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!
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.
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.
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.
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:
We arrived in Harbin on new Year’s Eve after a long and interesting journey by sleeper train. Once we had checked into our hotel and freshened up a bit, we decided to go for a walk down the main street to see if we could find a bar or a restaurant to spend the evening in and celebrate the changing of the year. The main street was beautifully decorated with fairy lights and lined with ice sculptures, some still a work in progress. Along this street you can also find high street stores, shopping malls, restaurants (yes there is a McDonald’s) and some of Harbin’s famous ice cream parlours. Apparently no trip Heilongjiang province is complete without ice cream and so, this is how we found ourselves in a bar at quarter to midnight ice cream in one hand and a drink in the other. I think the main appeal of Harbin ice cream is the novelty of eating it in sub-zero temperatures, but it is still really good ice cream so I do recommend giving it a try.
The ice festival in Harbin doesn’t actually start until the 5th of January so we travelled Yabuli for three days of snowboarding. Yabuli is located about three hours south of Harbin by train and is probably the most well-known Ski Town in China, boasting three major ski resorts. More about this in a later post though…
There are three main parks in the Harbin Ice Festival, two I would say are a must do and one that I would recommend you squeeze in if you have time but is not essential for the overall experience.
The first park I suggest you go to is Sun Island Snow Sculpture Competition and Scenic Area. My research told us that it was best to see this park during the day and I do agree with this but make sure that you stick around for sunset as seeing the large snow sculptures bathed in the orange glow of the setting sun was definitely one of my favourite things about this park. We arrived just before midday and left as the sun was setting around half past three, spending roughly four hours there in total. I don’t think you need four hours to see the whole park, you could probably see everything in around two and a half hours, but we spent a good amount of time warming up in the coffee shops that are scattered around the park. Another reason we were at this park for so long was because of the amount ice related entertainment on offer, they had everything from giant ice slides to ice bikes and sledging. I pretty much had to drag Justin away from the attractions before I froze to death!
Also on offer at this park, and included in your ticket, is a shuttle bus from the main entrance to various stops around the park and back again. We chose to walk around the park first and then got the shuttle bus back to the entrance because when the sun goes down in Harbin the temperature starts to drop really quickly!
The second must see park and main attraction of the Harbin Ice Festival is Ice and Snow world, also located on Sun Island. A popular option for visitors to Harbin is to do the Sun Island Scenic park and the Ice and Snow World park in the same day. This is definitely a good way to do it but is not necessary if you are in Harbin for more than two nights. We chose to do the parks on separate days as we had more than enough time in Harbin and didn’t want to feel too rushed.
Ice and Snow World has been on my China bucket list since I made the decision to come to China way back in 2017 and it did not disappoint. I have never seen anything quite as impressive as the ice sculptures in this park. Before we travelled to Harbin I watched a few videos online and read a couple of blog posts as research for our trip, but even that did not prepare me for the scale of this place! The park has everything from to-scale replicas of famous landmarks to rides and slides made from ice. There were towers of ice blocks as tall as a block of flats and actual castles made from ice! Words honestly cannot do this place enough justice and even in photos it is hard to appreciate the wonder that is Ice and Snow World. I would say two hours is probably enough time to walk around the park and, as with the Sun Island Snow Sculptures, there are plenty of place to nip inside and warm up when the cold starts to get too much. We arrived around seven in the evening and stayed until the park closed at half past eight, we would have arrived earlier but I could not figure out how to get there. My advice would be to flag down a taxi and just show them a picture of Ice and Snow World, this is what we ended up doing and it was far easier than trying to figure it out on google maps!!
The third park I recommend taking a look at is Zhaolin Park. This park is free to enter and has more than 1,000 ice sculptures. These sculpture are more like what you would traditionally think of when someone mentions ice sculptures. Intricately carved designs lit up brilliantly with coloured lights line the pathways through the park; figures of animals, people and even an axe made up the art works alongside some smaller ice-block buildings. Don’t feel like you have to squeeze this one in if you are a bit short on time, it is worth checking out but there are ice sculptures dotted around all around the city so if you don’t make it to Zhaolin then you are still pretty much guaranteed to see one somewhere!
