Confessions of an ESL Teacher in China

This article originally appeared on Go Overseas where I write as a Teach Abroad and China expert.

Though I write intensively about teaching abroad, there are a few juicy secrets I’ve been holding back from you all. It’s confession time: I’m far from a perfect ESL teacher, and my experience teaching abroad wasn’t quite as glamorous as I thought it was going to be.

I’ve taught abroad in many different contexts: teaching little kids part-time, helping adults with business English, and working as a glorified English babysitter, to name a few. However, today I’m going to talk about my year-long full-time teaching position as an oral English teacher at a Chinese public high school in rural Ningbo, Zhejiang province.

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For one year I lived in “Factoryville” teaching English to 1,000 Chinese high school students with names like Hamburger, Small Sandy, and Nate Little Smith. Not only was I the only foreign teacher the school had ever worked with, I was the only foreigner for miles! As you can probably guess, I had a very interesting experience.

So without further ado, I give you 10 surprising confessions from a former ESL teacher.

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My coworkers in Ningbo

1. My Co-Workers Were Assigned to Be Friends With Me

Let’s start it off with a bang! I had no idea my school was in the middle of nowhere until the day I arrived. I freaked out and called the company who placed me, demanding they assign me to another school. They had promised us we would all be in the city working at schools together, but they put me in the countryside all by myself.

I told them to place me in a new school or I would leave and find another teaching job myself. Instead, they called my school and told the administration to guilt me into staying. How did the school accomplish this? They assigned teachers to be my friends.

How can I possibly leave? Everyone is so nice and friendly! The students are so excited. Most have never had a foreign teacher before!

Once they had guilted me into signing the contract, the school assigned a different teacher to be my friend every week for the whole first semester. I thought it was incredibly nice that my co-workers were inviting me to dinner at their homes, introducing me to their families. I thought I was getting a really immersive experience!

It took me about four months to figure out what was really going on.

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My students at Wuxiang high school

2. I Didn’t Know Most of My Students’ Names

This one was out of my control — I did have 1,000 students, after all! In the first week I made all of my students create name tags to use for class, but for some reason, they were always “losing” them. How is that even possible? My students have all of their classes in the same room! Eventually I just gave up, and pointed at kids instead.

However, when it came time for my final oral exams, this was a big problem. I had all of my students create skits using the material we learned and perform them for me as their final grade. To match each kid’s name to their score, I forced my students to write their name on the board and stand in front of it. Since all of my students were Chinese and wore uniforms I had to use other descriptors to remember their names during the skit.

I wrote down things like “purple scarf”, “headband” and “tall” to describe kids. You definitely know you’re in China when you can use “doesn’t wear glasses” as a description of a teenager.

ESL Teacher in China

My factoryville neighborhood

3. I Let Kids Break Rules I Thought Were Stupid

My school has a lot of rules I thought were completely unnecessary. My students all live at the school, so their lives were highly policed. They aren’t allowed to have cell phones or laptops on campus, even after class hours! They also aren’t allowed to eat off campus, and they certainly weren’t allowed to date (I still don’t know how this was possibly enforced).

I couldn’t care less if my students snuck cell phones into school as long as they didn’t use them in class. I also caught kids getting food delivered over the school wall multiple times (the deliverymen used a stick to lower food down).

The kids thought it was absolutely hilarious that I didn’t care about stupid rules, and would often tell me about their secret relationships. My students would say things like: “Miss Richelle, I kissed my girlfriend last night on the lips!” to which I would respond in a condescending tone, “good for you“.

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Dance performance from my students on sports day

4. I Took Naps Every Day

You know what’s great about teaching in China? Naps.

My school provided a “teachers dorm” with four beds in each room where teachers could nap or spend the night if they worked late. I literally took a nap every day.

Gosh, I miss naps.

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Chinese cafeteria food

A typical lunch in the cafeteria

5. I Never Went to the Office

Since I taught more classes than my Chinese co-workers, most of them didn’t expect me to be in the office much. Our schedules changed so frequently that they never knew when I was supposed to be teaching. If I had a large break in my classes I would just go back to my on-campus apartment and watch TV, take a shower, or… sleep.

