November 17th

This is the hallway outside my office at school. As you can see, the hallway is mostly open to the outdoors. Many schools in China are designed this way.

On a warm sunny day, this doesn’t really affect me, but on days like today, when it’s cold and rainy…. My office is also cold and rainy.

Kids come in and out all day and usually leave the door open. Even after we (the expat staff) installed an automatic door closer, several of the teachers have taken to propping the door open with a magnet to “let the fresh air in”. The results are discomfort, damp homework and grouchiness.

I don’t know why schools are designed this way. It’s often quite dangerous. The floors were wet with rainwater all day today and I nearly slipped twice. Students routinely go running down these halls and I’m constantly worried someone is going to get hurt.

November 16th

This is my desk at work.  I like to keep it organised because I hate forgetting to do things and I REALLY hate not being able to find things.

I also love being able to remind the kids how organized I am when they claim I’ve been lost their work.  That’s fun.  

At home, I’m nowhere near as neat.  That probably has a lot to do with the amount of time I actually spend at my desk at home.  Working in my home office is a bit painful because it’s really hard to grade when you have a black cat batting all your markers to the floor and a 3 legged cat trying to jump into your lap.  

As a result, my desk at home acts as storage space more than it does a work space.

November 15th

Today we held our first Writing Center session.

A few weeks ago, one of the home room teachers approached me with an idea to launch a writing mentor program for some of the IG1 students.

These grade 7 students come to me with strong oral English, but their writing skills haven’t really been developed. They’ve learned basic grammar, of course, but don’t have much practice using it in written form until they reach middle school. This means I have a year and a half to teach them how to pass a Cambridge exam.

What makes my department unique is that we have students in grade 8, writing an exam meant for grade 10 students. It’s a tall order for a bunch of 13 and 14 year olds, but we make it work. I am actually very proud to say that my grade 8 class last year actually beat the grade 10 students in another department who wrote the exact same exam.

So when Tracy asked me if I’d help set up a tutoring program and pair up her grade 7 students with my strongest grade 8&9 students… I jumped on the opportunity.

Today was our first class. I chose 7 students from IG1 who I knew needed some help, and paired them with some volunteers. The results were fantastic. They worked together for the entire 40 minute lunch period and several students made arrangements to meet again outside of the Writing Center because they had run out of time but wanted to finish helping their mentees.

I teach the coolest kids.

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November 7th

A Typical Tuesday

  • I start my day at 7:30am, so I can be at work for around 9:30
  • From 9:30 – 12:00, I work on the IG English curriculum. This way, when I leave Suzhou, the work I’ve put into building the English program won’t go to waste.
  • Lunch is from 12:00 – 1:20. It’s a long lunch break and most of my Chinese peers spend the time napping or resting. I use the time to prep my afternoon classes.
  • 1:20 – 4:35 is spent teaching. I don’t have any morning classes on Tuesday, which is really nice. It makes for a busy afternoon, but that’s when I’m at my best… So I’m glad my classes are scheduled for then.
  • From 4:35 – 7:00, I spend my time tidying up my desk, traveling back to SIP and eating dinner with Dave.
  • From 7:00 – 9:30, I try and catch up on grading. This week alone, I have roughly 100 summaries to check for grammar, spelling, vocabulary, content and format. Each summary takes between 4-8 minutes to grade.
  • 9:30 -10:30 is excercise time. On weeks when I’m really busy I like to walk after I’m done grading. Sometimes I do yoga instead, or calisthenics if I happen to have energy left from the rest of the day.
  • 10:30 – 11:30 is time to wind down. Lately I’ve been watching Criminal Minds and Scrubs. Been going old-school.
  • 11:30 is time for bed.

That’s a Typical Tuesday for this Teacher.

November 2nd

Today’s photo may not look like much…

On the right, there is a student named Michael. He’s 15 years old and in my grade 9 class. He is inquisitive, hardworking and has a great attitude. I’ve been his teacher since 2015.

On the left is Tim. He’s new to IGCSE. He’s in grade 7, and his English skills are a fair bit lower than the rest of his class. Still, he has a positive attitude and a very encouraging home room teacher, so instead of giving up on his writing assignment, he asked for help.

Michael obliged.

These two students chose to spend their lunch hour today working together. I’d like to say it’s a happy coincidence, but so much has gone into this.

  • Encouragement from homeroom teachers and parents. Without their support, neither of these students would have been where they were today at lunch time.
  • A department that fosters a willingness to help. In IGCSE, students learn that helping others is both rewarding, and their responsibility.
  • An English teacher that believes that collaboration is the most effective way to learn language.

