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Lessons in Fun

Teaching English in China for the Gap Year

Beijing, China

I had my doubts. I had heard that Chinese kids are hard to teach because they are so quiet. I pictured a classroom of blank stares and confused frowns. I also heard that Chinese schools are impersonal bureaucracies with high expectations of their foreign teachers. Despite the doubts, I spent the summer teaching English in China.

I participated in an American study program called Passages that was partially funded by UNESCO. Their goal was to give students a chance to teach English, learn Chinese, and explore China. They placed me at Beijing’s Huijia Private School. Huijia School gave me room and board, daily Mandarin classes, and 25 hours a week with the most enthusiastic students I have ever taught.

After a few weeks of teaching, I realized why my students were so eager to learn: I was an American. As an American, I could really speak the language. I didn’t have an accent, and I knew slang. By the time I left, their customary greeting of “Good morning teacher” had become “What’s up kiddo?” They were happy talking like Americans, and by keeping them happy I was also teaching them a lot of English.

All of them enjoyed playing games, which was a treat because they definitely didn't play games in their other classes. The trick is to play games that get them to practice English. One game I used is called “Car Lot.” Another game I relied on was “Pictionary.”

Even more than playing games, Chinese kids love American pop culture. The government regulates the media so I gave them a rare taste of “real” American culture, for better or for worse. One day, I showed my students a music video that featured break-dancing. Immediately, their eyes were glued to the computer screen. I got a lot of giggling, some “Woahs!” and one kid, already fluent in slang, shouted “That’s dope!” (“Dope,” in case you’re wondering, means “awesome.”) Kids of all ages find just about anything American, from Disney movies to gangster rap, entertaining. As a teacher, you can use their curiosity to spark class discussion. Build your lessons around a pop culture topic. I used the video game Super Mario to teach my students action verbs, “What is Mario doing? He is jumping! Now he’s flying!” Contrary to my belief, Chinese students, like all kids, will talk enthusiastically if they enjoy the lesson. Soon I formed lasting friendships with my students and still keep in touch with them today.

If you have ever considered teaching English in China, go now. There’s never been a better time. China is expanding and her economy is soaring. Chinese schools are eager, almost desperate, to obtain foreign teachers. I would advise applying to more than one school. After emailing the schools and checking their websites, you will get a better idea of what school is most suitable.

Making the Most of a Gap Year

The month spent at Huijia left me wanting more. I found that visiting China was less exciting than the idea of living in China. Eating chaoxiezi (stir-fried eggplants) and ganbiandoujiao (green beans) at a certain hole-in-the-wall restaurant, bargaining for oranges, and, most importantly, the friendships I formed with fellow Chinese teachers became my daily life. Ultimately these things convinced me to forego university for a year and return to Huijia as an official foreign teacher.

I was 18 then: no college degree, no “real” teaching experience, living abroad was a first, speaking Mandarin was a challenge. I got this job by volunteering. Foreign teachers are in demand and a natural fluency in English is the only prerequisite. In order to receive a salary, however, many schools require a college degree.

For the next 10 months, I taught English in Huijia’s Foreign Students Department. Unlike in the summer, when I taught third- and fourth-grade Chinese students, this time I taught Korean teenagers who were studying Chinese abroad. This was problematic, because I was only a year older than some of my students. They didn’t really want to listen to what I had to say. Plus, I was teaching grammar! Lack of formal training as a teacher certainly made it harder, but I learned on the job. By the middle of my first semester, I implemented a basic structure into each day. Students read a dialogue, translated it into Chinese, and then acted out key vocabulary words. I wrote these lessons myself, scripting each around issues that were on my students’ minds. One lesson, for example, discussed to what extent dieting was healthy. Another talked about the infamous HSK, a Chinese proficiency exam that all Koreans are required to take. Classes ran much more smoothly and I earned my students’ respect.

At the same time, I worked with other foreign teachers to form an Oral English Club to give Chinese middle school students a chance to practice speaking English outside the classroom. Within the comforts of our own club room we performed plays, held fashion shows, and enjoyed movie nights.

Editor’s Note: Intrax Education Abroad, formerly known as Passages, no longer offers the “teach in China” program. For more information, visit

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