Reflections on a Decade of Teaching in China

 

OK, it’s actually been 11 years, but a decade sounds more impressive. I want to get my thoughts down on paper, during my last couple of months in China, and before my impending move back to the USA. Along the way, I’ll combine my experiences with some advice to would-be teachers of English abroad.

I left the USA in July 2006, but my exit had begun two years earlier, for three reasons: my dissatisfaction with the Bush administration; my inability to find a teaching job in Los Angeles after two years of searching; and the need to pay down my debts in the U.S.

The internet was the key to my entering the world of teaching. Not only could I learn about the process of becoming a teacher, but searching for a job in another country was now accessible through dedicated websites such as Dave’s ESL Cafe, Abroadchina.org, and many others. I furiously searched for information on China, eventually settling on Sichuan, and its provincial capital Chengdu, as my destination. Why? Chengdu was the jumping-off point for travel to Tibet, which I intended to visit, and I loved Sichuan food. There are worse reasons for choosing a place to live.

I arrived in China in July 2006. The demand for English teachers was high, as the country geared up for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. People were urged to learn at least basic phrases in English, and I lost count of how many times a day I heard “Hello!” shouted at my back. I stuck out like a sore thumb: a 50-year-old foreigner with grayish-white hair and a goatee sailing through a sea of black-haired people who all seemed shorter than I was. I got used to being stared at.

My starting salary at the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China, Chengdu, was 4,000 RMB a month, at that time worth about US $650 a month. If you teach at a university, however, you are provided with a free furnished apartment; mine also included a computer, internet, fully-equipped kitchen with dishware, and a private laundry room. I stayed in this job three years, eventually getting tired of teaching one lesson plan a week, but repeating it 7 times for all my different classes.

As a newbie teacher in China, you will have to make several decisions, which will affect what kind of job you accept. First, how serious are you about teaching as a career? In 2006 the country was still full of “casual” or “backpacker” teachers, the kind who are passing through for a year or two for a holiday or a chance to party. There were also older, mature teachers like me, some making midlife changes as I had. Whatever your motivations for coming to China, whether for evangelical religious purposes, to learn a new culture or language, or to make a life’s work of teaching abroad, you must be clear in your own mind about these, and then make at least a rudimentary plan for your teaching career. This is because, over time, your motivations will become clear to your students.

Second, what kinds of teaching jobs do you want? The typical Chinese university hires foreign teachers as Oral English instructors, to impart knowledge of conversational or general language skills. You will be treated professionally, but expectations of you are not likely to be high. You may be there to lend the school prestige, or even to help it charge more money for its classes. In my experience, I was often expected to create my own curriculum, teaching materials, and assessment methods, with no assistance from the administration. After my first couple of years, I started supplementing my salary with part-time jobs with chain schools (for-profit, intensely competitive businesses) and private lessons. By my third year in China I had paid off the balance of my credit card debt in the U.S.

Chain schools offer many teaching jobs, often for children or teenage students; I won’t mention any names since you only have to glance at the jobs listings on ESL Cafe or other sites to know what the major ones are. These schools may promise high salaries, but often demand long work hours and up to 30 or more “contact” hours per week. By contrast, a full-time university contract requires 14-16 class period per week, in my experience.

During my fourth year in China I began to move up the ladder, into more demanding teaching positions. At Sichuan University I coordinated Going Abroad classes for government-sponsored Chinese Visiting Scholars who prepared to go to the UK or USA; these were my favorite classes, since the teachers were adults with Ph.D.s, and extremely active and personable in class. I also began to move into a different branch of English teaching, English for Academic Purposes (EAP), largely at the prompting of one of my colleagues. Teaching EAP is quite demanding, with a steep learning curve, leading me to enroll in a specialized M.A. program by distance learning through the University of Nottingham. I began to teach academic writing, study skills, research skills, and presentation skills, all of which require specialized knowledge.

For a couple of years I greatly enhanced my income by becoming an IELTS (International English Language Testing System) Examiner for the British Council in China. The money was good while it lasted, and China is the world’s largest market for IELTS and IELTS-related materials and preparation classes.

The top step in my career was to enter the world of foreign or joint-venture university campuses in China. These are where good salaries are paid, amounting to U.S or U.K.-level wages. There are also international school or IB (International Baccalaureate) schools, which can combine elementary and high school grades, with comparable salries. Today there are many American, British, and Australian universities with cooperative programs, or their own campuses, in China. In general, you will need an M.A. and teaching experience to land these jobs.

