After teaching in Beijing for several years, I want to compile what I've learned into an easy how to for anyone else about to teach here.  Specifically, this is for anyone teaching at a high school or college level.  Teaching elementary school students is quite different.

Through years of lecture, test taking, book reading style teaching, your students will have little actual communication skills.  Do not be surprised if your students cannot understand you when you speak or are unable to answer simple questions, even if they've studied English for over five years.  You need to coax something out of them over time.  Patience is key.

Culturally, you will be dealing with terminally shy students.  Most students at this age are unbelievably nervous speaking English in front of you and their peers.  Some students will completely ignore you when you ask them questions in class, which is mostly a way to deal with their nervousness.  As cliche as it sounds, face is important in China.

Because of the level of competition, the Chinese education system encourages constant correction.  If a student speaks aloud in class, other students will interrupt them quickly to try to correct their pronunciation or grammar.  Discourage this by telling students that you are the English teacher and you can handle all corrections.

Even if told otherwise, teach grammar.  Schools want you to focus on oral English, exclusively, but your students will undoubtedly have huge grammar issues.  Teach them English so they will be understood by native speakers, no matter what you've been told.

Depending on where you teach, your student demographic could easily be almost exclusively wealthy students.  This is especially true of college study abroad programs or "special study" departments in major universities.  In China, it's common for wealthy families to pay extra to allow their children to study in an English only special schools, especially if their sons and daughters cannot pass entrance exams.  

Many of your students are the only child in the family, and so can be surprisingly sheltered and spoiled.  Do not be surprised if students sleep in class, read or do something off topic.  You must earn their respect and have a strict hand when needed.  Also, remember that most Chinese students do not choose their majors and are studying exactly what their parents what them to, and are therefore unmotivated.

From the beginning, students expect entertainment.  The quality of English teaching in China varies greatly, and many students want the clownish, loud foreign teacher they've heard about or assume we all are.  Students will treat you very differently than Chinese teachers.  You have to work hard to earn respect.

Stereotyping is common in China, so expect this to be applied to you or your culture.  Even very educated Chinese can be surprisingly unaware of the outside world.  Don't be surprised if asked odd questions.

Many, and possibly most, Chinese English teachers do not have real spoken English skills.  Do not be surprised when English teachers speak to you in Chinese first.  Sometimes, the school staff in will actively avoid you just to avoid the embarrassment of being unable to communicate with you.  It can be lonely.

Expect special treatment.  Some students will give you pull you aside before or after class for conversations away from peers, invite you out for dinner or ask for your phone number.  Chinese staff will treat you outside of the group, like a special prize or "trophy teacher."  Sometimes this can be difficult to deal with because you are occasionally treated less like an actual teacher and more like a symbol.

Knowing Chinese can be a detriment.  If you show that you can speak and understand Chinese, you'll get stuck responding in English to questions posed in Chinese.  Firmly asking students to use NO CHINESE is necessary.

Have a lot of patience, always.  Best advice of all!



Chad said...

Patience is the best advice period. Thanks for the help Ross.

Anonymous said...

What a fine, concise dissertation on teaching English to Chinese students!

Good job Ross.

I'm going to be presented at a special Founders Day ceremony this Friday. I've been at Nightingale for 10 years now, and the tradition is that I'll be made an honorary Alumni.
You know you like your job when ten years feels like five.