China Diaries: Christmas is Banned!

23rd December – 29th December 2019

I went into Christmas week with high hopes, they were soon dashed! Last week I asked my point of contact with the English department if it would be ok to do a Christmas lesson on Wednesday as it was Christmas day. She gave me the green light and said I could even do the whole week! So I planned my little Christmas lesson, complete with “Santa Shark” (oh yes, there is a Christmas version of “Baby Shark ladies and gentlemen) and went in on Monday fully dressed for Christmas in my “Santa Paws” T-shirt and candy cane earrings. Things were going well, most of the children knew Santa Claus but the other Christmassy characters were unfamiliar to them so we had a bit of fun as I tried to explain each one.

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Trying to take a cute family portrait…
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Presents ready for Christmas day.

Then there was class five, and to be honest I don’t if it was because I am sick or if it was because we had no Chinese teacher to help us communicate or what was happening but things quickly went awry. The first hurdle seemed to be the word toy as they didn’t understand exactly what the word “toy” translated to in Chinese and they aren’t allowed toys in school so it was hard to give them an example. I tried to explain using a skipping rope but skipping is a competitive sport in schools in China so I don’t think I really got the message across. One student got a little too excited about his skipping rope and as he pulled it out of his desk managed to smash his glass water bottle, which I think actually contained corn juice, on the floor. Queue ten minutes of cleaning up corn juice mixed with glass and one of the Chinese teachers throwing my Q&A prop cards in the bin… even though they were nowhere near the scene of the accident!

Q&A cards retrieved and thoroughly dowsed in hand sanitizer I had about ten minutes of class left to get through about twenty minutes of content and all I wanted to do was go home and have a nap! We rushed through the questions and sang “Santa Shark” before anything else could go wrong.

And here comes the dashing, no I haven’t got one of Santa’s reindeer’s names confused, I mean the dashing of my Christmas hopes! Christmas was banned! Cancelled! Forbidden! Basically the Chinese government has told schools that they must focus on Chinese culture and as a result our school decided that there would be no celebrating Christmas of any kind, including the foreign teacher giving a lesson on the subject. So Monday evening I received a message asking me to plan a new lesson on the topic of food instead.

On Christmas Eve I stopped in at my friend’s restaurant to give her daughter a little Christmas stocking/boot thing that I had put together. I filled it with chocolate a sweets and a tiny little mouse hair tie, I also found a Santa pillow with a tartan Santa hat for sale in Miniso and just had to buy it for her (and one for me too…). I woke up on Christmas morning to a photo of her holding the little mouse hair tie as she slept and it warmed my heart! That’s what Christmas is all about really, it doesn’t have to be a big expensive gift, the little heartwarming moments are what make it special.

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Christmas goodies!

 

It was a beautiful sunny day on Wednesday and it was about 20 degrees Celsius, I wore my Christmas jumper anyway. China might not have been celebrating Christmas but that wasn’t doing to stop me being a walking, talking pot of Christmas spirit! It wasn’t all doom and gloom on Christmas Day though. I tutor three kindergarten students and the main aim of each lesson is to read a book together so I took the book “What’s a Christmas?” into our lesson and played some Christmassy games. I also took three little boots of sweets to class with the deal that if they were well behaved for the whole lesson they would each get one.

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One of my first grade students.
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“What’s a Christmas?”
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Three little boots for three little humans.

The evening was when it really felt like Christmas. One of the other foreign teachers here invited us round for a few drinks, nibbles and Christmas songs. It was lovely to have a group of people together to celebrate Christmas, for a little while I honestly thought I would be celebrating alone!

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Christmas Crew
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Merry Christmas!

This turned out to be one of the busiest weeks I’ve had since arriving back in China and I think that helped to keep my mind off of being away from home for the holidays. On Thursday evening the primary school held an “English Competition and Show” for grades one to three. I was asked to come and judge the grade three “Story Telling Competition” and as a result was sat right in the front row. Usually when I go to watch any of the school performances I am way up the back so it was nice to have such a good view for a change. The show lasted about an hour and a half and had everything from songs to spelling bees to short plays. There was even a Christmas song despite the schools no Christmas rule (apparently the head teacher stormed out when he saw it…) It was the perfect way to spend boxing day and it made me strangely emotional, especially when the students sang a song about their dads. It is amazing the amount of effort that goes into these performances and the students all looked so cute in their costumes. In all, just a magical evening.

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Each grade has a theme; grade one is Garden Grade, grade two is Ocean Grade and grade three is Forrest Grade.
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The show begins.
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Little Christmas angels!
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Farmyard sing song.
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So many beautiful costumes!
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Prize giving.