Being a teacher is about so much more than ‘reading, writing and arithmatic’. It’s my responsibility to teach these kids to be caring and compassionate people. It’s my job to teach them about responsibility and expectations. It’s my job to give them the confidence to reach out for help and to offer it to those in need.

This picture might not look like much, but today….I felt like a superstar.

November 2b

An Eventful End to Summer

It’s hard to believe that Dave and I have nearly been back in China for a month already! The past 3+ weeks have flown by possibly even faster than our time in Canada did! I sat down today with the intention of writing about Vancouver and realized that until I updated all the things that have been going on out here, I couldn’t focus on another topic. So here we go!!

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Here’s a picture of Suzhou’s iconic ‘Pants Building’ being cleaned. Just because…

I’ve Been Performing as a Lead Vocalist!

Until recently, I was working back up or in duets with The Chairmen. It’s been great fun playing with those guys, but when Kit (our fearless leader) approached me and asked if I’d do a duet show with our guitarist, Mark, I jumped on the opportunity. We’ve only done one show so far, but it was pretty cool singing all 3 sets by myself. Best of all, Mark is super flexible about what play, so I’ve been able to do a bunch of new stuff. It was a nice switch up after all the Adele and Stevie Nicks I’ve been doing since May!!


I’m Competing in the Suzhou Expat Talent Show!

This one came about in a bit of a crazy way…Back in July, one of the HR staff at my school contacted me about representing the school at some kind of school district party. I agreed because I knew I’d already be back in Suzhou by that point and all was good. They knew I cover Adele, so they recommended I do “Rolling in the Deep”. I was cool with it.

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We ran into our friend, Nick, at the show. He was there on behalf of his new school, Eaton House. (Also, my face looks like that because he was photobombing us)

Fast forward to the day of the ‘government party’…it turns out that this was less of a school district party and more of a ‘government beer party’. There was a full band there waiting for me along with about 100 government officials and 200 teachers (etc) from schools in the area.

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I had a tough act to follow…this (rather tone-deaf) district big wig sang some traditional Chinese songs before my performance

The real kicker was when HR Frank told me…about an hour before I went on…that if it went well, I would be representing Suzhou Foreign Language School in this year’s Expat Talent Show. Notice that he didn’t ask…

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Oh yeah, and that talent show will be televised and recorded in front of a huge audience. And it’s in 4 days…
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This band didn’t like me very much…They wouldn’t believe me when I said I did the song in A Minor (I don’t have a terribly high voice) and they refused to play it in my key. I had to sing it high, and I wasn’t as strong as I could have been, but it was alright…I guess…

It went well. Fast forward to 4 DAYS LATER (!!!!) and it was talent show time! There was a mix up with the band (mainly, there wasn’t one) but I lucked out when I learned that The Chairmen (my band) were also going to be performing (the rest of them all work for the same school). They ended up backing me for my song too, and the performance went pretty well! Here, you can see it yourself!!!

To my credit, I don’t feel like I looked as unprepared as I felt! I was very relieved to have Kit and Mark there! I also had a student come to see me perform, which was pretty awesome. I have awesome students. Have I mentioned that?

I have no idea what the results were for this show. From what I understand, they are going to be watching video auditions for the next month, and choosing people to go onto the second round from there. I just hope I find out with more than 4 days to prepare this time!!!
I Am Writing for a News APP and a Newspaper!!

The night of the talent show, I received a text message from an editor at Nihao Suzhou, an APP designed to help foreigners in China (it’s actually a branch of Nihao China…every city has their own, I believe). They had been for writers earlier in the week, and I’d inquired along with a link to my blog. The editor liked my work and asked me to write an 800 word piece about anything I wanted. A week later, I was published!

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The article was pretty successful and received over 2000 views in the first day. Carrie, my editor, told me to go ahead and write another article if I wanted, and I submitted that one today! Also, she was so happy with the article that she recommended it for publication in the Suzhou Daily Newspaper! So there’s that, too!
I Lost the Olympics

Dave and I decided that we wanted to be more social this year, so we’ve been busy trying ot get involved in the expat community. Dave’s joined a gaelic football team, I’ve been doing gigs (and everything else above)…and we subscribed to this really cool website called InterNations.

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The Olympic Athletes

InterNations plans all sorts of events across the city. The one we attended last weekend was held at the Kempinski Hotel, where there is a Paulaner Brewery. We got to learn about the ancient German art of beer making and we spent the afternoon playing games with a few friends we’d dragged along, and a LOT of new friends that we met at the event.