Harbin was the perfect way to end off my year in China (I was originally meant to begin my year there but with the Chinese New Year festival they changed our orientation week to Beijing instead). The festival for me really summed up my experience in China, it is the perfect combination of Chinese culture and the “how is this real?” moments that were a running theme throughout my time there. If you find yourself in need of sub-zero temperatures and pretty lights then Harbin is the place to go. Given the opportunity I would return to the Ice and Snow Festival in a heartbeat and I wouldn’t mind another one of those ice creams either!
Why not check out some more of my adventures around China?
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!
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!
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?
I turned 25 in December and inspired by the wonderful Rachel from Rachel meets China I decided to put together a list of things I want to do and achieve in the next five years. It’s just a bit of fun and I might not manage to tick off every single one of these items but I’m going to give it a good go! So here we are, thirty things I want to do before I turn thirty years old:
Everest Base Camp
Anyone who knows me we will not be surprised to see this on the list. I love me a mountain and Everest is the mother of all mountains. I’m not crazy enough to attempt the summit but base camp seems manageable. I may or may not already be researching a trip to Nepal for 2020…
2. Visit Cape Town Again
My first solo travel experience was way back in 2012 when I didn’t own a smartphone and Instagram wasn’t even a thought in my mind. There was no blogging or worldwide internet access back then, my only contact with home was an internet café which I visited once a week to sign into Facebook. Now I’m writing this post from a little coffee shop in Vietnam, WIFI is basically a human right and I can phone my mum from the backyard of nowhere if I really wanted to. Times have changed, and I want to visit the city that gave me the travel bug with this new-found connectivity so I can share it with my family the way I share my travels through Asia!
3. Become Fluent in Another Language
I’m not sure what language yet, the logical choice would be Chinese, but it is rather a difficult language to become fluent in, so we will see how that goes. I find it so frustrating to be in a country and not be able to communicate with anyone. I always try to learn a little bit while I’m in a country, as a result I can speak a few words of Thai and I can communicate in Chinese to an extent, but I am nowhere near fluent in any language apart from English and I really want to change that.
4. Climb Ben Nevis
This has been on my bucket list for a long time, but for one reason or another I have never actually gotten around to doing it! My mum recently climbed Ben Nevis and it has made me determined to climb it before I turn thirty. So, Scotland friends, who’s coming with me?
5. Travel the Mekong River
I don’t know how many people have seen Sue Perkin’s travel series about her trip along the Mekong river but ever since I watched it I knew it was something I wanted to do. The Mekong River starts in the Tibetan Plateau and runs from China’s Yunnan Province, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. It covers such a diverse range of countries and cultures as well as passing through some of the most beautiful natural landscapes in Asia. It is the travellers dream trip, well it is this travellers dream trip at least.
6. Learn to Swim
I know, I know how does a girl make it to the age of twenty-five without learning how to swim?! I really love the ocean and spending days on the beach but for some reason I just never learned how to swim. I put it down to a combination of Scotland being too cold to ever encourage swimming, a bad swimming teacher when I was really young and a fear of putting my head under water. I want to change this though as there are so many incredible experiences that I am missing out on because of my lack of swimming ability.
7. Study an Online Course
Again, I am not sure what yet, I have a few ideas but there is so much to choose from out there that I just can’t pick quite yet! Technically my original TEFL course was an online course but I did that when I was twenty-three so I’m not counting it!
8.Learn to Snowboard
This one I have already started on. I spent the first week of 2019 learning the basics in Yabuli and I can’t imagine a better way to have started my year! I have learnt that I need to strengthen my core if I ever want to be able to stand up on a snowboard in a dignified manner, but I think I made pretty good progress in the three days we had. Practice makes perfect.
9. Road Trip America
This is another thing I have wanted to do for a long time, but this one requires a bit more planning. I hope I can do this before I turn thirty, but it might be a bit of a big ask considering the amount of money and time it will take. I’m leaving it on the list though because you never know where life will take you and if the opportunity presents itself then I will be there with bells on. Also, it is the perfect way to visit all my American friends that I have made over the years!
