into high school and college. The National Higher Education Entrance Examination, commonly known as the Gaokao (高考), determines the higher education institute that a student will attend, which will subsequently determine their career path, and essentially their life. These are incredibly stressful, competitive, and high-pressure exams. With these on the horizon, it’s no wonder why your students prioritize classes that are tested on these exams.
At the same time, learning from a native English speaker can be invaluable to Chinese students and you will have a lot to offer them! While being realistic about your students’ priorities, you should find ways to encourage your students to see your class as an important learning experience. You can plan lessons that your students will find engaging and interesting to get their minds off of other pressures (ex. learning about American pop culture or Western holidays). Alternatively, you can relate your class back to your students’ priorities (ex. plan a lesson on physics vocabulary if your students are currently taking physics). Be understanding and be creative!
2. Getting respect and attention from your students.
THE CHALLENGE: As a new teacher, students may take advantage of your unfamiliarity with the school and class expectations. They may act up and goof off because they assume that you will not discipline them like their other teachers would (not only because you are new, but also because you are a foreigner). A rowdy class can quickly destroy your planned lessons and disrupt the learning experience.
HOW TO GET THROUGH IT: Don’t be afraid to ask for help! Students usually have a homeroom teacher who knows them very well and sees them every day. This teacher can give you advice about how to best manage the students and potentially even assist you in class for the first few days. He or she will also have intimate knowledge of each student’s situation. Maybe the class clown has a troubled home life, or a student who never pays attention has a learning disability. The local teachers will be an excellent resource for you to turn to if you are struggling. There is nothing embarrassing about admitting that you need help; they probably felt the same way when they first started!
3. Understanding your school’s workplace culture.
THE CHALLENGE: Your paycheck is late and you don’t know who to talk to about it. You are called into staff meetings with just a minute’s notice. You show up to class to find it canceled. You’re scared of overstepping boundaries by reaching out to other teachers. Navigating any new workplace can be difficult, but there are added cultural differences when adjusting to the workplace in a Chinese school.
HOW TO GET THROUGH IT: It is often most helpful to sit back and observe how things run in your new workplace. You can learn a lot about how to act and what to do simply by watching what others around you are doing! At the same time, it’s important to understand some basic cultural differences in advance. For example, time in China is viewed much more loosely than in the United States. You should be ready for things to be planned or changed at the last minute without any advanced warning.
Being flexible and adaptable will remedy any panic that unforeseen changes may elicit; always have a few lessons prepared ahead of time and learn to expect the unexpected.
4. Dealing with large classes and many students.
THE CHALLENGE: It’s no secret that China has a huge population. Your classes will often be very large, having 40 to 60 students per class is typical, and you may see over 1,000 different students each week. It can be overwhelming and intimidating to manage a classroom of that size on your own.
HOW TO GET THROUGH IT: From a practical standpoint, be prepared for all the talking (and sometimes shouting) that you’ll have to do! You may find yourself hoarse at the end of a busy day; bring throat lozenges and water to class with you, or see if your school can provide a portable microphone to give your voice a break.
While you may not be able to learn all of your students’ names, remember to see them as individuals. If you see a student struggling, offer them individual attention to demonstrate that you notice and you care. A quick one-on-one conversation with a student may be all they need to become more confident and engaged during class.
5. Defining your relationship with your students.
THE CHALLENGE: Outside of class, especially if you live in a teacher dormitory on your school’s campus, students may be eager to spend more time with you. They may even invite you to their home for dinner or to go out on weekends. It can be difficult to navigate the blurred boundary between being friendly with your students versus being their friend, especially if they try to monopolize your free time outside of class. Sometimes you may just need a break from them!
HOW TO GET THROUGH IT: Set the boundary early on. You can invite your students to visit only between certain hours outside of class, or you can post a sign on your door when you do not want to be disturbed. Accepting invitations to go to your students’ homes is perfectly fine, but can lead to hurt feelings or jealousy if you seem to pick and choose whose invites to accept. Be cognizant of how your actions appear and be clear with your students that you are, first and foremost, their teacher.
As you can see, many challenges that you may face can be remedied by open communication and flexibility. If you arrive on your first day with an open mind and positive attitude, you will be setting yourself up for success as an ESL teacher in China. Good luck – you can do it!