By: Steven Anteau
“How can you teach in China? You don’t speak Chinese!”
This was the immediate response from my friends as soon as they heard that I was moving to China to teach English. I had wondered myself how I would get along, but, I was here to teach English in an immersion environment. I assumed the best and just chalked it up to “stuff to worry about later.”
I work in an after school training center. They are one of the more popular settings to work in China with loose hours focused on the afternoons and a never ending stream of new children, so they are always seeking more teachers. My classes are mostly four years old to eight or nine, and we have one class of 12-year-olds. Unlike in the United States, where there is a laundry list of strict guidelines in how to interact with the children (the child can hug you, but you can not hug back and other nonsense like this), you are encouraged to hug the children, play with them, tickle them, and in general just have fun!
One child, Gordon, almost always comes to his 9 AM Saturday class in a bad mood. Not like “I need my coffee” bad but more like “GIVE ME MY COFFEE OR I’LL KILL YOU!” kind of mood. As I go around the room giving everyone animals on the board (and they all want to be dinosaur), I know Gordon will need some coercing into having fun. First I give him a poo-poo. He doesn’t like that. So I make him a dog, a big fat dog, with poo-poo on its head. Maybe he smiles. When it comes time to interact with the board, he’s grumpier than ever, so I will literally pick his entire chair up, haul his grumpy butt to the board, and make him participate. By this time the children are all laughing so hard, he has to cheer up, and the rest of the class is a breeze.
The children will come into the office and, when not in class, they can speak all the Chinese they want. They run up to me, pointing, spouting off a million words a minute of what I can only assume is “Look at Teacher Steve! He’s eating bananas!” and the only response I can come up with is “what are you doing!” as I chase and tickle them, pretending they stole my wallet.
We find the international language of video games to be a great way to spend some quality time together. One of my students, Clark, loves watching me play Angry Birds. I offer him to play, but he’d rather watch the master.
My absolute favorite thing to do with the kids between classes is put on some classic cartoons that don’t require language skills. Roadrunner, Coyote, and Tom and Jerry are quite familiar in my school. I will sit in my corner with two kids on my lap and another behind my back, watching the Coyote setting up his awful trap, silently, eyes growing wider and wider until the bomb explodes, and we burst into laughter. The Chinese teachers think I’m crazy, but I just try to tell them I refuse to grow up.
Saturday is my day with my older students. They’ve had six or seven years of English training at this point, and they can tell me what they had for breakfast, what they want to be when they grow up, and I can always finish a question with “why?” Best of all, they can ask me questions! I always let them ask me whatever they want. The most common questions seem to be where I’m from, how old am I, and do I have any children. When I tell them I’m 29 with no children, they will try to tell me it is time for me to start a family. Odd coming from 12 year olds.
Living and working in this environment, surrounded by children, the world always brand new to them, keeps me feeling young. I love coming to work every day, and I feel like my students are excited to learn these new concepts. They immediately know when they are expected to repeat and learn an English word or sentence, and I’m more than happy to give their dinosaurs ice cream as rewards. Teaching English abroad keeps your mind busy exploring your new environment as well as picking the brains of the youngest learners. I never regret a single work day.
Steven moved to China in 2014 to work as an ESL teacher. Since then he has begun traveling the world, gotten married, and worked in universities, public schools, private tutoring, and every other teaching setting imaginable in China.