Erin is taking part in our TEFL Training Programme 2018-19. 2 months in to her time teaching in Shanghai, she reflects on her experience at the 2-week summer camp in Beijing before it all began…
It’s been almost two months since the closing ceremony of Beijing summer camp. Throwback to the date of August 13th and no other English teacher out here in China knew how to lead a class, how to teach, or let alone much knowledge on China at all. Every single one of us had aimlessly packed our suitcases in our hometowns dotted from all over: England, Scotland, America and New Zealand, to name a few. For the majority, it was our first time stepping foot in China. Nobody knew what to expect, or even more, what the ten days of teaching at a Chinese summer camp would bring.
Yesterday I had a conversation with one of the other teachers who I am both living with in Shanghai and experienced summer camp with. We both agreed that we would happily do summer camp all over again, a special experience we relished so much that we would have done it for an extra ten days voluntarily.
Now that I’m placed in my long-term position at my new primary school in Shanghai, I can confirm that I’m incredibly happy with the teaching environment and the school itself, however, teaching at a summer camp is a whole different experience that I never considered – I met some great people, I laughed (a lot), I danced in the closing ceremony, and I attempted to learn Chinese.
For those of you who may be reading this just for fun, or perhaps for those who are wondering what exactly a Chinese summer camp entails. Well, for the latter, this is especially dedicated for you. During my time teaching at the camp, I have collected everything that I wish I had known before, and from my personal experiences of teaching, that I would like to share.
It is no lie when they say that there is a fast-paced life style in China. Since I have been living out here, my whole life has been travelling at the speed of light. But this is something that everyone will experience first-hand, and something that will hit you from the moment the passport control officer stamps your passport with approval to enter the country.
During the summer camp, prepare yourself for a seriously intense 10 days. Once assigned teaching partners, the days consist of 4 lessons every day, two in the morning half and two in the afternoon half. These days are 7.00am starts, ready for breakfast at 7.30am. Teaching will then start at 8.30am, after having a quick run through with your teaching partner beforehand. The lessons are long – 1 hour and 15 minutes each, with a quick 20-minute break in between. We were given a teaching course book to base our lessons on, but how we wanted to teach was completely up to ourselves. This made things flexible, and you can alter the teaching material to however suits you and your partner’s teaching styles best.
At 11.30am there is lunch which consisted of a long 2 hour and 30-minute break, and then following this, another 2 lessons. The last lesson finished at 5pm – but that’s not your day over. Straight after this, we would then have dinner. After this, we would go into our teaching office room, and lesson plan (which always involved telling each other funny occurrences that had happened with the students that day). These days are intense, and towards the end, myself and my teaching partner, Will, found ourselves spending even more time with the children, whereby we would practise our dance from 7.00pm – 9.00pm for the closing ceremony. The summer camp experience is non-stop, spread with meetings in between everything else – whether that was with Ben, our camp coordinator, giving us tips and advice on how we can improve, or whether that was with the summer camp leader who told us ways in which we could improve to the children’s needs.
However, we did have one day off, which I am incredibly grateful for, and that was to see the Great Wall of China. For this day, we had to be on the coach by 7.00am. Whilst the journey was 1 hour and a half, we (sleepily) listened to a very enthusiastic tour guide on the way telling us about the history of China and the Great Wall. Luckily for us, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky which made perfect photographs. Unfortunately, because the temperature raised to 36 degrees, we were quite literally drenched in sweat by the time we had walked up hundreds of steps. However, the view was totally worth it, and, in the words of Mao Zedong, we came away as “true men” by the end.
Fake it until you make it
Without a doubt, it’s natural to feel nervous. For the majority, it was our first time teaching ever in our lives. Nobody knew what to do. But the answer to this? You just pretend you know what to do. You fake it until you make it. I cannot explain how applicable this saying is to every aspect of my life in China (so far), and this saying was emphasised further by one of the teachers during our TEFL training later. For example, you spell a word on the blackboard wrong. A student points out the grammatical error that you wrote on the board, and you just reply, “I was totally testing you!”.
There were numerous occasions when myself and Will had made little grammatical mistakes on the board whilst teaching. There will even be moments where you’ll accidentally make a grammatical error on the power point which you didn’t spot before, and a student will point it out during the lesson. But that’s only normal and what every student would do. The point being is that if you are nervous or if you show that you are nervous – just smile, act confident and don’t let the nerves get the better of you. The students will have no idea that it is your first time teaching English to a class. But once you’re shoved into that classroom with 20-30 students looking at you, you are suddenly in the game and all nervousness is lost. Your focus remains in that room until the lesson is over. Realistically, everyone is bound to feel nervous, but that’s something that you will overcome through the progression of the camp, and something that will happen really, really quickly.
Just go with the flow
Having said that previous saying, here’s another one that sounds familiar and fitting for summer camp along with the rest of your life in China: “go with the flow”. I have realised that things are massively unorganised here compared to back at home – but that’s OK, and seems to be what every other teacher in China has worked with since the beginning. Lessons will be cancelled without you knowing, you’ll be told that you need to prepare a lesson last minute, teachers will forget to tell you important information that will affect your planned lessons the following day.
