Learning Chinese

I spent 3 years in China and hardly spoke a word of Chinese, partly due to my Chinese wife speaking excellent English and partly because I didn’t think I could learn it. I did practice with my wife a little but she only laughed at my pronunciation and so I gave up. However, now that I am back in the UK, alas no longer married, I have decided to learn. Talk about doing things back to front but I do plan to go back and this time I want to be better prepared.

I started using the Michel Thomas course which is really an excellent introduction to the four tones and some basic phrases. It is so essential to master the tones and I strongly recommend this short introductory course. Then I moved on the Pimsleur course and to be honest it is not as difficult as I thought it would be. I had previously convinced myself that the language would be too difficult because it is a tonal language. However, once you get used to the tones, it is quite an easy language because the grammar is much more straight forward than English.

Learning a language is all about attitude, if you believe you can learn it and practice every day, it does sink in. Of course I’ll know how well I’ve learnt it when I visit China again but at least I will be able to say something and not seem such an ignoramus.

I really do recommend learning as much as you can before you go, especially if you’re not getting married to a Chinese girl or boy! This will be especially important if you don’t go one of the major cosmopolitan cities, where you’ll probably find that only your students speak English.

Bye the way, I’m 57, so it’s never too late to learn.


A visit to a countryside school

This was a special day, a visit to a school in the countryside. The children here are from  the families of poor farmers. The school was located in lovely countryside but the school itself was in a poor condition. My Chinese friend Wang Li Juan, English name Summer, took some books from her school and the kids were delighted to receive them. I think there was less than a hundred kids at this school, so much smaller than the city schools. After the visit to the school we were taken to an amazing cave. The countryside here is stunning. Here is a video slide show I made of the visit.

Culture Shock – A westerner living in China.

Culture Shock – A westerner living in China.

Hong Kong

I first came to China in 2005. I flew in via Hong Kong to Shenzhen and was completely blown away by this city. I didn’t know quite what to expect but it certainly exceeded any expectations I might have had. Thirty years ago Shenzhen was just a small fishing village across the river from Hong Kong but with an idea of creating a model city to rival Hong Kong, the then leader Deng Xiaoping set out his vision for this super-city. In my opinion Shenzhen is an amazing modern city with futurist tall buildings, well designed family friendly apartment blocks, wide tree lined avenues, lush vegetation, relaxing parks and a vibrant economy to compete with any western city. Wow! I thought – this is communist China!

It wasn’t however until 2007 when I came to live in Zunyi, a ‘small’ city in Guizhou province did I come to discover the real China. The fact is you never really know a country until you live there and for me, it was a real culture shock! Make no mistake about it; life in the west is so very different from life in China.


As we all know, China has a huge population – 1.3 billion people, a figure which is difficult to comprehend. Zunyi is

Shenzhen Lychee Park

considered to be a small city in China but has a population bigger than England’s second biggest city – Birmingham. And because everyone lives in apartment blocks, the inhabitants are more crammed in than English cities. Only the mountain right in the middle of the Zunyi creates a refuge from the noise and busyness of the city but most cities here don’t have mountains in the middle of them.  The bigger cities like Shanghai, Beijing and Chongqing seem to places of endless habitation but fortunately the city planners have thought about this and there are always either beautiful parks or historic sites to escape too. Because of the size of the population it is difficult to get away from people in China; even the countryside where agriculture is labour intensive, it can be difficult to be totally alone. Having said that, I have been fortunate enough to be taken to some stunning countryside away from the city where all you can hear is the birdsong and only occasionally meet another person.

Cultural differences:

It is quite difficult to define Chinese culture so simply because like western culture, it is changing. There is the old traditional culture which underpins society and there is the new modern culture imported from the West, Japan and Korea. Although China has one of the oldest civilisations, it is actually one of the newest countries. Sixty years ago was the Cultural Revolution lead by Mao Zedong which swept away thousands of years of dynastic rule by emperors and freed the great majority of people from impoverished living. China reinvented itself in 1949 and became a truly communist country but that was sixty years ago and there can be no comparison between now and then. Only long held traditions and values remain and some of these are under threat from modern day life. Today young people in the cities have high aspirations and want all the modern day fashion and technology they can get their hands on.

