In 2012, I set out on an adventure to teach in schools in China. It taught me a lot about the differences between UK schools and the Chinese education system as I was lucky enough to experience teaching in both a public and private school setting.
Here are some of the main differences, and similarities, between both types of schools.
Private schools are generally ultra-modern with tennis and basketball courts, snack shops and vending machine areas. There is usually ample outdoor space for the students to play. The classrooms have white boards, computers, internet access and air conditioning.
There is no use of technology, so over time, you may be given more flexibility in the classes and be able to take the students outside to do sports or leisure activities. In the classrooms, there is often no air-conditioning which means that being outside might give the students a well-deserved refresher in their long study days.
In each class, there are around 12-15 students, so it feels more like a family. The total number of students in the school will normally be around 1000, so you get to know most faces and personalities.
Each class consists of around 60 – 75 students, all sitting in perfectly formed rows with stacks of books piled high on their desks.
Hours of school
The school days usually runs from 8am to 8pm, with the students going home on weekends.
The school days run from 6am to 11.30pm, and the students often sleep at school in fan- cooled dormitories. Often, students will only go home once a month. Foreign language teachers usually only teach between the hours of 11am to 3pm.
There is generally no syllabus for the English classes with a foreign teacher, only with a Chinese teacher. This means you often have free reign over what you decide to teach and which skills to focus on. As there is the freedom to teach what you want in each class, you can adapt the lessons to suit the students. Over time, students generally become more confident in speaking English (an area which is not focused on much with their Chinese teachers).
Lessons should be adapted to suit the extra-large class size. A focus on listening, pair work, and any activities to take advantage of the lined-up layout of the class should be prioritised, but there is no set syllabus to follow. Students may be initially reluctant to engage in your methods of teaching as often Chinese teachers use dictation and repetition. ESL focuses more on producing language and using imagination.
We were asked to put together a celebration for every Western holiday with the students including both Halloween and Christmas – something they hadn’t done before. We decorated the school, threw a party, and everybody dressed up on both occasions.
You may be asked to give a welcome speech to the school. For me, this involved reeling off motivational quotes in front of 8000 students and an uncountable number of staff – but what an unforgettable experience! Local evening events were also organised – from barbecues to conversation exchanges; with the local media coming to film the festivities!
Life outside of school
In most private schools there are other English-speaking teachers working there in various departments. For example, maths, history and university preparation. This allows for a varied social life outside of working hours, and the chance to travel around China with like-minded teachers who have come to experience all that China has to offer.
Students, and other teachers, may be quite shy in approaching you initially. This can make it quite an isolating experience at first. However, students may begin inviting you to ‘cookery workshops’, where you can learn to make handmade noodles and dumplings. Your school will generally house you in a ‘teachers’ village’, and students will most likely find out where you live and bring you gifts – particularly during the Moon Cake festival. A public-school experience turns you into a ‘local celebrity’; something everyone should experience at least once in their lives!
No matter which school you teach at, the students make the experience. By contributing towards their English language skills and teaching them about your culture, you are opening young people’s minds and possibilities.
Whether a private or a public school, be sure that you will feel appreciated for both what you can bring to the school but also for choosing to share your knowledge with others. Teaching in China was the best decision I have ever made, and one which I would recommend to anyone. (Read author’s teaching in China story here)