Out of the frying pan into the fire: My first week teaching English in China

A quite leafy neighbourhood surrounds my school, a welcome relief from the hustle and bustle.
A quiet leafy neighbourhood surrounds my school, a welcome relief from the hustle and bustle.

One of the unique aspects of working for True China is that they don’t require you to complete any TEFL course, another is that you have no idea what level the students are at or their previous curriculum before entering the classroom, To compensate for my lack of any formal training or knowledge of my pupils I spent weeks collecting as many computer based and physical resources as I could, before leaving Scotland. Lesson plans, PowerPoints, flash cards, game ideas, classroom management books, children’s books, Scottish toys, pictures of Scotland, pictures of shops, pictures of my house, pictures of me – I had it all.

On the left you can see one of my classes working quietly. When I tried to take the same photo from the front of the class moments later the left picture was the result. Rookie mistake.
[LEFT} One of my classes working quietly.[RIGHT]  Seconds later when they realised I was taking photos. Rookie mistake.
But nothing can quite prepare you for standing up in front of 50 little Chinese faces and trying to impart some sort of knowledge whilst sharing no common language.

My first topic covered basic introductions, my background and a bit about Scotland. The day started with all of the Chinese English teachers sitting in on my very first lesson, unannounced. Nothing like a group of 6 experienced native teachers sitting in your lesson taking notes to settle the nerves. The lesson itself was a relative success and I left to go to my next lesson with a spring in my step, maybe this wasn’t going to be that bad after all. My next two lessons brought me crashing back to earth.

The bizarre sight of over 500 students completing synchronised mass exercises: a daily occurrence in all Chinese primary schools.
The bizarre sight of over 500 students completing synchronised mass exercises: a daily occurrence in all Chinese primary schools.

Both lessons were with grade 3, the youngest of my students and to my shock I was left with no support from the class “mothers” (adult non-teachers who stay with one class throughout their entire primary life). As I settled into my rehearsed spiel I began to relax, the students were interacting well with my activities and seemed genuinely interested. Then out of the corner of my eye I spotted movement on top of a waist height sideboard, edging its way between gold fish bowls (it seems most Chinese classes keep pets) was what looked like a hamster. Before I could go over to investigate one of the pupils had spotted it and started yelling, soon the whole class was out of their chairs, on their chairs, running around screaming. It took me the next 10 minutes to catch the hamster, put it back in its cage and regain control of the class. I continued tentatively but managed to complete the lesson with no further escapees or mini riots. Phew.

The skeletons of two high rise apartment buildings, a common site in Chengdu, tower over the school.
The skeletons of two high rise apartment buildings, a common site in Chengdu, tower over the school.

My next lesson was worse. Unlike the last class these students didn’t need an escaped hamster to act as an excuse to cause mayhem. From the word go students were talking, reading books, fighting (a common and it would seem accepted part my school) and generally doing anything other than listening to me. By the end of the lesson I was exhausted, frustrated, annoyed and felt a little despair at the thought of teaching 19 lessons a week. Thankfully things improved throughout the week and now most of my lessons are enjoyable and hopefully beneficial to the majority of my pupils. When I do have the occasional day from hell I always remember the saying “what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger” – something I think most teachers would appreciate.

Returning to school: on my first Friday from school my fellow English teachers treated me to a delicious lunch out.
Returning to school: on my first Friday from school my fellow English teachers treated me to a delicious lunch out.

Towards the end of my first week I was told that on the following Monday I would be introduced to the whole school and would perform a song/dance of my choice. I chose “Flower of Scotland”. Be sure to check out my next post to see how it went.

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