Office block in Shanghai

So, on the surface in the modern cities all can appear the same as in the West. The men and women wear the same stylish clothes, the girls wear skimpy clothes to reveal their figure and the boys wear fashion to imitate their pop idols; business people drive expensive saloons and 4 x 4s (often black) and high-heeled ladies shop in expensive boutiques. Look up at the skyline and you’ll see amazing high rise blocks of futuristic design which equal or even better western skylines. Under the modern exterior however, most people are very traditional and it is best to be aware of these traditional values if you want to live, work and do business here.


One child policy in ChinaIn China, the family unit is a very strong one and there is generally great respect afforded by children to parents and to grandparents. That doesn’t mean that everything is perfect in family life but family is the refuge and the security here. When people need help they turn to family, if they need financial backing for a business venture they turn to family and if they need advice, they do the same. It is not only in life that respect is given but in death also. Every year in April there is ceremony called Tomb Sweeping Day and on this day families will visit the graves of their relatives to clean the graves, say prayers and burn paper money for the dead. This creates a strong connection between the living and their ancestors, and gives an underlying message to the living that they won’t be forgotten, even in death.

Today in China there is still the one child policy, although this does not apply in the countryside where there is a need for labour. This means that the family is small and often the children are cosseted. Most often both parents will go out to work and therefore the grandparents are frequently called upon to assist with the child’s care. Sometimes the child will live with the grandparents if the father and mother have to work away. Many people have to work in other cities and commuting is impossible and so can only visit their family once or twice a year. This makes festivals like Spring Festival so important to the family. At Spring Festival most workers get a week’s holiday and this is a big time for family reunions. This can be the only real holiday a lot of people get in the year.


In China, marriage is still considered the only way for a couple to live together and there is strong pressure for young people to get married before they are 30, especially for the girls. The idea of a woman seeking a career above marriage is almost unheard of and equally of not wanting children. If a woman doesn’t want children, she will be considered to be not normal. A lot of young people have an idealised view of marriage despite the divorce rate being high here; they always believe they can make the successful marriage. What’s more there is still a notion for a lot of young women that they should be virgins when they get married, although this idea doesn’t really hold in the big cities. Also, a lot of men want to marry virgins, especially in the countryside where old attitudes prevail and it is sometimes expected for a girl to produce a certificate from a doctor to say she is a virgin.

Youth culture:

Young people now wear the latest fashion from Japan, Korea and the West but this can give the wrong impression as to their attitudes about love and sex which are still old fashioned. They may look like any young person from a western permissive society but they don’t sleep around, they don’t expect to have sex by the time they are sixteen and they wouldn’t dare to bring a baby into the world without being married; what’s more they’re not into drugs either. High school students are discouraged by their parents from forming relationships until after they have graduated at the age of eighteen. Young girls may look stunning in the tight clothes and ultra short skirts but unlike many of their western counterparts, they are not party animals and don’t go out on the town to get drunk; in fact a lot of them don’t even drink alcohol at all and they certainly don’t expect to be chatted up by strangers. Yes, attitudes are more westernised in the big cities but there is still a strong recognition of what it is to be Chinese and young people are very proud of this. The Chinese people are conservative by nature and this should be understood by western visitors, so as not to offend.


There is a very strong work ethic in China and people are not afraid of work here. The fact is that if people don’t work, they get no support from the state, not that they would expect it. Most people will do any work to earn a little money and don’t feel a sense of shame if they have menial jobs. It is quite quite humbling to see the types of work that people will do to earn a small amount of money. People here take a great sense of pride in having a secure job and will do nothing to threaten that security. This can mean that some employees are exploited by their bosses who know their staff will not cause trouble if there are difficulties at work. Another fact is that there are too many workers for the jobs available and so people are always grateful to have work. Chinese people will work long hours doing the most tedious jobs without complaint but of course many do aspire to better themselves but competition for jobs is great and the greatest fear for a student at school or college is not to have a job after graduation. This is why students are prepared to begin their school day at 7 a.m. and finish their last class at 9.30 p.m. and will go to school on Saturday and then attend private classes on Sunday with little complaint. They get tired and worried about the never ending round of exams but they do it because they want to work and not just want work but want to have a good job. Many students today aspire to being rich and why shouldn’t they, when their country is heading towards becoming the strongest economy in the world.

