The Random Writings of Rachel: ESL Teacher Life

ESL Teacher Life

{at a local high school in ShenZhen, China}

If I had my way with blog post titles, they'd always be ridiculously long. Today we're back to #ChinaLife. The other Rachael will be talking a little bit about her job working in a private international school in ShangHai. I'm talking about what working life looks like for us these days.



{sometimes we take pictures of each other in our work clothes while waiting for our bus}

We both teach conversational English classes at a local high school. Our high school has about 3,000 live-in students, which means that as far as student population goes, it's 3/4ths the size of the college we attended!

Of those 3,000 students, I teach 10 classes (each class once per week) of about 50 students each, and Angel teaches 18 classes (each class once every other week) of about 50 students each. That means that I have about 500 students and Angel has about 900 students. I teach the equivalent of 10th grade and Angel teaches the equivalent of 11th grade.

We don't have a classroom of our own--at our school, the classrooms stay with the students, so I teach in 10 different classrooms and Angel teaches in 18 different classrooms. Some of Angel's classrooms are on the 6th floor which require a long walk up, up, up! We don't have any assigned curriculum, just the mission to help our students move from the English theory classes they've been taught for years to actually being able to communicate in the English language. We create our own lessons based on what we determine are our classes' interests and greatest needs (this week's lesson in my class was on semi-advanced preposition use, Angel's lesson was on terminology used in comparing and contrasting, with the difference between Chinese and American high schools as the theme).

Besides the class schedule, we also jointly lead a weekly "English Corner." English Corner can mean many different things, in this case, it happens to mean gathering up approximately 100 11th graders outside and leading them in games that encourage English speaking, letting them interview us, or teaching them how to swing dance. Even though I'm loud, I'm usually given a loudspeaker when leading English Corner, and I feel very important when I have a loudspeaker in my hands.

Schedules don't tend to be set far in advance, so we tend to go into work with a "Be prepared at all times" mentality. The first time we led English Corner, we didn't know we were doing so until about 2 minutes before. Good thing that I have the kind of personality where I'm not flustered or stressed by that sort of thing! Also, it's a good thing that I let youth group games for years so I have a never-ending dictionary of games in my head...




Other duties generally include being the go-to English speaker for any extracurricular needs: spell-checking and editing for coworkers or students, and helping students with special projects. Angel helped one of his students create a list of interview questions to prepare for interviewing an astronaut who came to visit our school, and then acted like he was the astronaut in a mock-interview in order to give her a chance to get comfortable with the questions and format. Our ambitious students like to chat with us during class breaks to get natural conversation practice, something that is incredibly rare for them. The other day we helped brainstorm student speech topics for controversies about holidays (are holidays wasteful? over-commercialized? Should religious holidays be celebrated by people who don't share that religion?).

Probably the most challenging part of the job is designing lessons that get all 50 students involved and talking and hopefully learning and growing more comfortable in their second language. During time that I give them to work on projects in groups or pairs, I often wander the classroom to randomly ask questions of students. Sometimes when I ask a student a question, they'll say "Sorry, my English is very poor." But that's not quite good enough for me. I'll respond with a grin, "That means you need to practice your English more, right?" and I'll do what I can to keep them talking for a bit longer.

I had one of those encounters the other day with a boy who sits in the back of class and I asked him to just tell me a sentence, any sentence, that used the word however. He responded with a sentence that actually contained perfect grammar (a rarity in my grade level) and I about jumped out of my skin with congratulating him. The look of joy on his face when he said, "Really? It was correct?" was priceless.

We have a huge range of abilities among our classes. Students who can't put three-word sentences together are lumped in with students who are effectively fluent but just have large, random gaps in their vocabulary. We try our best to include all students and their levels equally in our lessons but don't always succeed.


Our students are largely well-behaved. Occasionally they try to do homework for other classes or sleep during our class, but those students are a small minority. They always greet us when they walk by in the hallways, either with a "Mrs. Rachel/Mr. Angel, Hello!" or the Mandarin "Lao Shi Hao." Sometimes they sneak their cellphone into class and ask us to please not tattle to their head teacher, but they really want to take a picture of the American teacher to send to their parents (my face is all over social media, I have no doubt of it).

