When one approaches teaching in China as a career path, there are a few options available. Kindergarten, Training Centre, International School, or University. Each, a vastly different experience, with a range of pros and cons. Not that I knew any of this, as a fresh-faced graduate looking to teach and travel in China for the first time. After responding to an advertisement I stumbled across on a jobs board all the way back in 2016, I was swiped up by a recruitment agency and set up with an interview at a training centre in Jinzhou, China.
Year One: Fresh off the Boat
I still didn’t really know what that entailed, even as I stepped off the plane and into my new position as Foreign Expert at Starsplendor School of English. A Training Centre, for the uninitiated, is an extracurricular language school which operates outside of regular school hours. 6-8pm on weekdays, 8am-6pm on the weekend; all day, every day during the summer. At Starsplendor, I found myself working Wednesday – Sunday (with Mondays and Tuesdays off), teaching around 18 hours a week. Each class would be 40 minutes long, with a class size of between 15-80 (!) students. Being young, naïve and new to the industry, I had no idea whether these practices were standard or not (they are not) but threw myself into the job regardless. Even as the summer hit and my workload increased exponentially (teaching anything up to 12 hours a day), I had a blast in my first teaching position.
For my second year in China, I decided to seek out a more regulated kind of school, with formal training and opportunities for career growth. I sought out the biggest name I could find in ESL, and quickly found a job working for EF Chengdu. Another franchise of training centres, this school would teach me the nuts-and-bolts of TEFL education. In addition to the training and career opportunities (I progressed to senior teacher within my first year), the workload was more stable, and the class sizes much smaller (no more than 15 per class). While training centres – certainly the big corporate ones – leave much to be desired in holiday time and wages, they provide excellent on-the-job training and consistent working hours. Still, after two years of prancing about to Baby Shark for the amusement of three-year-olds, I was left hankering for something more.
To Be, or Not to Be…
And so I sought out a middle school position in Shanghai, as grade 7 Literature Teacher. As a literature graduate and lifelong lover of reading, this would be my dream title. Additionally, I could expect a large pay bump, lowered ACH (actual teaching time), and summers off. Best of all – no more Baby Shark. Instead, I would be teaching one of my favourite stories of all time… William Shakespeare’s (abridged, graded) Hamlet!
Working as the grade 7 Literature Teacher, I currently teach sixteen classes per week (each 40 minutes long), with weekends off. Class sizes are larger than one can expect to find at most training centres – roughly 30 students per class – with a much higher emphasis on exams and test results.
I had some experience working with older children, but none of the students I had previously encountered in training centres could have prepared me for the level of English at an international school like this one. While there are still some who can barely string together a sentence, many are almost fluent; allowing me to have in-depth conversations on such wide and varied subjects as Full Metal Jacket and the John Wick franchise. “Excuse me,” I said to one particular student, who had been talking to his classmate through the entirety of my lesson. “Would you like to tell the rest of the class what you were gossiping about during your Literature lesson?” He blushed. “I was just telling him about this film I watched last night,” he said… “Friday the 13th Part Five.” As a horror fanatic myself, I didn’t have it in me to reprimand him any further.
With a higher degree of fluency also comes a rise in answering back and a greater accuracy in insulting the teacher. “Gay shirt!” shouted a student as I entered the classroom last week, wearing my brand new polo shirt, “gay purple shirt!”
A different kind of classroom requires a different kind of classroom management system, no longer relying on stickers or pretend monkey to reward my students for good behaviour. A class of thirty or so rowdy thirteen-year-olds is an intimidating prospect, and not for the faint of heart. Instead, incentives now include less homework on the weekends, or a movie lesson later during the term. Another advantage of teaching middle schoolers over language centre babies is that the former are usually more capable of caring about their grades than the latter. Some can’t be motivated, try as you might, but most can be persuaded to knuckle down when it comes to the crunch. Which is more than you can say for a class of overexcited six-year-olds who just want to watch Paw Patrol instead of their scheduled flashcard drill.
With school events such as mandatory exams, flag raising ceremonies and sports days a regular occurrence, there is also a higher likelihood of classes being cancelled, making the already low (compared to a training school) workload feel even lighter. Teaching in a middle school is far from an easy prospect, but it does have its distinct advantages.
… That is the Question
Having experienced both, I found myself missing some parts of one job while loving elements of the other. I miss the cuteness of a Training School audience – the lack of responsibility to only seeing them once a week, like some sort of language-teaching clown or ESL babysitter. On the other hand, I have enjoyed getting to know students that I see every day of the week – building real, lasting relationships, and enjoying the kids’ banter (even the off-colour stuff).
While working in a Training Centre was never going to be a long-term thing for me, those who thrive in the environment really thrive, with plenty of opportunities to rise through the ranks fairly quickly. For those who just want to teach – and not just ESL – the international school is the place to be; allowing for such a range of subjects as literature, science, geography, art and PE. It’s a rewarding feeling – seeing one’s students respond to something like Hamlet, watching them tackle the material and form their own opinions on one of my favourite stories. Which is more than I can say for dancing to Baby Shark.
Training Centre or Middle School? There are distinct pros and cons to both. Not least, the prospect of two months’ holiday during the summer break. Two months off work? No summer course? Getting to teach some of my favourite books and stories of all time? With benefits like those, you can insult me and my gay purple shirt all you like.