TEFL Tip Tuesday: Cultural Differences and How to Handle Them

If you are a TEFL teacher then you are probably about to move to a completely new country with completely new and sometimes confusing cultural differences. The first thing I want to say is; don’t see this a bad thing. It can be and is a wonderful learning experience and a way to open your mind to other cultures so embrace them!

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We weren’t told about the Sports Meeting Opening Ceremony until we showed up to empty classrooms!

Cultural differences can present themselves in some weird and wonderful ways, in and out of the classroom. They can range from kids falling asleep in class to fellow teachers giving you little to no information about what is happening at the school. It can be frustrating and it can seem like they are doing these things because you aren’t performing well as a teacher but let me assure you that unless someone has come up and told you that you aren’t doing a good job or that something needs to change then these occurrences are nothing personal!

I have had kids fall asleep in class before, this tends to happen mostly in my middle school classes, I do not take it personally and I often leave them to sleep unless the class is laughing at them. The reason I don’t let this affect my class is because I know how hard these kids work every day. They are often awake well before me, with their school day starting with a 6:30am run around the campus, and are still in school when I’m climbing into bed for a Netflix marathon, they finish classes at 10pm. I design my classes as a safe and fun environment for my students to learn and practice English in, so I never get mad at a kid if they happen to fall asleep in class.

In the U.K. we are used to having instant access to all the school’s timetable information at the beginning of the year. We know in August when the last day of school will be at the end of the year and we know exactly what days off we will receive for each holiday. This is not always the case in China and I have learnt to just go with the flow a bit. This cultural difference can definitely be the most frustrating of all the ones I have come across but the best advice I can give is just to stay calm and every now and then give your school a gentle reminder that you might need to know how many days off you will receive over the Spring Festival so you can start booking your travels. Most of the time if they aren’t giving you any information it is genuinely because they themselves don’t have it yet, my school has to wait for the government to tell them when the exams will be before they can tell me when my last day of term is and that is just the way it is. This semester it meant that I was told the Friday before my last week of term that I only had a week left and it meant changing my lesson plans completely to combine two weeks into one and abandoning the rest of them. A mild annoyance but in the long run it gave me a longer holiday and meant I didn’t have to work on Christmas or my Birthday so I wasn’t complaining!

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Cultural differences mean that my students had an exam on Christmas day, something that would no doubt cause riots back in the U.K.

At the end of the day every country is different and if you can relax and embrace those differences you will grow a better understanding of the world and how it works. How we handle these differences can vastly change our experience of a country and I have always found that calm and understanding gets me further than annoyance and anger. So, be aware that things aren’t going to be the same as home and incorporate them into your understanding of the country and even your daily routine and you will come out the other end will the best experience you can get!

For more TEFL tips why not check out one of these posts?

TEFL Tip Tuesday: Laughter is the Best Teaching Method

It doesn’t matter if you are teaching six-year olds, teenagers or adults; if your lessons are entertaining then your students will be engaged from the word Hello. One of the easiest ways to make a lesson entertaining is to use material that will get them laughing. How you do this is really up to you and your personality but by linking the new vocabulary to such a strong emotional response the words are almost guaranteed to stick in their heads! If you are a bit on the shy side then maybe your form of comedy is to include a funny GIF instead of a still image when introducing new language, if you are more outgoing then maybe acting out the new vocabulary in an over dramatic way is the best option for you. I use a mix of both in my lessons and it really does lift heads from desks when the subject matter isn’t all that interesting but has to be taught (somethings are unavoidable if they are part of the curriculum).

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Say Cheese!

 

I can vouch for this from both the teacher point of view and the student point of view having sat in various language classes since I was in primary school. Like most people who went to school in the U.K. I studied a language (our school taught German) from the age of about 8 until the age of 15. The main phrases I remember from German are almost useless “I have one Rabbit” being just one example. The word for Rabbit in German is “Kaninchen” and we found this word very funny in second year of Academy (also known as middle school outside of Scotland) it was just a fun word to say! As a result, this phrase has stuck with me into adult life whereas most of the useful phrases have slipped from my mind…

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Xplore Asia Class of August 2018, Thailand.