National pride:

Olympic torch Beijing 2008

Chinese people are immensely proud of their country and their country’s achievements and this was strongly reinforced during the 2008 Olympic Games and the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan when the entire country rallied to help the stricken area and its people. China is made up of many ethnic groups, each with their own traditions and dialect but is united under one flag and one leadership. There has been descent in some parts but on the whole, the country is as one. The Chinese people also have very strong feelings about Tibet and also Taiwan and I suggest that until you research the history about these areas, you don’t get into a debate with Chinese people about them. There has been a lot of misinformation spread around about these, especially about Tibet by people who don’t fully understand the history of China. It is a good idea to read some good books about China’s history before coming to live in China; it will help you understand its people.


This may be one of the most difficult things to come to terms with in China because the Chinese people don’t adopt the same manners as we are used to in the UK or US. It has sometimes been my opinion that Chinese people don’t have manners at all but this is an over generalisation. Chinese people don’t like to queue or wait to be served; if you are in shop being served, expect someone to barge in front of you but of course you don’t have to put up with it. You have to learn to be quick and in some cases assert your ground. Also if you are in conversation with another, don’t expect people to wait until you have finished your conversation before another will charge right on in to say their point. This will be much more so in the smaller cities where people have not become so educated and not so ‘westernised.’

The thing to remember is that this is their way and there is little point in trying to change it because you won’t. I believe however that you should maintain your own manners and civility but not try to thrust your beliefs onto others. When I first came to China, I found that no one ever smiled at me and no shop keeper ever thanked me for my custom. I thought the Chinese to be a very cold race but once I got to know people, I found them to be very warm, friendly and generous, even if they have little to give. My suggestion is that you smile first and let people know that you are friendly toward them, and that way they will soon begin to respond to you. The Chinese people in general are shy people and this explains a lot of their reticence to smile.

If you live in one of the major cities like Shanghai or Beijing you will pretty much be invisible as you go about your daily business but if you choose to live in a smaller city or even a town, you will be source of much interest. In Zunyi I am one of a dozen or so foreigners and so I am often starred at and always in demand by students to talk English with me. I get lots of invites out to have a meal or go on trips; it certainly compensates for the isolation I have often felt. And while on the subject of being invited out for a meal. It is customary for the person doing the inviting to do the paying, so don’t be concerned about others paying for you but out of politeness, you should return the invite and pay for them.

There times when you can feel completely frustrated by living in China, with the constant noise and smells, the apparent rudeness and disregard for others; it can really get to you but you have to accept it and try not to get angry. Chinese are far more tolerant in this respect; they have to be more tolerant of each other because there are so many people living in such close proximity to each other here. They are not fazed by air-horns, motorcycles on the footpath and people pushing in or cars cutting them up. It is important to remember that you are the foreigner here and this is not your country.

If you want to come and work here, I suggest you embrace the differences and don’t try to resist them. I have gained so many friends here in China and it will be a very sad day when I finally return to the U.K. At times China has driven me mad with frustration but on the other hand, China has given me so much.

Working as an English teacher in China.

Working as an English teacher in China.

Teaching oral English in ChinaWith the job situation so bad in the UK, many people are looking outside of the country to seek employment. Some are considering teaching English abroad as an option and some might even look as far as China for work. In this article I want to pass on some information and a little advice about working as a teacher in China and what you can expect from a life here. 


You will need to have a teaching certificate in teaching English and this comes in the form of a TEFL certificate – Teaching English as a Foreign Language. However, you are not going to get a good job with just that; for many teaching positions here you will need a degree, especially for jobs in the big cities like Shanghai and Beijing. Of course if you are already a teacher, then it will be much easier for you. It is possible to find teaching posts with just a TEFL but they will be in lesser schools in the main cities or in schools in other smaller cities.  

