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Teacher Journal: Sean

Sean (from Baltimore, Maryland - USA)
Taught at Yangzhou Polytechnic College, Yangzhou, China

Teach English in China

July -

The Adventure Begins

A world away in so many respects is the present state of my life. Since my arrival in Hong Kong on Friday morning I have done my best to trigger my brain into making structured sentences in my journal, but just couldn't muster the energy; the jet lag to Asia is harsh!

The flight from JFK (New York) to Anchorage, Alaska was a breeze as I nearly slept through the entire 7-hour flight. At about four AM, we were boarded the plane heading for Taipei, Taiwan. Then, I still had another hour and a half flight to Hong Kong, plus and hour ferry to Zhuhai, China. It was in the Taipei airport that I had the first realization of my distance I traveled. When an American arrives at the Chiang Kai-shek International Terminal, he knows he is far from home.

I flew a 737-800 to Hong Kong from Taipei. Seeing Hong Kong from an airplane was an experience for me. Perhaps the best way to visualize Hong Kong in one's head is to think about the scenery from an old Jetson's cartoon; the city looks more like a movie set. Skyscrapers are situated amongst randomly located hills (they may even qualify as small mountains), giving it the appearance like no other city on earth. It is hard to tell which is more dramatic, the hills or the skyscrapers. And amidst all of this development is one of the world's busiest seaports.

Once off the plane I had this amazing wonder of, "Oh my goodness, I'm in China!" After claiming baggage and going through passport control, I was met by three people from LanguageCorps' headquarters in Massachusetts USA and the founder of TEFL International, the training and certification organization.

I've wondered that it must take a certain state of mind to sign up for a 10-12 month teaching commitment overseas. Some people simply could not understand why I wanted to move to another country before I even had an employment contract from a hiring school. But, three teaching opportunities are already available for me once I have my certification - which I learned even before I started my TEFL certification class! As I approach the conclusion of TEFL training, more teaching opportunities will come my way to sift through.

LanguageCorps' head of operations was with me for the first five days in Zhuhai to see to it that everything was off to a good start. During these days, there were plenty of lunch and dinner meetings, as well as orientations and discussions of what I can expect in the coming year. I have a modest two-bedroom apartment for the five weeks of the TEFL training. I estimate the apartment is 650 to 700 square feet. It is on the 18th floor of a 20-story apartment building where several westerners (English teachers like me) reside. There are three parts of Zhuhai City due to the naturally mountainous landscape and my apartment looks over a section called Xiangzhou.

Bargain Living

The cost of living in Zhuhai is astounding to westerners that travel here. It is very cheap. For example, a few days ago I bought a muffin for the equivalent of 20 cents U.S. (in local Chinese currency, 8.28 RMB = US$1.00). One can have a dinner for four for US$7.50, an hour massage for US$3.05, a 20oz. bottle of water for US$0.25. Depending on how you choose to live, US$500 per month salary can be more than enough to cover basic expenses. To a westerner, shopping at a Chinese supermarket is an almost zoo-like experience. Live animals are common in markets - most are fish, amphibians and reptiles. Customers buy shrimp by simply putting their hands in a shallow tank, grabbing up live shrimp, and placing them into plastic bags.

Teach English in China

It's that simple! I saw tanks of live frogs in piles. I even saw tanks of live eels! The other parts of supermarkets offer similar products to what one would find in the west: kitchenware, household products, dry foods, refrigerated foods, school supplies, a small electronics section, etc.