 

This week I turned 26, still feels strange to say it out loud. The school is closed for five days starting Tuesday so I ended up having to work on my birthday which wasn’t so bad to be honest. My English department teachers invited me out for dinner to celebrate. When I arrived at the office the exact invitation I got was “We will go for pigeon, to celebrate your birthday”… I had to tell them I was a vegetarian but I happily went to the restaurant and ate all the side dishes of vegetables. It was such a lovely thing for them to do as most of them only had an hour break before they had to go back to work. The school day for primary school here is 6:50 am to 8:30 pm with a two hour lunch break (12 pm – 2:30 pm the students have a scheduled nap in that time) and an hour dinner break (5:30 pm – 6:30 pm) and the teachers take it in turns to shepherd the students from class to the dinner hall to nap time and back to class again.

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Grade One English Department
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I didn’t want to open this, it was to perfect looking!

I share my birthday with my friend’s daughter, Ning Ning. I actually think this fact is one of the things what led us to become good friends, when they found out last year they got so excited and insisted that I celebrate my birthday with them and I quite happily accepted. This year was much more chilled out because Ning Ning’s mum is pregnant and due at the end of January but there was still plenty of love and, most importantly, cake to go around!

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Ning Ning loves to draw so when I saw this I knew it was the perfect gift for her birthday! She loved it!

If you’ve been reading these weekly update since I started back in November then you will know that I lost my lucky bracelet on my way to China. I’m not usually a superstitious person but even I had to admit that my first few weeks in China didn’t exactly go smoothly! My friend Rose (Ning Ning’s mum) helped me realise that all my bad luck started when I lost that bracelet. As the weeks have gone by my luck seems to have evened out and to be honest I stopped thinking about my bracelet, but Rose had not. For my birthday she gave me two bracelets; the first is a traditional Chinese style bracelet made by bending and drying a plant stem to fit the wrist, attached is a little money bag to bring me good luck and, to quote Rose, “a lot of money.” Here’s hoping! The second is made from Chinese red beans, red is the luckiest colour in China. In Chinese culture it represents joy and happiness as well as luck, it can also mean celebration, vitality and even fertility in the traditional colour system and it is commonly believed that red helps to ward off evil spirits. Basically I am super lucky now.

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I am the luckiest person I know.

What a final week of 2019! It’s been a pretty wild ride to here but I wouldn’t have changed it for the world because every experience has made me whole. This week has made my heart so full and it’s about to overflow because in one week I fly home for a month and a half of catch ups, adventures and freezing temperatures.

Happy New Year and remember… Christmas will never be banned if I’m around!

 

For more of my China adventures click on one of these:

 

 

China Diaries: “Where is my Chinese teacher?!”

1st of December – 7th December

Posting this a day late from my phone as my VPN refuses to work on my computer! 

In China, more often than not, events that must take weeks of organising are something that foreign teachers find out about as they are happening. This means that it is very likely that at least once a month you will arrive at your scheduled class only to find it empty with no idea what is going on. This has happened to me so many times and I am completely used to it by now, so it was a great surprise to receive a message on Sunday night informing me that my Monday classes would be cancelled because the students had other places to be.

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Me and some of the Chinese English teachers at the testing event
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Students running from booth to booth. The teachers decorated the hall on Sunday evening.

The place they had to be was the gymnasium and when I arrived for a nosy it was all action. Around the hall were small booths set up with activities to test the students on their skills in each subject; Maths, Music, Art, Chinese, English, Sports and Life Skills. For each test the students could earn one, two or three stamps depending on their performance and once they had completed all the tests they could exchange their stamps for a prize. The night before the head of English had asked me if I would like to judge and I said I would just come and look this time but I ended up sitting at the English booth “Happy Singer” and was soon encouraged get involved. I went a bit stamp happy… I think just about every child got three stamps from me but they’re so cute! How could I not?
This wasn’t the official test of course, grade one have an exam in January that will give them their mid-year grade but it was such a fun way for the teachers to assess where the students are in their studies. Chinese schools can have a reputation of being quite strict and boring but Sanxin really proved itself to be ahead of the game this week. Only downside… the students completed the tests quicker than expected so it was back to class for everyone in the afternoon!

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Life Skill – Clothes Folding
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English – Sight Words
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English – Happy Songs
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Week Two’s lesson on fruit 

I think this week is the perfect summary of the highs and lows of teaching in China. After a good two days with my lesson plan going smoothly and the students warming up to me, getting excited about matching water bottles and how fuzzy my jumper was, I arrived at my final class on Tuesday to find the Chinese teacher missing. Now this is not always an issue, some classes are very well behaved without an extra pair of hands in the room but this class was not one of those classes. I got through my warmer with some minor distractions but it took about double the time, it was clear I was losing them and fast. I hastily sent a message to the head of English asking;

“Where is my Chinese teacher?!”

