Memoirs of a teacher in China

Those who have kept in touch with me know that teaching in China wasn’t always easy. But towards the end of my contract, having gotten used to… well, everything,  I looked at my job with what was missing at first: positivity. And teaching in China became all of the sudden the most positive experience I could hope for as a teacher.

With optimism – and a good deal of patience- I came to appreciate once again those little moments that I value and love so much in my job.

Those little moments are different in every school, in every country and with each student. Those little moments are special to me because they make me laugh to tears, they help me build a special bond with my students and they are what stays in my mind when I leave.

Many -many- people picture being a teacher as being some kind of a monster, or at least someone who is here to force learners do what they don’t want to do. And when I tell them that I teach adults, most of them go ” ah well, that’s super easy” or “adults? that’s not teaching…” But they forget how they feel when someone critizes them, when someone tells them what to do and how to do it. “It’s easy because they sit and listen to you” is as false as saying that 45 three years-olds will listen to you if you sit on a chair and talk. In my case, language learners who are more than 25 years old are less likely to be here by pleasure. Whether they have been sent by their employers or they have a trip/meeting to prepare, adults have as many reasons as teenagers to hate a lesson.

And dealing with ego does not help teaching them.


But whatever people think I do, I know in my heart that I love my job. I love that I have to deal with old ghosts like “my English teacher was very strict so I don’t like English” or “I don’t want to do grammar I remember my teacher made me learn this by heart but I didn’t know what for” or else:  ” My teacher in high school used to speak Spanish all the time but I hated it I don’t speak Spanish”… and then they realize they have been speaking Spanish for the whole hour without it bothering them. And at some point of the lesson, the term or the year comes my winning prize, my personal victory in the battle with the past and in the struggle with self-confidence: the stars in the eyes. “I don’t know why I didn’t like this it’s so simple!”, “Teacher, you are so nice to me and now I am not afraid of talking to you”, “You are not angry when I make mistakes” or “You helped me with my meeting and now I can speak English with the client and I’m not ashamed”.

I loved teaching in China because I loved the people. Chinese students, whatever their age, are very straightforward and will always say what they think. ” Teacher this lesson is boring” “Teacher today you look beautiful” ” Teacher you’ve gotten fat”. At all ages, I’ve found them to be respectful, thoughtful and caring. I’ve found them eager to learn, to do homework (“Teacher, I want homework”) as long as I made them feel at ease.

I think that culturally, teachers in China have the word and the knowledge. In public schools they expect students to learn fast without asking questions, and parents expect their kids to be the best. I think (I know) that teachers look very scary, that they sometimes hit their pupils but that at the end of the year they are sad to leave their teacher. I know that kids live with an unbelievable amount of pressure, that they do homework until 1 a.m, get up at 6 and only have half-an-hour to eat lunch. They go to school when they are sick and there are lessons at the weekend of there was a bank holiday. And yet, these young learners come with a smile on their face and a tired look on Saturday morning for their extra-lesson of English.

Teaching in China was, more than in any other country I’ve worked in, also dealing with fear and an inexistent self-confidence. Being a teacher in China is accepting the fact that your students will ask you anything because as a teacher you have the knowledge. You have to have it.  How to deal with a long-distance relationship, a divorce, how to accept that your parents want to move out of the country or that they want you to come back to your hometown. I have worked on aspects of daily life, on finding ways to get passed shyness and lead a meeting; a wide range of things that were out of my area of knowledge but that made me stronger and much better as a teacher.

I am grateful to all of them. I am glad  I got to teach Chinese students because they have helped me deal with difficult working conditions, health issues and other downsides of living in China when you are a foreigner. I wanted to write about my students as a way to thank them for bringing me homemade food when I didn’t have time to stop and eat, when they even made me eat in the classroom during the lesson while they would find themselves homework to do, for all the drawings and pictures the little ones gave me, for all the restaurants I was invited to. I wanted to thank my impossible class of 65 wild teenagers for shouting on the street “hero! villains! computer games! to win!” (and all the other things they had learnt) when they came across me in a hallway or in the street.

My students and colleagues are my best memories of my stay in China and when I think about them I also think about…


The Chinglish series

1. Li Hua, can you help me clean the mats please?

She runs and cleans them in no time

-Thank you!

