Before deciding to teach TEFL in China, I had already taken a few tourist trips to the country’s main attractions. I’d wandered the scarlet passageways of Beijing’s Forbidden City, puffed and panted my way up the Great Wall, and held my selfie stick aloft to capture Shanghai’s numerous skyscrapers stacked together like pipes on a church organ.
I couldn’t wait to go back. After completing my undergraduate degree in Chinese Studies I thought my learning was over. With a desire to return to China and the UK job market creaking under the strain of millions of shiny, new graduates, I decided to take a TEFL course and find a teaching job. The experience that followed would transform my life, providing me with opportunities, challenges and experiences that I could never have imagined.
After a weekend in Manchester learning the tips and tricks of TEFL amongst a great class of people, I finished my online tests and applied for a teaching job in China on the TEFL Org UK website. I was jittery with excitement, and probably a sprinkle of naivety – “I wonder where I’m going – Beijing or Shanghai?”
“Actually, we have some other cities you might want to consider,” said the recruiter, who had responded to my application within a few days. I had been really pleased that the company had gotten in touch with me so soon, and although I knew the process might not go exactly as I had imagined, this was a slightly curvier curveball than I’d expected.
The teaching company interviewed me and evaluated one of my ‘practise’ lessons over Skype before sending me a selection of three cities to choose from – I’d never been to any of them. How could I possibly choose where to teach for next twelve months?
After some reflection, I snapped out of it – teaching abroad is about expanding your horizons. China is a big place, not just confined to huge cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. With my studies under my figurative belt, now wasn’t the time to shy away from the unknown.
What ensued was some form of Goldilocks and the Three Cities – I ruled out one destination as “too hot,” the other as “too cold.” That left me with Hefei, the capital of Anhui Province in Eastern China. I did a little bit of internet Miss Marple-ing and looked up the history and sights of the city, but eventually, the sense of excitement to start teaching in a country I loved took precedence. In October 2015, I flew out to start a position at a training school, teaching extra-curricular lessons to students aged 3 to 18.
After what felt like a week of plane travel, I landed in Hefei at pitch black-o’clock. My new colleagues gave me a warm welcome, took me to eat dinner and settled me into my new apartment. As soon as the sun rose, my jetlagged self had been wide awake for seven hours already and I decided to head out.
In Beijing, I’d been used to wide open highways, tall office blocks and being sandwiched into the subway. In Hefei, my leafy neighbourhood was instead home to small cafes and diners, friendly local residents and floor-level fruit markets.
My working day often started after lunch. I planned lessons with the help of my colleagues and taught kindergarten classes in the evening. If there’s anything that can cheer you up after a long, serious, frown-y adult day, it’s making children giggle as you play musical chairs wearing cat paws and a multi-coloured hat. The school provided props, curriculum guidelines and flashcards to teach a variety of vocabulary, grammar and phonics. Each classroom was also equipped with interactive whiteboards to use music and video in class. Throughout the year, the school also held team-building activities as well as the opportunity to accompany the students on field trips.
As I was working in a training school, my classes’ age ranges varied dramatically. However, this was what was truly motivating about the job. I could go from pretending to be a T-Rex to discussing the effects of global warming within the space of an hour. I loved listening to my students – hearing everything about their newest toy to their latest exam results really made me feel like I was somebody they could count on. When I was new to the city, we swapped a lot of cultural tips, including where the best place to eat was in Hefei and the all important question – is everyone in England like Benedict Cumberbatch?
It’s a real misconception to think that teaching abroad will be “easy” or “effortless.” Try improvising a lesson, teaching to a class of children with no experience of English, or finding the perfect way to teach a grammar rule without half the students planting their foreheads on the desk in boredom. Just a few months of teaching can build upon your TEFL training and provide you with vital workplace skills such as organisation, creativity and public speaking.
As for Hefei itself, living somewhere outside of the usual tourist routes really opened my eyes to what I had previously been missing out on in China’s vast first-tier cities.
“Milk tea, extra tapioca?” a café employee asked one day.
“Yes! How did you remember?”
“How could I not remember?” she shrugged and smiled.
Within a few months I had made a group of friends that I still keep in touch with today. With Anhui province being relatively rural, Hefei is a unique in its rapid development while rolling hills and farms remain just a short drive away. Within my year’s teaching, I played tennis (badly) in the street with my neighbours, visited friends in their mountainous home villages, and even filled the role of a bridesmaid at my friend’s wedding. I wasn’t the only one changing – in this short space of time, Hefei built a new subway, opened several new shopping malls and even established a new theme park.
Teaching in a place that is in a transformative phase from smaller market town to fully-fledged economic hotspot was an experience I would never have encountered without stepping out of my international comfort zone and embarking on an adventure. Teaching in Hefei has totally overhauled my vision of China, re-paved the path of my academic interest and most importantly, taught me that while not everything goes to plan, it sure goes somewhere, and it might be better than you think. So the next time you look for a teaching job, why not try somewhere a little different?
Cat completed our combined 120-hour TEFL course.
You can read more of Cat’s blog posts over on Putong Press.