Q&A: Teaching English in China with ITA Advisor, Paige Lee

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We’re here with Paige Lee, Admissions Advisor at International TEFL Academy. Paige advises people interested in going overseas about all aspects of teaching English abroad, including TEFL certification, job markets, the interview process, job search guidance, visa matters and more.  Prior to joining International TEFL Academy, Paige taught English in China and we're glad she joined us to share her experience.


Where did you teach in China and what inspired you to teach English in China in the first place?

I taught in Shanghai, China. Before learning that teaching English abroad was possible, I thought the only way to live abroad was to join the Peace Corps or to go volunteer in a third-world country.

When a friend told me that she was going to Spain to teach English and have an income, I knew I had to find out how. I started doing research and learned that there was a huge demand for English teachers in China and that they actually pay English teachers very well. I honestly thought the whole thing was some scam at first; it seemed too good to be true.

Teaching English in Shanghai, China

What surprised you the most about China when you first arrived?

Everything in the first few weeks thrilled me: eating hot noodles for breakfast, the huge number of bicycles everywhere, drinking tea with floating leaves in it, the street names (HuaiHai Rd, ZhiaJiaBong Rd), eating with chopsticks…I was in a constant state of amazement. I was definitely surprised by how modern and cosmopolitan Shanghai is with modern shopping malls and sky-scrapers standing side-by-side with century old temples and architecture. And how CHEAP everything was, the money I had saved up and arrived with went very far and I was able to keep a savings account the whole time I was living abroad.

What sort of school did you teach in and were Chinese students easy to work with?

I worked for a private English School, called Shanghai Jazz English Training Institute, which contracted their teachers out to local kindergartens. Shanghai Jazz believed that children learned English best when engaged through song and games, a style in stark contrast to the rote repetitive learning Chinese kids do in their public schools. My company provided me with the curriculum and resources, it was up to me to build my daily and weekly lesson plans according to each week’s learning goals.

I taught 2-8 year olds and most of them were only children because of China’s one-child policy, so there were definitely some spoiled brats in the group. The Chinese kids I taught were mostly well behaved but when they weren’t, I always had Chinese teachers in the classroom to help keep them focused. Overall I loved working with kids and they loved singing and playing games with me.

My favorite part of day was walking into my next class and hearing all the kids go “yyyaaayyyy! Paigeee LaoShi!!” which means “Paige Teacher”. I really felt like I was able to keep them enthusiastic about learning English.

What were some of the major challenges you faced during your first months?

The language barrier was my earliest challenge, I could barely say “hello” correctly when I arrived. I carried a pocket dictionary with me everywhere I went and used it every single day.

The cultural barrier was also a very present the whole time I was there. For example, the Chinese are very non-confrontational, and I (along with most Americans) prefer to address issues as they came up. A few times this translated into unintentionally embarrassing or offending my Chinese coworkers and peers. But the great thing about working with a school that has had many English teachers before me is that there is a two-way understanding that these kinds of cultural differences exist and there are no hard feelings. It’s a get-out-of-jail-free card!

Life as an English teacher in Shanghai, China

Where did you live while teaching English in China?

I lived in the French Concession in a two-bedroom high-rise apartment with another teacher from my company, who became one of my best friends. All of our furniture was provided and we were able to hire a maid to come-in twice a week and keep our apartment clean. As a 24-year-old, I thought this was the lap of luxury!


Was it easy to meet other English speakers and how was your social life?

Very! Most of the other English teachers at my school were Americans and those who had been there a while had groups of friends that they invited me in to. I became very good friends with these people and it seemed like we were constantly meeting more expats at various events. I had friends who were in Shanghai for all types of reasons, so I was learning about their home countries (Australia, England, The Netherlands, France, Canada) as I was experiencing Chinese culture as well.

What did you do for fun?

We were always looking for new corners of the city to discover, so my friends and I spent a lot of our weekends on our bikes riding through unexplored neighborhoods. At night, we loved going out to dinner and clubs or spending the night at a Karaoke house (the Chinese take their karaoke VERY seriously).Pandas in China


Were you able to travel?

I got the chance to do a lot of traveling, both within China and around Asia. Flights and trains are very affordable, so probably about once a month I was checking out another city or Provence in China. I’m a history lover, so I really enjoyed getting to learn about how ancient Chinese culture and monuments are. I walked on The Great Wall and saw the Terracotta Warriors, but I also visited the first Forbidden City and massive Buddha sculptures carved into the side of a mountain.  

I got out to Western China, which was like stepping back in time. I went into a real-life hidden valley; the only way in and out was by boat through a cave. I still can’t believe places like that actually exist.

Whenever I felt like I wanted to so more of Asia I used my paid vacation to visit surrounding countries: India, Nepal, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. I took a plane ride around Mt. Everest and saw the birthplace of Buddha in Nepal; I rode an elephant and went reef diving in Thailand. I celebrated Tet, the traditional New Year's celebration in Vietnam, and took a morning boat ride on the Ganges River in India’s oldest city, Varanasi. When I tell these stories to my friends or new people that I meet, I feel astonished all over again at how much stuff I’ve seen and done.

How was the food?

AH-mazing! I don’t know if I’ll ever eat that well again, American Chinese food does no justice to the real thing. And every region in China has its own style of food, so there was always something new and delicious to try.

What advice do you have for anybody who is thinking about teaching English in China or just teaching abroad generally?

Don’t let preconceived ideas about Chinese culture, Communism, or environmental issues get in your way. China is a BEAUTIFUL country that continued to surprise me the whole time I was there. Much of the Western World has no idea what actually exists within China, so don’t listen to people who tell you it’s not a good place to go because of something they saw on the news. It’s a GREAT destination country for teaching English abroad and learning about an incredible culture. The only way to know what The Middle Kingdom is all about is to experience it for yourself.

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