I did not win. Not by a long shot. But it WAS a blast! And I feel like we met some really cool people. It was definitely a good time and we’ll be attending another InterNations event next Friday.


School Started

September 1st was our first day of classes. I am transitioned into a full-time English teacher (no more cooking classes) and am getting to know my 2 new grade 7 classes! So far, my new coworkers are upbeat and awesome, and I’m having a great time!

So that’s been our last 3 and a half weeks! Pretty wild! Now I need to catch up on some sleep…

Teaching in China

Suzhou Foreign Language school’s Autumn semester begins on September 1st. As I prepare for my classes and plan out my term, I thought it might be a good idea to write a little bit about what it’s like teaching in China!

(Spoiler…it’s awesome!!)

I’m not going to lie…living abroad isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. When we arrived in Shanghai last week, after a sleepless 11 hour flight, I was not prepared to deal with the bus depot’s toilets or the long ride back to Suzhou. I wanted to get right back into the plane and return to Canada. But as I sat there, fighting back tears of exhaustion in the bus terminal, Dave reminded me that soon I’d be back at work, and that calmed me right down. I thought of all my students and all the plans I had for them this year, and I knew that everything would be okay. Teaching is what I was always meant to do and I can’t express enough how rewarding it can be. I’ve taught children as young as 3 years old, 50 year old business men and everything in between, and I’ve gotta say…it doesn’t matter what age or level you are teaching…being an educator is a blast!

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So pumped to see these guys again! Can’t believe they’re going to be in Grade 8 this year!!

No matter how awesome the job is, though, the beginning of the semester offers some rather large challenges. If you know about them ahead of time, it can help a lot, here’s a list of tips I have for teachers at the beginning of the term.
1.) Be Prepared!!!

I once had an interviewer ask me what my ‘super power’ is. I replied, without hesitation, that it is organization. My ability to stay on top of my chaotic life all goes back to my day planner. Without it…I am lost. I am the master of lists and checking off items is sometimes all that gets me through hectic days. But that’s the key…it DOES get me through!

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I started rubbing off on my students…at the beginning of the term, in food and nutrition, many of my students just left all their vegetables all over the counters…by the end of the 1st term, they were neatly putting things in bowls. They agreed that it made it much easier cooking this way!

I recommend check lists to everyone and everyone because they allow you to stay on top of everything (and not forget about important events or tasks!) but also because they can give you a real sense of accomplishment. I recently had a coworker tease me for having ‘start grade 7 ppt’ as one of my check-list items. He thought it was silly that I had only ‘part’ of a task listed as an item on my list.

So, I asked him: “What’s the hardest part of making your weekly Power Point?” He answered “getting it started…” Boom! Item #1 is done and once you start, it’s not nearly as daunting of a task.

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Literally, my day planner RIGHT NOW…I leave little boxes in front of the tasks so I can fill them in when I’m done! Also…notice the colour coding??? It’s an ongoing joke in the middle school that when a student asks if I have finished grading their work or if I know where something is, my response is ‘Of course! I am VERY organized!’

I also firmly believe in the power of lesson plans. I know countless teachers who go into their classes with an idea of what they’re doing…but with no physical plan. I honestly have no idea how they do it…I lose track of time, I miss items and I let the class get carried away in discussions when I don’t have a proper plan. Don’t get me wrong…discussions are great in an ESL classroom! It’s what you WANT!! But in your 8:30am writing class, it isn’t always good when little Tom asks me ‘what I like about Suzhou’ to try and distract me from teaching about Present Perfect tense…

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I am trying a new way of doing lesson planning this year. Last year I was doing much more detailed plans, but then I realized that my Power Points were pretty much all I needed. Now, I’m focusing on the big items I want to cover every week. I leave space for notes to comment on things that went well (or badly) and for information students who really excelled or may need extra help.

And going Macro…Term plans can also be an excellent idea, especially when you don’t have a book to teach from! Last year, none of my classes had actual textbooks, so it became very important for me to plan ahead to make sure I was covering all the material they’d need to know for their IGCSE exams. Even when I DID have a book to teach from, when I was teaching Elementary and Kindergarten, my term plans were crucial to making sure all content was covered. It was a simple outline for the term, but an outline nonetheless. I recommend these tools to anyone! (And if you have any questions about layouts or things you should have in any of these plans, shoot me a question in the comments section! I’m always happy to help a fellow teacher!)

