A Day in the Life: Teaching English in China

Although I haven’t written much about it yet, I’m currently living in Shanghai, China, and working as an ESL Teacher. And so far, I love it.

I work at a school called Giraffe English Training School, or 长颈鹿美语, which translates literally to Long Neck Deer American Language. It is a private training school with two (soon to be more!) branches in Shanghai, dozens more around mainland China, and literally hundreds in Taiwan. And as far as English training schools go, it’s a pretty good gig.

At a training school, the students attend classes twice a week after their normal school day, or for a two hour session on the weekends. At my school, they have one hour with their foreign teacher (me) and one hour with their Chinese teacher, who teaches in English but is always around in case a little Chinese is needed.

My day can go one of two ways.

On weekdays, I can sleep in until an ungodly late hour, roll out of bed, enjoy my day, arrive at work by 4 p.m. to teach one or two classes, and I’m out the door by 8:30 p.m. Or, it will be Monday or Thursday, which are my days off (some teachers have other combinations of days off, but everyone has Monday).

On weekends, however, life is a bit busier. All of the foreign teachers at my school have four classes per day on average, sometimes more and sometimes less. I teach five classes on Saturday and three on Sunday, and with the classes spread out over the course of the day, it can get long but it only gets sillier as it goes by.

Because of the weekend schedule, Monday has become my favorite day of the week.

But I love my students, my co-workers and co-teachers, and I love living in Shanghai (most of the time). I wanted to give you a glimpse into what it is like on a typical teaching day at an English training school in China, so please have bum-bums on your chairs, hands on knees, and EYES ON MOLLY! (As I would say to all of my students at the start of class).

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7:54 a.m, Saturday

I arrive at work by taxi, because it’s humid out and I teach five classes today and I’m here from 8:30 in the morning to 7:00 at night and I’m tired and I deserve it. And I deserve an iced coffee.

Usually I would take the subway, but I can’t be bothered to leave that early on Saturday morning; and my bike hasn’t traveled much more than a kilometer since the summer solstice. Shanghai is hot.

When I get into the office, I finish up my lesson plans for my two back-to-back morning classes, print them out, gobble down a muffin, and head to class. My first session is at 8:35, with a group of smart but rambunctious 4 and 5 year olds who trickle in tardily throughout the first half hour. I don’t blame the parents though, there are much nicer places to be on a Saturday morning (like asleep).

Session two is a phonics class full of 6 year olds, a combination of which range from the class over-achiever who ambitiously repeats words back to me spelling bee style (T-I-G-E-R TIGER!), to a kid who has never studied English in his life, and I’m supposed to teach him to read. I get through it. At the end of class, a student named Candy passes out candy to all the students that says “Eat shit sugar, lucky.” Oh, China.

10:40 a.m. 

I’m back in the office and the air conditioner is finally turned on in the building, so I can collapse into a heap at my desk and tune out the world with my new-found podcast. At this point I probably eat a banana. I open the profane candy from Candy and lick it, but it’s questionable.

11:36

I plan my next lesson. It’s numbers. I’m meant to teach the numbers 11-15 to a group of students who can likely count to 100. My school is great, but sometimes the curriculum is really hit and miss. Sigh. I plan some more lessons.

12:10

I gab with my coworkers about my adorable students, general gossip, and ask Blair, one of my co-teachers, how to say something in Chinese.

12:56

I debate leaving the office for my afternoon class.

1:02

I actually leave the office to go prep for my afternoon class, another second-level group of 4-and-5-year-olds who acutally used to appear in my nightmares but have really turned it around lately to become one of my favorite classes. They are growing up and becoming good little people, and I’m really proud of them.

I ask them to tell me what our class rules of the day should be, and they tell me in Chinese. I can understand most of what they say, so our class rules of the day are “no running, no sleeping on the floor, no taking your shoes off, and no blah blah blah.” We practice numbers and I try to tell them that I’m 123 years old, but they see right through my bullshit.

2:25

I dart to the fried rice and noodle bar at the grocery store in the building and get food. I subsequently return and devour said food.

2:50

I think this is the point where I take a breif nap.

3:47

I have a minor anxiety episode at the realization that I’m now an adult.

4:23

Have I already been here for like, 8 hours? Phew, time flies. I prepare for my actual nightmare baby class, a group of derpy 3 and 4 year olds who don’t quite understand what they’re doing here yet and definitely don’t have the attention spans to even be in a school setting. But they’re cute af.

My last two classes of the day are back-to-back again, so after my baby class I switch rooms to teach one of my absolute favorite classes, another 4-and-5-year-old group who are just hilarious and wonderful people. There is a student named Yoyo who is a little gangster, a “couple” named Minnie and Mango, and a kid named Kevin Lee who is pretty okay at English, but understands humor in a way that far surpasses his age.

He often calls me during the middle of class with his thumb-and-pinky phone and says “Wei, wei Molly laoshi ni hao, wei wei wei…” and I can’t help but burst out laughing Sometimes I answer the call. (“Wei” is how Chinese people answer their phones, and is probably most foreigners’ favorite Chinese word). He also comes up with English words or phrase hybrids entirely on purpose, like “fish tree” (instead of apple tree) and has the intelligence to say things eleventeen, completely aware of what he’s saying. His comedic timing is impeccable. But maybe I just think he’s adorable because I’m his teacher, and we all have our favorite students (shhhh!).

Today in this class, one of my youngest students, Alice, has a very strange moment of rebellion and angst, and refuses to put her name card magnet on the board. She doesn’t know why.

Later, a water bottle falls over and spills. It is next to Kevin Lee, so I ask him if it is his water bottle, to which he says “yes.” I ask him to go get tissues while I call the Ayi to help clean up. Thirty seconds later, all is well. Five minutes later, a girl named Emily bursts out crying. Apparently the water bottle was not Kevin Lee’s, it was hers, and now she is sad.

Meanwhile, Jeremy keeps trying to fake bite me because he is a vampire, and a kid named Evan, who might acutally be a vampire, keeps hitting Joyce and Minnie before hitting me. I take away one of his stars on the board.

Then we review counting, and the students can choose between an assortment of countable objects to count. Bowl, plastic eggs, toy mushrooms, cotton balls, bananas, you name it. Numbers are always a blast of a lesson.

I say goodbye to my favorite children, wash my hands, and trudge back to the office. It’s been a long but adorable day.

7:03 p.m.

I clock out and take the subway home, only to return the next day at 9:00 a.m. to help with Open House, the sales pitch to parents of new little Giraffers, during which I will teach the words apple, banana, orange, watermelon, and papaya to a room full of crying children. But it’s always a fun time at Giraffe. Until tomorrow! 🙂

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