5 Ways Teaching ESL in China Changed my Life

5 Ways Teaching ESL in China Changed my Life
Oct 09, 2018 By Daniel McCool , eChinacities.com

Teaching ESL in China offers a great opportunity to those interested in travel and education. You have a responsibility to help change the lives of your learners, but you are perhaps the greatest beneficiary of the experience. Here’s how teaching ESL in China changed my life.

I’ve been living and teaching in China for a decade now, almost as long as I lived in the United States and the United Kingdom. This experience makes up roughly a third of my life and has played a large role in my growth and development. It’s easy to say teaching ESL in China has changed my life, but how exactly?

It’s made me more patient and flexible

Planning in Chinese schools at times seems almost non-existent. Decisions are often made spontaneously, and so you must be flexible and adapt to change.

When decisions are made at a language school, the teachers are often left out of the loop. Progress is made piecemeal, so when solving problems or seeking out answers, questions and issues need to be addressed one-by-one and often repeatedly.

Thanks to this often frustrating working environment, I’ve become a more patient and resourceful person. For example, classes are changed without anyone telling the teacher. Holidays and workday changes are sometimes unknown until the very last minute. Team-building plans are communicated the day before. The list goes on, but so does my newfound patience!

It’s taught me how to navigate cultural differences

I’ve learnt how to be sensitive to other’s cultural backgrounds while teaching ESL in China. Here, freely speaking your mind about your parents, managers, government or anyone in a position of authority is not encouraged like it is in the West. As a teacher, you quickly learn to keep your mouth shut about sensitive topics.

For example, I once mentioned a news story about Tibet in class and my students were far from impressed. I was asked into the dean’s office with some other leaders who all wanted to know what I’d said. Needless to say, as foreign guests in China, we should be wary about broaching controversial topics, especially in front of students.

My interpersonal skills have come on in bounds

My interpersonal skills have developed in so many ways while teaching ESL in China. I’ve learnt through interacting with a huge number of child and adult learners, being observed in class and receiving criticism, giving feedback to learners in a firm but sensitive way, meeting parents of students, dealing with complaints and being accountable for a large group of people.

Working with Chinese people on a daily basis has also helped improve my confidence. When I first came to China I was shy and insecure. Chinese people are sensitive to image and status, and so are more inclined to flatter each other. They like to maintain safe and unthreatening atmospheres, and do not like to call each other out directly. Working in this very safe feeling environment, rather than the “banter” we’re used to back home, helped me come out of my shell.

I have a better sense of humor 

Most teachers love joking and having a good time with their students, and we all recognize the great effects of humor and positivity in learning. I find myself to be a particularly jocular person when teaching English in China.

For example, I’ll ask a student a question like, “Do you like pizza?”, to which they may answer, “No”. So I will ask, “No?”, to which they confirm with, “Yes”, to which I again ask, “Yes?”, to which they again answer, “No”. Despite its cringing silliness, I always get a laugh.

I’ve realised not all education is made equal 

I’ve learnt a lot about education that I may have taken for granted had I not moved to China to teach ESL. I now know how important critical thinking and creativity are. Allowing time and space for creativity aids in the development of problem-solving skills, which many Chinese people seem to lack and which the education system here is criticized for not developing.

Teaching for understanding rather than knowledge has also emerged as a cornerstone of solid education for me. As far as I’m concerned, mere memorisation does not develop thinking skills. It might aid in certain areas like maths, which the Chinese of course excel at, but it does not lead to success in areas where there’s no formula to follow. Knowledge alone is not power.

So, there you have it. Five ways teaching ESL in China changed my life. Would I have experienced the same growth and change had I lived and taught somewhere else? Maybe, but certainly in different ways. China is and always will be a special place to me.

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Keywords: teaching ESL in China


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I would love to see the dynamic of "critical thinking and problem solving" brought into the classroom. Memorization will only take you so far in the real world. The Chinese people are great problem solvers if they put their mind to it but a lot of them are afraid of making a mistake. Mistakes are the result of trying.

Oct 11, 2018 11:14 Report Abuse



Very interesting observations! Thank You for that article!

Oct 10, 2018 19:07 Report Abuse