10. Learn to Surf
Ok this one is going to take a bit of work. First, I as I mentioned earlier I need to learn how to swim and then I need to gain some upper arm strength and maybe work on my balance a little bit but after I sort all of that out then I WILL learn how to surf! I have actually taken one surfing lesson before, in Cape Town, but I can’t exactly say it was successful… see photos below.
11. Start Writing a Novel
Inspired by my lovely coffee shop best-friend who for about three years told me every shift that my life could be the next disaster novel; I have decided that maybe I can change some of my utterly embarrassing, sometimes wonderful and completely bizarre life experiences into an interesting book. I have always fancied myself as a bit of a writer anyway, hence the blog… This is probably on every hipster, traveller, art student, millennial’s list but that isn’t about to stop me from trying.
12. Go Interrailing
I’m a bit late to the game on this one, I know, but I realised recently that I have hardly seen any of my own continent which is really bad of me! If you don’t have a clue what I’m on a bout interrailing is a railway ticket available to European residents that allows them to travel through Europe by train for a lot cheaper than other forms of transport. Most people go inter-railing when they finish secondary school, but I was more interested in travelling to Africa than exploring the countries closer to home. Not that either one is better than the other but maybe I should have gone inter-railing sooner… did someone say Brexit… Hopefully I still have time!
13. Get My Kilimanjaro Tattoo
I have had a tattoo planned to commemorate my Kilimanjaro climb since I got back from the trip, but tattoos aren’t exactly cheap, and this isn’t a small tattoo. Most of my tattoos have a meaning behind them and I like to mark special events or experiences by getting a tattoo and this particular one is long overdue!
14. Go Full Vegan
I am currently a vegetarian and have been for about three year now, but I know that I can do better. I’m not here to preach that everyone should be veggie or vegan, but I know myself how much healthier I have been since becoming a vegetarian and how much better it is for the environment. I know it is not impossible to be vegan while travelling and it has been pretty easy to be vegetarian this past year, so the transition shouldn’t be too difficult. The only thing that has put me off so far is having Coeliac Disease and being vegetarian is already a pretty limiting diet so adding Vegan into that mix is a bit of a daunting prospect.
15. Become Good with Money/Learn to Budget
This sounds like a pretty simple thing to do but anyone who knows me will know how much I like to shop, and this can be my downfall when I am trying to save money. I have started at this already, I found a really good travel budget app which has been helpful on my Vietnam trip so far. I hope that by keeping a record of everything I spend I can stop myself from buying things that I really don’t need. This will also help me save up for more adventures so that is my main motivator right now.
16. Visit Australia
Some people might not know but I was supposed to be heading to Australia about this time according to my original plan. The plan was six months in China, six months in Vietnam and then a year in Australia… well it’s safe to say that plan went out the window. Instead I spent a year in China and now I’m off to Myanmar for six months and Australia is but a distant memory of a plan that never came to be. This is just the way I live though; I plan and it changes about as quickly as I make it. I do still want to visit Australia though so hopefully I will make it over there before I’m thirty!
17. Learn to Love Exercise
It can’t just be me, surely, but exercise is my least favourite thing. I am probably the unhealthiest human I have ever met if I’m honest. I have just never found a form of exercise that has kept me interested for long enough to keep me healthy. I used to run twice a week when I was training for Kilimanjaro and I was definitely fitter back then than I am now, but I can’t say I loved running. I just didn’t want Kili to kill me! I love hiking, but this isn’t always an option, so I can’t really use it as my main form of exercise. I tried kick-boxing in Uni and did actually really enjoy it but after I finished Uni I just stopped. Any suggestions for a fun form exercise that I can do while travelling are greatly appreciated!
18. See the Sunrise Twice in One Day
Ok, this one might be nearly impossible but I’m putting it on here because I really do want to do this. It’s going to take a lot of planning and good amount of luck but I think I can pull it off. Anyone crazy enough to try this with me?