Another phrase I can think of is more recent and comes from my time in Thailand last year. As odd as it sounds this example does not come from one of our Thai language classes (although there is one that comes to mind when I think of those lessons, but it is too rude for the blog. Those from the course might remember the Thai word for a certain green vegetable that caused a few smirks from orientation week). No this comes from a bonus Afrikaans lesson given to us by our wonderful TEFL instructor Jako. In order to demonstrate his teaching methods to the class, he presented his Afrikaans lesson to us as if he were teaching English to a class of Thai children. I don’t know how many people reading this will agree with me, and I don’t know how many people reading this will even know any Afrikaans but the language is quite similar to English (it is a hybrid language of all the colonies that invaded and colonised South Africa so there are bound to be some similarities). The four of us sitting towards the front of the class definitely saw the similarities, especially when it came to one phrase in particular; “die kussing is op die bed”. Now, I don’t know what happened exactly… whether it was a mix of four similar personalities sitting together, the high energy and enthusiasm that Jako brought to every lesson or just the fact that the sentence was pretty much exactly the same as the sentence in would be English; but the four of us were reduced to a quartet of giggling school girls! I can tell you one thing though, I haven’t forgotten how to say “The pillow is on the bed” in Afrikaans… (yet another very useful phrase in a foreign language, I know).

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Where is the pillow ladies?

What I hope these examples show is that if you bring a bit of high energy contagious fun into your classroom then the language is more likely to stick, and not just the obscure phrases. Use this with everything. An example that really got my teenagers laughing recently was during my lesson on directions; I would ask them how to get from the classroom to my office. As they were telling me these directions I would act them out turning left and right and going straight until I got to an obstacle or a window or a door. Then I would either pretend to climb out the window, over the desk or I would actually just walk out the door. This did result in them purposefully aiming me towards these things, but as long as they are using the language I don’t mind standing on a few tables.

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Go Straight, Go Straight!

For more TEFL tips why not check out one of these posts?

TEFL Tip Tuesday: Back it Up!

Computers are unreliable. Computers in Chinese schools are extra unreliable! There will be times when you arrive in class only to be told by a student that the computer is not working today. What are you going to do?! You spent a whole hour on your lesson plan, you have funny videos to show them and word games that require the code you stored ever so safely on your powerpoint presentation but didn’t think to write down in your notebook!

One of my first ever lessons the computer didn’t work so I had to do my whole lesson using the blackboard.

 

This all sounds very dramatic and worst-case scenario, but it can happen. Unless you want to sit in silence with your kids for an hour or, even worse, sing that lovely song you had downloaded and planned your lesson around out loud yourself… Having a backup plan for days when technology fails you is vital to your TEFL experience.

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My lesson planning notebook.

The first thing I advise you to do is write your entire lesson plan in a notebook, I have a specific notebook for planning my lessons and while it might seem like a waste of time to write it all down when you have created a perfectly good powerpoint, let me tell you it is an important tool to have. (If you aren’t a fan of handwriting your lesson then you can always use that handy lesson plan template they told you about back when you were learning the ropes. Type it up on your computer, print it out and carry it with you. Personally, I am a fan of the hand-written lesson plan but that is just me!) The reason I encourage you to have your lesson plan to hand at all times is because, when you think about it, your original lesson can most likely be adapted to work without using a computer. Some schools don’t even have computers in the classrooms! So apart from missing out an interesting video or funny gif you can present each class with the same lesson, computer or no computer.

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School in Thailand don’t usually have computers…

Say for example you are doing a lesson on personality traits, this could rely heavily on a computer for video examples of different personalities. Maybe you have a word game for a warmer, write this word game down in your notebook as well as all the possible answers you can think of (or that the internet told you about, but where’s the fun in that?) It might seem like common sense but honestly sometimes I create the warmer on my laptop and completely forget to write down the actual game in my book, I’ll open my notebook to see that all I have under the warmer heading is “word grid game”. GREAT, AILEEN!! What word did you decide on? What order did you put the letters in so that it isn’t obvious what word you they are trying to find? And what are some answers to the game so that when the students tell you it is too difficult you can rapid fire off some words to show them how easy it actually is?! The game can be easily transcribed from your notebook onto the board and actually I usually write the game on the board anyway to make sure everyone in the class can see it.

Crisis averted, you make it through the warmer and now you move on to presentation, this is where those videos would come in handy. The first thing I recommend is to have flashcards printed out, this was not possible at my school as we did not have access to a printer but if you can print flash cards then do print flash cards!! The second tip I have for this situation is to break out your inner artist and get drawing. Every school will have one of three things; a whiteboard, a blackboard or paper. Write the words alongside little illustrations showing what the word means, you may not be the best at drawing, but this is just an opportunity to have a laugh with your students about your artistic talents or lack thereof…

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All the emotions that grade one know… I know some of them aren’t emotions but they are six so I let them off with it!

