Below are the 5 biggest mistakes that I made when I first went to teach English in China. I’m sharing them so you can learn from them without going through the pain and frustration that I went through. Don’t do what I did!
1. I hung out mainly with foreigners.
I was so freaked out by the foreign culture of China and the Chinese language barrier, I initially hung out almost exclusively with other foreigners. Other foreign teachers from my school and I would go out on our days off and invariably at least one person would start complaining and start saying sentences that started with, “In the US we” or “In Australia we.” I could be having a great day but after listening to my fellow teachers moan about how backward China was, I started feeling negative too.
Luckily, after my first month, I decided to be more outgoing with the Chinese people around me and that changed everything. I got invited to people’s homes and parties and was treated like a celebrity just because I spoke English. People were so nice to me. I still only spoke a little bit of Chinese but when I saw how excited they were about the effort I was making with their language, I got even more motivated to learn Chinese and I began to pick it up faster. I started asking my more fluent English-speaking Chinese friends about their culture and why they did what they did. Turns out that some of the things they do differently from foreigners really make sense!
Below are the 5 biggest mistakes that I made when I first went to teach English in China. I’m sharing them so you can learn from them without going through the pain and frustration that I went through. Don’t do what I did!
2. I didn’t ask for help.
I worried that requesting help from other teachers would annoy them and make me look stupid. Moreover, I definitely didn’t want to ask my administrators for help for fear that they’d decide they made a bad decision hiring me, and then logically, they’d fire me. Because of this, I spent my first 2 months teaching in China wandering around like a dork. I probably taught about as effectively as a dork too.
If you want help, ASK! Your coworkers will almost always be understanding and helpful toward first-year teachers, but if that turns out to not be the case, realize how important this is to your and students’ success, and ask them anyways. Some teachers are lucky enough to have access to free ongoing teaching help from their TEFL / TESOL certification teacher or recruiter like and but I didn’t.
If you’re really struggling, your school administrators will be more understanding if you come to them first and are truthful about your struggles. Don’t just say everything is fine, when it’s not!
3. I worried too much.
I worried about some valid things like where to find a good face mask so I wouldn’t die early from all the pollution I was breathing, how could I keep the super-hyper four-year-old boy in my morning class from bouncing off the walls, and how to ask out the girl I saw on the bus almost every morning. However, I also worried about stupid things needlessly like was I going to be fired (whenever I was called into my boss’s office), if my friends back home would forget me, and what were the people who stared at me thinking.
Now I realize that if I teach my students reasonably effective lessons and show them that I believe in their ability, that they’ll learn. I’ve stopped trying to be perfect. My new motto is, “Aim for excellence, not perfection.” I realized that my students needed this philosophy too. So many Chinese students, especially those in high school and college, are obsessed with perfection and it causes them so much stress. Now I purposely try to teach them that their self worth is not determined by their grades.
4. I lived too far from work.
Traffic in most of China’s cities is horrendous! I wish that I had realized up front the value of living near my school because that first year I ended up with a one hour commute on three different buses every day. Chinese buses and subways are jam packed with people during the morning and afternoon drive times and I was rarely able to get a seat during my commute. Taking a taxi would have been less stressful but more epensive and just as slow. I thought I was smart renting a cheaper apartment further from the city center but it wasn’t worth the savings.
My second year I wised up and got a smaller apartment near my school and now my commute is only 10 minutes, hallelujah! I also learned that there are alternatives to standard apartment rentals which require 4-5 months of rent up front. My second time around I found a month-to-month rental with no deposit on a website that is China’s equivalent of AirBnB. Oh, another benefit of my smaller apartment is that it’s easier to heat and air condition because my building and many others in China don’t have central heating and space heaters are used in the winters.
5. It mattered too much that students liked me.
When I first started teaching I had the crazy idea that I could be friends with my students and be “the cool teacher” while still maintaining an orderly classroom. Believe me, I tried it and it doesn’t work. Well, let me qualify that. It doesn’t work when your students are kids. It actually did work when I was teaching college students and adults but unfortunately, most of my students were kids.
After one week of teaching my children’s English classes, I was ready to pull my hair out. Thankfully, a fellow teacher saw me struggling and loaned me his copy of “Teaching with Love and Logic” by Jim Fay. I read it nonstop during my next two days off and it totally changed my classroom management style. It took a while to get the hang of it but it started working from day one and now I have my own copy to lend out to new teachers.