There was no reply, I was on my own and I still had 25 minutes of class left. It felt like an impossible amount of time. Children were climbing on top of desks, two boys had started kicking each other, some were running the length of the class room and even out the door! I tried my usual classroom management techniques; clapping, sending the worst to the back of the classroom, when that failed making them hold a piece of paper between their head and the wall. None of it was working!

Then I started taking names.

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Names I won’t be forgetting in a hurry!

The students have a point system controlled by their teachers on the computer, of course it’s all in Chinese so I don’t use it myself but they don’t know that. At first I just wrote their name on the board, but then I started putting numbers up and the mood changed instantly! I followed that by giving all the students who had actually behaved stickers and suddenly everyone was sitting down… By this point class was pretty much over so I asked them to recite one of their speeches, the bell rang and I was out of there faster than you could say “baby shark”.
I felt completely and utterly defeated after that class. Everything had been going so well then BAM a total disaster. It was one of those moments where you just want to go and hide under your duvet with some chocolate and finally I had a reply;

“Sorry the teacher forgot about your class.”

Fair. I’ve definitely forgotten about a class before, or gone to the wrong one or turned up at the wrong time. I asked her to let the Chinese teachers know that without them in the class the students just don’t feel like they need to listen to me, I mean they don’t understand half of what I’m saying so I don’t blame them. She promised me it won’t happen again but also said that I need to control the class on my own too. I’ll keep trying, I’ve got a few more tricks up my sleeve.
As much as that class was a complete disaster I have to remember that these kids are only 6 or 7 years old, in a boarding school, sitting in front of a teacher who doesn’t speak their language. So of course there are going to be a few settling in issues and now they know I have stickers maybe they’ll be a bit more willing to cooperate. All I’m saying is thank god for stickers!
Now I know how troublesome that class can be I can go in prepared on Tuesday; there will be stickers and point systems and Peppa Pig and the Chinese teacher and everything will be fine…

Won’t it?

I’ll let you know…

 

For more of my adventures in China click on one of these:

Back teaching in China after eight months away

The week bad luck followed me around like a bad smell

What I learned from teaching in China for one year

 

China Diaries: This Was Almost a Disaster

I am writing this post from my bed where I am snuggled up with the cats and a lot of blankets! Winter is setting in here in Sanxiang, right on schedule as I remember the weather turning colder around this time last year too.

 

Wow this week has knocked me out! It has been absolutely incredible but I forgot how much energy it takes to get up at seven in the morning and give the same high energy class three to five times a day for a whole week!

I was a little worried about coming back into this style of teaching. After eight months of small classes that I saw multiple times a week, going to twenty classes of about forty students that I only see once a week was going to need a whole different plan of action. Of course I had done it before when I taught grade one at the beginning of last year but that was my first ever teaching job and I was still getting the hang of things. Myanmar was where I really developed my teaching style and grew confident in myself as a teacher so switching back to China felt like February 2018 all over again.

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Last February, when I was giving my introduction lesson, one class didn’t have a working computer!

I decided to look at my first lesson from last year for inspiration and found that it was almost exactly what I needed. So with a few minor tweaks, the addition of a bumble bee prop and my favourite “hello song” (those from the NELC Xplore office will know what I’m talking about) I was ready to go.

Except I wasn’t… Sunday night saw me locked out of my apartment after realising my key was not in my bag when I returned from the supermarket. When I finally got into my apartment I was up until the small hours going over and over my lesson creating props and worrying that I was going to sleep through my alarm. When I finally fell asleep I woke up every hour convinced it was somehow 10am and I had missed my morning classes (this has happened to me before after a particularly bad case of jetlag).

 

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Bumble Bee prop to help me get to know the students.

I wish I had just trusted myself and my lesson because really I started this week on the highest of highs despite the sleep deprivation. The first class on Monday morning was “class two” and they were enthusiastic, excited and had a really high proficiency level for their age. (They should do too, with their parents paying extra for them to have more English classes both with their Chinese teacher and western teacher). I managed to get through my whole lesson plan which reinstated my confidence and set me up for a fantastic week. Not every class managed the whole lesson and I can definitely see a variety of proficiency from class to class but that is to be expected from such a large number of students.

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Class 2, Grade 1
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Class 20, Grade 1

This week has shown me just how much I have learnt over the past year and nine months of teaching. For someone who never thought they’d find a job they were passionate about teaching English abroad has really changed how I see my future. I’m learning new things every day (right now that seems to be 800 student’s names) and it is the biggest adventure.

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Nessie by a student from class 13

Bonus blog – well not really because I missed last week due to a VPN failure… but an extra little story on the end of this week’s oh so wise and thoughtful piece.