19. Learn How to Play a Musical Instrument
I played keyboard and guitar when I was younger but I cannot remember any of what I learnt so I will pretty much need to start from scratch. I am hoping, like riding a bike, that some of it will come back when I start learning again but I know that it is probably wishful thinking. I don’t know what kind of instrument I want to learn yet, but it does need to be portable so maybe the Ukulele is my best option?
20. Go to a Red-Carpet Event
I’m not talking super fancy here, any sort of event or party with a red carpet. I just want to feel posh for a night!
21. Climb Mount Fuji.
Ever since Blue Peter went to Japan way back when I was still in Primary School I have wanted to climb Mount Fuji and see the cherry blossoms in Japan. The climb can take anywhere between eight to twelve hours but thinking of the view from the top is all the motivation I need to put this on the list!
22. Invest in Good Quality Camera Equipment
I love my camera and it comes everywhere with me but when I bought it I was a skint student who went for the cheapest option to get her started in the world of photography. I want to improve my skills as a photographer and one of the ways to do that is to start collecting good quality equipment. At the moment I only travel with one lens, the one my camera came with, mainly to save space in my backpack, but hopefully I can expand my collection to include a few more lenses and a better-quality body.
23. See Llamas and Alpacas at Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu has been on my to-do list for a while now, but recently my incentive to travel there was renewed after seeing how many llamas and alpacas are left to wander freely around the site. I’ll admit I’m not really that obsessed with llamas and alpacas themselves but the contrast of seeing their adorable, goofy-looking faces in such a historic and grand setting is what drives me to add this to the list. Add to this, the fact that I can’t look at an alpaca without thinking of my friend Evie and the joke “We’re going on an adventure? Alpaca my bags, then you will understand why this particular item holds a special place in my heart. This means that, if I can convince her, Evie will hopefully be coming with me!
24. Hike the Inca-trail
Leading on from the last goal, I have heard from a number of people that the best way to experience the Inca ruins of Peru is to hike the Inca-trail. There are apparently much bigger and older ruins along the trail than Machu Picchu itself but for some reason Machu Picchu is the one that gets all the press. Also, by now you must know, I love a good hike!
25. Read Lord of the Rings
I’ve seen the movies, I’ve read “The Hobbit”, I’ve even seen the extended editions of the movies but I still have not read the books. I have my Kindle now, so there is no excuse not to read them. By the time I turn thirty I will have completed the set.
26. Take Part in a Fun Run/10k Run
Ok, I was going to say “run a marathon” but we all know that’s a bit of a tall order for me! I’ve never taken part in anything like this and I hated cross country at school, but I think that was mainly because they made us do it in winter! As I said earlier in the post I used to run twice a week, so I know I can do it, but I need to get my fitness level up again before I can even think about taking part in something like this. Here’s hoping the next five years will bring me the motivation I need to tick this one off the list.
27. Become the Kind of Person Who Can Pack Light
I cannot for the life of me figure out how to pack light! How do people do it? When I pack it’s like my bag shrinks to half the size I thought it was and suddenly I’m squeezing my laptop in between my hiking shoes and wash bag while my bikini and beanie hat fall out the other side! I like to pack for all eventualities but I think I need to stop doing that and learn how to pack what I need and in case of emergency just pick it up at my destination. You would think as well that my inability to pack light would stop me from buying too many souvenirs but nope! I am left at the end of my trip with a bag fuller than I came and have been known of occasion to actually buy a bigger suitcase/extra bag just so I can actually take everything back with me!!
28. Try Out Bullet Journaling
I have always found bullet journaling fascinating; from intricate designs to minimalist layouts, it’s seems like such a beautiful and personal way to organise your life. I have started this one already, at the beginning of January I bought a cheap notebook from the local supermarket and started my journey into the world of bullet journaling. My plan is not to buy any of the fancy materials or specifically designed notebooks until I can prove to myself that I will keep it up for a whole year. So far so good…but we are only one month into 2019!
