In the past three years I have become addicted to travelling – cramming my backpack to the brim with clothes and a battered Lonely Planet book, disappearing for a few months at a time and exploring some amazing places. All pretty standard stuff really.
But this summer, when I applied to teach English in China for a month, I wasn’t too sure what to expect.
Would teaching in one place for a month give me as good an experience as if I were to just see the country by myself?
Zhongshan, Guangdong Province, China
There are lots of organisations that offer teaching abroad placements – I went with AIESEC, a student run organisation.
Getting to grips with the culture
Although travelling for an extended period of time is guaranteed to give you an insight into a country’s culture, nothing beats living in a foreign country for giving you a taste of the culture. Living in another country means that you are rapidly immersed in another way of life – for me this meant sleeping on a wooden board every night, eating rice for EVERY meal (I cannot stress how much rice I consumed) and going to the toilet in what can only be described as a hole in the ground.
If I hadn’t been thrown head first into Chinese culture, I may never have come across such weird and wonderful food…
or mastered such fashionable headwear ….….nor would I have learned the dance to Gangnam Style.
Any self-respecting traveller knows that if you really want to get to know a place, you should get to know the people –there really is no substitute to interacting with locals for understanding the similarities and differences between cultures. Teaching a class of Chinese teenagers not only helped improve my own confidence and communication skills, but educated me in terms of contemporary Chinese culture- I’m sure that if I had gone to China just to travel I would have picked up basic Mandarin for ‘please’ and ‘thank-you’, but I doubt I would have learned the cheesy Chinese chat up lines and hilarious insults that the kids were desperate to teach me!
Teaching the children about my own cultural norms was a window into their own beliefs and lifestyle- they wanted to discuss everything, from politics to pop stars. By talking to the same students every day, I got to learn a huge deal about Chinese culture, not by being shown the ‘best bits’ by a tour guide or museum placard, but by talking to the people who actually lived there!
Travelling and Sightseeing
I have to admit that when I was teaching, I was sometimes very frustrated about the fact that I was stuck in one place. Here I was, over 5,000 miles away from home, and instead of scouring every inch of the country as fast as I could, I would be teaching and living in the same school for a month. I started my internship feeling claustrophobic, thinking that by taking a teaching job, I had limited my experience to one region of China.
In reality, this couldn’t have been further from the truth!
In 8 weeks I managed to visit Dubai, Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Beijing, Singapore and parts of the Phillippines – once I had paid the initial cost of a flight to China, internal flights and stopovers meant that I could continue my travels within Asia relatively cheaply.
Although the cost of living in Asia is substantially lower than in the U.K, the start-up cost of getting there is always hefty (around £650 for a flight if you are really savvy). Some companies will pay you for teaching (I received just under £550 for a month’s teaching), so it’s important to remember that you are going for the experience, and not to make money.
With many teaching internships, accommodation and food is often covered by the partner company, and so all you really need to think about is funding any travelling afterwards.
Was it easy?
Easy is NOT the word I would use to describe my teaching experience in China. Although my contract guaranteed that I would receive a week’s teacher training, the school didn’t provide this and my first day compromised of being pushed into a classroom of 30 children, with the advice being only to ‘teach’. Looking out at the classroom to see 30 blank faces staring expectantly at me meant I had to improvise pretty quickly, and after a few hours of panicked ad-libbing I soon got the hang of teaching. Since returning to the U.K, I have spoken to a few friends who taught abroad on similar teaching programmes offered by different agencies – it seems that a lot of them were given a great deal more training than I was, and so I would recommend researching the reputation of your employer to make sure you get the best deal.
I absolutely loved teaching English in China, and my experiences taught me that you don’t have to always be on the road to see a country- I saw and experienced so much of Chinese culture during my stay. Teaching in a foreign country allows you to develop confidence as well as invaluable skills, so this is one trip I’d definately recommend!
My 5 tips for teaching abroad
1.) Do your research
There are plenty of organisations that facilitate teaching abroad, but from my experience some deliver better training and pay better wages than others. Don’t just work for the first company that you come across! Research the company you are interested in working for, read recent reviews and accounts written on forums, and talk to somebody that has already taught abroad if possible.
Go Overseas is just one website that offers reviews of teaching and internship programmes.
2.) Read the small print
Are you a volunteer or a paid teacher? How many hours a week are you contracted to teach? Is food paid for? Before signing a contract, make sure you know what you are agreeing too!
If you’re a little on the shy side and are considering teaching abroad, I would definitely recommend doing a small amount of preparation before you leave for your respective country, as there really is no guarantee that you will be trained, or even have time to plan your first set of lessons! Prepare an ‘about me’ presentation to introduce yourself to your first class so that you aren’t stuck for ideas during your first lesson – and remember to include lots of pictures of your home friends and family.
If you are stuck for ideas, British Council offers free online teaching rescources which are a great starting point for lessons.
4.) Be prepared for anything!
Although you may be hired as an English teacher, the school you are working for may expect you to help with extracurricular activities – art, dance, football, you name it. Be prepared to get involved with these activities, and remember, just because you couldn’t draw at school doesn’t mean you can’t teach drawing now!
5.) Embrace the experience
Teaching abroad can sometimes be overwhelming or challenging, but my best advice would be to just try and enjoy it. Overcoming the challenges will the good memories that you remember once you return home!