Last week was the primary school sports week and to begin the proceedings the school held an opening ceremony. If you follow me on my personal Instagram you will have seen my story and if you can remember as far back as last year you might even have seen some photographs of last year’s ceremony. As my visa kept getting pushed back I was worried I wasn’t going to make it back to China in time to catch this incredible show but things worked out in the end and I arrived a month before the event.

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Some of my students from last year dressed as chinese lions, 2018

The opening ceremony includes a procession of all the primary school classes from all the grades on the main sports field on campus. One by one the classes march towards the front of the running track and put a performance of some kind. It is usually a dance or mixed martial arts to music vibe and are about two minutes long each.

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Grade 2 entire grade performance, 2019

As I already mentioned above every grade has twenty classes, so the ceremony lasts all afternoon! After every class has performed the entire grade puts on a show together, that’s a lot of students in one routine and it makes for a fantastic spectacle! As the sun starts to set the flag is raised and the Chinese national anthem is sung, followed by the school song before everyone heads back to the canteen for dinner. Sports begin the next day and include everything from basketball to the father/student piggyback relay race!

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Grade 1 in the middle of their whole grade performance, 2019

I have asked my Chinese friends and they tell me that Sanxin having an opening ceremony for sports day is not the norm in China. I guess it has something to do with the fact the school is a private boarding school so they want to put on an impressive show. I would love to know if anyone else who teaches in China has seen opening ceremonies for their school’s sports day so please leave a comment if this is something you have seen!

For more of my adventures in China click on one of these:

Myanmar to China: You Will Not Believe the Week I’ve Had!

25th October – 2nd November 2019

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One last dinner with my amazing team at NELC Xplore!

Leaving Myanmar was an emotional experience, I left some good friends and memories behind (as well as a box or two of things, thanks again Zoe)! I arrived at the airport confident that my bag was under the weight limit and I was ready to board the plane but when I got the check in counter, things went South. Turns out I had read the website wrong and instead of being 2kg under my weight limit I was actually 3kg over the limit!! Then they asked to weigh my hand luggage and I already knew that was too heavy. Airasia charges $20 per kilo for overweight luggage so I was looking at a $280 charge in total for my ridiculously over the limit bags!

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Saved my behind more times than I can count!

No one ever wants to be that person; the one repacking their bag at the airport. I have always been really lucky and on the few occasions that my bag has been overweight they’ve either let me get away with it or offered me a cheaper solution. So here I was, already emotional from leaving the country I’d called home for the past eight months, having to sort through my belongings and decide what I wanted to leave behind! Let’s just say there might have been a few tears shed… Luckily Arrle was there to be the logical side of my brain that had apparently taken a quick holiday! He sorted through my things, while I sat on the floor and tried to keep it together.

With the drama of check in behind me I headed to immigration and made it to my gate in plenty of time. Next stop Bangkok!

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Not a bad view!

I was asked to arrive in China at the start of the week so we wouldn’t lose any days when applying for my residence permit which meant I could spend the weekend in Bangkok and celebrate my friend’s birthday. I got into Bangkok late on Friday night and Eilidh had Pad Thai waiting for me when I arrived at her apartment (that’s the kind of friends you need in your life to be honest)! On Saturday we got glammed up and headed to the SO Pool Party at Sofitel, my first ever pool party if you can believe it. Sofitel hosts a pool party on the last Saturday of every month from 1pm to 9pm and costs 600 baht per person (one arrival drink is included but I would not recommend the mojito). Sunday I said goodbye to Eilidh and checked into the cheapest hotel I could find for the day. On her recommendation I headed out to the Chatuchak Weekend Market for a bit of shopping (but not too much after my disastrous experience at Yangon airport). I’ve been to a lot of markets since I started travelling so I wasn’t expecting to spend a lot of time there but I spent about three hours wandering around and bought a couple of nice little bits.

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A good day of shopping in Bangkok!

My flight to China left at 1am on Monday morning and arrived around 5am China time which meant I had to wait about an hour for the metro to open before I could catch a train to the coach station. I then had to wait another hour and a half for my bus to Sanxaing so I decided to put my rusty Chinese to the test and attempt to order a McDonald’s breakfast. The entire experience just reminded me of why I love this country so much; me with my broken Chinese and the server with no English managed to communicate with mimes and laughter and my McDonald’s “scrambled eggs” were delivered without an issue. I think I provided the morning’s entertainment!

Arriving in Sanxiang it was like I’d never left; I caught a tuk tuk to the school, picked up my keys and had a much needed shower before heading to the school office to see my friend Rani. The campus was exactly the same as when I’d left and it felt so good to be walking through it again. And then… I broke my phone!!