The last step in my China teaching career was to turn 60, which is the country’s mandatory retirement age. You can still find jobs after 60, but it becomes much more difficult. This was when I had to leave my highly-paid job at Xian Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou, and accept a less-prestigious job at one-fourth the salary. If you’re a “mature” teacher in your 50s or 60s, and this is aconcern, there are online sources giving advice on age limits for foreign workers in different countries.

The English teaching landscape is changing in China. In the last couple of years, visa rules have become stricter. More cities now require a certificate of no criminal conduct, either from your home country’s government or from the police in a Chinese city you have worked in. Many teaching positions now require at least a B.A.; upper-tier jobs require an M.A. Age limits are changing; provinces that granted work visas to age 65 have now lowered the age to 60. You will also see job advertisements that include age limits such as 50 or 55. Salaries and working hours are changing; I was recently offered a teaching job at 8,000 RMB a month, but it required 24 class periods a week, an exhausting schedule when you have never taught more than 16 periods.

As I mentioned above, apart from top-tier school salaries, teacher salaries in China are notoriously low. See Low salaries leave expat teachers bottom of class (China Daily, July 23, 2015) for reference at http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2015-07/23/content_21384900.htm.

Do I have any regrets? Perhaps only that I didn’t start younger. I have the feeling that there was a lot of territory left unexplored, now that I am considering leaving China to resume my career in the USA. However, there are many more unexplored worlds ahead of me. What will I do now? Become an online tutor; get paid to write lesson plans or study guides; become a teacher trainer, and pass on the gift of teaching abroad and learning about new cultures.

 

Some parting words of advice to new teachers going abroad:

Do your homework: research schools, cities, countries. Read message boards for comments from other teachers. Take these comments with a grain of salt; often it’s the disgruntled teachers who post; happy teachers stay quiet.

Get qualified: Earn a TESOL, TEFL, CELTA, or other teaching certificate, preferably one with 120 hours of study, through a reputable university or training organization. Quickie online certificates are often frowned upon.

Consider going for your M.A.: TESOL, Applied Linguistics, Teaching English for Academic Purposes; other fields if you plan to teach a subject other than English.

School ranking is very important in China; I was fortunate to work at three top-ranked, first-tier universities, which gave me a leg up when applying for other jobs in China.

When accepting a job abroad, be sure to ask for names and addresses of current or former teachers, as references. The school should also email you photos of the teacher apartments, and send you a sample contract, with all benefits spelled out.

 

Happy teaching!

 

My first class, Chengdu, 2006

build a tower

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while; as usual, however, life got in the way and it was delayed. I’ve now done this team-building activity with two different classes, and it proved to be a lot of fun.

 

 

TED2010 Talk

 

 

The Marshmallow Challenge was created by Tom Wujec, and he describes the activity in a TED2010 Talk [click photo above to view video]. The object of the activity is to enhance group and cooperative learning skills through creativity, planning, trial & error, and problem-solving as a part of a team. It involves building a tower using dry spaghetti, tape, string, and marshmallows. As a bonus, the extra marshmallows provided snacks for instant energy.

 

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Here are some of the photos from my English for Academic Purposes class as they constructed their towers. As it turned out, the students fell in love with the red clothesline string I provided, and used way too much of it. Oh well, I’m not one for strictly following instructions anyway. A few of the students also chose to snack on the spaghetti (uncooked) afterwards, which I didn’t recommend.

 

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After the towers were completed, a committee of judges used a tape measure to determine which one was tallest. Prizes were awarded for height and creativity – one tower was shaped like the Burj Al Arab Hotel in Dubai. During the activity I played a mixture of pop, disco, and 70s R&B music for inspiration. If you try this activity with your class, I also recommend allowing about 10 minutes at the end for clean-up ( a lot of tape gets stuck to desks and spaghetti pieces litter the floor).

 

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 great group work, but a little too much string.

 

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 the crowning touch – marshmallow with a heart.

 

 Marshmallow Challenge title Slide

 Click here to open/download the PowerPoint 2010 instructions for the activity

 

 

learning curve

students

Students in my class concentrate on their study book activity, identifying and sharing their personal skills.

 

We’re now in the sixth week of the new semester, and what a ride it’s been.

I’m performing a juggling act between my regular job of teaching 16 class periods a week, and being an IELTS examiner three weekends a month. I work pretty much all the time; in February I had a total of two days off. I barely had time for a healing massage, a trip to the grocery story, and a couple of trips to the gym.

