A First, Teaching English in China by Ryan Armstrong

I was on the last leg of my 6 month trip home. It started in New Zealand, where I had just spent the previous 6 months on a work visa. I had a friend living in Shenzhen, China and decided this would be one of my last stops on the way home. After spending a good four to five days hearing stories of his new life in China and his experiences in the classroom, I decided teaching abroad might be something I would like to do. I went back to Canada and got an accounting job, but it wasn’t much more than a year before I was headed abroad again.

After a year back in the office I decided I wanted to give teaching a try, but wasn’t sure I wanted to spend the time and money to go back to University without being 100 percent sure I wanted to change careers. It was obvious then that I should explore teaching abroad. I won’t get into too much detail in this post, perhaps we can do another later, but I was able to find a job relatively quickly that met my contract length, salary, apartment and classroom expectations. After working out the visa and flights I was off to a new city, Langfang, to teach for the first time in my life.

I arrived in Beijing in the evening. I had obviously done some research on where I was headed beforehand. I knew there would be smog, but actually being in it and seeing it with your own eyes is another thing.  That negative aside, I was excited and was pleasantly greeted by two teachers holding a sign with my name. We took the hour long taxi ride to Langfang and in somewhat broken English we got to know one another. 

My first few days were interesting. I got a tour of the school, had many dinners and lunches with new friends, set up a bank account, and got a phone sorted all with the help of my new Chinese colleagues. I had a few culture shock moments, especially after realizing next to no English was spoken here. The food, the pace of the city, the air quality, the customs, and the way of life were all completely different than at home. I had obviously expected this, but only being in the situation can you really grasp it all. I won’t lie; a couple times in during my first couple weeks I was really questioning whether I wanted to be there for the next 10 months or not.

I was greeted at the school by all the teachers, and they were all so friendly. There was one other foreign teacher who was set to leave in a month and roughly 20 Chinese teachers. The students also seemed to be pretty excited about having a new foreign teacher. After settling in at school and shadowing other teachers’ classes I was finally thrown in to the classroom myself. I was extremely nervous and struggled in my first month. I struggled mostly when trying to think on the same level as my students. My students were aged between 6 and 13, depending on the class. After I got settled in to both China and the classroom, I learned how to lesson plan more quickly, maintain a good pace in the classroom and properly help my student improve their English. 

Along the way I had some problem students. Many of the students who attend the schools came from wealthier families and therefor were spoiled in some cases. I also learned that no two student are the same, and need to be motivated in different ways. Over time, I was able to develop better methods to keep the students focused in class. In China, at least where I was teaching, the students responded well to competition in class and a ‘tally mark system’ for correct answers or behavior.

I learned a lot during my time teaching too. I learned how to effectively communicate with those who don’t speak English as a first language. I learned about patience and how important it is; not only in the classroom. I also became more independent than I already was. From buying more power for my apartment, ordering a taxi in Mandarin, figuring out how to lesson plan, or simply living in a new country, it all helped me grow as a person.

During holidays or time off work I was also able to see friends I had made in China, visit other countries and I was even able to attend a Chinese wedding. One big negative about the whole experience would be the isolation. In Langfang it was very rare to come across another foreigner or English speaker. Unfortunately, many Chinese people seemed to be somewhat shy to speak in and practice their English. That said, the positives of the experience definitely outweigh the negatives. I was able to save money, make a lot of new Chinese friends, spend time teaching and hopefully better the lives of my students, and have an experience of a lifetime. 

Honestly, I would consider teaching abroad again. If I were to do it again, I would choose a city that was a little more foreigner friendly. Otherwise, I don’t see the need to change much else. I still have some colleagues and students that I still stay in touch with. At times I was struggling to enjoy the experience, but more often than not I was very happy with my decision to go teach abroad. I will always remember the students’ faces light up as I got into a class, or the hugs and smiles when they would say hello.

Would I recommend teaching abroad? 

100 percent, it is an amazing experience. Just be sure to do your research and ensure you are getting what you are happy with in terms of salary, contract, city, etc.

Why did I choose China?

Firstly, I had been to China before so I figured I would know what to expect, somewhat. Second, I wanted to be able to save money while abroad and China was one of the best options for me.