Rani had just ordered me a DiDi (like Uber for China) to go collect my cat from the kennel and I dropped my phone face down on the solid tile floor of my apartment. It was one of those moments where I just didn’t want to look, the sound it made as it hit the floor alone told me it was broken. But my car was waiting, and I had no way to contact Rani to tell her I was phoneless and therefore probably unable to contact the kennel owner on arrival. I also now had no way to get back but I got in the car anyway… When I got the kennel I asked my DiDi driver to call the kennel (luckily his phone number was on the gate). I then had to try ask the kennel owner to call Rani and explain that my phone was broken. Rani called me another DiDi but when he arrived he refused to take me because I had the cat so the kennel owner’s wife made him drive me back to the school. I still don’t really know if the kennel owner was mad at me or his wife but he seemed to smile at me as I left the car so I’m going to hope we’re ok. If this experience has taught me anything it is that I really need to learn more Chinese now I’m back!!

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Soooooo happy to have this little gremlin back in my life…

I went to see my friend Rose and her daughter Ning Ning on Monday evening, luckily we had organised a time to meet at her restaurant before I broke my phone! It was so lovely to see them and enjoy her amazing fried noodles again, which she gave me for no charge because she said she had missed me! She also bought me a whole bag of fruit to take home because my fridge was empty. Just another reason why I love it here so much, everyone wants to help you all the time even if you don’t ask, it just fills your heart right up!

I spent the rest of the week washing all the clothes I had left here for the last eight months and organising my new apartment. It feels so nice to have my own space, this is the first time I’ve lived by myself. I had flatmates all the way through Uni, when I arrived in China I lived with three other people for the first six months, then one person for the second half of the year and in Myanmar I had a steady rotation of flatmates over the eight months so having a whole apartment to myself is a nice change.

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Needs a bit of work but I’m loving the space and the view!

On Friday I finally got my phone back from the repair shop, they didn’t have the right colour of screen so now I have a white screen while the rest of my phone is pink. It’s unique! I went for dinner with my friend Luna and mentioned that I had a bit of a headache and she suggested a head massage. It was exactly what I needed and they even gave me a haircut while they were at it (which I probably also needed to be honest…)

I was so sad when I left Myanmar and I still miss all of my friends and students from Yangon but it feels so good to be back in Sanxiang. It is getting colder now and I am looking forward to not sweating constantly and wearing cosy jumpers with a cup of tea in bed! I will hopefully start work before the end of November and I can’t wait to meet all my new grade one students. It’s going to be a whole new adventure!

 

If you are interested in my previous adventures in China click on one of these:

TEFL Tip Tuesday: Why Your First Day of Teaching Will Probably be a Disaster and Why That’s Ok!

It’s been a while but I’m back with another TEFL Tip Tuesday. This post was inspired by a recent Q&A we held at the language centre I work in. It was for new teachers arriving in Myanmar and teaching English for the first time, we were asked to give them one piece of advice about the job and well, without even hesitating I said “Your first day will most likely be a complete disaster, but that’s half the fun!” and speaking from personal experience it’s the most honest advice I could give!

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My first week of teaching went less than smoothly but I loved every minute!

Whether you have previous teaching experience or not, chances are your first lesson as a ESL teacher is going to be a complete disaster. Yes, I said disaster and yes you’ll probably agree with me about ten minutes into your first day that absolutely nothing you planned is…well… going to plan!

Let’s rewind a little bit here. Back to before you’ve even walked into that classroom; because I imagine if you are reading this it is because you are looking for advice for your first day on the job and therefore, have not even stepped into a classroom unassisted yet. More likely than not you’ve just completed some kind of course in ESL/TEFL/TESOL (whatever acronym they slapped on your certificate) and although it may feel like a blur of irregular verbs and classroom management techniques, you’d be surprised how much of this TEFL stuff is now second nature to you.  This stuff is in your brain now. For better or for worse you are a qualified, certified English teacher. All that’s left to do is get that first, actual, real life lesson out of the way.

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Me and the girls after our Graduation from Xplore Asia’s TESOL program.

Let me be the first to tell you, that though it will probably go down in history as one of the most chaotic and or awkward hours of your life it will also be the first story you tell anyone back home when they ask you about your TEFL experience. It’s one of those funny in hindsight kind of experiences and as with any first, it is completely unavoidable.

 

So, let’s get it over with!

 

Your first day; you’re bright eyed and bushy tailed, eager to get into that classroom and show those tiny humans (or possibly fully grown adults depending on how you get placed) your plethora of knowledge of the English language. Only one problem though… this classroom does not have a computer, nor does it have a HDMI cable so that carefully put together introduction slide show you prepared is gone, out the window, useless!! OK, ok just stay calm and ignore the fact they’re all staring at you expecting greatness, like you’re Captain America and the fate of the universe rests solely in your trembling, sweaty hands. Improvise, the limit does not exist when it comes to the possibilities of a board and some chalk. Any lesson can be converted from powerpoint presentation to chalkboard masterpiece with enough energy and imagination.

