Tales from the Classroom - Teaching Pre-K English in Suzhou, China

Tales from the Classroom - Teaching Pre-K English in Suzhou, China

By Amanda Barrows

Teaching in a pre-k classroom during my first year has been an experience jam-packed with surprises and lots of laughs along the way. My pre-k students are learning to learn and are beginning to discover who they are as people. They keep me on my toes and have also helped me to see China through a different lens: with fresh eyes and without judgement. Today I’m here to share with you my top 5 surprising and humorous moments of teaching in a pre-k classroom in China. I will share my candid classroom experiences to unfold the lessons learned during my year of teaching at a Chinese training center.

1. “Baby Tired”

One day, my student Leonard, age 4, came into class and was so sleepy that he did everything in his power to keep himself awake. For 20 minutes, he would shout “PASTA!” at random intervals. During the class break, I asked Leonard, “Do you like pasta?” He puzzled about this for a while before responding, “Teacher, what does ‘pasta’ mean?”

After yelling pasta for 20 minutes, I somehow assumed he knew the meaning. I was wrong.

He was bouncing off the walls, but at one point during class time he said poignantly, “宝贝累”… (“Baby tired”) and sat down on the spot. He then tried to remodel his pants by coloring them yellow during craft time. It was an eventful day to say the least! Everyone was entertained and it was still a fun class period to teach.

Time and time again, I have found that class is sometimes better when things don’t go according to plan. I teach for my students and am not defined by a lesson plan. I love that my students are becoming more confident and want to give them the freedom of self-expression. It is more than possible to mold scenarios that pop up in the classroom into something positive in terms of learning. I love the fact that they are now starting to play and make jokes with the English language.

Teaching English in Suzhou, China

2. "Lick"ety-Split

I turned my back for a microsecond to my white board to jot down points during a class game. When I turned around to continue the game, I was surprised to see one of my students LICKING another student. To this, I remarked, “Howard, Eric is not yummy!” Everyone understood and nearly died of laughter.

Although my students are young and have a limited grasp on the English language, I have found ways to incorporate the English they know into humorous moments. At times, my students’ actions are somewhat random and unexpected, so finding the ability to gather their attention in a positive way when the attention goes elsewhere provides for a more productive lesson and a positive learning environment where everyone can be his/her self without judgement.

 3. “Yes, I CAN”

During a test, I asked students, “Can you …?” To which they should respond, “Yes, I can” or “No, I can’t.” I attempted to choose an action physically impossible for human beings, but simple enough to be remembered by pre-k ESL students. I modeled question and answer with my assistant.

“Jessica, can you fly?” I queried. 
“No, I can’t” answered Jessica.

For this particular question, I cued my students to reply with “No, I can’t”.  Yet, things didn’t go exactly according to plan. One of students raised his hand and retorted, “But teacher, I CAN fly.” He then proceeded to jump up and down with his arms flapping.

My response: “WOW, Karl!!! You really CAN fly!! 

During class, as an ESL instructor, I model a question and response for my students. However, I give them the freedom to express themselves freely. The laws of physics clearly are not applicable here. I want my students to speak English well and to utilize their imagination during this process. Imagination is key for fun and adventure in learning. Imagination? Encouraged.

Teaching pre-k in Suzhou, China

I can’t imagine class time without these candid moments. Such experiences make lessons more memorable and my students are more likely to incorporate this language into their long-term memory as it incorporates a personal response. Imagination gives my students the wings to soar and the ability to emulate their favorite character and animals through TPR. It plays a big part in my classroom and in their daily lives as 3-5 year olds.

4. English Names

My most interesting task lately was helping a new student think of an English name. His mom told me, "He likes superheroes, so it's gotta be GOOD." 

Something to please both mom and his superhero inclination? I thought of superhero aliases. Here were the top 5 picks.

1. Batman: Bruce
2. Superman: Clark
3. Spiderman: Peter
4. Jedi: Luke
5. Iron man: Tony

Yep, this is the story of how Iron Man joined the ranks of my English class. As his superhero identity must remain a mystery, to you, he is now "Tony".

English names are an important part of the ESL classroom in China, so parents often select names for their child, or allow him/her to choose from a list of names. This process takes some time. Names are unique and symbolic here. Some parents look at the ‘elegance’ of the English lettering. Some look for names which sound similar to their child’s Chinese name (ie: “A Bao” becomes “Bob” and “Da Wei” becomes “David”.) Some look at interests or favorite foods (“Cherry”, “Rice” and “Apple) Others consider a quality they see in their child or the meaning behind the name. Name giving in an ESL environment is important here and it was amazing and humbling to be part of such a big decision on behalf of my student.

Teach English in China5. Lost in Translation

What song does everyone want to sing?

Arvin: “BABY SHARK!!!”
Hanson: “Tooty TA”
Andy: “MUDAH!”
Me: “Mudah?”
Andy: “likah mudah, mudah!”

…I had to think for a while…

Me: “I like to move it?”
Andy: “YES!”

Kids are kids everywhere and there are times when, no matter which language is spoken, adults are lost in translation. However, with careful listening and patience, it is easier to comprehend and communicate with pre-school students. In the long-run, students who are listened to and understood by their teacher are more likely to enjoy class.

Further, listening is the foundation for cultivating a mutual respect in a classroom environment and, by giving students a choice in their learning experience—whether it’s choosing a song, games or special activity—students are given a sense of autonomy and responsibility and develop a curiosity and more interest in the topic being taught.


Although I am entering my 5th year as an ESL instructor, I am still learning. Every new school and country brings new opportunities and new lessons learned for both my students and myself. After a nearly one year of teaching and living in China, I have learned to be more flexible in life and in teaching. Sometimes “Baby’s tired” and the approach needs to be modified. Other times, “Lick"ety-Split! My students’ attention is lost and I need to improvise and search for positive and creative ways to bring the attention back to the lesson. I have found joy in my students’ Yes, I CAN attitude and creative aptitude in choosing English names. Although we are sometimes Lost in Translation, we all try our best to creatively and confidently express ourselves. 

As an ESL instructor, the ultimate goal goes beyond a lesson plan and beyond vocabulary. The key objective is to cultivate a creative learning environment, which incorporates respect of culture and respect from teacher and students alike. This experience was a new beginning for both myself and my students, and I’m certain that we will carry the lessons learned into our lives.

TEFL China


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Amanda BarrowsA Northeastern girl from Camden, Maine, Amanda never imagined her passion for languages and diplomacy would coalesce in a global journey of discovery. This ITA Alumni Ambassador is now embarking on her fourth year teaching ESL, and has found that the ESL classroom is a place to ultimately build a more peaceful and connected world.

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