Mike Cairnduff from Hello Teacher!

Updated November 14, 2018
By Mike Cairnduff

Teaching English in Shenzhen

The southern Chinese city of Shenzhen has changed the life of 39-year-old British teacher Tim Robinson.

Why did you decide to teach English in China?

After I graduated from university, I got a job as a project manager in the UK with a private company operating alongside the UN.

Working with the various agencies opened my eyes to the importance of education in making the world a better place. I decided that this was the area I wanted to be in.

I deferred my place in a Master of Education so I could experience China and come back to the UK with a more rounded world view.

What city did you choose and why?

I grew up in the tropics and don’t like cold weather very much. That's why I chose to teach in Shenzhen, in sunny Guangdong province.

I also liked the idea that it’s a young, migrant city and I could meet people from all over China.

Watching people play chess while teaching in Shenzhen

People playing chess in a public park in Shenzhen, China.

What school did you first teach at, and what was it like there?

I joined English First (EF) in Shenzhen, a private language training company. It was a very modern, comfortable and slick operation.

What qualifications did you need to teach in Shenzhen?

I had a degree and a 120-hour TEFL certificate, which included face-to-face teaching experience.

These are the general requirements to teach English in China.

What were your classes like?

I had three types – small, workshop and fluency.

My small class had a maximum of four students and focused on accuracy. This was the most challenging class and also the most rewarding.

The workshop class focused on practising new language, while the fluency class simulated real life. Both these classes had a maximum of 25 students and were heavily communicative.

Can you tell us about your Chinese students?

For the first three years, I was in the middle of downtown Shenzhen surrounded by electronics businesses. The student demographic reflected that.

We had a lot of young professionals looking to start their own business, or already running one. Of course, this made them extremely motivated and lots of fun to teach.


I’d heard stories of Chinese learners expecting very rigid and structured classes, so it was great to see them embrace and enjoy some silly language games!

I made many friends with the students during the first year or two, and still meet them for dinner or drinks.

Later I moved to a bigger school, with more housewives and higher-level managers among the student base. This has also been very rewarding. It’s given me a nice, balanced outlook on Chinese society.

Playing games with students while teaching in Shenzhen

Chinese students playing games.

What has been the best part of your experience teaching in Shenzhen?

Getting married, although that’s nothing to do with teaching!

There are two parts. The first has been seeing Chinese life, and understanding what’s happening here and why.

The subtle differences in social thinking help explain the surface issues and put them into perspective. They highlight the great similarities between us and the rational choices people make towards very similar overall goals.

The second has been personal and professional growth. When your students are customers, and you need to justify your cost and their time for each class, you get a much greater appreciation for the learning process.

A student may have saved up to pay for an expensive course to help them meet their life goals and have only one class that week with a foreign teacher.

If the class doesn’t rock, they’re left frustrated for a week. That kind of pressure is extremely motivating.

And the most challenging part?

There are no motorcycles allowed in my town. This took time to adjust to as I’ve always been a biker.

My classes in Shenzhen were challenging, initially. The school methodology is for students to learn online, and then come to classes to practice what they have learnt.

I was given all the materials I needed and the students learnt at their own pace. The only goal seemed to be to execute a lesson well, five times a day.

However, once I started adding some creativity into my classes, work became much more enjoyable and rewarding, and the short-term goal of an excellent class became very evident.

What has surprised you the most about teaching in Shenzhen?

I stayed for more than a year. I had the university place waiting for me, but 12 months seemed to fly past so I decided to stay a bit longer.

By the end of the second year, I had met the love of my life, so stayed in Shenzhen even longer.

The lifestyle here is very rewarding, if a little crazy at times. There are opportunities and experiences that I simply could not have had in the West.

Would you like to teach English in Shenzhen? Apply for a role with us today.


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