A chalkboard masterpiece?

Before you know it the hour’s up and it’s onto lesson two and then just like that you’ve somehow stumbled your way through an entire day of teaching (your first day of teaching!!!) with only a few sticky fingers and a scattering of biscuit crumbs in your hair. Did 90% of what you had planned end up on the cutting-room floor? Probably. Did you have to use brain muscles you didn’t even know existed when one particularly mischievous teenager pointed to THAT word in the dictionary and asked you to explain it, even though he knows perfectly well what it means!? Well, yes but it’s nothing a trained professional like you can’t handle. And, did any student for one second suspect that you were kind of winging it for half, if not all, of the lesson? Nope! They had no idea. Believe me when I say they are much more interested in having a good time and learning something new than they are in whether or not your lesson plan has been followed to the exact second. As long as you open with something fun, use a bit of magician’s deception (read: big hand movements and distraction tactics) when things go slightly pear shaped, improvise your way around faulty technology or just plain non-existent technology and end your lesson on a memorable note then you did a pretty good job from where I’m standing. It may feel like a disaster in the moment but really the only person thinking that is you and when it’s all over that first lesson will be a cherished memory and one hell of a story.

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Note the tiny piece of paper he is drawing on, a particularly tight budget in my first semester meant I had to ration my paper handouts. This resulted in a few complaints from students but it’s nothing a few stickers can’t distract them from!

Your first day of teaching will probably be a disaster, that’s ok! Trust me, if it went 100% perfectly then you’d have a hard time keeping up with yourself for the rest of the semester. Some people will definitely take to the role more naturally than others, it’s just the luck of the draw, but no one in the history of the world has had a perfect first day on the job. I really do believe that the more disasters you encounter early on, the better teacher you become. It’s not just your students that should be learning in the classroom, your teaching technique and style will have to evolve and adapt with each new challenge that is thrown your way. No two days are ever the same and in my opinion it’s the best part of the job! Throw predictability out of the window, you’re a TEFL teacher now!

 

For more TEFL tips check out on of my previous posts:

TEFL Tip Tuesday: A Year of Teaching English, What Has it Taught Me?

A year ago today I landed in China, I had no idea what to expect. My original plan was to spend six months teaching in China and then move onto Vietnam. There I would spend another six months teaching and move onto Australia for a year before finally heading home to the U.K. It’s safe to say that isn’t exactly what happened. I fell in love with teaching English, fell in love with China and fell in love with the school I had been placed at. Now I don’t know when I’ll finally be heading home; I have just finished a year teaching in China and I am at the beginning of a six month contract in Myanmar. Teaching English has surprised me in how much it has taught me about the world we live in, about how language evolves and how to deal with unfamiliar situations and why they are not always a bad thing.

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Orientation week in Beijing

I travelled to China alone, this was not by mistake. I didn’t even try to convince anyone to come with me. When I made the decision to travel the world I did so with the conviction that I would be doing it alone! The reason behind this was not because I had no friends or because I was “travelling to find myself”. No, I chose to travel alone because I wanted to go and I wanted to go as soon as possible. I wasn’t about to wait for anyone to join me, who knew how long it would take to find someone willing to move themselves halfway around the world. I have always travelled alone, it’s the only way I knew and if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, right? This year has taught me that my belief in solo travel runs deep within me and that it gives me the freedom to go and do whatever I want to do while I’m travelling. On the reverse of that it has also taught me that sometimes it is nice to have a travel buddy or a friend to visit in a country. Making friends and travelling with them is part of the appeal of solo travel for many people, and without some of the friendships I have made this year I would not have done or seen some of the incredible things that I have.

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Travelling solo doesn’t mean you are always alone.

When it comes to the teaching side of things I could go on for days about how much it has taught me. If you have ever had the pleasure of being introduced to me in a bar after a drink or two you’ll know just how much I can talk about the advantages of TEFL, to the teacher and student alike! The most surprising thing I have learnt this year, and the thing that really should be the least surprising at all really, is how much I have learnt about the English language. I always enjoyed English at school and, despite my Dyslexia, it was always one of the subjects I performed best in, but since teaching English I have found myself more and more fascinated by how our complicated and at times completely irrational language came to be the way it is. English as a language honestly makes little to no sense unless you have grown up speaking it, this is something I have discovered this year and something I have discussed with my fellow teachers at length. I think to understand this allows you to become a better ESL teacher. It’s not just about having fun games and a lot of energy (although these things definitely help) if you understand how much English really doesn’t make sense sometimes then it will allow you to think about the language from a non-native speaker’s point of view. If you can do that then you are going to be a much better English teacher!