29. Go On Safari
Technically I did this in South Africa but it wasn’t a wild safari, it was more like a large animal park. It was a lovely experience and the park was full of rescued animals that had either been caught by poachers or transferred from zoos but I want to see these animals out in their true wild natural habitat.
30. Become Completely and Truly Confident in Myself
This one’s a biggie! I know it takes a lot of confidence to go out and travel the world solo and I know that on the face of it I probably look like I’m killing the confidence game. But in reality there have been days during this past year where I have stopped myself from doing things I want to do because I convince myself that I can’t actually do them. One example of this that sticks out in my mind, and that I kick myself constantly for, is when I was in Chengdu. I had just parted ways with my friend the day before and I had a whole day left to explore the city on my own. I had a really successful morning locating the ancient city ruins that I had decided to visit but then when it came to the afternoon I couldn’t find the confidence to go out and find the temple that I had planned to see. I spent an hour in a restaurant trying to sum up the courage to get out there and find my way to the temple but instead I chose to just walk across the street and visit the Chengdu museum. This was still a really good afternoon but it was not what I had really wanted to do. So by the time I’m thirty I want that little voice in the back of my head to know that when it speaks I won’t be listening anymore and that it can’t and won’t hold me back from seeing all of the wonderful places this world has to offer!
Check out some of the adventures I had before my 25th year:
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.
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.
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!
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?
December 29th, the day after my 25th birthday, I boarded my first ever sleeper train. It is a backpacker rite of passage when travelling through Asia to take at least one journey on a sleeper train and, having been in China for a whole year, I figured it was about time I gave it a go! Besides, I had only ever heard good things about China’s sleeper train network.
Let me tell you first of all that the thirty-six-hour journey between Guangzhou and Harbin is not for the faint hearted! One hard sleeper ticket buys you a bunk in a six-bed compartment that is roughly the size of a large cupboard. Justin had taken a sleeper train before so reserved us each a top bunk as, in his opinion, it was the best option. It does offer the most leg room of the three and you do have easy access to the luggage rack, but that would probably be where the benefits end for me.
As I settled down in my bunk I suddenly remembered how much I disliked small spaces… The space between the bed and the roof of the train is not even enough to sit up in which does lead to a feeling that the you are the last sardine being pressed into the tin before it is vacuum sealed and ready for the shelves. Getting up and down from the bunk was a whole other struggle for me and my non-existent upper arm strength, the top bunk is about twice my height! The sight of me trying to pull myself up onto the bed must have given a few passengers a good laugh. Take care on the steps, they are about the size of cd covers and they can be folded away so double check they are still there before you get out of bed. There are designated smoking areas on the train but either people were just ignoring them or maybe the doors weren’t closing properly because all I could smell was cigarette smoke which is not what I would call a pleasant smell and definitely did not help me sleep. Our train also ended up delayed by about six hours which put our journey time up to forty-two hours, almost a full two days!! On the plus side I did read about ninety percent of “Eat, Pray, Love”, a book I have wanted to read for about a year so it’s not like I wasted my time in sleepless solitary confinement.
At the end of the day it got us where we needed to go for next to no money, so I can’t complain too much. You get what you pay for, and the heavy duvets were definitely appreciated as we were travelling in winter! All I can say is that the sleeper train is an experience that everyone should try at least once. I have been told since that I was unlucky and that the cigarette smell is not usually a feature of the sleeper train experience. If you have been to the gym more than five times in your life, then pulling yourself onto that top bunk also shouldn’t be an issue for you like it was for me (maybe start the push-ups now though, just in case).
Final verdict: do it for the backpacker points, but I highly recommend choosing a shorter journey than Guangzhou to Harbin… much, much shorter…
Sleeper train from Guangzhou to Harbin: 600 yuan (about £68), 42 hours
Flight from Harbin to Guangzhou: £186.98, 4 hour and 40 minutes
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.
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.
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:
I arrived in Chengdu with one plan and one plan only: visit the Panda Research Centre! With four days to explore the city it was clear I was going to have to add some other activities to my itinerary, so I did a little research and discovered the Leshan Buddha just outside of Chengdu.