Online TEFL – Teaching English as a Foreign Language

There are many courses you can take to gain a TEFL certificate and many online courses too. I took an online course from a company called i-to-i; it was 120 hours. However I wasn’t impressed with the course. Firstly I found that it didn’t really teach me much about teaching and secondly I didn’t consider the online tutor to be that helpful. My wife Crystal however, who is Chinese and a qualified English teacher, took at the same time an ITTT International course. She thought it might come be useful one day, especially if were to go to Europe. The ITTT course was more expensive than mine and it turned out to be much better. She learnt the subject in greater depth and had better support from her online tutor. A word of warning however about TEFL courses; if your knowledge of grammar is shaky, you will either need some help or will need to embark on some further study. I have to confess that my knowledge of English grammar was very poor indeed and ironically it was my Chinese wife who was able to help me through the course. It does seem amazing that one can speak, read and write reasonably well in English and yet have a poor knowledge as to how one’s own language works. I guess you could say we native speakers learn our language organically, whereas foreign students gain it in a more regimented way through text books and concentrated study. I can write better than my Chinese wife and of course speak better but she knows much more than me about pronouns, adjectives and passive voice etc. Teaching oral English however doesn’t rely on explaining grammar but it is advisable to know more than your students. If a student were to ask you a question to which you cannot answer, you are going to look pretty stupid! What’s more your students will happily tell their teachers about your apparent lack of knowledge.  

Teaching in ChinaCity based TEFL courses overseas

Many companies offer courses in the country where you are planning to teach. This of course is a good way to get an introduction to a country before you start teaching. However, a couple of teachers I met did their course in Beijing which is nothing like the small city they ended up in – Zunyi. Zunyi is where I have been teaching these past three years. Apparently they had a great time in Beijing, visiting the bars every evening and they got to see some of the great tourist attractions but financially their six months in China was a loser. The advantage of finding work through a TEFL organisation such as i to i is that they will surely find you work, however this comes at a price. You will have to pay a tidy sum for the overseas course and secondly you will not get paid the going rate at whatever school you end up at. There is also another disadvantage with this – you are not independent and will have to deal with two or more agencies if you encounter problems, which is sure to happen. You will also have to pay for your airfare to and from the UK which can amount to £800 or more by the time you include internal flights. Many schools however will pay for one return flight every year or pay a completion bonus of a similar amount. The lesson is – if you allow others to make all your arrangements, it will cost you a lot of money.  

Types of teaching positions

If you have a degree and teaching experience, you’ll probably be able to get a good job in a university/college teaching whatever subject you are experienced in, for example English literature, economics etc.. Educational institutions often have specific names such as Zunyi Medical College but that doesn’t mean the only subjects they teach are medical; you will find here, students majoring in English and other subjects not related to medicine. The school I teach at is grandly called the Aerospace School but the only subject that could be remotely connected with this is a metalwork workshop; so don’t be put off by the name of the school. If you have a degree but don’t have teaching experience you can still find a reasonably well paid job but you will only be expected to teach oral English. Chinese English teachers reach a very high standard in grammar, probably higher than most folk in the UK; therefore it is unlikely you will be asked to teach it. What’s more, you need to speak Chinese in order to explain the grammar rules clearly and it is impossible to do so without speaking Chinese. If you don’t have a TEFL certificate but not a degree you can still find a job teaching oral English in either a middle school, junior school or kindergarten but your salary will be lower. In china there are universities and colleges which are basically the same thing; senior middle schools (students 15-18 years), junior middle schools (students 12 -15 years), primary schools (6 – 12) and kindergarten (aged 3 – 6, although some children start much younger) and all will teach English as part of their curriculum. Some kindergarten in the big cities will employ native English teachers but of course these are very informal classes and you should have a Chinese classroom assistant to help you. Don’t expect a Chinese assistant in schools for older students. Some schools are privately owned and some are state run. My school was previously state run but is now privately owned.  