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Chaotic but we made it work.

I always say to my eighth grade students “Chinese is so difficult” and they always say to me “No, teacher English is so difficult” it’s become a bit of a pantomime call scenario at this point, we’ve come to the conclusion that both languages are difficult. As much as I teach them English they teach me new things about English daily by questioning the language. This forces me to really think about why we use a word the way we do or why some words are spelled the way they are when really they could be spelled completely differently (even while writing that sentence I had an inner-battle of spelled vs. spelt). Teaching English has made me better at English.

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Grade Eight Girls on my last day.

Teaching English as Foreign Language has put me into situations that are completely unfamiliar and unknown to me. I had never stepped into a classroom as anything but a student until I arrived in Sanxiang, China one year ago. I had no experience as a teacher and my experience of working with children amounted to weekend Pizza Parties at my part time job and a short stint as a Young Leader with my local Girl Guides unit. This year has pushed me out of my comfort zone completely and taught me how to handle situations that I would not have come into contact with had I not become an ESL Teacher. It has taught me how to think on the spot when my lesson plan finished ten minutes before the end of class, it has taught me how to be a role model to teenagers who I thought saw me as the very uncool foreign teacher when in fact they saw me as the cool foreign teacher with two cats (having my cats associated with my cool factor is always going to make me happy) and it showed me how taking an interest in the cultures and language of the countries you visit can completely change that experience for the friends you make there as well as yourself. Unfamiliar situations used to fill me with dread, the unknown was worse to me than knowing something bad was about to happen (mainly because if I didn’t know I would think of about twenty bad things that could happen and these would spiral until it was better just to not do anything) but now I find myself excited at the prospect of an unfamiliar situation or an unknown challenge. I have definitely learnt this year to trust myself and my judgement in these situations because more often than not they turn out to be the best kind of adventures.

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Outside your comfort zone is sometimes exactly where you need to be!

A year of teaching English has taught me that you can’t run away from problems, you have to face up to them and moving halfway across the world doesn’t make them go away. China has given me the confidence to stand up for myself, it has shown me what I am capable of and it has shown me that people value my time and opinion. Being asked by students and teachers alike if I will be returning to teach in Sanxiang made me happy and sad at the same time, to tell them I was leaving made me sad but to know they wanted me to stay made me happy. I made myself completely at home in China and although I had to leave I know it is not forever. Teaching in China taught me so much and I know it still has much more to teach me. Here’s to another year of TEFL and many more to come, whether that be in China, Myanmar or countries as of yet undecided!

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

TEFL Tip Tuesday: The Power of Pictionary

Pictionary; the Christmas day family games sesh is never complete without it but in the classroom it becomes more than a party game, this is where Pictionary becomes a powerful tool for learning. Pictionary is great for teaching English because it requires the whole class to participate. It is the perfect game to get students thinking and talking in English, especially if they are new to the language.

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At the start of term the Chinese teachers always decorate the blackboard beautifully.

I tend to use Pictionary as a cooler or filler, but it can work as a warmer just as well. You can use it to recap last week’s lesson and see how much of the language they remember or you can use it to round up your lesson as a fun way to make the new vocabulary stick in their minds.  The way I usually play is I split the class into two teams and select a student from each team to come up to the board. I then ask the student to pick one of the new vocabulary words for that day (this usually takes a minute as whatever I suggest they complain it is too difficult to draw, but after a bit of encouragement I usually convince them it’s not so hard). Then the class has to work out what they are drawing and the first team to shout the correct answer gets a point. Using the point system really gets the students engaged in the game. When my students play they play to win and it can get quite competitive! You can make it so that the winning team gets a prize, but I have found that just the thrill of winning is enough to motivate the class to participate.

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I’ve played Pictionary in my large classes and with my one on one tutoring.

I have found Pictionary works for all ages; I have played it with kindergarten, I have played it with grade one and I have played it with grade eight. No matter what the age the competitive energy has been present and everyone gets involved. Even the moody teenagers who thought they were too cool in the beginning couldn’t help but shout out the answer when the rest of their teams were struggling to figure it out!

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Drawing is the perfect filler for young learners.

Pictionary has been my secret weapon from day one of my TEFL journey. I think my love for this game a kid really helped me to sell it to my students as a fun game. I was excited about the game and this enthusiasm was infectiously passed on to my students. The power of this activity to engage students in English makes it without a doubt my favourite classroom game. When other games have caused my students to groan in protest Pictionary has never failed to energise them. The best part is that you can play this game with minimal materials; as long as you have a pencil and paper, a blackboard and chalk or a whiteboard and pens then this game is possible.

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 Tuesday: Confidence is key!

