Mike Cairnduff from Hello Teacher!

Updated November 16, 2018
By Mike Cairnduff

Role of the English teacher in China

In this blog, I talk to ESL thought leader and co-founder of English Attack!, Paul Maglione, about the role of the English teacher in China.

What qualities or characteristics do you think are needed to be a good teacher?

A good teacher needs to be well trained, know the subject matter extremely well, and know how to manage a class and monitor the progress of each student.

A great teacher needs to be able to engage their students, get them excited about learning English, and to make them understand that by learning it, they are not only acquiring a new way to communicate but a way to go forward in this globalized world.

Why are these things important?

If a teacher can do all this, they’ve unlocked the door to effective learning.

Is this the same in China?

In China, a lot of emphasis is placed on exam results and how these qualify you for academic progression.

This is a sort of negative motivation based on fear of failure (and its consequences) rather than on developing a love of the language and striving towards the new opportunities that becoming fluent in the language can bring.

Why do you think China is such a popular choice for ESL teachers?

With its high levels of economic growth, China is seen as the land of opportunity. It therefore attracts more than its fair share of academics, business people, entrepreneurs and so on.

The added attraction for many Western ESL teachers coming to China is that their status as ‘native’ English language teachers gives them a sort of automatic professional qualification or advantage within the context of most schools and language institutes.

That’s something you don’t really see in other professions, so it’s logical that this opportunity, paired with the enormous demand for ESL teachers in China, would combine to make China a very popular choice for these individuals.

Paul Maglione talks about the role of the English teacher in China. Pictured: screen shot from English Attack!

A typical screen shot of Paul Maglione's digital English teaching platform, English Attack!

What’s one of the greatest challenges for an ESL teacher in China?

Class sizes can be quite large in China and there are often very disparate levels of both motivation and engagement within each class. Different students may require different teaching and support approaches in order to achieve engagement with them.

For example, a shy student may want to learn but avoids eye contact with the teacher because they don’t want to be made to read out loud in front of the class.

Another student may feel that as they’re not following every word of the dialogue in a video clip they’re not progressing well. And yet another student may have an impressive vocabulary of individual words but is at a total loss when confronted with even the most basic idiomatic expression.

The point here is that each learner is different, has different needs and different aptitudes. Finding the time (and energy) to individualize one’s teaching in a large class is surely one of the hardest challenges for an ESL teacher in China.

How is the role of the teacher changing?

Teachers today are not the sole source of knowledge as they once were. Today, more English-language material than we can comprehend is available at the click of a mouse or the tap of a touch-screen to anyone with an internet connection.

Teachers need to realize that their true value lies in giving learners the motivation, skills and self-confidence to teach themselves.

What’s your best advice for someone considering teaching abroad?

The same advice I would give them when considering teaching in their own country: no two employers are alike.

You need to do your research, talk to people who have worked there (it’s easy to find them via networks such as LinkedIn) and get a feel for the reputation of the place that is offering the job.

I’d recommend that the person has a realistic idea of how much they will be earning, what their disposable income will be like given the local cost of living (which can vary wildly according to where you live in China), what their true career prospects will be, and how long it will take them to learn basic Mandarin so that they can feel more established in the country.

These considerations are easy to lose sight of when eying the ‘Big China’ opportunity in all its glory. It pays to stay focused.

English Attack! offers a new approach to learning English, developed by media and video-gaming experts in collaboration with researchers in cognitive neuroscience.

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