Teaching in ChinaSalary

Whatever school you teach at in China, you’re not going to make a lot of money. However, you can have a comfortable life here because generally the cost of living is much lower. In the bigger cities, someone with a degree and perhaps a background in teaching can earn around 12,000 rmb a month which currently is about £1,200. However other teaching jobs in the big cities start at around 8000 rmb. If you go to one of the smaller cities you can expect to earn a lot less but it depends on what type of school you teach at. At a private English language school which teaches mainly at weekends and evenings, you will earn more than at middle or junior school. So many students take extra classes at the weekend or in the evening and their parents have to pay extra for this. At a large and successful privately owned English school in Zunyi, the teachers get around 8000 rmb which is a very good salary here. In contrast, at a state owned middle school, the teachers there earn a mere 2500 but there is a good reason for this difference. The two teachers who work there gained their qualification in Beijing through i to i, prior to coming to this city. The school will be paying a lot more for their services because they will also be paying the TEFL organisation and agents. So as you can see, salaries can vary greatly.  


Many schools will offer accommodation as part of the package and of course accommodation will vary greatly. I am very fortunate, I have a lovely apartment with two bedrooms, a living room, dining room, kitchen, shower room with western loo, TV DVD and computer, and the rent/electricity is paid for by my school. However the teachers I referred to earlier have a single room in an office building within the school complex, and the shower room with squatting toilet they have to share with other members of staff. What makes their accommodation even worse is that the school imposed an eleven o’clock curfew for them to be in during the week and the school bell was outside the door and even at weekends they had no rest from it. Do try and find out what sort of accommodation you will get in advance of coming. Having said that, if you come with an agency it’s going to pretty difficult to find out any concrete information in advance. Bear in mind that some schools will not pay for your accommodation and you will have to find it yourself and of course you will need help with this. Last year (2009), I made enquiries through an agent to get a teaching job in Shenzhen. The salary I was offered was 8000 rmb which is nearly twice as much as much as I get now. The agent also offered me a small room in a shared apartment with three other people (teahers) and the price for this one room was 1700 rmb. So with higher costs of food and travel, I would have been no better off and my living accommodation would have been much worse – I declined the offer.  

Living in ChinaCost of living in China

Like any country, the cost of living varies greatly between city and provincial areas. Salaries are higher but so too are living costs in a big city. I can’t give you prices of things in other cities but I can give you some relative examples from the city I live in. A simple meal based around rice or noodles will cost 5 rmb (50p) whereas a decent meal for four people at a simple restaurant will cost 60 – 100 and at an expensive restaurant, 200 – 300. Taxi fares start at 5 rmb for quite a long distance and all bus fares in the city are 1 rmb. So although my salary is low, I can live very cheaply indeed. In fact because I spend so little and don’t use a credit card or have a loan to pay, this is the first time in my life that I could actually save money on a regular basis. It is wonderful to have no debt and no worries about money.  

Other considerations


The Chinese government strictly controls what people can view on the Internet, especially adult sites. At the time of writing you can’t use Facebook and YouTube, and much to my annoyance even BlogSpot is blocked. I created a lovely blog about Chinese tea and now I can’t use it. If you can’t live without Facebook or YouTube then don’t come to China.  


In the bigger cities, you can dine on a wide variety of western foods but expect to pay much more for this. If you are a western fast food fan, you’ll find more outlets than you can shake a stick at in the bigger cities but in the smaller cities you won’t find many. In my city there are three KFCs and that’s all. Large cities will have supermarkets like Walmart and Carrefour and even in Zunyi there are two Walmarts, which sell a small selection of western foods.  


In the big cities you will find all the entertainment you could hope for and of course western bars selling western beers and spirits but expect to pay high prices for these. In smaller cities like Zunyi, you’ll be lucky to find any.  


Don’t expect everyone in Beijing or Shanghai to speak English because although every student in China will learn some English, most will not use it and forget it. Today English is the second language taught at schools but forty years ago it was Russian. Also most of the signs will generally only be in Chinese. This can be especially difficult if you want to catch a local bus. If you want to be independent, and you may well have to be, you will have to try and learn some Chinese. However, every city and region has its own dialect. The national language is mandarin and is taught in all schools but different dialects are spoken in every city. Don’t expect to learn mandarin and then understand a conversation in Shanghai because there they speak Shanhaiese.  

