To be honest my opinion on teaching in China changed since I left.
Of course it did.
You remember the great parts and they still warm your heart. But the bad parts are laughable. Mildly frustrating, sure, but nothing compared to the stress of actually living them. Which of course makes this a weird time to write a ‘5 worst things’ list and a good time for the ‘5 best things about teaching in China’. Yet, here I am. I hope my insight into teaching in China will help you to make up your mind about going or even just enlighten you as to what goes on over there.
When you finish this article be sure to tell us your least favourite things about teaching in China in the comments. If you’ve never been then let us know whether it matches your expectations or there are any points you find hard to believe. I would not be surprised.
As a disclaimer, all of the students in the pictures are great kids. I use the pictures here for display purposes only.
5. Lack of Communication
Now how on Earth are you supposed to teach a language to children who don’t know anything beyond ‘hello’ and ‘my name is Iron Man’. That’s not a joke, there’s a Chinese kid called Iron Man.
How do you explain ‘and’, ‘the’, ‘is’… It seems simple when you think about it but these words that you can’t explain with a picture or actions, is it even possible to teach them without using their native language?
Well, yes, as it turns out you can explain these words to children that are 4 years old and they will be able to build their own sentences using them. But not without months and months of hard work. You teach cat, easy and you teach dog, easy. Then you say ‘cat AND dog’ as many times as you can and eventually they will start to get it. Soon it becomes another part of the job but I would be lying if I said it wasn’t hard.
Great! So now your children can say “it is a dog” “the fish and the frog” awesome!
There are hundreds if not thousands of more complex words that can only be taught using this vocabulary that you will build with them. You might expect you can just use their foundation to expand upon and teach the new words like in your native language.
Except you get a 7 year old kid who starts on stage 4 of the course and wasn’t taught any of these words by their previous teacher and you have to explain “something went bump! Just switch on the light.” to someone who still struggles with their sounds.
In either case the way to resolve this is just to go above and beyond whilst teaching. Especially when it comes to children you get who are older or have already been taught something. No Chinese parent I met would let their 10 year old (who has a terrible low English level) start on a different level to other 10 year old children (who have learned for years).
It’s no wonder some of the the kids struggle well into their teens. They would rather just speak Chinese.
That brings me to my next point.
4. Shénme yìsi
Roughly translates to ‘what does it mean’ and quickly became my trigger word.
A problem with the youngest, newest kids and some of the older, tired of life ones. They just don’t want to speak English so they speak Chinese.
Some of the worst children I taught were older kids who didn’t want to make the effort to understand a word so they would say this phrase immediately after hearing anything they didn’t already know.
I get it, I do.
Learning languages is hard. But when a 5 year old is doing their absolute best to say every English word they know to answer “what do you like?” but an 8 year old can’t take a moment to figure out “what did you do today?”. There’s a problem there.
You can forgive the brand new 4 year olds for not understanding but it doesn’t make it any less frustrating.
Honestly the solution to this is the same as with any lazy or naughty child, you make them do the work or they fail.
Upon leaving my school I had been teaching many of the children for around one year give or take. By that point all but 3 of my children had stopped doing this and started thinking.
But boy did it take a long time.
3. Uninformed Parents
Now, culture as a whole is something that is incredibly ingrained into everything that we do.
You are raised one way, your school life informs it and your work life probably encourages it.
Which is why I don’t blame any of the parents I dealt with in China, I really don’t. They just didn’t understand the way language is learned and how it works. Despite some of them learning English themselves.
That didn’t make it any easier to have to explain to a mother that I couldn’t teach her child my English accent in 2 hours a week over a few months.
I consistently got the sense that they felt language was as easy as talking to someone from that country. As evidenced by the fact the same parent asked me add 10 to 20 minutes of conversation to my classes whist I was still teaching the children “what did you eat today?”.
This misunderstanding extends to “The Britains” as a whole. A lack of knowledge about the country they love is apparent throughout Shenyang. They don’t know what Scotland, Wales and Ireland are, or the fact England has a very distinct North and South split in terms of accents and vocabulary. (Up until meeting Nataliia I used to say “breakfast, dinner, tea”).
Again, I get it. They are drip fed other cultures through movies, fashion and their attempt to replicate Western food. How could they really learn about our culture with blocked internet and Baidu (their Google) being heavily censored?
So, understanding this before you start teaching may save you months of realisation. You will be expected to teach things you aren’t prepared for or that are just simply impossible. You may be confused when you are asked about American culture despite being English and never having been there. But knowing what they don’t know may just help you whilst teaching in China.
2. Chinese Schools
This one really depends on where you are and what kind of school.
Me, working in a training school suffered greatly at the hands of the Chinese school system.
As I have mentioned before, the way they learn is by memorisation. They know “My name is Apple” before they know what any of those words are.
They also have distinctly thick accents.
The worst culprit is “i”. Say the word “big”.
“i” and “ee” are pretty different in the way you pronounce them.
Well, not so much in Chinese schools.
“i” as a sound seems to disappear and is replaced by “ee”.
“Thees ees a beeg feesh”.
And now you’re thinking, of course! It’s your job to fix that as a teacher.
Yes, yes it is. Except when you’re teaching a phonics course to a 4 year old and they come back week after week having been taught “ee” by their parents and teachers.
And no-one trusts you because, well, you’re not Chinese…
You could always try meditation.
Honestly, when I first planned this my number 1 worst thing about teaching in China was something to do with co-workers and the way I felt about them.
Turns out, time gives you perspective. Who knew?
So, leaving. I spent a lot of my time there dreaming about leaving. Worst things 5-2 would be distant memories and a challenge for the next teacher.
But, I miss teaching. The last week I taught, the last classes I taught before children moved elsewhere or finished their contracts with the school, these things felt more like finishing high school than leaving a job.
You get to know these kids so well, you spend countless hours trying to help them learn English. Then all of a sudden, it’s someone else’s problem.
Which really, is probably the toughest part. Will that teacher continue your work? Will they start from the beginning and cause your students progress to disappear?
Even now after so long, I have not once contacted the school to find out because I don’t want to know the answer to that. Not because I don’t care, but because I do.
I loved being a teacher, I hope to do it again here in England. Doing that job, fighting these impossible challenges, I learned a lot about myself and what kind of person I want to be in the future.
When the worst thing about teaching in China is the fact that you eventually will leave one day to return home. It isn’t all that bad really, is it?
Have you ever considered teaching in China? Does this post, or the previous 5 best things influence your decision at all? Let’s start a discussion in the comments below with your thoughts and experiences. Also, anyone that is seriously considering it, I have the perfect place for you to apply and try your luck. I would link it here but I’m not sure they want to be associated with a “5 worst things” list. We’ll see.
In the end, the 5 worst things didn’t outweigh the 5 best things for me. I don’t think they would for you either.
Living in China is so much more than just teaching anyway, there is a whole culture and new life there waiting for anyone who is willing to take that leap.
You’ll make friends from all over the world, meet people who can change your life, the way you think. Just like I did.
– Adam Pemberton