Looking Back At My Life In ESL

So, today is officially the first day of the next ‘phase’ of my life. It’s hard to chunk stuff into nice little boxes, called “phases”, but as my memory tends to work best when I remember defining moments – lets call this one.

Yesterday ended my run as an ESL teacher; a roll I somehow managed to play for two and a half years without anyone being the wiser that I hadn’t a clue what it was to “be” a teacher.

I, as many, used ESL as a means to an end; as a way to experience living in another country, and generally just experience life. It was something new and something that enabled me to get out of the circular grind of my life in Canada and continue travelling.

It was the easiest-hardest job I’ve ever had. In any other country, that duality would be hard to explain, but in China, contradictions like that are the norm, and with ESL it fits well.

For nearly two years I’ve not worked more than 16 hours a week, and that provided me with enough cash to live a relatively comfortable life of taxis, bars and eating out. That’s the “easiest” part.

However, as anyone that’s a teacher will testify to, teaching itself isn’t all a breeze. Unlike the cornucopia of cubical jobs out there, teaching requires you to be on all the time. If you tune out for even a moment, the students can smell it, and they attack – resulting in absolute chaos of biblical proportions.

On the flight from San Francisco to Beijing back in 2005, I remember wondering if I would be any good at teaching. Generally speaking, I am never concerned about picking up new tasks, and am confident in doing pretty much anything I set my mind to. However, working with kids was something I had no experience with, and I was nervous as could be.

What I’ve learned since is that I love kids, and if there was one thing that I’ll miss about not being a teacher any more, it’d be them. Kids are everything the rest of us should strive (to remember) to be: playful, curious, full of energy and empty of parameters to operate by. Kids just do, unaware of the idea of ‘limitations’, and its hard not to respect that.

As I’m feeling all nostalgic, here’s a rundown of the places I have taught here in China, and my impressions:

Future School (Aston English) – Dalian, Liaoning

This is the school that brought me to China. Though they pay too little for anyone staying here long-term, they are a great place to start, and with the top brass being American, most things are done with a familiar feel. They generally take care of their staff, and have been doing it long enough to know what problems (and what solutions) fresh laowai are likely to have.

While teaching for them I taught a range of levels – from kindergarten-aged kids right up to uni students and adults. I was also often sub-contracted out to various other places (at additional pay). I taught business English to: Dalian Shide Group (one of Dalian’s biggest businesses, and owner of the Dalian football team), to students of an IBM post-grad program, and to the local Jinzhou office of Coats – a British thread manufacturer.

I worked at two of Future School’s many locations in Dalian, one in Jinzhou (Future 5) and one in Jinsanjiao (Future 4) – both were great places to work while I was there. I particularly liked one of the receptionists at Future 5 – so much so that I married her.

No. 19 Middle School – Dalian, Liaoning

schoolsout02.jpgAfter being with Future School for nearly a year and a half, I began looking for ways I might be able to up my income a bit. I found a job working in the public school system. Though you have to be more self-sufficient (up until then Future School had provided all housing), the pay was considerably better (FS: 3,500/mo. for 15h/wk.; Public School: 7,000/mo. for 15h/wk.).

The class sizes were the first considerable difference. As Future is a private language school, classes rarely run more than 15-18 kids (and can be much less than that). In the public schools you’re teaching to massive classes of 30-60 kids. This changes everything when it comes to how you arrange your classes, games you play, activities, etc.

Additionally the textbook (Oxford English something…) was absolute bullocks. I think I used it in the first class and then never again. This required a bit more preparation on my part, but having some experience under my belt, I wasn’t too bothered by it. Whatever might be said about private language schools, their books and class plans are generally much more organized. The public schools are just a mess. Crappy (likely due to cost) books chosen by someone with little to know idea about teaching English, and next to no resources to help expand on the “concepts” of the book’s lessons.

I finished working for the school this time last year, and though I still had eight months to go on my contract, I broke it. It was the only time I’ve ever broken a contract, and I’d do it again. The woman I worked for – anyone else work for Danni in Dalian? – was constantly giving me the runaround about my visa (I never had a legitimate visa while working for her – it was always “coming”), and did nothing when I had problems.

Both vBlog.03: Field Trip! and vBlog.04: Morning Exercise revolved around this school.

DD Dragon Suzhou – Beijing Epoch(Zhou Jun)

DD DragonAt the end of last summer, Maggie and I decided to move down to Suzhou for a change of scenery. Through my friend Hector (whom I had met via this blog), I got connected to a man named Zhou Jun. Jun came highly recommended, and I quickly found out why. He is fair and honest with his teachers – something many schools here could learn from. As is the case with any employment, my time working for Jun was not problem free, but he was always quick to try and solve things, and always a straight shooter.

Jun runs a teacher recruitment company out of Beijing, and I believe has teachers all over China. In Suzhou he provides teachers for Suzhou Experimental Primary School (SEPS), and a couple other places (which, at the time, included a DD Dragon franchise in the SND area).

DD was much like Future School. Foreign (in this case, Taiwanese) run, extremely structured lesson plans, reasonably good books and materials, and small class sizes. I really enjoyed working there, but for the location.

vBlog.07: Happy Birthday was done with DD’s students.

Suzhou Experimental Primary School – Zhou Jun

schoolsout01.jpgBecause I wasn’t happy living in the ass-end of Suzhou, I found an apartment downtown and as such asked Jun to transfer me to another school. He moved me to SEPS, but not the main (centrally located) campus – rather the boarding school in Xiangcheng – Suzhou’s newest development zone.

This is the school I worked at until yesterday. It was much like my previous experience working at a primary school – crappy books, few support materials, and little classroom help. However, as you learn quickly, it’s not difficult working around those things.

schoolsout03.jpgThough the staff and students were great, the commute (about 30 minutes there and 45-75 minutes back, due to rush-hour traffic and construction) soured the place for me. It was a major inconvenience spending so much of my time sitting in a taxi or on a bus.

And that’s the rundown of the schools I’ve worked for. There’ve been a good number of additional side-jobs along the way, but that about sums it up. Should anyone be thinking of working for any of these places, I’m more than happy to offer my experiences in more detail to them. Just contact me.

It’s been a long and interesting journey being an ESL teacher. Though its had its frustrating moments, by and large I highly recommend it. If you’re just getting into the ESL game, and you’re worried about what type of teacher you might make, and how the students might react to you – don’t be. Just do it, you wont regret it.

As for myself, I’m off to focus on learning Chinese and grow my Web design/development business (more on that soon). Though I may grab a couple tutoring gigs here or there to help out with the bills, I’m really looking forward to this change. After 2.5 years, teaching became too comfortable. It’s easy to continue being an ESL teacher indefinitely. The life is comfy and the work is minimal; however, there’s not much room for growth or advancement, and so it is that I approach this new “phase” with a truck-full of excitement (and just an ounce of trepidation).

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