Another challenge is teaching two new programs: reading class for the Singapore study abroad program, and English for Academic Purposes for the Victoria University program in Australia. The Singapore class is reading Madame Doubtfire; this provides some opportunities for levity, as when we role-played a talk show and I was Madame Doubtfire, the cross-dressing housekeeper (no, I didn’t dress the part). I had to respond to a question about which toilet I would use, men’s or women’s, and I said “Well, dear, I’m not exactly sure.” I’m slowly trying to build my students’ confidence to give dramatic readings, a challenge in a foreign language. Reading shouldn’t be just another boring class.

The EAP class is full of creative students, even if a few of them seem only to find creative ways to sleep in class. I’m teaching study skills, which consists mostly of student-directed group activities, such as exploring your personal skills and study habits. The class’s extracurricular project is a dramatic presentation of Murder on the Orient Express. They haven’t decided yet whether it will be a musical. It’s also becoming increasingly obvious to them that adapting one medium to another is full of unique challenges – you can’t just open a book and make it a drama.

I became a minor celebrity (in my own mind) when  a couple of students came into my class the other day to film a video segment of me talking about the EAP program. As always, I improvised beautifully, and looked both casual and professional at the same time. My class then joked about asking for my autograph. A rather paranoid teacher in the next classroom, however, had a minor panic attack when he saw the cameras approaching, and imagining that he was next, swiftly moved his class to the 5th floor and locked the doors.

In addition to learning how to teach two new subjects (reading and study skills), I’m teaching my usual Going Abroad classes, for university teachers preparing to be Visiting Scholars in English-speaking countries. I round out my schedule with a Four Skills class (speaking module) composed of students from mixed backgrounds and abilities. We have fun together, and a group of them took me to lunch the other day.

I still find time, barely, for my guitar study and for photography. Speaking of fashion, something extraordinary is happening on campus: just in the past year or so, Chinese students with money to spend on fashion have created their own unique look, loosely based on Western fashion, but with color combinations and personal flair that is unique to China.  It makes American college campuses look like an ocean of dull conformity; in China, even the jeans-and-T-shirt combo is impeccably cleaned and pressed, always new, never old and ratty, and combined with athletic shoes in day-glo colors or bold patterns.  I’m planning to do a local equivalent of what NY fashion photographer Bill Cunningham does in the documentary Bill Cunningham’s New York – follow the local fashion icons with my camera and make a photo essay/documentary on the phenomenon.

Finally, I’ve taken on a minor supervisory role in the Going Abroad program, coordinating the foreign teachers who teach speaking classes.  All in all, it’s a roller-coaster ride. Sometimes, in the evening when it’s all over and I’ve heard enough different versions to English to make me catatonic, I ask “What’s next?” The next day, inevitably, will bring another surprise.

tweeted, and a bad cough

My favorite GIF animation this week:

 

Thanks to one of my favorite blogs, Black and White Cat, for publishing this image. Thanks also to its author for a great line for an insult:

Glenn Beck is very, very low-hanging fruit. We should all just ignore him and hope he goes away.

 I’m battling a bad allergy attack and a horrendous cough.  There’s no relief in sight, but fortunately I’m giving speaking exams this week, so all I do is sit there and listen to students talk (while I cough).  It’s been rather eventful, nonetheless.

My presentation Tibet-Nepal-India part 1 made the front page of slideshare.net, getting the most tweets [on Twitter] of any presentation.  Slideshare.net is a site for sharing PowerPoint presentations, documents, videos, and e-books, and it’s a great source of information as well as teaching material. As of today the presentation has had over 800 views!

I’m “featured” on the front page of slideshare.net!

 

 

New pages on my blog:

Teaching – lesson plans, downloadable documents, and links to PowerPoint presentations.  It includes a link to my Culture Shock presentation I gave last week.

 

Also visit me at: 

Visit my page at slideshare.net [chinateacher1].

I learned something

A peaceful oasis in the midst of the traffic, noise, and rapidly-rising skyscrapers of the center city: a small park that I found by accident, and a much-needed place for some contemplation.

 

Eating and talking at the same time

The great thing about teaching is that you are continually learning new things. For example, as a Chinese learner I’m continually reminded of the difficulties that my own students face in their process of learning English. I was eating lunch today – stir-fried rice with shredded pork and green pepper – after a much-needed massage to relieve some of the pain in my upper back and neck. A lady joined me at my table, as the place was full, and proceeded to chat with me. I realized later that I probably knew about 20 – 30% of the Chinese words she used – enough to catch the general meaning – but that I was used to seeing them in a textbook, or hearing them come out of my teacher’s mouth, and not a stranger’s. I “knew” the words, but hadn’t transferred them into the frontal whatchamacallit of my brain, the place where easily-accessible and ready-to-use words and expressions are stored. Yes, there’s “deep” storage and “right now” storage for language. Plus, my affect was in the way: that’s your resistance or discomfort or just plain panic at being talked to by a stranger. My initial reaction is “I’m not ready for this; it’s too real!” I survived.