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2.) But not too prepared…

This may seems silly…but in China, you need to expect things to change. Your classes might get moved around or cancelled at the last second. I’ve often walked into my classroom to find no students there…when I track down their homeroom teacher it’s usually because some other activity was planned and they forgot to tell me. This is normal in China. You have to roll with the punches because like it or not…these things are CONSTANT!

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Leading up to the Drama Festival I was losing my mind because each class was so important for rehearsal, and my classes kept getting cancelled so the students could go horseback riding…or because they had a dance rehearsal to go to instead…it was Maddening!!

These types of things used to drive me CRAZY until I had someone tell me the reasoning behind it. China is what is known as a ‘Shame Culture’. I’ve written about ‘saving face’ in previous posts, and that’s what’s coming into play here. Things are often planned at the last second in here because it reduces the chance of having to cancel events. Cancelling an event is very bad in Chinese culture and knowing that actually made me feel a lot better about the ways it affects me. People here aren’t stupid or disorganized…the cultural norms are just different. That is something VERY important to remember when living here!
3.) Be Prepared for all the September/October Holiday Mayhem

The beginning of term always takes it out of me… Whether you are in a Training Center, a Foreign Language School or an International school (the 3 basic types of schools in China). the beginning of term has many challenges to overcome.

First, you need to get back into the groove of things and find your flow in the classroom. Then, you have to get all of your ‘beginning of term admin stuff’ out of the way…then you have to deal with 2 holidays within the first month of teaching!!!

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“Teacher’s Day” is also a mini holiday (no time off) in September. Students bring you all sorts of little goodies and the school makes you feel very appreciated!!

Mid-Autumn Festival is a lovely holiday (one of my favourites!) celebrated by getting together with family and eating Moon Cakes. It takes place in the beginning of September and it usually means a 3 day holiday for teachers.

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Delicious, Delicious moon cakes!!!

Then, there is China’s “National Day”, which actually lasts a week. It’s known in the tourism industry as “The Golden Mess” because there are literally over 1 billion people all on holiday at the same time in China! The regular tourist sights are PACKED and even the lesser known sights are still teaming with people. We traveled to Xiamen our first year in China during the holiday and it was uncomfortable trying to get anywhere, because you were shoulder to shoulder with tourists…

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Beijing…literally, shoulder to shoulder….

And then there’s the other problem with all these days off…Holidays are great, but they REALLY mess with your schedule! In China, if you are given 3 days off, it doesn’t necessary mean that you don’t owe some of them back. For example, this year, Mid-Autumn festival falls on September 15,16 and 17 (a Thursday, Friday and Saturday). In order to make up for that time off, schools open on Sunday and the week following the holiday becomes a 6 day week, with 2 Tuesdays in it. My first year, I had to have someone sit me down and draw a chart so I understood what was actually happening and when I had to work!!

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4.) Form a Good Relationship with your Co-Teachers/Homeroom Teachers

I cannot stress enough how important this is! It seems like common sense…who doesn’t want to get along with the people they work with? But too often I see people treat their Chinese counterparts in the education system poorly (and vice versa). There seems to be a mentality at some schools (and even in some departments at my own school) that it’s US vs THEM!!! This is SO counterproductive!

I’ve always tried my very best to be kind to the people I work with…to me that’s just common decency. When I was at the training center, I became good friends with Talia and Kayla. They weren’t teachers, but they were the people who helped me translate for parents and made sure that parents got important information about homework and students’ progress. Now, I work at a Foreign Language school where I’m co-teaching with Chinese teachers. We may not always see eye to eye on the way some things should be handled (education systems vary greatly from country to country!), but I always try to find a reasonable compromise.

I also do my best to never to create more work for my co-teachers. I’ve worked with teachers that wait until the last minute to do their progress reports or who don’t grade their papers until they’re told they HAVE to, even when they know that their Chinese counterpart needs them to finish up before they themselves can begin. Once more, I feel like this should be common sense, but I’ve seen it happen SO many times!!!

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Too often, Expats won’t even invite their Chinese coworkers out to dinners and things. I always make sure to invite anyone and everyone in my office and a lot of the time, they come out! Ivy (in the middle) has been such a good friend to me over the past year…I can’t imagine how I could have gotten through some things without her (like when I went to the ‘acupuncturist’ and when we got Hugo and Poe.) I don’t understand why people don’t put in more effort with one another!