I usually made my lesson plans on Sunday from the comfort of my bed, and since I wasn’t supposed to assign homework, I literally had nothing to do after class. I only needed to create three lesson plans a week, and it honestly didn’t take me very long. If I went to the office, all I did was write blog posts or goof around on Facebook anyway.

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My students in Ningbo

6. It Took Me 3 Months to Notice I Had a Deaf Student

Seriously. That’s what happens when you teach 20 classes of 50 students each. I’m still stunned that A) literally no one thought to tell me I had a deaf student in my class and B) no one seemed to care about it.

The weirdest part? None of her teachers were even sure if she was really deaf or not. Apparently, she just refused to speak in class and learned her lessons through reading. When I asked what her parents said at the recent parent-teacher conference, I was told that the head teacher spoke for so long that the parents didn’t get an opportunity to talk to their teachers. What?

Teach in China

7. I Was Really Lonely

I always knew I was a bit outgoing, but living in Middle-of-Nowhere, China was a big lesson in how extroverted I actually am. All of my co-workers were married with exactly one baby and didn’t have time to hang out with me (unless they were assigned for that week, of course).

I would sit in the teacher’s cafeteria surrounded by English teachers, and what would they speak: English? No way. Mandarin Chinese? Nope. The local Ningbo dialect. Seriously, I’m conversationally fluent in Mandarin Chinese, and yet they chose to speak Ningbo dialect.

I constantly felt lonely and left-out. I even got into a weird habit of having conversations with myself out loud in my apartment. Shhhh don’t tell anyone I’m crazy. 

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My crazy students!

8. I Almost Quit

I seriously considered quitting after my first semester. While I knew I could get a better job in China, my contract stipulated I could owe my school up to $8,000 USD if I left early. There was no way for me to leave and find another job in China without the risk of my school hunting me down.

A lesson to all of you potential ESL teachers: Don’t ever let a school put something like this in your contract. There’s nothing to protect you if your school is awful to you.

If I was going to leave my job, I had to also leave China. I applied to a dream job back in the US that I thought I had a great chance of getting. When I wasn’t hired, I had to make a decision: go back to America without a job lined up or stay in my current job. I decided to stay.

Once I made that decision for myself, everything changed. I was much happier because I no longer felt forced into a horrible situation. I had chosen to stay knowing what I was in for, and for the second half of the year, I worked hard to make the most of my experience and enjoy the time I had left.

Three years later, I’m so glad I didn’t quit. I’m still living and working in China, and I don’t plan on leaving anytime soon!

Wuxiang high school!

Wuxiang high school!

9. I Was Locked Out of My School and Climbed the Gate

I didn’t technically have a curfew, but if I stayed out late I’d often crash on a friend’s couch to avoid 1) an expensive taxi and 2) a judge-y gate guard pretending to be my father. However, one Wednesday I went out to a bar for lady’s night and arrived back at around 11:45pm… And the gate guard was nowhere to be found.

There was nothing to do but climb the gate. I tossed my high heels and purse over the gate and proceeded to climb, well in view of the security cameras. When I finally made it over, I found the security guard asleep on the floor under a pink blanket.

Obviously, my school had great security.

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My students on Sports Day

10. I Slept Through A Class Once and No One Noticed

I missed SO MANY classes while I was teaching abroad, but only one of them was actually my fault. You see, in China the schedule changes constantly, and for some reason no one bothered to ever tell me about it. They would push the start time of the day back 15 minutes, or completely rearrange the class schedule on a whim and just fail to mention it to me.

Since I only taught the kids once every other week, they were trained to have a study hall if I didn’t show up. Because of this, sometimes it would take me half a day to realize I had already missed three classes that week. I’d show up to a class that was half-way done, or have an awkward run-in with the teacher who was supposed to be teaching my class that period.

Because of all this confusion, I once slept through a class one day and no one even noticed.

Chinese people posing

Making friends with mainland tourists in Tibet

Bonus: I Was Basically a Celebrity

I’m not even kidding. Everyone in my town knew who I was.