From the moment we stepped into the opening ceremony at the beginning of camp, where we were taken onto stage to a crowd of 200-250 people to receive gifts, nobody knew what was happening, but this is what was happening and we just had to (hilariously, may I add) go with it.
Probably the most precise moment where I realised that this saying was so appropriate was when I was in the middle of closing ceremony practise with Will outside. We were all getting into special formations, and it was all a bit mayhem: the teachers and students were shouting in Chinese to each other, people were being told to go to different positions, and obviously, not knowing a word of Chinese apart from “hello” and “thank you”, I hadn’t a clue what was going on. I remember turning to Will and asking him, “what is going on?”, and he replied, “I don’t know, but just go with it”. This saying cannot be emphasised enough. You just have to smile and go along with everything. Again, if you don’t know what you’re doing, just fake it (aka, smile in order to give off the impression that you do).
Let loose and have fun
It’s important to mention that summer camp isn’t necessarily “school” as you know school to be, or how you would teach in your long-term placement, whereby your job consists of teaching at a more serious level. Rather, the camp involves Chinese students attending with the goal to improve their English-speaking ability during their summer break. For this reason, the atmosphere is incredibly fun, relaxed and everyone is willing to take part in all activities – including the teachers too (even if that means dancing the cha-cha slide like you just consumed 5 tequila shots by the end of it).
Whether it involves coming up with silly chants, dancing around in your spare time, singing to cheesy music, or even playing the biggest game of bulldog with the students – always remember that these children are here to have fun and achieving fun with them is ultimately the only thing that they want.
For me, it was so refreshing to see how happy the children were ALL the time. Every time the children would walk past us around camp, they would have the biggest smiles on their faces. Not only this, but both students and teachers are incredibly welcoming and giving – they will shower you with gifts, food and drinks. By the end of teaching, we were given so many cards and authentic Chinese presents – AND I can now say I am a proud owner of a Chinese knot.
Whirlwind of emotions
I know for a fact that I don’t have thick skin when it comes to taking criticism, and it’s something that I’m trying to improve, but slowly getting there. One important thing to know is that children are children, and when they make a comment such as “you’re too serious” or “you’re too loud”, although it can pull your spirits down, you must remember that their English vocabulary is seriously limited so you should always consider that they can’t expand on the points that they are trying to make.
When they make a striking comment by a word that we would find offensive in our own culture, just don’t let it get to you and remember that they are children. In fact, later on when we had undergone TEFL training, one of our teachers told us something that has struck hold on me since: when your day is finished, and you’re going home to relax, your students are not thinking about you. So don’t waste your energy getting upset thinking about a comment that they made, when in reality, these children didn’t even mean what they had said in the first place.
And remember, for every hiccup that you may have, a good moment will always make up for it. On one day during camp, all classes rotated for the day. I wasn’t feeling particularly good about a comment that was made by one of the students that I was teaching in a different class, but this was completely made up for when I played a game of hangman at the end of the day with a different class, and one student had spelt out the sentence: “I like this teacher”, and another had spelt out: “this teacher is very beautiful”.
Ten days at a summer camp may seem like a small amount of time – but in reality, it feels a LOT longer: each day has its own challenges and benefits. You see the same faces when you wake up and you become close with the other teachers that you are working with very quickly.
You’ll find it challenging when the children aren’t quite understanding the way that you thought it would work whilst planning with your teaching partner. You’ll also realise that trying to define words that cannot be described with an image to accompany it such as “affection” and “admiration” is a challenge in itself. Not only trying to define these words to a degree of English in which the students will understand, but also to try and distinguish their differences in definitions.
Yet, one of the best aspects of teaching at summer camp was seeing the children grow. For me and Will, we recognised by the end of camp our relationships with the children had completely changed. At the beginning, they were too shy to even put their hands up and ask us a question, but by the end of the camp, we had switched roles and suddenly the students took it in turns to teach me and Will a Chinese class (which was seriously entertaining for them).
Although there is a minimal language barrier with the children, this does not obstruct you from being able to spot the different personalities in each student: the class clown, the quiet but incredibly smart one, the basketball player who overpowered both me and Will in height, but turned out to be a massive softy inside after seeing him upset on the last day whilst saying our goodbyes.
Having said that, one of the hardest parts of camp was saying goodbye and seeing so many children upset. At the end, the camp coordinator told us that these 10 days were so important to the children, and that we have made a massive impact on their lives. It’s strange to think that it only takes 10 days to do this, but I can honestly say that as a teacher – my life has changed too.
After camp, I have come away having created so many special bonds with so many different people, but I have also learnt a considerable amount about teaching, lesson planning, working together in a team, and every other skill that has fuelled me to continue teaching in my long-term placement and to become a good English Foreign Language teacher.