Angel's claim to fame at the school is his sports interest. He plays basketball after work with our coworkers once or twice a week, and attends the students' basketball tournaments to cheer for his classes. He also, famously, walked on his hands in the introductory lesson for all of his classes, so that his students would know what kind of teacher they had. I seem to be best known for my looks (awkward). Once I was chatting with two boys and they saw Angel in the distance, asked if he was my husband, and then one told me: "Your husband is very handsome!" and the other boy added, "But you are really beautiful!" There's something about speaking a 2nd language which means that the compliments are more direct than they otherwise would be. My students aren't shy to compliment themselves, either. I had several students introduce themselves to me: "Hello, my name is...... I am a very handsome boy." I love these teens so very much.

I've read blogs before that claim that teaching ESL overseas is hard. I mentioned that to Angel and he scoffed. To be fair, he worked as a hospital nurse in a PCU unit for 5 years, so his definition of  a "hard job" might not be the same as the definition in the mind of the average liberal arts major with a brand new B.A. who wants to see the world.

This is not a hard job. You can probably already tell, it's not even a full 40 hr. per week job. It's not for everyone, but for me it's the kind of job that I can wake up excited to go to every single day. Sure, there's overarching problems with the ESL teaching system overseas. I don't like it that some of the ESL teachers I know openly state that they dislike children. I think the kids deserve better than that. I know that most of my students will never ever be 100% fluent in English. But to me, this is a very, very good job, and one I'm blessed to have for this season.

26 comments:

  1. I don't know - teaching 500 students to speak English sounds like a pretty hard job to me! You seem so well-suited to it, though! I loved this glimpse into your job and the personalities of your students. I think when you can joke in another language, you've got a pretty good grasp of it. I love that the kids get cheeky with some of their introductions! :) By the way, "Sorry, my Spanish is horrible!" was how I started most conversations in Spain. ;)

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  2. Accurately and beautifully put. Thanks, Rachel!

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  3. It sounds like you and Angel are doing great! I just don't really understand why anyone would teach ESL to kids if they don't like kids. I guess it is probably just a means for them to live in that country, but you're absolutely right that the kids deserve better than that.

    I feel like first year teaching is usually somewhat hard just getting into the routines and troubleshooting what does and doesn't work for you and your students. It is great that you feel like it is going well, and that is A LOT of students! Craziness!

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  4. This was brilliant to read. It really gave great insight into your day-to-day activities.

    Kudos to Angel for walking on his hands! : ) That'll go down in history over there I'm sure.

    bisous
    Suzanne

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  5. I am glad your new life is treating you well and you truly enjouying teaching ESL in China. I have been teaching privately (just a couple of classes) English (or as they call it in US for Foreign Students - ESL) here in Albania, over the last few weeks myself and I am enjoying it. I still need a full-time job though.

    Does China celebrate Halloween? Either way enjoy this Hallow Weekend Rachel.


    Pleasure catching up with you. Ada. =)

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  6. I think it's so awesome you teach English in China! Hope you have a wonderful weekend.

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  7. Fun information. I'm giggling at the "and I am a handsome boy!"

    Any reason why Angel has almost twice as many classes as you or is it done at random?

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  8. Wow so many awesome things you two are doing at the school! Sounds like a busy work week for you guys each week!

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  9. Sounds like you are making a difference in these children's lives and that is so admirable! It sounds like you have a job that you love and that makes all the difference in the world! That school looks incredible!

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  10. This sounds like a really interesting and enriching job! Thanks for sharing more about what your every day looks like!

