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!

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!

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.

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…

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!)

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!

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!!!

“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.

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…

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!!

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!!!

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.

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.

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!!

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!

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 🙂

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!

The Life of the Lao Wei

China is an interesting place to be for a foreigner.

First, let me begin by asking you:  what do you know about China?  Really?  The fact that dog is eaten here may have popped into your mind, and perhaps you pictured deep fried ‘honey garlic’ something or other as well.  Maybe you thought about the Great Wall.  But really, for a country with 5000 years of written history, many North Americans  know very little about life in the Orient.

Many of my friends and family assumed that I would be going to a country with more advanced technology than we have in Canada.  Many people also assumed that I would be eating nothing but rice and chicken feet. But in reality, China is an incredibly diverse country.  There are hundreds of local languages here, an incredibly diverse geology and every city has it’s own specialty cuisine.  In short, China is so much more than you can imagine.

There are over 50 ethnic groups in China.  They all have their own traditions, holidays, cuisine and language.  How's THAT for diversity!!
There are over 50 ethnic groups in China. They all have their own traditions, holidays, cuisine and language. How’s THAT for diversity!!

But as little as you know about China, China knows less about you!

Eight years ago, when I lived on the east coast, in a beautiful little city called Xiamen, I was stared at daily.  I had people point at me and yell “Lao Wei!” (foreigner) so that their friends might notice in time and get a look at me too.  I had people come up to me and ask for my photo.  More often still, I caught people sneaking photos of me.  There were times when an interested man or woman would come up to me as I shopped, pulling things out of my cart to see what the strange ‘lao wai’ was purchasing.  Everywhere I went in Xiamen, I was pointed at, shouted at and stared at.  Whether I was taking a 2am stroll (the only time I found quiet in that small city of 2 million people), or walking up the path to my apartment, I was constantly met with stares and pointing.  And of course, the ever-present sound of the words “Lao Wai!!!!”

Beautiful Xiamen City.  My home in 2005/2006
Beautiful Xiamen City. My home in 2005/2006

I imagined it would be different in Guiyang.  8 years have passed, and thousands of teachers have arrived and left the country since I departed in 2006.  Nearly every young person here now speaks at least a little English.  EAL teachers are everywhere, working for private training centers (like I am), for private schools and even at public schools.  There are easily a hundred of us in Guizhou province alone.

I live in the capital of Guizhou province; Guiyang
I live in the capital of Guizhou province; Guiyang

And if the presence of white teachers isn’t enough, Western culture has also permeated life here.   Guiyang has several KFC restaurants, 2 Pizza Huts, 3 Walmarts, a Starbucks and H&M, just to name a few.  English is everywhere!  In their music, on their signs and on their T-shirts.  Any company who aims to have a ‘cool’ image must have English in their name, even if no one within the company speaks a word of the language.  People here are obsessed with Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber, and today I even heard “Criminal”, by Brittany Spears, blasting from a lingerie store.  8 years ago, this was not the case.  Sure, there was a Walmart and KFC in Xiamen, but seeing English on signs and T-shirts was hardly an every day occurrence.

We have a Dairy Queen and a Baskin Robs by the school where I work
We have a Dairy Queen and a Baskin Robs by the school where I work

Yet, the sight of a foreigner is still shocking for the majority of Chinese people.

A few weeks ago, I was driving my scooter to school, when a bus pulled up beside me.  I had to focus on the traffic and ignore the commotion that my presence had caused in that bus.  Windows were rolled down, and people were shouting and laughing and saying ‘Hello!’.  I sometimes feel like an un-talented celebrity when this happens!  (Perhaps this is how the Kardashians feel?)  When Dave and I went and visited QianLing Hill Park, we were in as many pictures as we took!  Even the monkeys seemed to think we were interesting and strange!

A wild monkey, staring at the Lao Wei!  (Lao Wei is 'foreigner'.  We hear it everywhere we go!  We are treated like celebrities because there are so few of us in Guiyang)
He’s looking at me, thinking to himself “Lao Wei!!!!”

On good days, this isn’t an issue.  I laugh and smile and respond to their calls with ‘hello’.  A simple wave, or greeting in response to their excitement usually results in further excitement.  “Did the Lao Wei just say hello to ME!!!  Oh My God!!!”.  I waved at a child who was staring at me from a restaurant this week.  Her entire family waved back.  Some of them even stood up to get a better view of me!  And this, I should add, was in Zhong Tian Garden, where I live.  There are between 8 and 10 EAL teachers who live in this area, yet it’s still exciting for them to see one of us.

On bad days, this aspect of life in China is less enjoyable.  Being stared at while you are fighting back tears after a particularly difficult day, is not a pleasant feeling.  Having a crowd form around you, while you struggle to chain your scooter to a gate because it has a flat tire, is exasperating.  There are some days where I want to shout: “What’s wrong with you!  Didn’t your mothers ever teach you that it’s rude to point!!!”. But I don’t.  I know that even if I did, they probably wouldn’t understand me anyway, so I keep my head down and try to blend in with the masses.  I’m vertically challenged so that’s easy, but it’s certainly harder for some of the tall teachers at Interlingua.

Still, in spite of these bad days, I’d say life in Guiyang is more interesting than upsetting.  More often than not, people here are curious, but kind.  We’ve had people bring out dishes for us that other customers in the restaurant have paid for us to try.  Most people thrilled when I greet them in Mandarin, and embarrassed but excited when I respond to their ‘Lao Wei!!!’ with a ‘hello’ and a coy smile. (Yes, I know that you are talking about me…).

I consider myself lucky to be in China in 2014, during such a time of growth.  In the last 8 years, many things have changed: I now see English everywhere I go, I hear English Music in cars and in stores and I can shop at H&M (I can’t even do that in Winnipeg!).  But in some ways, China continues to be its cut-off-from-the-rest-of-the-world self.  The people here still marvel at the foreigner as though they are something special and interesting.  I can’t help but wonder whether this will still be the case in 8 years from now.