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Teaching around the World: Interviews - Teaching in China

Following on from our Reflections on Teaching Abroad series of articles, the Teaching around the World interviews aim to provide you with some insight into the great travel and teaching opportunities that are available to TESOL graduates. In each interview, we will be speaking to an English Language Teaching professional about their experience of living and working as an English teacher in a specific country. The interviews will be available in two formats: an audio link for you to listen to or a summarised transcript of the audio.

We hope that you will find these interviews interesting and informative and that they will help to inspire your own English language teaching adventures.

Teaching in China

Bill Farquharson with Cathy Roberts
21 February 2011

Cathy with Young Learners in China

To listen to the audio recording of the interview, click here. Or read the summarised transcript of the audio below.

Teaching in China
Hi, my name is Cathy Roberts, I’m currently working at Wits Language School in the English Improvement department as a as a course administrator and teacher/facilitator.

Why did you initially decide to do a TEFL course?
After university I worked for a little language school, and then went overseas to travel. When I came back I realised this was my passion and that I wanted some knowledge as I wasn’t sure I was doing the right thing, so that’s why I did my teacher training course.

How well did your initial teacher training pay off?
I think it was brilliant, it was a fantastic experience. It was 4 weeks and you eat, sleep and breathe it but you actually really learn what to do and how to handle things and it really helped when I started teaching.

What EFL/ESL experience do you have (YL, TBE, Exam prep etc)?
Originally I taught adults anywhere from 20 to say 50 yrs old, as well as children in China.

Before leaving home for an overseas job for the first time, what things did you wish you‘d known prior to leaving?
I was thinking about this and you know, obviously you have good and not so good experiences but apart from learning a bit about the country, the population, the culture and the food I don’t think I would have liked to know too much, as that would have tainted the experience. I didn’t think I needed to find out too much, I wanted it to be new, and exciting and didn’t plan too much.

Is there anywhere you would never teach again (both country and school). And why?
I like where I taught, and I liked China. The language school I first worked at, I wouldn’t want to teach there again in terms of the quality of materials, there was no professional development, also the way the exams were set.

A lot of people fear ‘culture shock’ when arriving in a new country. Is this fear well-founded and can you offer some tips on how to overcome this?
I definitely experienced culture shock, even though I’d been overseas before. I felt lonely and even though I loved the culture and the people, it is quite different. Everything was so foreign. Come to think of it I should have learned a bit of Mandarin before I went. I had a little book that helped a lot but I was pretty much all alone. If you go into the shops and you want to buy face cream, not every product has English on it and you don’t necessarily know what to buy.

What would you recommend new teachers take with them when travelling abroad for the first time?
Photos! Family photos. I took some materials to help, as a new teacher because you’re not all that confident at first, to get ideas for activities just to get you going. But something like little memorabilia from home.

When looking for a prospective school, what do you consider the 3 most important things to find out about the school prior to accepting a job offer?
I think you need to know the location, where it is and also things like public transport. Be aware of the workload, how many hours will you be expected to teach and how many hours will you be expected to do admin, that kind of thing… And also the age groups. Are you just going to concentrate on one particular age group or will you teach different ages?

When did you live and work in China?
I went in 2009, so it was June 2009 to March 2010.

Why did you choose to go there?
I just wanted somewhere completely different, different culture, different people, different language.

How did you find your first teaching job in China?
I went on the internet and found the company. They asked for my CV, after which I was shortlisted, which led to a telephonic interview. They asked me where I would like to teach and it turned out they had an opening in the town I wanted to go to so it all worked out really well

I loved the place that I worked at and it was really great. They were really good with professional development. The little kids were really great, but it was challenging. I preferred teaching the older 13, 14, 15, 16 year olds.

How do you suggest finding a job in China?
The only danger of using the internet is you’ve got to be careful of those fly by night operators, you’ve heard those nightmare stories that offer you a job but then you arrive and there’s nothing. So look for recommendations from people who’ve been there before. Ask your TESOL instructor what they recommend, if they have any insight. And look for places that are big, with a number of branches because they’ll have the admin support structures.

Are teachers typically offered assistance with visa applications, finding accommodation and cultural orientation when they start teaching in China?
It probably depends but good reputable places should do that. You have to get an invitation letter first, so they organize that, and help with your visa, and they should go with you to help you find accommodation, so you don’t get ripped off. The place where I worked did do that. Cultural orientation was a session which was all a bit theoretical, the differences between western and Chinese culture, but I knew most of that. What I would have liked was a little more, you know, taking you out, taking you around.

How would you compare the cost of living in China with South Africa – in terms of rent, transport, socializing, and groceries?
Cost of living is cheap, I don’t know about Beijing but where I lived for example I was paying the equivalent of R2100 rent, and it was quite a big apartment. Food is so cheap; you can buy a full meal for R8 or R10. Transport’s also cheap, around R2 for a bus, the subway’s also cheap. The only thing… going out is expensive, clubs are expensive.

Can one save money working in China?
The only thing is you actually don’t save as much as you think you will. I’m earning slightly more here than I was there, but the cost of living is higher. You can’t go overseas and expect to buy a house cash; it’s not going to happen. I think in other places the salaries are better, but the experience is great.

What did you love about China, what did you hate?
I loved the food, I loved the whole experience, I think more in retrospect, I think, ‘you know I did this’ and I feel quite brave. I loved that you could walk around at 3 or 4 in the morning and never felt worried about something happening. And the people are very friendly, they’d always say hello, they don’t necessarily know your language, but they know all the stock phrases. At the same time the culture shock for me was bad, and the loneliness and homesickness was bad. It took me a while to get over that, I didn’t make very close friends in the beginning, which was surprising. Being lonely… I’ve never experienced it like that.

Are there any cultural issues that prospective teachers in China should be aware of before taking a job there? What about pitfalls they may be unaware of?
The language is completely different. Mandarin is difficult because it’s a tonal language, and I recommend doing a little course before just so you know the basics. The pronunciation is difficult. Like when you go shopping, just for basic things you feel embarrassed to speak. It’s difficult to know, ‘am I buying face cream, bum cream?’ But it’s important to choose the kind of schools that help you a lot and help you find your feet.

 What difficulties, if any, did you experience with support offered by the various schools you taught at?
I didn’t really have any difficulties; in terms of the work everyone was extremely friendly. Our Director of Studies helped us a lot; we’d go on conferences and do professional development. They did teacher observations to tell you what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong, I loved that. It just took me a while to get close to the Chinese girls there, it’s a different culture and it took me a while to get close to them and actually call them friends. You have to be aware that in China, for example they don’t have Facebook, and some websites you can’t access because they’re always monitoring it. But at the school we had plenty of resources.

Would you recommend China to other EFL teachers?
I think if you want a completely different cultural experience, go to China. If you don’t want to have a Western like experience, go to China!

Cathy with her students in China