Get over yourself! Just do it! I couldn’t take my own advice that I dish out to my students.

Moments of clarity

Like many of the best-laid plans, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Like I said, though, I’m always learning in this job.

I love partner conversation activities, especially information-gap exercises like Partner Dictation. Briefly, each partner gets a sheet of paper with part of a conversation, which is exactly what the other partner needs to fill his “gaps.” Plus, the activity forces the student to use all four skills: reading, speaking, listening, and writing. I’ll try to post a couple of examples here soon. You can use such exercises to practice asking for and giving directions, doing shopping role plays, or practically anything.

Then it was time to plan activities for Telephone English. I thought, what better way to practice phone English than on the phone? Like, duh! I mean, who doesn’t have a cell phone in China? I put together some really bitchin’ info-gap activities for phone role plays, then passed out the papers in class. I pointed out the line where each student was to write his/her own cell phone number, so that their mystery partner could actually call them. On the phone. In class. It had worked in one previous class, then I decided to use it in my class full of university teachers who plan to study abroad. I passed out the papers, with phone numbers, and said, “OK, everyone, now call for information!” I got puzzled looks. “On the phone?” someone said. “What about the cost?” Then it hit me: these students were mostly from other Chinese cities, which meant that any call incurred long-distance charges. Their classroom activity would be expensive. “You didn’t think of that, did you?” the other (smarter) part of my brain asked. All was not lost: The partners simply sat together and had pantomime “phone” conversations. When all else fails, wing it.  Click here to view/download the activities I used.

The path often takes many turns, but they usually lead you someplace interesting:  a metaphor for teaching

Get to the [power] point, already!

I’ve used PowerPoint since I started teaching in China in 2006. Back when I was teaching the same lesson to 7 classes of 50 students a week, it was worth my while to spend an entire Sunday afternoon putting together that week’s PPT, which could conveniently be plugged into the classroom computers. The technology only let me down once, when I installed the new Powerpoint 2007 on my home computer, not realizing that the classroom computers all had antiquated versions of the software. The result: the PPT wouldn’t even open, leaving me to write – from memory – a long and complicated lesson by hand on the chalkboard. Boy, was my hand tired.

Those limitations are history now, and I’m using the new PowerPoint 2010, Chinese version. It’s fairly user-friendly; virtually every command is a picture or a symbol, so I can continue to put off learning to read Chinese.

My new burst of creativity started when I had to put together materials for a couple of young students (10 and 13), and visuals were an obvious choice, since I have to keep them awake on a Friday evening after they’ve finished a whole school week. I found out that I could use PPTs for reading practice, not just for pretty pictures [more on this later].

Since I also “collect” graphics related to theater and opera, I thought: why not put together a presentation using animations, using all those cool graphics of set designs and theater curtains? I scoped out some online tutorials, but in my technologically-challenged state, each solution posed yet more problems. I began at Tom Kuhlman’s site The Rapid E-Learning Blog for help with animations in Powerpoint. From there I cruised over to Presentation Magazine to download some free animated slides.

My “A Night at the Opera” PPT completed, I now had to figure out a way to share it via my blog. From iSpring Free I was able to download a PowerPoint to Flash converter. I could now convert a PPT into a Shockwave Flash video, playable in my WordPress-powered blog. Of course, this wasn’t the end. After much frustration (and swearing), I realized that I couldn’t just stick my newly-created masterpiece into a blog post. Thanks to Walker News, I learned How to Embed SWF in HTML Code or WordPress Post. Whew!

You can see my results here. This has opened up new worlds of possibilities for me: PPTs on A Visit to the Zoo, or A Shopping Spree. Don’t be surprised if you see a new SWF video from me in the next couple of weeks on my travels last summer through Tibet, Nepal, and India.

 Coming soon! (Maybe)

I hope to add a new page to my blog [see trial version here] that features teaching materials: PowerPoints, class handouts, and illustrations. I’ve been thinking of developing my own teaching materials for a long time, but my busy schedule at the moment won’t permit it. Stay tuned for more news.