Cultural differences: Cultural differences: See my article Culture Shock – A westerner living in China.

Friends in ChinaFinally:  

If you want to come and live and work in China, my advice is put aside your thoughts of home and accept life as it is here. Don’t compare life at home with life in China; if you do you’ll only get deeply frustrated and want to go home. Life in China can drive you up the wall at times but there are many wonderful aspects about living here also which may not at first be apparent. You need to take your time in settling in and it may take you a long time to begin to feel comfortable here. Once you get to know the people you will find them warm and generous and their culture has so much to offer. Who knows, you might even want to settle in China!  

There are so many things to consider before you accept a job as an English teacher in China, too much to write about here – read my other articles in my blog for more information about life in China.  






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Teaching large classes in China

There seems to be a sea of faces when you stand before a class of 65-70 students and at first it can seem a little daunting but you soon get used to it. However, there are certain factors which can make teaching such classes very difficult indeed, such as chatter and all the sundry distractions the students get involved in. Below is a list of my experiences with a little advice to consider.

Ground rules:

When I first started teaching in China, I didn’t set any ground rules. In fact I wouldn’t have even called them by this name if I had. I later did introduce some ‘classroom rules’ which were essential to enable me to teach. I did this because of the sheer number of students who were either playing with their phones (including watching films), reading magazines or trying to sleep. I had made up my mind from the outset that I wouldn’t permit the use of mp3/4s etc and mobile phones in the classroom; however mobile phones can be a tricky one because often students will use them as dictionaries to look up words. I also stated that there should be ‘no reading of books or magazines’ except English ones and the other rule was ‘no sleeping’. These rules I have managed to stick to; any others might be impossible to apply with consistency. Of course the students still try to flout the rules on a daily basis, even right under my nose but they don’t get away with it.


Chatter is a phenomenon of classroom life in China, in all but a few classes. One the great difficulties faced by an English teacher is that many of the students will talk with their neighbour asking such questions as “what did he say?” Of course they won’t say it in English but in Chinese. Some of course are talking about anything but English and it is very difficult to know the difference between the two. The volume of chatter can be become intense in a class especially if you are addressing individual students. I tend not to stay at the front of the class to talk to individuals because most times I will not hear their replies; this is because they don’t speak loudly enough. The difficulty is that the students don’t want to listen to anyone else talking English, so they embark on their own conversations and with so many students it can be difficult to know exactly who is talking. I’ve come to realise that there are times when you need to let them chatter, such as when you are writing on the board; a totally silent classroom is nearly impossible because if you demand this, it will occupy so much of your time and energy and also the students will come to resent you.

There are two times when I come down very firmly on chatter: 1) when I am talking to the class and 2) there is just too much noise – this will generally be when I am talking one to one. On one occasion with a particularly noisy class I made them sit in total silence for five minutes and I was silent too – they were quite shocked by this tactic. The thing to remember in China is that people expect to talk over others. The most difficult thing to get used to is when you are in conversation with another in any situation and someone else will butt in about something totally different, and without waiting for an opportune moment or for permission. It happens all the time in shops, post offices, when you are buying tickets or food. The most bizarre thing is when you’re in the dentist chair and someone else will come and talk to the dentist wanting advice about their teeth. In other words, they just barge right on in – in the UK we call it rudeness!

Class discipline:

The best thing about teaching Chinese students is the general respect they have for the teacher, even though they don’t often respect the need for quietness in class. Most students are very polite, never rude or abusive to teachers. What’s more, in over two and a half years I never had to intervene in a fight or even a serious quarrel between students. The only real undisciplined behaviour is their inability to not talk after being told and for some, their inability to pay any attention to the teacher but then that will be common in any class. The essential thing to remember is that you are talking to them in a language most of them don’t really understand, even if spoken to slowly. There is no emphasis in the education system in China regarding oral English, only on grammar and vocabulary; so too many students don’t learn to speak and therefore do not understand what is being said to them. You might be appointed as an oral English teacher but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the school is really interested in their students speaking English. The fact is that students are not tested in oral English. What matters are their tests and they are not tested in speaking English; even many teachers can’t speak English well. It is no wonder that the attention of the students will frequently wander if they don’t understand what is being said. I should point out that I do write most things on the blackboard, especially the main questions I am asking but it will make no difference.