Despite being the largest stone Buddha in the world, the Leshan Buddha was not exactly easy to find and definitely took a bit of planning to get to. Leshan is a town about an hour away from the city of Chengdu if you take the bullet train, which I recommend! Travelling by train in China is cheap and the trains are comfortable and air conditioned, so if you have the option of travelling by train then I would take it over a coach journey. Book your ticket in advance using the Trip (trip.com formerly known as Ctrip) app, the ticket should cost about £9 per person each way and the app makes it so easy to pick up your tickets from the station.
When you arrive in Leshan head right out of the train station and cross the road to the bus station. From here you take the number 13 bus and it should only cost about 1 yuan (roughly 10p). There is another bus that goes to the Buddha from the station as well and either one is fine, just ask one of the members of staff in the station if you are unsure. The bus goes all the way to the gate of the Leshan Giant Buddha, so it is ideal!
When you arrive at the gate there are two options available to view the Buddha:
Option one – take a boat ride down the river, 70 yuan (about £7): the boat ride lasts about twenty minutes to half an hour and gives possibly the best view of the Buddha. The boat stops right in front of it and you are able to take in the sheer size and scale of the sculpture without the crowds.
Option two – go into the park and climb the cliff face that the Leshan Buddha was carved out of so many years ago, 80 yuan (about £8): this option really gives you a real sense of how difficult it must have been to carve such a giant figure out of the rock that sits right on the river edge. The climb also shares a side of the Buddhist culture and history of the site that is not visible from boat. Stone steps that lead you to the clifftop are accompanied by many more small stone carvings, some worn and eroded by the weather and others perfectly preserved but all equally beautiful. Once you have reached the top of the stone staircase you are greeted by the Buddhist temple and the smell of burning incense as it floats throw the temple doors. From here you are level with the Buddha’s head and have the perfect view to count the 1,021 buns in his coiled hair! If you are willing to wait in the queues then you can take the narrow stone staircase down to the giant feet of the Buddha, each foot is large enough to fit 100 people each.
We chose to do both the climb and the boat ride and if you have the time then I would recommend doing both. The two options give such different perspectives of the site and it is so cheap to do that it is definitely worth it.
I had absolutely no idea that this incredible statue existed until I was looking into things to do in Chengdu and I am so glad I took the time to visit despite how difficult it was to find. It is definitely a whole day excursion but completely worth it if you have the time. I hope this little guide will help if you are heading to Chengdu because it is incredibly easy to get to when you know how!
Check out my last blog post if you are looking for more inspiration for things to do in Chengdu.
Think of Chengdu and the first thing that comes to mind is, of course, the Giant Panda Research centre but as I found out recently there is a lot more to this ancient town than the fluffy face of the world wildlife foundation.
Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan province in Western China and has some outstanding places to visit that weren’t even on my radar before my visit in July. It took four hours to travel to Chengdu from Xi’an on the fast train, I accidently booked myself onto a first-class carriage but no complaints from me (that leg room was more than worth the extra £5)!
The metro system in Chengdu is easy to navigate for the most part, as long as you check the map before you get on the train it is almost impossible to get lost. There are however a few places that are not accessible by the metro lines such as the main market street, the panda base and the Leshan Buddha which is actually located outside of town (I will be writing a separate post all about how to get there soon because it is a bit more complicated than other attractions in Chengdu).
My accommodation was perfectly central and easy to get to from the main railway station when I arrived in Chengdu. I stayed in a quirky little backpacker’s called the Blacksmith Hostel and I have to say you definitely get what you pay for. If you are looking for luxury then I maybe wouldn’t stay here but it was perfect for me and my tight budget. My only complaint would be the lack of insect screen on the windows as the room was almost constantly filled with mosquitoes and I ended up covered in bites, literally from head to toe! The toilets and showers were both accessed from the balcony which made the thought of going to the toilet slightly unappealing in the middle of the rain storms that frequented my stay. I maybe wouldn’t stay there again, but it fulfilled it’s primary purpose of somewhere to pass out at the end of each day.