For the first TEFL Tip Tuesday let’s start at the beginning; confidence! Confidence is key, even if you don’t think you have any. Being outnumbered is never a fun experience, the first time you walk into a classroom it might just feel like that dream you had as a teenager, the one where you realised you forgot to put your trousers on before you went to school! Everyone is looking at you… well get used to it, you’re the teacher now. No hiding behind a text book and dozing off in class, you are the one in charge here. But you are never going to be able to command a classroom if you walk in with you head down and a can’t do attitude.

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Outnumbered…

I’m a believer in the fake it ‘til you make it method, the more you act like a confident person the more confident you will become. I know this works because my go to coping method for a situation where I feel nervous is to be loud and proud. Outwardly I look like I live and breathe self-assurance and eventually I convince myself that the reason I look confident to those around me is because I am!

The classroom might look like a scary place but who is going to know that you are nervous beyond all belief if you walk in there like you’ve been walking into rooms your whole life (which you have by the way, so what’s the big deal?) You’re the “fun English teacher”, the kids are going to love you no matter what, so don’t be afraid of them. Put a smile on your face and just have fun; if you are having fun then they will follow suit and  soon you will forget all about the nerves. You won’t need to raise your voice to get them to pay attention to you if you look like someone who should be the focus of their attention.

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What’s more scary than forty six-year-olds?

My first day of teaching I felt so nervous (which was ridiculous because what is the worst that a bunch of six year olds can really do?) But I was prepared, I had lesson that I believed in and that was full of fun activities at the ready. I was confident in my lesson even if I wasn’t so confident in myself. That was all I needed to get me through the lesson, that little bit of confidence.

For more TEFL Tips  check out one of my previous posts:

Organised Chaos: the First Few Weeks of Teaching

Teaching English: just when you think you’ve got it, you lose it and just when you think you’ve lost it, you crack it again.

 

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One class hard at work drawing Nessie.

 

My first day of teaching I realized I had lost my USB stick somewhere between getting on the plane in London and arriving at my placement school. As a result I gave my first three lessons by placing my laptop screen under a projector which was set up by a six-year-old! Good start…  A quick trip to the computer shop at lunch time for a brand new USB stick and the problem was sorted, until the computer in the next class room didn’t work and this time we had no projector! Time for a bit of blackboard improvisation and a few games (there maybe about forty Chinese children who now think that Scotland’s flag is pink).

 

When the computer doesnt work and you have to present your class with just a black board and chalk
Improvising a lesson about Scotland.

 

The first week I focused on introducing myself, explaining where Scotland is and showing the kids some Scottish wildlife. Being placed in a southern province meant that my pictures of the snow back home left each class gasping in amazement. I also decided to teach them about the Loch Ness Monster which meant I got to enjoy their take on the Scottish myth in the medium of crayon and felt tip pen (I was even lucky enough to have been gifted some to decorate my bedroom wall with). I have to say though some of the kids are extremely talented at drawing, especially considering they are all between the ages of six to eight years old!

 

Some very talented children in the class
Drawing Nessie

 

In the first week of teaching I was introduced as “The New Beautiful Foreign Teacher” in at least two of my classes, which made me want to turn around and run out of the room. Especially when it is followed by 40 small children giving me a round of applause (if you are anywhere near as socially awkward as I am then you will understand why)!

One of my favourite parts of the job so far is how every day I am greeted with consistently enthusiastic “hello”s, hugs and high-fives. Some of the children have also figured out that my favourite animal is a Panda. This means that “Panda” is shouted almost instantly every time we play Pictionary, every circle is a Panda in their eyes! My name has proved a struggle for some of the kids and so to about half of my 800 students I am known as “LeeLee”, which I have decided is close enough…

 

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Some of the students outside class during break.

 

We were lucky at our school, we got to pick what grade we wanted to teach. As a result, I am teaching 1st grade, which is nothing but endless fun, games and colouring. The good thing about 1st grade is, because they are so young, as long as you are animated and lively enough they won’t notice it you suddenly have to improvise for the last ten minutes of the class because you got through your lesson plan in record time! So far I have played “Who Stole My Pencil”, “Heads Down, Thumbs Up” and a new version of “I Spy” that I have recently invented; it involves a class room full of small children running at me with various objects of a whatever colour “I Spy” in order to high-five me first and win a point for their team (because you try explaining how to play “I Spy” to 40 children who speak almost no English).

 

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Me with one of my classes.

 

So far, I am absolutely loving teaching English! The kids are incredible, the school is beautiful and I have already been for lunch with my Grade One Contact and Mandarin Teacher at her home here in Sanxiang, cooked by her lovely mother who looks after the children in their dorms at night. I’m not even a month in yet but I know this is going to be a hard place to leave when it comes to July! As they say, find a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.