Then comes the practice section of your lesson. What were those question and answer couplets again? If you power point was working, they would be right at the front of you mind but there is no computer today so what can you do? Have no fear the lesson planning notebook saves the day again! Write down your questions and answers in your lesson plan and not just on your presentation. This actually helps whether you have a working computer or not. Trying to remember the questions and answers with your back to the computer is just asking for a clever student to correct you on your sentence structure. A quick look at your notebook lesson plan and you are sorted. Just make sure that any changes you make to your powerpoint you also make to your notes!

Production is easy, the students do all the hard work there. You can close your book and watch the magic (or chaos depending on the class) happen as your students communicate the new language with each other. No technology needed!

Ok so this is all well and good but what if your lesson can’t be translated from digital to analogue quite so easily? Well I admit that is a bit of a dilemma. The best thing to do in this situation is to have a collection of games that you can fall back on if it is indeed a computer free day. (I will be writing a post soon all about my favourite TEFL games and why they work so keep an eye out for that). There are so many good games out there and the kids will love the fact that they “don’t have to do work” for a whole lesson. Of course, these are educational games so they are still learning… just don’t tell them that.

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It is always handy to have a set of pictionary cards on you!

The last thing I have to say on the theme of having a backup would be to literally have a backup. I have two usb sticks, this might seem like overkill, but my school’s computers tend to occasionally corrupt my usb which is less than ideal. There was even one class that I completely avoided plugging my usb into the computer, for pretty much the whole semester because every time I did it would stop working after that class! So my advice is to save it to your computer, save it to your external hard-drive and then save it on two usb sticks. Take it from someone how has lost a whole semester’s worth of lesson plans… BACK IT UP!

For more TEFL tips why not check out one of these posts?

TEFL Tip Tuesdays: Speak Their Language.

Welcome back to TEFL Tip Tuesdays, this week I want to focus on speaking the same language as your students. I know this sounds counterproductive, but stick with me…

When introducing a new topic in English it is important to keep students interested and the easiest way to do this is to make it relatable to their own lives. When I say speak their language, what I mean is use their interests to communicate the topic to them. Find out what movies they like, the music they listen to, what they do on the weekend and translate that information into a fun and engaging lesson plan. My eighth graders are really into Marvel films so it is easy to get them engaged in a conversation if it has something to do with Captain America or Spiderman. I recently did a lesson where I asked my students to write me a scary story and you would be surprised how many of them involved Marvel characters saving the day!

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I wasn’t looking forward to teaching teenagers, but they’re not so bad really.

These themes are so simple to work into all stages of your lesson from warmer, to practice and production, all the way to your cooler. It is even better if you share the interest and are able to show off a bit of your knowledge on the subject. For example; a lesson on the future can be easily focused around Marvel movies because of the very nature of the movies themselves, use the ideas from the movies to inspire a conversation about how we might live in the future. Will people have superpowers in the future? Will we travel to other planets in the future? These are some great questions that get students thinking in future tense without them even realising they are learning something new, because the theme is so familiar to them.

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Charades is a fun cooler to end a lesson on movies.

If you take an interest in your students you will soon notice a change in attitude towards you. It can be quite common for students to see the foreign teacher’s class as a time where they can switch off and stop learning for one hour of the day. While I think it is important for students to be relaxed in my classroom I obviously still want them to learn something from me. A classroom full of teenagers can be a challenge to control, they believe they have much better things to be talking about than the rules of the English language. Gaining their respect by getting to know them, even a little bit, is one of the best ways to control your classroom. If even one student starts to actively participate in your lesson then they will want the rest of the class to play along too, this will cause a ripple effect and soon you will find that it is the students asking for people to be quiet and listen instead of you!

For more TEFL tips why not read one of these posts:

 

Staying Put: 10 reasons I can’t leave China quite yet.

I am about a month away from completing my internship here in Sanxiang and the original plan was to move on from here to Vietnam at the beginning of August… but I just can’t quite do that, turns out China isn’t finished with me yet. I have been offered a job  at the middle school here. It might not be teaching my adorable little first graders, but it meant a chance to stay in China for another six months, an opportunity I just couldn’t turn down!

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Blue skies on campus.