TEFL Training

My TEFL certification classes are held at a private English school called Gateway Language Village (GLV). GLV offers a Total Immersion Experience (TIE) for Chinese people of all ages, but most are 15 to 25 years of age. GLV provides me three meals a day, five days a week, so long as I speak English to the students during meal time. Just a few nights ago, I had dinner with four students which quickly turned into fourteen students surrounding me with their undivided attention. I'd like to think it was because they thought I was cool, or because what I had to say piqued their interest. But, what these students were doing was fulfilling something they'd wanted to do for their whole lives - listening to a native speaker of English. This is one of the reasons why native English speakers are gold in China, particularly ones from the US. Most of the students I will have this year, have nearly mastered English grammar and are proficient readers of the language. However, they lack in listening and speaking skills because they have had Chinese English teachers up until this point teaching English from their perspective. My value to a hiring school is centered on my native tongue and interpretation of it. In fact, at a recent lunch, I was having a discussion with students about the different farm structures used in the US, than those used in western China. They were amazed by the idea that farms exist in America that span for thousands and thousands of acres. They were amazed that some tractors have wheels that are as tall as me and have a list price roughly equivalent to what they will earn over their entire life. A peasant farmer in western China plows a parcel of land with a similar size to most American backyards and until about ten years ago, was responsible for fulfilling a grain quota to the state paid at a fixed price.

My first class is from 8:45-10:15AM, followed by a 15-minute break. Class resumes at 10:30 and then we have lunch from 12:00 to 1:30PM. I typically spend my hour and a half eating lunch with the students, studying Mandarin, and sometimes go for a quick walk. The class schedule resumes from 1:30 - 4:45PM, with a break in between. There is a dinner served at 5:30PM everyday, which I go to most of the time. My evenings, for my first weeks anyway, typically were filled with studying. Right before I go to sleep and right after I wake up I take care of email correspondences. (I have a high-speed internet connection in my bedroom for US$9.66/month) Sometimes, I listen to NPR on Baltimore's WYPR 88.1 on the internet, or Chicago's WGN 720. The point is, if one so chooses, they can stay connected quite a bit.

The first week of TEFL class has been focused on English grammar, and phonology. The English grammar lessons have been humbling for most of the students. The students range from the youngest (me) of 23 to 67 years old. Our TEFL class has 14 students in all, with backgrounds that go all over the globe, (well, at least all the English speaking countries: England, USA, New Zealand, and Australia). We all bring a wide variety of reasons for doing this TEFL class. Some of the students have lived abroad for years and reside here in China and want a career change. There are others, like myself, who are just looking for a 12-month experience.

On the Saturday of my second weekend, my Corps Advocate (local support staff) from LanguageCorps and I went to buy my cell phone, (part of the services offered by LanguageCorps). At first, I thought the primary use of the phone was to be an anytime, anywhere connection for international calls, but as we have ironed out some of the wrinkles with the program, a calling card for international calls was the best option. So the cell phone is used for domestic purposes in China only. It has already domesticated me somewhat, because I have had to learn to read the Chinese characters that are displayed on the phones screen. Having a cell phone has made me a bit closer to a total immersion experience with Chinese.

Teach English in China

Student Teaching

Student teaching has required duties of me I never realized that all my elementary school teachers had to handle: the writing of a detailed, minute-by-minute lesson plan. The school where we TEFL trainees started the student teaching portion of this certification is a local middle school in Zhuhai called, "No. 5 Middle School".

Teaching in the non-air-conditioned classrooms in the sweltering heat to beginning English students has left some of us with the impression that it is the "No. 5 Proving Ground". The students were well behaved; in fact they were highly motivated as this was a voluntary summer English program. The Chinese classroom is different in many ways than to its US counterpart. Students do not raise their hands; they are called on by the teacher. Typically, the teacher will not ask the class to give a "confirmation vote" on a student's answer, as if to ask, "Is he right, class?"

The beginning of class is time to put on the happy face and get ready to model structured English sentences to the students. During the first few days of student teaching, I was stubbornly repeating to myself, "this is not why I came to China!", "I'm not good with kids", or "I wish I was more creative". As soon as I quit my whining I was coming to realize that this task of teaching basic English to youngsters was a challenge. I was willing to pour effort into this because I knew it was making me more adaptable. I had to shed my dry lecture style for something more animated, silly; something that is more likely to be seen on a stage. The last time I had been around kids as a teacher was when I was a sailing instructor. What made me love to teach kids back then was that I loved sailing so much. I would teach anyone. This love I had for sailing was evident in the animated and exciting methods I used with the kids, just as it was evident that I had little concern for the core dialogue method. It was in drawing on those memories of being out on the water with kids of the Lake Geneva Sailing School that I found the needed source of youthful animation and excitement as I taught basic English to the Chinese students.

