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).

26 Responses

  1. “After 2.5 years, teaching became too comfortable.”

    Agree on that, even after only a year. There’s a treadmill aspect to teaching ESL here. It feels like you could do it forever, even if it’s not really your thing, without anything really ever pushing you in another direction.

    I’m looking forward to studying next year, too.

  2. Good luck with your new path in life Ryan. I spent at least half a year more than you teaching ESL and I figured that was enough. It is comfy, but there is indeed no room for personal growth, well at least not for me. I’ve heard of ppl that have been doing it for over 5 even 10 years.

  3. Hey guys, thanks for the well-wishes.

    @Hek: Can’t wait man! Suzhou misses its crazy chicano!

    @Griselle: I think if you’ve aspirations in the education field, it’s a good place to be. Or if you’ve no aspirations at all, it’s also a good option. But for a lot of us laowai it’s just something you do for a while (and my “while” was a while longer than I had intended).

  4. Nice post about teaching. I’d say that when I was teaching ESL too the students were the best part. All of the bullshit came from above, never any problem with students. Although I was teaching college. This might be different with the youngens.

  5. Hello!

    I was reading your blog and I was interested as to where you lived the last couple of months in Suzhou. I am planning to move there in August with my partner and we are going to be working at an English school. However we have other options in Shanghai, One option for my boyfriend was an offer at Double Dragon in Shanghai, how did you find that school?
    Also, any advise on what the prices are like for appartments? say my salary was 6500 rmb, would that be enough to live comfortably with? Best wishes for you and your future!

    Sarah from Toronto, Canada

  6. Hi Sarah, I live in the city centre of Suzhou. By “Double Dragon” I’m going to guess you mean “DD Dragon”, a Double Dragon is a kick ass video game, not an English school – that I know of.

    I worked for DD here in Suzhou. It is a franchise (originally based out of Taiwan, but now based out of Shanghai). You can read my thoughts on them above.

    As for an apartment – does that salary include an apartment? Most contracts at an English school will include an apartment, or an apartment reimbursement. You can expect to pay 2000-2500 for a reasonable apartment. More if you want extra comforts or to live in an “expat” area. In Shanghai it would undoubtedly be quite a bit more.

  7. Thank you so much for you reply. Yes I meant DD Dragon, sorry about that.

    About the salary it does include a two bedroom furnished apartment, we only have to pay for utilities. The only thing is that the person who owns the school has not replied back to us about a picture or anything about the place, we just want to make sure its a liveable space.

    I have lived in Suzhou last summer and loved it, but I lived in a hotel by the suzhou university, great place. Do you have any adivice on how much money or what currency to bring when we go? Our contract is for a year.

    Thanks so much Ryan!


  8. Hey Sarah, that salary is decent with an included apartment. Photos might not be available because the apartment might not be rented yet.

    Bring RMB, or if you must, US dollars. As for how much… enough to get you buy for your first month, and then some security? I’d say you’d need about 4,000 RMB to live comfortably for a month (that’s more than what my wife and I spend).

  9. Thank you so much and I know I will have a few more questions =) So are you and your wife going to be living in Suzouh for the summer? I see you have been many places around the world. Must be nice!

  10. Hi guys,

    I’m considering taking an ESL job at DD Dragon in Shanghai. Is it run by the same people who run it in Suzhou? The cost of living seems really high indeed, it’s great the housing is free if you work for them. How much should I expect to spend for food in Shanghai per month (on average, considering I’ll be eating out most of the time)?

    Thanks for your help!


  11. @Krassen: It’s not run by the same people. The Suzhou branch is a franchise. It’s likely that the DD one is run by the original founder of DD – Steven. He’s a really nice guy and will be a big help to you I’m sure.

    Shanghai’s cost of living is much higher than the rest of China, but on par with the additional income you make there. As for food, if you eat like a local, it’s very cheap. If you go out to XinTianDi every night and buy 70 RMB Heineken, your money will go faster than the over-priced beer.

    I can’t say exactly how much you’ll need, but I would budget about 25-40 RMB per meal if you’re eating out. Cheap noodle shops or xiao long bao stands are great to get a bit to eat for a buck or so.

  12. I disagree with you. There is opportunity for advancement but you have to invest in your development like any other line of work. If you went on to do an MA TESOL degree you could get into teacher training and university teaching. EFL is as much or as little as YOU make it. Good luck in your next adventure.

  13. Sorry Anon, I should have clarified – there’s very little room for advancement without moving to another country. As my life, for the time being, is in China, my choices were limited to remaining a teacher, becoming a school manager or starting my own school – all of which have little or no interest to me.