I spent 3 full days in Chengdu and hardly even scratched the surface on what the city has to offer but if you are heading there anytime soon then these are the places I recommend visiting;
The Chengdu Research of Giant Panda Breeding
No trip to Chengdu is worth the journey if you don’t make it up to the research base on the outskirts of the city. This is usually the main reason people visit Chengdu and it was definitely my motivation for booking a trip to Sichuan province. The base is currently home to around 83 pandas varying from new born cubs to adults and is by far the best place to see these adorable creatures up close. The base has been working in Giant Panda conservation since 1987 and has played a huge role in taking the bears off the endangered species list. It rained the entire time we were at the base, but it was still one of the best experiences of my life. Being able to see pandas up close and watching them interact with each other was beyond anything I had ever imagined before. There are plenty of places to eat around the park as well as a panda museum and red panda enclosures; definitely enough to keep you occupied for a whole day.
The Leshan Buddha
The largest sitting stone Buddha in the world, Leshan Buddha has to be seen to be believed! This impressive stone structure took 90 years to build and was completed only after the death of the Monk who originally commissioned it. There are two options to view the Buddha; you can take a boat down the river to right in front of the towering monument or you can view it by climbing to the top of the cliff face it has been sculpted out of and descending the steep stone steps that are carved all the way down the side of the figure’s surrounding walls. We opted to do both, and I would highly recommend this if you have the time.
The Buddha from the boat
Firstly, this is a completely free activity, so you have no excuse not visit the museum! Secondly, I spent so much time wondering from floor to floor and learning about Chengdu’s history that the place was closing by the time I strolled out of last exhibit… oops! Seriously though this should definitely be on your list of things to do if you are interested in the history of the places you visit. The museum covers everything from the first settlers in the area all the way up to the present day including a very detailed and fascinating showcase of traditional Chinese shadow puppets. Add to all this that it is right in the centre of town you really have no reason not to have go and check it out.
Jinsha Site and Museum
While you can find most of the information about the Jinsha site in the Chengdu museum if you are interested at all in archaeology then it is worth-while going to the Jinsha site to see the excavation process. As well as the impressive archaeological site there is a whole museum dedicated to the important finds found on location including the beautiful “Golden Sun Bird” a ring shaped piece of foiled uncovered in 2001 and the “Golden Mask” an eerie gold mask believed to be over 3,000 years old. Also on the site is a beautiful bamboo garden and “ebony forest” surrounding the two museum buildings.
I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of history there is to find in Chengdu. I arrived knowing only that I was desperate to visit the Panda Base and left with a deeper understanding of the city and it’s culture. I could easily return to Chengdu and have a completely different list of things to do, there is just so much to this city it truly took my breath away. I know it is easy to book onto a tour that takes you to Beijing for the Great Wall of China, to Xi’an for the Warriors, Chengdu for the Pandas and back again, all in one week! But, if you can, I highly recommend spending at least a week in Chengdu in order to fully experience everything this city has to offer.
I have recently been receiving a lot of messages about how I became TEFL qualified, how I got my placement and what company I used to get here. I do always try to reply to these as soon as possible but with the time difference between China and the UK, the not so reliable internet access here in China and working a five-day week; I thought it might be a good idea to put as much information as I can in one place. This is not to say I don’t want to be asked questions, I am more than happy to chat about my TEFL experience, it is more about making it easier for anyone looking for information on becoming an ESL teacher to find what they are looking for in one post.
How did I become TEFL qualified?
I completed I-to-I’s 120 hour online course. This course requires you to work through a series of modules on I-to-I’s website, at the end of each module you sit a mini test in order to be able to move onto the next part of the course. The tests do not count towards your final mark but you do need to pass them with a certain percentage to be able to move through the course. Once you have completed all the modules you then have to submit a lesson plan and an essay explaining why exactly you have chosen to carry out a lesson in this particular way. You are then given three hours to complete the final test which, combined with your lesson plan, determines whether or not you pass the course and become TEFL qualified.