This doesn’t only extend to the classroom either. Staff rooms can be tricky when you have a mixture of different cultures together. For example, the Chinese staff typically don’t want to have the air conditioners on in the summer or the heaters on in the winter. It’s a belief in China that they both blow dirty air, so they prefer to open the window. I run hot, so this has always been an issue for me in summer, but I compromised and bought myself a fan. On days where it’s particularly humid, I ask if I can turn on the AC for 15 minutes or so, to dry out the air. Then, when the room is cool, I turn it off again! There’s no need to be demanding…you’re in THEIR country! And it’s amazing, because 9 times out of 10, when you are respectful, so are they!!! I didn’t even have to ask by the end of the year…my dear friend Ivy would go and switch on the AC when it started to get uncomfortable.

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One of my Grade 5 classes at Interlingua. Notice they’re all in parkas? Parents frequently requested that we turn off the heaters so that their kids wouldn’t ‘get sick’.

5. Extra Work = Extra Awesome!

I’ve found in China (and pretty much everywhere else in the world too) that the better you are at your job, the more you are asked to do. It can be a bit much sometimes when you’re an overachiever (I may fit that description…), but I always remind myself that I am asked to do things because I’m doing well. The bright side of those extra projects is that you expand yourself SO MUCH when you take them on! Last year I organized the school’s first yearbook and hosted the annual Drama Festival, both in the second term.

Both events were SO fantastic!!! Not only did the students work hard, but they also saw ME working hard…that does wonders for your relationship with them. When they know that a teacher actually cares about them…it’s like the game changes a little bit. There are so many foreigners teaching China that are only here for the visa and so they can live abroad….and that’s okay! That’s how I started out too…but then I fell in love with the job and now, I take that job very seriously! And students can always tell when they have a teacher who is present and putting in effort vs the teachers that show up and do what they have to do.

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The Yearbook was such a worthwhile project as well…not only was it a lot of fun to put together, but it really expressed what it’s like being in the IGCSE department at Suzhou Foreign Language School

Being a positive influence is SO important. As an educator, I know that my students are learning more from me than just what is coming out of a text book. My boss, Nathan, is a prime example of teaching through doing…As I’ve mentioned before, he does a lot of work with Migrant schools and other charities around the city, and this year, our grade 8 class organized a big fundraiser for the migrant schools Nathan works with! It was so awesome watching them find ways to raise money and they really did a great job! Students are watching you ALL the time! Be an inspiration!!

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I encourage Michael to be more positive all the time (he tends to mope a lot…). I was surprised when I saw this on one of his worksheets. He aspires to be more optimistic (a word I taught him!) because I’m optimistic. That’s the biggest reward I could ask for as a teacher!

6.) Have Fun with It!!!

Lastly, make sure to have fun teaching!! It’s an AWESOME job and at most schools you are given plenty of opportunities to let your own skills shine. I mentioned earlier that I didn’t have textbooks for any of my classes last year. That may have intimidated some teachers (which is why my boss offered me a few textbooks I could follow along with if I needed), but for me…it meant I got to be creative.

In Food and Nutrition, I decided to teach my students about culture and how it relates to food. I did focuses on Mexico, Brazil, Jamaica, Italy, France, India and then I also taught them about December Holidays around the world (and the foods people eat during those holidays). It ended up being a tonne of fun! Because I’m so interested in both travel and cooking, I was able to shape this class around my own interests and talents. It worked out well for everyone, I think!

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At Easter, I taught my Grade 7 girls to dye their deviled eggs. When I taught them about Jamaica, we made Jerk Seasoning and had topped some deviled eggs with it (SOOO good!). They liked the dish so much they asked if we could do it again!

For Drama, I used my writing skills and training to have the students write their own plays for the drama festival! I’m also very competitive and I turn everything into competitions within my classroom. The students ended up LOVING the way we chose which play we’d perform in each class.

The Drama Festival was a huge success because I used the skills I had to make it happen. Best of all, I learned a lot along the way! I’d never been given an opportunity to direct before, nor had I ever coordinated an event like that. I developed new skills while using skills I already had. It was a perfect combo 🙂

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One of the groups in my Grade 8 Boys class presenting their play to the other students. They were actually the winners and the whole class had a great time learning their parts

So that’s the beauty of my job! I decided to try and keep my posts shorter this year, but as I was writing, I just couldn’t stop! I’m far too in love with my job and have so much advice to give!! I do hope that you’ve found this informative and if you’re teaching in an ESL classroom yourself, and if you are just reading to know what it’s like to be a teacher, I hope you got a good idea of how awesome my job is 🙂

If you have any comments or questions about anything I do…feel free to as in the comments section below! Thanks for checking in!