There are so many amazing things about living and working in China, but I managed to somehow slim them down into my top ten reasons why I’m staying in China:

 

1.Life is Simple: I’m not going to lie, I found life in the U.K. stressful, the pressure once you come out of university to go straight into a job and start your career is a lot to handle! This is especially true when, like me, you aren’t even one hundred percent sure a career in your chosen field of study is what you really want. I was stuck working in the same part time job I had taken to get me through university. I was working to make money and as much as I enjoyed parts of waitressing, it was obviously not where I wanted to be. I tried to find a grad job (admittedly I didn’t try very hard) but found the process anxiety inducing. Some may say the same about uprooting your life and moving it half way around the world but for me it just made sense. Life in China is a simple as working at a job I love, it might not pay much but that has never been a motivation for me in terms of finding work. The hardest part of my job is planning a lesson that will keep forty six-year-olds entertained for forty minutes, then I get to go home and relax for the rest of the day! The most stressed out I have felt since arriving in China was the weekend where my USB stick went walk about and I thought I had lost all my lessons, then Monday morning it turned up in class, simple as that. This is possibly the least stressed out I have been in my adult life, that alone is reason enough for me to stay.

 

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You try being stressed out when there are two hot springs in your town.

 

2. The people are friendly: It is impossible to walk anywhere without someone saying “hello” to you or waving at you from across the street. You smile at someone walking past and they smile right back at you. Westerners in China are somewhat of a rarity which means that quite often you will be stared at but not once has it made me feel uncomfortable or weird. They aren’t staring to be rude, but because they have most likely never seen a westerner before, that and the fact that pale skin is considered beautiful here and I have never been able to catch a tan in my 24 years living on this Earth! Almost anywhere you go in China you will be asked for your photograph, if you want to feel like a celebrity then this is the place for you! Maybe this is just because I live in a relatively small town, but I don’t think I have been anywhere in China where the people aren’t genuinely friendly. It is such a contrast to back home where, my tiny little village aside, smiles are most often met with a blank face at best and a suspicious look at worst. It’s just the British way, but I much prefer to walk through life smiling outwardly and receiving smiles in return.

 

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I challenge you to go anywhere in China and not get asked for a photograph. (this photo actually has an interesting story but I’ll save that for later)

3. Everyone wants to help you: Not only are Chinese people incredibly friendly but they also have the most generous spirits. They are so helpful it is almost unbelievable, and they don’t want anything for it. No matter if you are friends or complete strangers they will help you and expect nothing in return, except maybe a WeChat add. I actually had a shop assistant insist on helping me pick a deodorant only last week. I know it is their job, but where in the U.K. could you go and have someone actively try and help you pick out a deodorant without it being considered ‘a little bit weird”? Obviously, I needed no help in this task and yet I received it anyway, I already knew what deodorant I wanted before I went in there to buy it, but how do you explain that when your Mandarin level is below beginner? I also walked out with a VIP card so no complaints here!

 

4. The food: Unpopular opinion but I am not a fan of traditional British food. I find it bland, boring and mostly fully of meat, the only British tradition I am partial to is maybe “Chip Shop Chips” and even then, I would never say I crave them. In China finding vegetarian food is so easy and it’s not just a boring old salad like everywhere in the U.K. seems to want to feed us vegetarians. My first choice in just about every restaurant is, of course, egg fried rice but I have also found a love for Hot Pot (just don’t pick the spicy option), Chinese BBQ (grilled garlic aubergine and spicy tofu is incredible) and my new favourite meal Egg and Tomato. This is served everywhere from the canteen to higher end restaurants and I have even learnt to cook it for myself, I love it that much! The food in China is just some of the best food I have ever eaten. I eat so much healthier here and I actually want to cook for myself. For once in my life I’m not living off of pasta, grated cheese and tomato ketchup (although I’m not going to lie, there is always a bottle of ketchup in the fridge for emergencies).

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Egg fried rice IN A PINEAPPLE!
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So simple but so good.

5. Cost of living: Honestly, I am not lying when I say I earn next to no money, I am an intern after all, but my small monthly allowance is more than enough to live on and that is taking into account my ridiculous shopping addiction! I can do a weekly shop for around ten pounds if I am smart about it. If you know where to look for it, fruit and veg are so cheap it feels like stealing. I take away plain rice from the canteen for no cost every day to use when I cook my evening meal and even eating out never costs more than a tenner at a time (I’ve even seen us have a meal for two for under a fiver)! Everything is cheaper here, even alcohol; a cocktail can cost as little as three pound and there are no entry fees for clubs or bars. I get my nails done every few weeks, something I would never be able to afford back in the U.K. but here it only costs about six pounds! The cost of living in China made the decision to stay here all that easier.

