Everyone knows the stereotype of young adults deciding to drop everything and run away to ‘find themselves’. I’m not writing to dispel that stereotype. In fact, you could almost say I’m promoting it, particularly when it comes to teaching abroad.
While determined friends began climbing the career ladder, I was hesitant to pursue my own after the exhaustion of university. Travelling and the ‘gap yah’ mentality started to influence my decisions, and I began to save money more diligently, whilst browsing websites to find my next calling. The answer soon became obvious: teaching English abroad.
Every time someone asks why I chose China, the answer is a little different. Honestly, I don’t have a specific one. Beauty, diversity, cost of living, food, travel opportunities are a few, but arguably one of the most important reasons is having found a support system that I trusted completely to help me through my first year of teaching abroad. During my final year, I received an email about a seminar held by Teach English In China at my university. I went with a window-shopping attitude, but left confident that they would be my first choice to apply to. There was an air of friendliness and professionalism that comforted me greatly.
Those at the seminar were split about half and half between wanting to seek teaching as a career and, like myself, being motivated more by the travelling and personal experience. Two months in, I must say that in terms of this, it has been everything I could have wanted and more.
My Placement and Schedule
I was placed in Zhangjiajie, Hunan Province. This is a small city adjacent to the famous Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, home to the stunning Avatar Mountains. Actually, the placement could not have worked out better. I shied away from popular choices like Shanghai; the idea of such a hustle and bustle, potentially overwhelming city didn’t appeal to me. For my first year at least, I sought somewhere with a cosier feel, where I would be forced to acquire a decent level of Mandarin pretty swiftly.
What turned out to be a pleasant surprise was the sheer amount of free time I’ve ended up with. I have early classes every day, which always finish by noon at the latest. This ensures I get up at a decent time every morning, but always have most of the afternoon and evening to myself. The only other commitment I have is my Monday Office Hours, during which I plan lessons or learn Mandarin if no students are visiting. There is also English Corner every Friday, which is a pleasant sit-down with eager students and lots of free coffee. What’s not to love?
Using My Time Wisely
Every single day I have free time to use for so many things: meditation, yoga, lesson planning (though don’t underestimate the time required for this), learning Mandarin, helping students, and personal pursuits- in my case, writing fiction. I may have one of the easier schedules of all the teachers on this programme but in any case, you will still find yourself with spare time. This makes for an excellent chance to explore the new, exciting place in which you live and pursue new hobbies.
It’s also important to make use of this time to socialise! Making friends is the best way to experience new things and learn more about your new home. Furthermore, depending on your contract or following negotiations with your employer, you can even pick up some extra tutoring on the side to make some more cash (as long as it doesn’t get in the way of your main job, of course). There will always be families willing to take you on to teach their children. I’ve even been offered tutoring jobs from some of the Chinese teachers at this university, for their own kids.
Teaching abroad is a far cry from my last semester of university, which involved working a part-time job and writing a dissertation. While university life demands such a schedule, teaching in China has been a welcome reward for those last laborious months. The only homework you really have is the lesson planning. Once you learn how to efficiently factor this into your schedule, you can make the most of your free time. The more lessons you plan, the easier they become and the quicker you become at doing it.
Gaining New Skills
Teaching abroad is a wonderful opportunity to boost confidence and public speaking. Plus, something that you can’t really put a price on: teaching is an invaluable skill. Seeing your students disappointed at the sound of the end of class bell is so rewarding.
What comes from such a level of trust and responsibility, is a greater sense of self-worth. Back home, it’s easy to feel like you pale into insignificance next to all the others competing for the same job as you, with the same goals and credentials. Here, I feel valued and indeed well-respected. For some of the students, I am the first foreigner they have ever met. They are fascinated by the Western world and I am equally fascinated by Asia. I’m always happy to sit down with them and guide them through a conversation in English. What’s more wonderful than to exchange your culture and customs with someone from a different land?
The Reality of Teaching Abroad
Another stereotype that arises from teaching abroad is that it’s somewhat of an ‘easy way out’. This couldn’t be further from the truth. I have had my classes observed by other teachers and have to submit some example lesson plans to give an idea of how I structure my classes. So the idea that I can just “walk in and chat about whatever I feel like” is not true. Many of these students major in English, so the content you teach them is highly important. Even though it gets easier as you go on, you know that you have an important responsibility to these children and your employer.
With all this free time comes the task of managing it wisely. Of course, I could easily spend my days watching TV and sleeping. After all, university has turned many of us into expert procrastinators. However, my schedule has taught me to keep my days busy and productive. I quickly learned that this feeling was a hundred times better than being a couch potato, waiting for Netflix to load on the questionable Wi-Fi. Indeed, this may be one of the only opportunities that you have to enjoy time to better yourself and learn new things. You might even discover what you want to achieve or work towards as a long-term goal.
If you indeed wish to ‘find yourself’, ignore your friend’s eye rolling and consider teaching English abroad. Feeling valued, having creative control over classes, and enthusiastic students (for the most part!) are a wonderful confidence boost. I get to practice my public speaking every single working day and I’ve never been more grateful for the chance.
In addition, your schedule will allow for you to pursue what you’ve always wanted to but couldn’t because that deadline was in the way. Time is a valuable commodity and having the opportunity to learn how to use it as best you can is invaluable. I took advantage of the chance to teach here because I didn’t really know where exactly in my life I was supposed to be right now. I see now that it is right here, in a continent I had never visited before all this, in a job I had never before foreseen myself taking. It was the perfect decision.
By Imara Lenders, Teacher in Zhangjiajie (2016-2017)