Perspectives: Teaching English in a Chinese High School, Part 2

In part 1, we covered what can go wrong with placements and why she'd still recommend teaching in China. In part 2 we talk about what it's actually like teaching and what Chinese high school is like.


You're the only foreign English teacher at your school, how many students do you have to teach?


I teach way too many students. I teach all of senior one (S1) and all of senior two (S2). High school is only three years in China so that's two thirds of school. Between 900 – 1000 students.


There are 50 students to a class and I teach them alternating weeks. So I teach S1,  one week, then the next week I teach S2, then the week after that back to S1 and so on.


"In total I'm teaching about 1500 - 1600 kids."


It’s not enough time with my students, I don’t know any of their names. They all have English names that I helped them choose and I have very detailed Excel spreadsheets with all of their English, and Chinese names and characters because I was little overambitious when I first arrived. (She wrote a post about the names they chose, they're all insane.)


I teach them and I then I teach 3 electives a week, a speech class and a western culture class for S1 and S2.

Then I teach at the primary school as well. This is even more ridiculous. The principal at my school is friends with principal at the local primary, they want to sound more prestigious so I come in once a week to teach everyone at the entire school... So one week I'll teach 301 and 302, then the next week I'll teach 303 and 304 and so on. Each semester I teach each class twice. It’s another 600 kids. 


Finally I teach a tutoring class on Friday nights with the children of the teachers at my school. In total I'm teaching about 1500 - 1600 kids.


What are differences between high schools in America and China?


The biggest difference are the values students are trying to get out of studying. It’s all geared towards the gaokao (college admissions test).


It’s the only thing that gets you into college and you get to take it once. It really only selects people who can take tests well. And not even thoughtful tests. There’s no critical thinking, there’s no writing. They don’t learn how to write essays until they go to college. I had to write a “research” paper in 8th grade (13 – 14). It wasn’t a real one, but they had us writing ten pages back then and 5 page essays in our first year of high school. 


The belief here is you learn from the masters before you have your own opinion and so you don’t have an opinion.


It means Chinese students are very different from American students, not personality wise, but just because they’ve been trained to behave a certain way in school. They’re not used to talking and volunteering, their teachers will yell at them for saying anything wrong. It meant a lot of my students were very nervous at speaking out. 


I don’t correct them if they say something wrong right away, I congratulate for actually speaking, then if a bunch of them make the mistake I’ll point it out.


What’s an average day like?


On my typical Wednesday (on Wednesday I do primary school and high school) , I wake up around 8:30 and I have to be at the front gate by 9:30 so the school driver can drive me less than 10 minutes to the primary school. He drives me there, we don’t really talk, I thank him and he says “don’t say thank you”.


At the primary school I teach two classes of little kids, who afterwards get really exicited and want me to sign their notebooks because they don't see me so often.


Then I'll get lunch at the primary school, I get a tray of food normally fish (check out the crab below) and something else, then one of the teachers will drive me back to high school.  I’ll normally have two or three afternoon classes with my high schoolers back to back. I finish somewhere between 2:30 – 4:30.


I’ll either eat again in the cafeteria or make dinner depending how sick I am of cafeteria food. (I’ve gotten really good at cooking with Chinese ingredients, It was so cold in the winter I didn’t want to have to go out. In America I didn’t cook because I was lazy, in China I cook because I’m lazy.)


Then I just head back to my room, write a blog post, plan new lessons (although I've almost planned the entire year by this point), edit photos, watch TV etc. That’s the problem with being so far out, it's difficult to do things in the evening.

On the weekend I’ll take the bus down and meet up with people, get dinner, go shopping and then whenever I have any time off we’ll go travelling.


You could speak Mandarin before teaching here, what was your level and how has living here helped it?


I’d say I’m conversationally fluent. I can get around, I can have pretty decent conversations. Sometimes people will say something and I’ll have to ask what it is, but when they tell me I usually get it.


The problem with where I live now is the Ningbohoa dialect of Mandarin. We call Ningbohua a dialect because it uses the same writing system but when speaking it, it's more different than Spanish to Italian. When the locals do speak Putonghua (Standard Chinese) their accent makes it very hard to understand.  If I go into Ningbo city centre or when I go to the Nottingham campus I can understand everything, but in my local area it’s a lot harder.


"We call Ningbohua a dialect because it uses the same writing system but when speaking it, it's more different than Spanish to Italian.


I would compare it to going to the deep south in America and you can’t understand anything people are saying. Or when I sat next to a cockney British girl on an aeroplane, same thing.


Unfortunately my Chinese hasn’t got much better this year because I’ve been speaking a lot of English. I don’t want to speak Chinese to my students too much and the same with the Chinese English teachers. Their English was a little rough when I first arrived and I can tell that after these last 8 months their English has really improved and is starting to sound a lot more natural.


Plus when they do speak Putonghua I can’t understand what they say anyway. I try to make up for it when I travel and use it as much as possible and I think living on campus next year will make it a lot better.


What are you doing next? Do you think teaching English for a year helped?


I’m doing a Masters in International Communications on Nottingham campus in China, it's actually also in Ningbo but this time in the centre rather than several hours out.


The reason why I picked AYC to teach with way back when, was because my young innocent self thought maybe I can get a job with them when I get back to America (of course the problem is now I don't want to).  I was really interested in working in international education.


Now I'm a little less sure and I don’t want to put myself into the international education box and then not be able to do something else, that’s why I’m doing a Masters in International Communications. I'll have International Affairs as my undergrad, International Communications as my grad and International education as work experience. I’m not travelling around, partying and drinking, I’m working at a school. I've gotten good at public speaking and I've learned a lot about Chinese culture and business from working at school and seeing it managed.


I know that I like working in the international sphere. I like the mentoring aspect, I love talking to people and writing and talking about my experiences so we’ll see what job I end up with.


Richelle has her own blog Adventures Around Asia, it's well written and full of insights about teaching and travelling in China. If you're not sure where to start, this post about trying to make her final exam an oral one is a really interesting look into a Chinese high school. (Or this post is full of gorgeous pictures.)