Teacher Sarah Bucknall writing for Hello Teacher!

Updated November 15, 2018
By Sarah Bucknall

Kids playing classroom games in China

I can remember when I first made the decision to move into the challenging world of teaching.

I didn’t know what to expect but could foresee the promise of travel and absorption into another culture. I was sold!

I gained so much from my first year of teaching in China. However, I certainly could have worked out a few of the kinks before I arrived.

It starts with the right TEFL course

Everyone will tell you that learning to teach is really something that comes once you take the reins of your own classroom.

Although I agree, don’t let this be a reason to neglect research on the right TEFL course for you.

My TEFL course was done online. Although extremely thorough and a great platform to launch my teaching career from, it could have been better.

I advise every budding TEFL teacher to experience teaching in a classroom firsthand as part of your course before taking those initial daunting steps into a classroom of students you are now intending to inspire.

Once I arrived in China to be a fully-fledged English teacher, I met many teachers who had completed a TEFL in China.

It gave them teaching experience in various settings along with a culture course and like-minded individuals to share the whole experience with.

A school or a language centre, that is the question

Okay, maybe not so dramatic as Hamlet but the decision as to whether you will teach in a school or a language centre can really affect your entire experience.

I was put off by the large class sizes initially when I looked at schools. As teaching in China was my first experience teaching at all, I opted for the ‘safety net’ of a language centre.

For some this may be the right choice, but for me (whose TEFL didn't allow for actual classroom experience), it quickly became apparent I was not a performer for young students.

Teacher Sarah learned in China that she was not a performer for young students.

Is teaching young students for you?

With many language schools in China you will have the chance to teach a variety of age groups from the adorable kinder kids to the socially awkward teenagers.

Although this is a great experience, it turns out I don’t enjoy a games-heavy class singing phonics.

This obviously ties in with getting some classroom experience before you pack your bags and hop on a plane with all the hopes and dreams of a new teacher.

Some self-reflection on your personality type wouldn’t go amiss either.

I thought the grass would be greener

There are many challenges when you move overseas.

Yes, you will forget to pack things that seem impossible to replace when you land in China. And no, that isn’t a regular loaf of bread – it has marzipan in the middle waiting to surprise you!

Living in China was incredible for me; the difference in culture, landscape and food provided the variety to life I was looking for.

Vegetarian fried rice in China

Delicious food is one of the perks of living in China (pictured: vegetarian fried rice).

Having said that, there were moments when I broke down, like when I’d managed for the third time to buy chickens’ feet hidden away in my ready prepared bag of stew!

Things will be different when you move to a country so different from your home. Although I’m sure that very idea inspires many people to become English teachers, do your research before you call a new place home.

Google everything you can about living and working in China. The Hello Teacher! website is a great resource for teaching in China.

Being a TEFL teacher is still teaching

Many people are drawn to TEFL for the possibilities it opens up for traveling the world with the stability of an income. Although this opportunity is awarded to you once you have your TEFL, remember you are still going into employment.

Be under no illusions that teaching can be hard work.

There is always going to be a rollercoaster of emotions riding with you when working with children. It’s important to not lose sight of the fact that this is a career.

Another point to make is that teaching English as a second language isn’t going to be easy simply because you are a native speaker. Make sure you brush up on your grammar!

Ensure everything is above board

You’ve landed on foreign soil, you are exhausted and hungry but a little unsure of what you can eat. There are no English signs but it’s ok because you’re living the dream.

There is a fine line between a dream and a nightmare when it comes to moving abroad.

You have most likely only met your employer over Skype and you’ve flown over with complete trust that everything is going to be ok.

The reality is that if you don’t research the school or language centre you are about to join you may be in for an unfortunate ride.

High school classroom in China

Do your research on what the right school for you is in China.

Not all schools in China can provide a work permit and the rules are constantly changing. Fortunately, recruiters like Hello Teacher! are there to help you every step of the way.

If you come to China on a tourist visa with the promise that you will be fine when you arrive, you are most likely making a rookie mistake.

Ensure all paperwork and correct visas are obtained before you book that flight, otherwise you may be a tourist only and suddenly in need of an outbound flight.


Why getting it right is totally worth the effort

The use of the old adage ‘you get out what you put in’ couldn’t be truer when it comes to moving to China to teach English. Give a little effort to your research before heading out into the world to teach.

Also, really consider teaching for what it is. Yes, it will allow you to travel but it can also be an incredibly rewarding career if you care about your role as a teacher. 

Being a first-time English teacher in China opened up possibilities to me that I hadn’t considered before.

I had moments where I could have given up but a little self-assessing of what I wanted out of teaching kept the door open, and I’m still walking through it.

What lessons have you learned from your first year teaching in China?

Commercial relationship disclosure: Hello Teacher! has commercial arrangements with organizations that may appear on this page, such as affiliate links. See our terms for more info.


Have your say