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How Hard is it to Teach English in China?

I have taught English in China for nearly three years now and a question that often comes up from people who are curious to do the same is this: how hard is it to teach English in China?

Now, when they pop this question, they don’t mean how hard is it to get a job in China, because it is relatively easy compared to other countries around the world, and you could save a decent sum of cash as well. All you really need to work legally is a bachelor’s degree, two years of work experience (though there are ways of getting around this), a TEFL certificate, all the requisite background checks and of course, a healthy dose of enthusiasm. Then you apply online to one of many recruiting companies that are hiring for the upcoming school semester. Or you could simply fly to China, take a job at a private institution and work illegally, because China has yet to work out all the kinks.

I am in no way condoning the latter. However, considering how easy it is to secure a job in China, one must consider the difficulty of the work you’ll be doing. You’ll constantly be questioning yourself from day one, both nervously thinking it’ll be a nightmare or optimistically imagining it to be a piece of cake.

Here are some things that might make teaching English in China a bit overwhelming for you:

Class Sizes

In Western countries, 30 kids in a classroom would be considered big. In China, 30 kids in one classroom is wishful thinking. Prepare for upwards of 50 students per class, or if you’re lucky, maybe 45ish.

I remember the first time I walked into a classroom with 50-plus students all screaming at the top of their lungs, excited to begin class, and thinking: “how will I ever get through an entire year of this??” In that moment, I thought I was staring at my inevitable failure, that surely, I didn’t have the ability to command that many students all at once without morphing into Kim Jong-un.

Admittedly, this is probably the biggest adjustment you’ll have to deal with in China, but as long as you have the right mindset, it doesn’t have to be so bad. One of the upsides to having bigger classes is that you will always be able to find at least a few kids who will be able to answer your questions and keep the class moving, and it makes playing English language games a lot more exciting! There are many effective ways to control large classes, and you can read about them here.

Few resources

Most classrooms in Chinese cities will come equipped with a computer, a projector, a sound system, and blackboards or whiteboards with chalk. Some, especially in rural areas, will often only have a blackboard and chalk. With some creativity and inspiration, it is possible to do a lot with these resources. However, I often found myself struggling to take lessons deeper, to go beyond just a PowerPoint and a blackboard, with some props thrown in for good measure.

I eventually came to realize that, in a public school at least, I was not going to play a very significant role in improving my students’ English. Seeing classes of 50 students once a week was simply not enough to teach them complex language skills. Instead, I began to see my role as more of someone who would engage the classes to use English in some sort of useful context, and that job did not require as many resources as I first thought.

Many fun lessons can be done with very little (not all fun lessons, though!) Check out this page for some simple resources to provide a kick to your weekly classes.

Nobody understands you sometimes

Teaching students in a language that isn’t their first can pose a plethora of problems, chiefly being that sometimes, nobody understands what you’re saying. This can lead to a few things: complete silence, distracted uproar, or a stilted pace to your lesson as your tongue stumbles to find the right vocabulary or phrasing to use.

The best way to combat this is to always keep it simple, so you can be understood by most students. In this way, everyone (hopefully) pays attention and there is no confusion over the meaning of what you just said. Another way to combat misunderstanding is by not saying anything at all. Instead, mime what you want to be done and say as little as possible. Not all students will be comfortable speaking out loud, and in this way you encourage even the shyest students to be somewhat involved in the class.

In the end, I found that even though I kept things simple and risked alienating the more advanced students, those same students would nevertheless come and chat with me after my lessons. Then I would be able to switch up my English to make it more complicated and natural, because I knew they could understand me for the most part.

Unpredictable schedule

One of the great things when you teach English in China is the amount of free time you get. Most schools don’t require you to be at work all day, so you can make plans even during the weekday to develop a hobby, or go for a short leisurely hike up a scenic hill.

However, one must always be wary of making weekday plans as your schedule could change at the drop of a hat, and you’ll be expected to show up to class to teach a full lesson. That awesome plan to go rock-climbing in the afternoon? How about teaching a Grade 3 class at 3pm, because someone decided to change your schedule and tell you last minute?

I remember in my first year, my class schedule would change at least once a month. It was annoying in the beginning but I ended up (nearly!) getting used to it, as I had prepared some backup lessons in case I had to teach the same class twice in one week. My second and third years have been more consistent however, and it really depends on the whims of each school. You may get lucky, or you may get thrown around in the wind!

Additionally, school events like Sports Day or random staff meetings can lead to schedule changes as well, but usually it’s a cancellation of classes (yay!). Depending on where you live in China, your school district may also call typhoon days, where classes are cancelled because a typhoon is looming in the distance (or is already here).

An unpredictable schedule is essentially a tradeoff for having a relatively leisurely job, and in my opinion is completely worth it. Because I want to try that new dumpling house down the street at like, 3:52pm, okay?

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