Since I also guest-taught at the local primary school once a week, chances are I taught every child in my town at one point or another. I would walk in a restaurant and hear people say, “Oh look! It’s that foreign teacher! You’re right, she does have curly hair. I wonder how old she is? I heard she isn’t married.

One time I took a taxi in April and my driver exclaimed, “I drove you home from the grocery store in October once. Do you remember me?!

No, sir, I do not remember you, but I sure as hell will never forget you now.

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Halloween with my students!

Teaching Abroad is an Experience

While my experience teaching abroad may not be as glamorous as you were expecting, I wouldn’t change anything for the world. Sure it was hard, but I learned so many things not only about China but also about myself. It was the loneliness of teaching in China that inspired me to take my travel blog seriously. Since I didn’t have people to talk to, I was able to express my feelings and tell my crazy stories through writing instead.

The important thing for me was to view my year as an opportunity. When else would I have the chance to interact with students who had never talked with a foreigner before? When would I ever live in the Chinese countryside by myself?

It might sound a bit cliché, but teaching abroad in China made me a better person. This experience taught me how strong I am and improved my self-reliance. It also shattered stereotypes I had about Chinese students and China in general, and gave me the confidence to travel solo! There’s no way I would still be in China right now if it weren’t for my year teaching abroad.

Overall, my teach abroad experience was definitely an experience, which is all I could’ve asked for.

Confessions of an ESL teacher

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Have you taught English abroad? What are your “confessions”? 

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About Richelle

Expat, traveler, and spicy food lover, I've spent the last few years living in China and traveling around Asia. In my spare time I enjoy salsa dancing, exploring night markets and stuffing my face with street food.

9 comments on “Confessions of an ESL Teacher in China

  1. I want to come visit you in China, we should do a teacher exchange and you can come back with me to Korea. I’d love to see the differences between our two jobs! I definitely have no nap time, and I work 10-11 hour days…

    I fully understand the loneliness though, my coworkers always speak Korean. As I’ve become more fluent though, I realise they talk about us all the time and that I’m not sure I want to talk to them anyway… >.< if someone is capable of holding a conversation in a language that you know, but choose not to…I've learned that it usually doesn't bode well.

    • Please let me know if you come visit! I have a few friends teaching in Korea and I know it’s completely different. The amount of classes most of you at Hagwons teach are crazy! Currently I work 9 hours a day 5-6 hours a week, but I’m not teaching the entire time. That’s really unfortunate about your school teachers and super rude. I would hope that these teachers at my school weren’t talking about me right in front of my face but you never know. They would even do it to the English teachers from Hunan who couldn’t speak Ningbohua, even though they were all fluent in Mandarin!

  2. 1000 students?! That’s hardcore. I really struggle to learn my students’ names and I usually have between 50 – 150 (depending on class sizes). I’ve been very lucky with my coworkers everywhere I’ve taught, they always switch to English around us foreign teachers.

    • Yeah 1,000 was a bit much.. I’m way happier with less than 100, and I have more of an opportunity to get to know them. My current coworkers are pretty good about including me now, but it was definitely a bummer too see how these other coworkers didn’t seem very interested in interacting with me.

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  6. Hey Richelle! I’m a huge fan of your blog. I wasn’t sure where to ask such a banal question, but: I’m about to begin a year-long teaching position in China at the end of the month and am not sure what to do about my phone service. I asked a teacher at my school, who said he got a cheap Chinese phone and also unlocked his iPhone for an international sim (?) but I wanted to see what you recommend! (It’s not like Im gonna be making a lot of international calls/texts on my iphone or anything but would like to have some amount of cell service. Or maybe that’s not necessary?) Many thanks…

    • Hey Heather, no problem! I gave up my US phone plan and I use an unlocked iphone in China. I actually bought my iphone here because my last one broke (the battery was about to explode because it was old), but iphones are definitely cheaper in the US. If you can get your phone unlocked, that’s the best way to go. Otherwise you can buy a cheap smartphone in China. Iphones are expensive, but there are affordable Chinese androids here. You definitely don’t need a Chinese phone plan. Everyone uses China Mobile and China Unicom. For me, China Mobile doesn’t work well with phones made in the USA, but China Unicom does. I pay about $20/month for a plan with a lot of data. I hope this helps!

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