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So pretty and so cheap!
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Cocktails in Friends Bar are only £3!

6. Public Transport: This is something else that is amazingly cheap here in China, but not at the sacrifice of quality or cleanliness. I have used the subway, busses and DiDi (China’s answer to Uber) to get around in China and all three have been pleasant experiences. My most used form of transportation is probably the bus, it is cheaper than DiDi and there is no subway in Sanxiang as it is not a big enough town for such a luxury. The bus costs about 50 – 80p to travel between towns, some of which are about an hour away from us here in Sanxiang (imagine getting the bus from Aberdeen to Dundee for 80p). The busses are always on time, clean and they are, possibly most importantly, air conditioned! Take note First Bus and Stagecoach, China knows how to run a bus service.

 

7. Speaking Mandarin: I think learning another language is probably a plus side no matter where you choose to live abroad but honestly nothing makes me happier than when I say a full sentence (well an almost full sentence) to one of my students in Mandarin and I watch it blow their little minds! “Teacher you spoke Chinese!” and then they start talking to me one hundred miles an hour in Mandarin and I have to try and tell them that actually “Teacher only knows that one sentence in Chinese and now I have no idea what you are saying to me.” In all seriousness though I have never been the best when it comes to learning languages, despite really wanting to be able to, so when I pick up on random words or phrases that Chinese people around me are saying I feel like I have really achieved something. I am still nowhere near even being able to have a conversation in Mandarin and don’t even ask me to read the characters, but the longer I stay here the more I will pick up and it is definitely one of the best things about living and working in China.

 

8. There is so much to explore: I have been in China three and a half months and I have visited three of its provinces, I have barely scratched the surface of what this incredible country has to offer. Of the three provinces I have travelled to each one has me with a completely new and different experience. Firstly, there was my week in Beijing for orientation, this was a big city experience like I have never had before. from the bright lights to the crowded markets, the incredible great wall of china to the peaceful gardens of the Forbidden City; Beijing was a month of experiences packed into one week. Then there is the unreal natural beauty of Zhangjiajie Natural Forest Park in the province of Hunan. Sandstone Quartz pillars as far as the eye can see and more rain forest than anyone person could hope to explore in one life time all make Zhangjiajie feel like another planet and don’t forget the imminent threat of a monkey ambush to keep you on your toes. Finally, we have my current home province of Guangdong, I am discovering more and more about this area of China every day. I am still finding stumbling upon new places in my own town of Sanxiang let alone the bigger cities of Zhuhai, Zhongshan and Guangzhou. How can I leave now when China still has so much more to offer?!

 

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If you don’t know where this bar is you’ll never find it!

9. I feel inspired here: I have always been a creative person, I didn’t choose to study a creative subject to pay the bills, but I had fallen out of love with my creative side back home. Maybe this is what happens when you work so hard at one thing for a long period of time (try six years of studying art and design in the same city you grew up in), but I think I just desperately needed a change of scenery. China definitely has no shortage of inspiration, whether that be for photography, blog post or any other creative projects I manage to sink my teeth into while I’m here! Living in China has definitely allowed me to revisit my creative side from a different angle and I find myself actively searching for places to go in my spare time that allow me to practice my photography, write an interesting blog post or even create exciting content for a video.

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Sunset is my favourite time of day

10. No two days are the same: When I tell people I teach the same lesson plan twenty times a week to roughly eight hundred students I guess I can understand why they might think my life can become a bit repetitive at times but every day is a completely different experience. What works in one class might be a complete disaster in another, what keeps one class entertained for forty minutes might only hold another classes attention for ten minutes and it is through these challenges that I find myself constantly motivated. At home I think I had fallen into a rut, working four or five days a week and spending at least the other two or three (if not more) in one bar or another, occasionally a club if we were feeling particularly adventurous. I’m not saying I hated my life at home or that I wasn’t having fun but I knew the world had more to offer me than this and I also knew that I had more to offer the world. “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” Maybe one page is enough for some people but for me, I need to fill the book and then start a new one.

 

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My first graders make me laugh everyday.

So there we have it, I’m staying in China! Not forever, there are too many countries out there for me to pick just one and stick to it, but for now if you need me this is where I’ll be…