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  11. I've been doing postcrossing for a year now and some of the sweetest and most endearing comments on my cards come from people in Asian countries! Like -- "Thank you for the card! I fall in love with it forever!" Ha ha, I don't know if they really like the cards that well or if it's just a miscommunication! Have you heard of postcrossing? It might be a fun way for your students to work on their written English. http://www.postcrossing.com/

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  12. So happy that you love your job and that it's easy for you. I'd find it difficult but I'm not a teacher and have no clue how to do it - lol. Glad your students are well behaved, for the most part, and pleasant. :) It's cool to see what you guys do - Angel looks so happy! Have a great weekend guys! -Iva

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  13. I think it can definitely be hard for the people who go abroad fresh out of college, with no teaching degree or experience with large groups of kids/students, who might get caught up in the culture shock of it all. Your experience sounds a lot like mine - except I never had 100 kids at English Corner! We were lucky to have like fifteen. Craziness.

    I also had a mix of levels in my classes, and I found that doing talk show lessons worked pretty well. The students who were the most comfortable speaking were the host and guests, while everyone else had to prepare some questions to ask the guests about a specific topic (they really liked love/dating). It made for an interesting discussion, and it was something that everyone could participate in and follow along with. They also got some natural practice with answering on the fly and asking follow-up questions.

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  14. So well put, girl! Crazy how different our experiences are but I can tell we both really love it, which is awesome! :) I can't believe you have 500 students!! Girl, that is CRAZY!! :D

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  15. 500 students! I thought 180 (my first year of teaching) was hard! How do you have time to grade?!?! But, isn't it the best when students don't realize they did something well and then you tell them and they're so surprised! One of the best things of teaching!

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  16. Wow! I can't imagine having that many students! I am so glad to hear you guys are loving it though. That seems silly that so many people who don't like teaching would sign up to be teachers oversea?! Seems a little selfish.

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  17. What an interesting post! I think it's funny that the students stay in the classrooms while the teachers move about, but I guess it makes a lot more sense to move one person than 50 people. 50 people in a class must be exhausting! I teach Scouts and I work with about 6 at a time and that seems overwhelming to me. Must be hard to carry all your materials and reference books along with you. Do you have a little cart or something? What are the kids doing in the second picture? Looks like they are making posters or something. I do love these little glimpses into everyday Chinese life. I think it's funny that the kids try to sneak pictures of you. #SITSSharefest

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  18. Not a hard job?? Seriously I was getting overwhelmed just reading your schedule! You have a gift, you and your husband both, and our globe is blessed to have people like you in it! I am a Girl Scout leader and last week I tried to entertain them for a half hour as my planned lessons went way faster than I imagined. It was chaos! The other leader had to take over! It's not my gift. Love that it is yours! Your passion is contagious!

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  19. I have been loving your blog post. Crazy story, I actually had a dream where I read a blog post by you (can't remember what it was ) and thought of the most amazing and thought provoking comment to put on it and just made me smile because I know you would love reading it. Then I woke up all weird and I realized I had never left a comment on your latest post! I have some questions: do Chinese school students take off their shoes and put on shoes just for the school building (you might have mentioned this...I know Japanese school children do it) Another thing, you said it was a public school but it sounds like the children live there? As in its a boarding school? is this normal for china? Also I read somewhere or heard somehow that traffic and driving is scary in china because people don't follow rules, they are more like suggestions there. Is this true? Hehe, sorry if this is so many questions! I know you ride the bus and get picked up a lot, so I guess as a passenger, do you feel safe?

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  20. Your class and students sound amazing!
    I almost wish I could go to your class!

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  21. This is fascinating, Rachel. One of my girls is taking Mandarin, and she did teach me hello, my name is ..., so I could relate! I think it's awesome that you can do something you truly love and enjoy. :)

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  22. how awesome that you wake up excited to teach every day - and how lucky for the students that you put so much effort into engaging all of them. and angel known for his sports ability? pretty awesome street cred :)

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  23. So neat to see what your day to day is like with your students. It sounds like you both really enjoy it!!

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  24. I really loved this post and getting to know a day in your life. It is clear that you really care about your students. I bet they love coming to both of your classes!

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  25. i'm having such a great time catching up on all of your adventures. you are an inspiration. thank you for being such an amazing teacher to kids.

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