-No thank you – walking away without a smile- *meaning: It’s my pleasure, no need to thank me*


2. For those familiar with the language:

Spanish class, my students are (self-) named Martín, Sally and Negro

Spanish pronunciation can be tricky for an 8 year-old.

Sally talking to Martín in Spanish: Ma Ke Tiiiin, Ma Ke Tin where are you?


3. Same class, different lesson (NB: “Blanco” means “white”, “Negro” means “black”)

Martín to me: Teacher, what does “Negro” mean?

Teacher: It’s Negro like the colour.

Martin to his classmate: ah, so your name is a colour? How strange!

End of the lesson, Martín running after his classmate: Blanco, blanco! you forgot your pen!


4. In kindergarten with 30 3 year-olds

Kids love screaming… and they have understood that I want them to be energetic and full of life.

Teacher: Kids, look! What can you see?

Class: I can see a craaaaab!

Little guy who likes answering but has no idea of what he has to say: gngngnwrAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaAAAAAAAAAAAAaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa

*little guy going red and not noticing everyone has shut up, on the same breath*


*little guy going blue, teacher laughing very hard*


Teacher: ok little boy, ok ok


*little guy choking and crying*


5. English names

My students are always thrilled to choose their names. Very carefully, they ask around, they study the meaning of each name before choosing it. The winning list – for both children and adults-  is:


Apple (boy and girl)/Cherry/Lemon/Watermelon (a big favourite)







Bright angel


6. It all comes down to this.

After months of science lessons, learning about our solar system, how the weather works, how matter works, etc. This is what it becomes in the mind on a 9 year-old. We often forget that these little bright minds are still children, and children have… well, their own world.


7. Giving an hour-and-a-half long speech

August, 1.15pm I am preparing my next class due at 15pm. Li Hua comes in and says

” Cami, we need you to go and teach some university students”

Me: “great, when?”

Her: “now”

Me: “is this a joke?”

Her: “No” (Chinese don’t joke you see). The class starts at 13.30 so you need to leave. You’ll be teaching 100 students”

Me: “WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAT??? about what? what are they studying?”

Her: “I don’t know but the taxi is waiting for you downstairs so you need to go”

Headmaster: “Think of something in the taxi!”

– I didn’t even have time to panic or have a heart attack-

At the uni, my rightful saviour Li Hua engages a long talk with the HoD after which she only says: “You need to prepare them for a competition, so you can talk about self-confidence, and how to prepare for an exam”.

And I went into that classroom, took the microphone, turned it off, and talked to 80 surprised students about self confidence. And  I have to admit that I even convinced myself when we talked about body language, attitude, dealing with the pressure of competing against others.

Also funny that the students had no idea why I was talking to them about that as they were expecting their “International business relations” lesson, of which I found a magical escape by telling them with great humor that I had absolutely no knowledge in that, and that I also had no idea why I had come to talk about this.

So, the English lesson in an amphitheater was in fact a lesson on international affairs in some private center and turned out to be an hour-long speech about self-esteem.

Now how’s that for impro?


Cheering up after that ridiculous story

Cheering up after that ridiculous story

8. Those bright minds

Lesson before Christmas: teaching a bright kid with a strange taste for killing people.

Teacher: Yes you can draw a snowman but I don’t want any blood or gun or knife in your drawing!

Kids: Ok

Drawing: A smiling snowman under a huge sun.


9. French lesson with teenagers

TEacher: “Où habites tu?” (where do you live?)

Student: “Je bite à Cardiff. Teacher why are you laughing?”


10. Being famous

Student: Cami do you know that my friends from the French group and I made you a page on Weibo (facebook)?

Me: What? are you serious?

Student: Yes, yes, because  we like your lessons (shows comments in Chinese with little hearts) and also we put pictures of you before your face got burnt by the sun (meaning I was tanned) because now you are not beautiful.


How’s that for honesty?




July 8, 2014

2 thoughts on “Memoirs of a teacher in China

  1. “now you are not beautiful”: This is so true, I love Chinese honesty. Congrats about the 100 students lesson impro, it must have been scary!

    • hehe So you’ve been to China? That was an example among many others, you must have some of them too! Share with us if you want 😉
      Hope to read you soon


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