If you pass the course you are awarded a certificate, make sure your name on this is exactly the same as it is on your passport, including your middle name. This is important if you are planning, which I assume you are, to get a job teaching English as a foreign language because most embassies require all of you documents to be exactly the same when they are handing out visas.
They will email you the certificate and you will also have the option to get a hard copy sent to you. Get the hard copy, you will need it when you start applying for jobs. I did not get the hard copy when I was based in the U.K. and now I may have to pay around £60 to get it shipped out here to China! Not ideal…
How did I find my placement?
I-to-I is partnered with a company here in China called ImmerQi. ImmerQi are who placed me in my current school here in Sanxiang, Guangdong. So really I didn’t have to do anything to find my placement.
I have since had to look for my next job which was easier than I thought it would be. My current school offered me a job here in the middle school. There are also a lot of companies that specialise in finding foreign teachers for Chinese schools and education centres, I had interviews with EF – Education First and TIC – Teach In China.
I-to-I’s website has job listings and placement options from all over the world, if this is your first time teaching abroad then I would highly recommend applying through I-to-I’s website as most ESL jobs require you to have at least one year experience in teaching before they accept a foreign teacher. This can also be the case when it comes to getting a visa, some countries give working permits or visas to people who do not have experience in the field.
Another thing to look out for is that a lot of countries, like Vietnam, require you to have a BA degree or higher in order to work as an English teacher in their country. Some countries will accept foreign teachers without a degree but the salary they offer you will be considerably less than those with a degree.
What company did I use?
As you can see from the two questions above I used more than one company to wind up in China. In fact I went through three companies in total:
The first company I used was STA Travel; STA, if you haven’t heard of them, is a student and young person travel company specialising in budget travel, working holidays and round the world trips. When I walked in to the Aberdeen branch of STA Travel, back in October 2017, I only had the smallest idea of what I wanted to do. I had looked into TEFL but thought I might have to go back to college in order to become qualified and after six years in higher education that was about the last thing I wanted. Essentially I wondered in, said “I want to travel the world, how do I do that?” and my travel agent Jordan helped me pick out a two year plan. Obviously that plan has changed slightly since arriving here in China but I never would have taken this first step if I hadn’t walked into the STA shop on a whim. If you are planning to travel on your own then I definitely recommend booking at least the initial stage of your trip with a company like STA, they have years of experience and a team of people ready to help you out if and when things don’t go to plan.
The second company I used was I-to-I TEFL. When I booked my Paid China TEFL Internship with STA Travel my I-to-I TEFL course was emailed to me directly. One thing to look out for with the course, that almost tripped me up, is to pay attention to your course deadline ( how many days you have to complete the course after you start) and when you actually need to have completed the course for your placement (these will probably be different dates). My dates only varied by a few days so I ended up getting very confused when I was asked almost a week before I thought I was meant to be finished, why I wasn’t finished…
Then third and finally I was passed on to ImmerQi. It was ImmerQi that I dealt with when it came to visa applications, arriving in China and of course they are who placed me after the orientation week in Beijing. To work or study in China you need a letter of invitation before you can apply for your visa. ImmerQi organise all of this for their interns before they leave their home country. The only downside to this process was that ImmerQi could not tell us where we were going to be placed until we arrived in China, for a number of different reasons. This meant that, because China has provinces stretching from way up North bordering with Russia to way down South in the Sub-tropics, I had to pack for any and all possible climates… no easy task when you over pack as badly as I do! Luckily I got placed in the nice warm Sub-tropics and the woolly jumpers have been in the back of my wardrobe since I arrived.
If you are considering teaching English abroad then I hope this blog post has been helpful to you. I 100% recommend becoming TEFL qualified, it is one of the best decisions I have ever made! My advice would be to go straight through I-to-I to become qualified and find your first placement if your plan is only to teach English abroad. If you are planning a Gap Year or are travelling for the first time then I would definitely recommend STA Travel, it’s always nice to know there is someone in the know available to you if you find yourself needing to change travel plans and they have a huge selection of trips to choose from.
If you have any questions about TEFL or life in China please leave a comment below or send me and email, I am more than happy to help in any way I can.