In this post, Dan McElroy shares his story about teaching English in rural China.
Dan worked in Jiaxian, Henan province, for one school year. This is a frank and honest account of his time there.
How did you find the whole ‘China experience’?
Overall, China was an extremely rewarding experience.
My girlfriend, Jess, and I were in rural China for two years and it proved to be more challenging than we thought it would be.
I had traveled around the world before and thought I would adapt to a new culture easily. Living in China, however, required a constant amount of effort for me to continually try to accept differences and assimilate.
Jess and I were two hours away from a major train station. This was tough.
Trains in China are nothing short of exceptional, but we were just too far detached from other cities. This factored into our overall experience.
Although there were obvious struggles of adapting to a different culture than what we were used to, being away from the major cities allowed us to see the ‘real’ China.
We experienced delicious local food and met some really nice people. We also learned a lot about Chinese culture and history along the way!
What was teaching English in rural China like?
We taught at a private school located in one of the nicest parts of the city. As a result, we ended up with great classrooms, good curriculums and lots of multimedia tools.
The biggest difference between working in rural China compared to working in big cities, was our experience outside the classroom. We ate ‘rustic’ food, visited farms on the weekend, and even saw kids defecating on the street.
Overall, though, I think the fundamental differences in culture are seen by teachers everywhere in China.
The biggest downside to being in a rural area was the lack of a major train station. It made traveling more difficult, which was the biggest reason we moved to China.
In the end though, everything worked out and we found plenty of opportunities to travel. We traveled all over southeast Asia and saw a ton of China during Spring Festival.
Did you find teaching kids enjoyable?
Kids are the same everywhere. Jess and I loved teaching them – it was our favorite part about living in China.
Teaching in rural China (at least from the classroom perspective) was probably not much different than teaching in a bigger city.
Dan loved teaching kids in rural China.
We still taught full-time schedules and had big classes. We each had 12 classes twice per week, with up to 50 students in each class.
The students really were the greatest part of the job and it was impossible not to fall in love with them!
How did you keep your students engaged?
Games! Lots and lots of games. The younger they are, the more important this becomes.
Even with 50 students you can find games that involve everyone. Simply get students in front of the class and get them talking to each other.
For example, every student should be able to answer the question “How are you?” fairly early on in their English education.
However, rather than you asking that question to each student, ask one student and have them ask another student. That student then asks another student, and so on.
It’s a fast and easy way to get many kids talking and thinking in English. I think it’s a great exercise to start a lesson.
What was your process for creating or sourcing lesson plans?
The school gave us a one-page write-up that included some sentence structures, phonics, a story, a song and vocabulary.
We were responsible to teach everything on the page over a two-week period (i.e. four lessons).
I would rely heavily on my slideshows. I used PowerPoint slides on a TV that was in front of the class.
I liked to gradually introduce the new material throughout the first three lessons and then have a fun review day for the fourth lesson.
For example, if there were 15 new vocab words, I would try to introduce 5 of them in each class and play games to reinforce them.
I also liked to put all the new vocab and sentence structures on the board in the beginning and leave them up for two weeks.
Could you live comfortably on your salary?
Absolutely! It’s crazy how little we spent on day-to-day life.
Jess and I never even considered money when it came to buying food or traveling because we weren’t even close to running out.
Our school provided housing, utilities, and meals if we wanted, so we had very few expenses. We each saved US$10,000 in just 10 months.
Living in rural China was extremely cheap. It made saving money easy!
What tips do you have for a new teacher?
Decide if you are a city person or a country person and pick where you will work based on that.
Once you decide on a potential job offer, research that city and the school before signing the contract. Don’t expect anything and go in with an open mind.
Chinese culture is different to Western culture and if you’re expecting the comforts of home to be waiting for you in China with just a little Asian twist, you’ll be disappointed. Things will be different and there may be moments that feel uncomfortable, but that’s all part of the adventure.
Dan taught primary school students in rural China.
Travel! If you’re going to another country why not explore as much of it as possible? Get out there and learn how the buses and trains work.
Learn a bit of the language.
Finally, take advantage of the month off during Spring Festival and travel across China or southeast Asia.
Looking back, would you have done anything differently?
I would have taught in a big city. I’m a city guy and I know that now.
Having said that, rural China gave us a very unique and exciting way to see China and I certainly don’t regret it.
Students quickly started knowing where to look on the board and the words stuck in their heads. I would erase them on the fourth (last) lesson and see what they had retained.
Have fun with it and play games! Teaching is way more fun if the students are having fun.
You never stop tweaking and changing your lessons to see what works.
Now that you’re in Canada, is there anything you miss about China?
Yes! It’s crazy how you start missing things once you leave.
I miss how friendly and open people were in China. Anyone can go up to anyone in China and just start talking or ask a question.
People in Canada and the US are a little more closed off and individualistic and less likely to go out of their way to help.
I also miss the food. It was so good and so cheap!
Dan misses eating Chinese food.
I loved how eating was a communal event. Together, everyone orders food and then everyone can pick at each dish.
I also like the round-table style of eating with a spinning center piece because it’s so conducive to interacting with each other.
Is there anything you don’t miss?
I don’t miss the constant need for people to save face.
After 10 years of smoking, I quit while I was living in China. It was really hard as everyone (including friends, taxi drivers and even strangers) offers cigarettes all the time.
I like that they are so generous and cigarettes really are a great way to break the ice. Offering a cigarette in China is seen as a nice gesture, but there was a fine balance between turning down a cigarette and not insulting people.
I learned how to say “Thank you, but I don’t smoke” in Chinese, but many people took it personally.
Perhaps the biggest thing I don’t miss is the inefficiency of daily life.
Chinese people are very conscious of the hierarchy they’re in, whether that’s with family, friends or employers.
Many things don’t get done on time in China and I think it’s due to a subtle fear of doing something wrong.
People can be very nervous about doing things out of the ordinary and will very rarely do anything on their own if there’s a possibility of doing it wrong.
Efficiency takes a back seat to saving face. It was really hard to get used to this, coming from a country that values efficiency, individualism and business ethics.
Any travel plans for the future?
Jess and I are already tackling our next adventure. We’re almost two weeks into a three-month road trip through the US.
Dan (right) with partner Jess have returned from China.
We hope to open a hostel in the future. That way, our lives will still be entwined in travel and adventure!