September -

Realities of Contract Negotiation

I have realized that LanguageCorps' TEFL certification course was something of a four-week English teacher boot camp. It is my fifth week in this country and a new direction is in front of me in my new placement at Yangzhou Polytechnic College. On Tuesday, I departed on a Southern China Airlines flight to head to my new teaching assignment. The plane landed around 7:00 PM, and I was met by the Head of Foreign Affairs for Yangzhou Polytechnic College, her daughter, and the school driver. I noted the head of foreign affairs to be a very anxious woman…nice, but anxious. Her spoken English was pretty weak, so I mostly talked through the translation skills of her daughter. We sat down for dinner at the airport, where they started to negotiate the prices on the menu with the staff. Normally I wouldn't notice such a thing in China (bargaining is so common here). But then I thought, "I hope they don't try to negotiate my monthly salary like the sushi they are about to order." During the dinner, as we discussed the nuts and bolts of the teaching contract I was to sign, my bargaining concerns did not improve, but got worse. The Head of Foreign Affairs, Ju Hui, was explaining that the monthly salary was 3500RMB (roughly equivalent to US$ 425.) for 16 lessons per week. I countered that the monthly salary was to be 4000RMB (US$490.), which I'd confirmed with the school's recruiter before I hopped on a plane to Nanjing.

Throughout the whole contract negotiation process I was in touch with my Corps Advocate Shireen, (also my TEFL instructor) in Zhuhai. There was a section in the contract that said I would pay a penalty of US$1,000 if I broke the contract and had to leave. I told Shireen about that, which she found it unacceptable and atypical. Mrs. Ju also said there was 18 hours of teaching each week, and that they only would pay 60RMB per hour for overtime. All of this new information the school was putting on the table was quite different from what was communicated to me before I got on the plane. In the end, working with Shireen, I omitted points of the contract that I wouldn't sign to, and added a few particulars. I recall at one point in the process of solidifying the contract Mrs. Ju laughingly explained to me that her experience had taught her that Americans are more serious about their contracts than are Chinese. I did not want to be unpleasant to her, so simply said, "Yes, we are."

An important point to know before signing a contract with a Chinese institution is they normally prefer verbal contracts and therefore are not experienced contract writers. In America, written contracts are considered binding agreements because there is a legal system to back them. In China, there is no legal system to support written contracts. For instance, Yangzhou Polytechnic College does not have a lawyer that writes the employment contracts for their foreign teachers or for any of their teachers. If there is ever a disagreement or breach in contract, I suppose they might go to court, but the winner of the case is the person who is going to pay the judge the most money. The value of having a local ally (in my case, the LanguageCorps Advocate) becomes obvious pretty quickly!

New Apartment, New Start

Once we came to an agreement on the details of the 10-month contract and signed, I returned to my apartment and started a major cleaning and rearranging project. It is quite nice - furnished, with hardwood floors and the walls painted a base white. The floor plan is divided into four sections. The entrance to the apartment opens to the eating area; off to the left is the kitchen separated by a door that slides into the wall; off to the right is an air-conditioned den/office, and off the immediate right is an air-conditioned bedroom. Overall, the unit is about 600 square feet, plus a patio. The kitchen and bathroom are finished with ceramic floors and walls. The bathroom, which is attached to the kitchen, serves as a laundry room, shower, and toilet, all in one. Next to the shower is a western toilet (not just the regular ‘hole in the ground'), then the sink and finally the washing machine. The den/office came with a desk and chair, along with a massive wardrobe that covers one of the four walls. The bedroom is large with two single beds with night stands, and a TV and DVD player that sit on a corner table.

Overall, the living conditions that the school provides the foreign teachers are far better than what they offer their Chinese teachers that live on campus. In most cases I am paid at least double (sometimes triple) what native Chinese teachers earn. Other teachers here do not live in an apartment as nice as mine. This is not to boast, but to understand how much Chinese need foreign teachers to teach English. In most cases, (like my school) schools will go out of their way to make sure that their foreign teachers are happy.

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