    Of course, if you wish to be a professional teacher, teaching ESL can be a solid stepping stone. But outside of that sphere (and I dare say few ESL teachers really have/had any ambition of being “real” teachers), transferability is limited – not absent, just limited.

  14. Hi….Just read your blog…I am interested in teaching in China and recently came across a posting for SPES…just wondering what you think of the school. Would you recommend it? Or should I keep looking. Any info would be great! Thanks in advance.

  15. @Dani: You mean SEPS? Suzhou Experimental Primary School?

    I worked out at the SEPS boarding school, which is in the far north-end of town. It was a tough commute everyday, but the school, faculty and students are ace.

    SEPS teachers are generally handled by a teacher recruiter named Jun. He’s an excellent guy. I’ve worked with a number of people in my time in China and a lot of them blow smoke up your ass – Jun talks to you straight and goes above what is expected to help you out.

  16. Hi, just wanted to say thanks for the website, it truly is a font of knowledge – so cheers!

    My girlfriend and I are applying to the DD Dragon schools, ideally Suzhou. It’ll be our first time teaching (bar the Trinity TESOL course lessons we taught) and so we’re a bit nervous. When they say complete lessons plans are provided, how true a statement is this? I don’t see this is a negative by the way, as I will relish any guidance in my first foray into teaching overseas!

    Again, cheers mate, love the site and the photo’s – truly inspiring

  17. Hi Ryan,

    Was doing some research on moving to China and came across your blog. I’ve been teaching in Thailand for the past year and am ready for a move. I was wondering if you had any contact information for Zhou Jun? I know it’s been quite a few years, but any little bit would help. I’m sure you know how difficult it is to find a solid recruiter!

    Thanks so much!

  18. Hey, Ryan. Feels like my comment might be swept under the rug, as it comes months and months later. Nonetheless, you’re the first person really that I’ve read up on that worked on DD Dragon. I came across their new system of selling “shares” in their schools. I’ve been teaching for a couple years now, 6 months of that in China, and the idea of buying shares and growing a school from within sounds pretty good to me.

    But I don’t know anything at all about this franchise. Is there anything you can tell me that can help me decide if this is the business I want to invest in? I have some money, but I’m not rich enough to just throw money away, so I need to be cautious.

    If you reply, that’s great. If not, let me just say that your essay was a great read.

    • Hey Calivinguy, “months and months” is right — this was posted nearly 4 years ago now 🙂

      Time’s not really the factor stopping me from dishing out advice on this though, inexperience is. I worked at a DD Dragon franchise, which is quite a different animal from the corporate-run schools. I went to the corporate office once for training and that was the last I heard from them.

      Getting shares of a small business is an interesting concept (I’m assuming they offer them as part of salary, or something?), but my concern would be accountability. What legal recourse would there by if you want to sell your shares back to the company and they don’t want them back? I’ve really no idea if it’s a good idea, but for my money, there’s a lot less risky ways to invest — particularly as this is China, and when things are good, they’re great, but when they’re bad, they’re terrible.

  19. Great Blog Ryan! And hello fellow bloggers.

    I’m Dean a Montreal native living miserably in Toronto.

    I taught ESL to french business people in Montreal with only an ESL certificate and some University under my bealt.

    I’ve been considering teaching in Hong Kong but nervous about not having a degree.

    Most importantly the apparent 40% turnover for teachers breaking unhappy conract conditions and/or employers scares the crap out of me lol.

    Do the same schools and recruiters exist inside HK as well?

    What advice would you have if any?

  20. I can agree with some of this. I am on my second language center in China. The first one sponsored me so that I could get my TESOL Diploma for free, so I just grinned and bared through it. I am now on the second one and they just keep trying to get me to do things that I am not comfortable doing. Not only that, but to live alone I have to pay the excess over 800RMB that the rent costs, so I only get paid 6000RMB here and I have to pay 600RMB out of that for my studio apartment and I can’t even get a stove included in that? I actually had to go out and buy a cooking range because the apartment that they chose for me had literally NOTHING to cook with, not even a pot or pan! You have to love when they get you to do a “farm” class (when you are farmed/sent out to an outside institute, which in my case was a public school) and tell you that it is just this one time and then next week they call me wondering why I am not downstairs in the van that is outside of my building. I wish I could say that my time in China has been good, but in all honesty every time that I go into work it just feels like a black cloud is just rolling in and I am just waiting and attempting to save whatever money I can before my contract ends and hopefully find an employer that I can actually be happy with. They are experts at painting this wonderful picture of how things are going to be and the first couple weeks are great and then WACK!? Reality sets in…

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