Saving face and shyness:

One of the things you soon learn in China, is about ‘saving face.’ This is a long-held tradition and I don’t know the full depth of it but to put it simply, it means to avoid not being seen to make a mistake or be in the wrong. Chinese people do not like to feel that they have made an error and so to ‘save face’ they will find a way to pass over what has happened. Not only this but people will go out of their way to ensure that they don’t cause another to ‘lose face.’

Coupled with this is a characteristic shyness which many Chinese people exhibit, especially girls, so there will be a great reluctance to speak up and offer any response to questions. Therefore in a class of seventy kids it can be impossible to get one of them to put their hand up and give you the answer. The only thing they will do is shout out, often when you are not looking, and then when you ask who was responding, they won’t admit to it, even if they were right. You will find no enthusiasm in Chinese students for expressing what they know and any information has to be extracted from them, like a dentist pulling teeth! This can make life extremely frustrating for the teacher.


Don’t set it! I have an average of sixty-five students in each class and fourteen classes a week; that’s over nine hundred sets of homework to mark and believe me, they will need some marking. The only homework of sorts I did give, was for the students to write a story but only a small percentage of each class did and it was almost impossible to correct the errors because the grammar was too bad and quite often it was impossible to know what was being said. I simply chose the best and told the class the following week. On another occasion I got the students to write the plot for a movie and select the characters, having first got them to decide on a title; I then selected the best one and wrote out a short script for them to act out in class. Unless you are lucky to have really small classes, I strongly suggest you don’t do it.

Knowing what’s going on:

With such large numbers in a class, it can be quite difficult to know what is going on with each student; some will be paying attention but a lot won’t. One problem is that they pile their books on their desks which act as a partition between them and the teacher. Yes, you can see their upper body but not what they are doing on their desk or under it. Only the direction of their gaze will give some clue. Because of this I often walk up and down the aisle to check what they are doing. Quite often they will be doing their homework, which I will tolerate providing it is English homework. I have got past the phase of expecting everyone’s undivided attention but I do like to pick on those doing their homework by asking them questions.

Use of blackboard:

In most Chinese classrooms, all you’ll have to work with is a blackboard and some coloured chalks. As mentioned previously, I tend to write nearly everything on the board, especially questions but even this often does not help. It never ceases to amaze me how many students cannot actually see what you write on the board because of their poor eyesight and they will still sit at the back. It is amusing to watch some students using reading glasses held back to front in an attempt to see the board. Some of the students simply leave their glasses at home or in the dormitory and others don’t have any because their parents cannot afford them. There are no free glasses for kids in China.

English names:

I decided from the outset to get the students to choose English names. This makes life so much easier and having an English name can be valuable later in life for them. I printed out two sheets of English names, one for boys and one for girls; I then got them to choose their name and put their Chinese name against their chosen English name. However, this didn’t stop some choosing their own names, such as: Yummy, Heaven, Black, Innocent, Autumn, Flower, Dracula, Satan and Hitler! I did point out that some names are just unacceptable but others I could not object to; except to tell them that if they are to tell their name to another, especially a foreigner, they probably  won’t be understood. Also I don’t try to remember everybody’s name, except the classroom monitors, a few exceptional students and those who attend my English Corner.

Outdoor activities:

During my first year and in the midst of summer, I decided to  try some out door activities with some classes but it was largely a disaster. The kids are not used to being taken outside during class time, except when the school leaders orchestrate it. So when I took the kids in the playground, they were almost uncontrollable, even with the help of one or two of the students assisting me. The only thing which might have done it was a megaphone and a whip! What’s more it was totally impossible to get a boy hold to stand close to a girl or vice versa, when I asked them to form a circle. Probably if the school chiefs knew that I had taken classes outside, they’d have had a fit; it’s not something that is done, except at PE time.

