Teaching in China as a Primary School Teacher: What It’s Really Like

The following was written by Kristine, a primary school teacher in China.  Check out the interview we did with her here.

Miss Ice Cream! Miss Ice Cream!

I walk into a classroom with 50 tiny students sitting at their tiny little second desks chanting my name. Or, rather, what they think sounds like my name. If I’m not Miss Ice Cream, I’m Miss Crazy or, simply, Wai Jao (which means foreigner in Chinese).

My name’s not really Miss Ice Cream, of course, it’s Kristine (I know, I know. Can’t this girl at least teach her students how to rhyme?) Anyways, I’ve been an ESL teacher in 3 different public primary schools in China for 3 years.

Why did I start teaching English in China? Similar to probably 90% of the 20-somethings who move abroad to teach English, I had a yearning for travel and doing some work that didn’t involve sitting in a cubicle for 40 hours a week. When I first had the idea to teach English abroad, I was working a job in a cubicle for 40 hours a week and was craving something more. In 2012, I was finishing up my first year at my first “adult” job after graduating university and one day found myself googling “teaching in Thailand” while I was at work. And that’s when the seed was planted.

Not long after my initial research of teaching in Thailand, I had a friend refer me to a guy he knew that had recently come home after teaching in China. I called him one day and we talked on the phone for over an hour. When I hung up the phone, I was convinced.

I’m going to teach in China.

Here was a brief summary of what I had learned over this phone call that made up my mind in under 60 minutes to teach in China (over other countries):

  1. Teaching in China is very lucrative: You will make more in China than most other countries you want to teach in. Thailand is cool, but you won’t have the same amount of disposable income to travel outside of the country. And side tutoring gigs can pay more than $40USD an hour.
  2. Teaching in China offers about 1.5 months of paid vacation: A glorious time in China is the Chinese New Year, where teachers can get paid vacation anywhere between 4-6 weeks (as well as a week off in October.)
  3. Teaching in China offers lots of down time: The program I was about to enter required maximum 12 hours of actual teaching per week. Office hours varied from school to school.

What’s The Work Like?

Teaching primary school students is not a walk in the park. There are 50 kids in a classroom and half of them are flying out of their seats they are so excited to see you and the other half are picking their noses, completely oblivious to your existence. The problem with teaching ESL is that the students have less motivation to listen in your class, because there is no grade given in this class nor is there homework. The classes can be complete chaos, even when the required teaching assistant is in there helping. The teaching assistant sometimes is awesome and keeps the kids in line. The other times they are usually on their phones or grading homework. I’ve had super helpful teaching assistants who will sometimes translate what I say for further comprehension as well as keep constant control of the classroom. I’ve also had poor assistants who will not even sit in the classroom because it’s too noisy.

I’ve taught grade 2 all the way up to grade 6. The lessons are 40 minutes long (sometimes it feels like 40 minutes, sometimes it feels like hours.) I’d never taught before moving to China, and was extremely nervous for my first class.  The good news is, the students tend to be quite receptive to your lessons and many are genuinely excited to play English games or try speaking. I’ve created all of my lessons from scratch and learned quickly through trial and error what kinds of lessons students like and what kinds they don’t. The good news to not having a grade or homework in this class, however, is that you have the freedom to create lessons that the students truly enjoy. Want to play a throwing game? Dance to a song? Listen to rap? Any of these ideas will generally fly in the classroom and allow you to enjoy your time more.

Each school I have lived at set me up with what they call a “contact teacher.” This teacher is the designated go-between for all things related to paperwork, getting your bank accounts set up, and informing you of any events at the school. I have always had very helpful contact teachers who will go with me when I have a problem. I’ve gotten sick a couple of times and my contact teacher found another teacher to take over her class so that she could take me to the doctor. And in case you don’t speak fluent Chinese, having someone who can help translate for you at the hospital is A-W-E-S-O-M-E.

What’s The Living Like For A Foreign Teacher In China?

Teaching ESL in China can offer an amazing lifestyle. As mentioned, there are boatloads of paid holidays, the work-life-balance is fantastic, and there is an entire continent filled with new places that you can visit during your time off. During my time living in China, I have visited 10 other countries in Asia, several more than once!

That being said, every time I’d get back to China, I question why I am living here and not Taiwan or Vietnam (two of my favorite places). Everyone is so friendly and polite. I don’t have to question the food I’m eating. People don’t cut in lines! Well, the answer almost always boils down to the benefits of being a native English speaker in China – good paying work (and side gigs) are everywhere if you are willing to teach.  

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