Keeping cool:

Controlling such large classes can be a real challenge, especially if you are not feeling on top form. There have been many days when China has frustrated me so greatly and as a consequence I have gone into the classroom feeling less than at my best. I have to confess there has been a few times when I have lost my temper in the classroom – not because the kids are misbehaving but at their inability or unwillingness to answer even the simplest question. These kids know loads of grammar and vocabulary but often can’t put a simple sentence together verbally. Yes, I know that teachers are not supposed to lose their cool but I would challenge even the most experienced teacher to calmly deal with what China can throw at you and a classroom of seventy chattering children. Oh and that reminds me, it is not the done thing to send an errant student to see the head teacher because that is seen as failure on behalf of the teacher; so it’s up to you how you deal them. In fact, it is very unusual for the school to punish students for their poor behaviour because their parents pay for the kids to attend the school and the school does not want to fall out with the parents. Fortunately the great majority of children are well-behaved but for me it is the one or two who demonstrate a belligerence, which are the most difficult to deal with. If I do confront a student who refuses to co-operate, I generally send them out of the classroom and often they will then disappear but as my wife would tell me, “You try too much, don’t take teaching here so seriously.”

Teaching in China – early days

I had not been a teacher before – well not like this – so this was a totally new experience for me but one I did not feel uncomfortable with. I generally feel comfortable working with people and teaching oral English gave me a real outlet for my creativity, something previous jobs had never done. However it was a little daunting in those first few days to see sixty-five expectant faces looking curiously at me; all trying to work out what I was saying but the welcome of the children was fantastic and this helped me soon to feel at ease.

New routines

The start of any new job is always going to a difficult period, a time when you are settling into new routines and finding your feet, and the first few months for me were no different. The most difficult part however was for me to regulate my voice so the children had a chance of understanding me, and for them to get used to my voice. In the early days they probably understood very little but as time went by, they got much better at it and now I am constantly surprised about what they pick up on, often when I make a throwaway remark. However, I still use the practice of writing down my questions on the board and any other words or sentences I am dealing with; to add to this I will quite often ask students individually if they understand.

A steep learning curve

I must admit, I don’t think I made a very good job of teaching in those early months because it was a period when I was finding out what worked and what didn’t. I made loads of mistakes but I always to tried analyse what I was doing in an effort improve my teaching.

Large classes

Of the many things I have come to know about teaching in a classroom with such large student numbers, is the number of students who will not be paying attention at any one time. There are the obvious ones who are playing with their mobile phones, doing their homework, reading books or looking at themselves in a mirror and then there are the few who see the classroom as an opportunity to sleep. To add to this number there the talkers, who are clearly not listening to you but conversing with their friends and then there are the less obvious ones, who are gazing into space and perhaps looking totally bored. These are the obvious non-listeners but there are also those who look like they are listening but are really away with their own thoughts. So the number who are actually listening at any one time can easily be less than half, especially for the low ability classes.

Oral English

The problem is that for many students, they either have no interest in oral English or find it so difficult to understand all of what is being said and therefore cannot keep up, and this can easily cause their mind to wander. Of the former there is really nothing that can be done, except to try to make the lessons as interesting as possible and hope that perhaps they take an interest. Regarding the latter group, those whose English ability is poor and so cannot keep up; this is a difficult problem for the teacher. It is not possible to pace the lesson for the sake of the slowest, nor is it good to pace it for the brightest; the answer is to find a level which is somewhere in the middle but it can be difficult to know exactly where is the middle. The certain thing is, as an English teacher in junior or middle school; you are never going to capture the attention or interest of all, especially with such large numbers. What’s more in the situation where there is only one forty-five minutes session a week for each class, you have little chance of really helping them improve their spoken English. I believe the best you can hope for is to fuel their desire to not only keep learning but to take a real interest in the countries where English is the first language. I think this is such an important point because language in isolation is really meaningless. Language requires a country and countries are made up of people with their particular ways and habits. Introducing customs, traditions, sports, games and idiosyncrasies of English-speaking people into a language lesson will bring the lesson to life and grab the attention of the students.

So this is a brief account of my experience of teaching oral English in China but what about your experiences as a student being taught by a native speaker? I’d love to hear from you; whether your account is good or bad. Perhaps even if you’ve been taught by me? Let me know what you thought – good or bad!