Teaching in China: My experience at an international school

Guest post by Dr. Jason Szulc from Scientificanow.com

Jason worked in China as a physics teacher at an international school in Jiangsu Province for two years. Here, he gives his experiences on what it’s like as an expat living and working in China.

The recruitment process

I didn’t really apply for a job in China, I got headhunted by a recruitment agency, so I don’t know about application forms or the best place to find a job if you’re looking to work in China.

The recruitment agency provided an introduction and got my CV in front of the headteacher of an international school with a good reputation. I did my research on the school (as much as was possible; I found their website and read about their curriculum, the structure of the school week etc). The school organized a Skype interview with the headteacher who told me everything I needed to know about the school then asked if I was still interested. We negotiated salary via email and I accepted the job.

At this point, an administrator at the school became my point of contact and walked me through the process of sending my certificates in for my degrees and PGCE, applying for a visa etc.

Getting there

Once I had my visa, which involved a visit to a visa office in England, actually going to China was fairly straightforward. I booked flights, packed two suitcases and they checked my China visa at check-in.

When I arrived, immigration took a long time because I came in on a very big flight and flew into Shanghai Pudong International Airport (PVG), one of the busiest airports in China. Once I was through immigration, a representative from my school met me in the arrivals foyer, we met up with some other people who had flown in, and went to get some food before driving an hour and a half to the school in a minibus.

Starting work

There were induction days and a safeguarding workshop, and a barbecue to welcome new staff members. Everyone was really friendly and there was a sense from day 1 that we were all working on the same team.

What were the living facilities like?

We had a 1-bedroom apartment but it was enormous! I live in a 2-bedroomed house now in the UK that’s smaller than the apartment in China. There was a kitchenette with a microwave, kettle, hotplate, sink and fridge-freezer; I bought an oven while I was there. The bathroom had a sink, toilet, shower and bath. The bedroom had a lot of storage, a huge window, an air conditioner and a bed. There was one set of bedding with it so I bought some more at a supermarket. The living room had a sofa, desk, dining table and chairs, TV on a TV table, and a coffee table, as well as a second air conditioner and an air purifier. 

I had an I.E. (cleaner) who came to the apartment daily to empty bins, clean the bathroom, hoover and wash the dishes. Mine was provided free by the school but people who lived independently of the school found it easy to hire their own I.E.s.

What was the food like?

It was school food, because I lived at the school and ate at the school canteen. We sat with the pupils to eat and we weren’t allowed to use our phones in the dining room, to encourage conversation between staff and pupils. Generally the food wasn’t bad; there were some days better than others.

It was a fairly good school canteen, with the occasional really odd thing like the prawn pizza. It was split into three main areas, the “western” bit, the “Chinese” bit and the “Asian fusion” area, along with a salad bar and a hatch that just served noodles and dumplings, all of which served different types of cuisine. One good thing about the school I worked at was the food was plentiful. On the western side, it was a little bit weird, like someone had told them about western food and they’d made something approximating it.

The vegetarian option left a lot to be desired and usually had a lot of butter on it and no protein. People with dietary considerations did struggle at times, particularly vegans or those who couldn’t eat pork. They tended to buy their own food and cook in their apartments instead of eating at the canteen. There was meat in things that you wouldn’t expect, such as the buns in the dessert area which had sausages inside them, which we dubbed the “secret sausages”. There were very few times when I got to the canteen and went “there’s nothing I want to eat here”, although it did get repetitive sometimes; there was a lot of Katsu curry!

What were the pupils like?

They were happy to sit down and get on with work. Very little in the way of bad behaviour, although sometimes they would sit there not doing anything, occasionally falling asleep in the class. They almost always did their homework, and they expected it to be marked the day it was handed in.

The pupils were expecting a teacher-led experience rather than student-led, and I had to put in a lot of effort to teach them to try answering something they hadn’t already memorized the answer to. If you didn’t turn up to a class in the UK, the kids would be running riot everywhere. When another teacher did that once in my school in China, the pupils just stood and waited quietly outside the classroom. They waited to be told what to do. I never had any incidents of pupils acting out they were always very respectful towards the teachers.

SEN isn’t recognized in China so as a teacher you have to find ways to make learning accessible without any real support or even acceptance that any given pupil might have SEN. Even then, you don’t get the same behavioural challenges as in western schools.

What was the working week like?

The working week was heavy. I was teaching thirty 40-minute lessons a week on my basic timetable and sometimes more from covering other staff absences or timetable. That was on top of boarding duties, planning lessons and marking work, and leading extracurricular activities at the weekend such as golf, horse riding, rugby, science-related activities such as robot wars club and STEM club, where we did things like designing paper airplanes and seeing how far they could fly. There was a science fair, exam support, ECA, form tutoring… 

I was working about 16 hours a day plus at least half of a Saturday and sometimes all of Sunday, too. It was basically work continuously with little in the way of sleep for about 4 weeks then a week or more of school holidays, but there was basically no work to do during those holidays, which is completely different to teaching in England, where you spend a lot of the holidays working.

The working environment

Classroom: Class sizes were fairly small. The classroom was the size of a UK one and had lots of new tech in it, such as digital projector, electrical workstations that came down from the ceiling, a chemical shower for health and safety, mobile fume cupboards, as well as all the usual stuff you’d find in a UK science lab. My classroom had plenty of light. It was all very modern; the school had been built very recently.

Office: I had a desk in an open-plan office, which was very spacious. We had a coffee machine and a mini-kitchen as well as our own printers so we could work more efficiently. My office chair was very comfy! Wi-fi connectivity was sometimes poor, which made it difficult to access resources to teach the English curriculum, particularly because the access to some websites was limited. 

What were the best things about moving to China?

The money was good. The kids’ behaviour and attitude were fantastic. Online shopping and delivery was amazing. Anything you wanted was a few clicks and two days away, and usually very well-priced. It was very easy to visit the rest of China and all the surrounding countries, and we had a lot of great holidays. The expat community and the people I worked with were all great and very easygoing. The working environment was nicer than in England so people didn’t have the same stresses, and the people you meet out there are people who are willing to try new things or they wouldn’t have moved to China! I also made some fantastic friends and contacts, from whom other opportunities have come up since I left China.

What I wish I’d known before I moved there

I knew about shoes beforehand, that shoes in my size would be difficult to get. I wish I’d known how dependent everything is on mobile phone technology. You need WeChat for absolutely everything. I hadn’t properly understood how absolutely huge everything is.

I was in a city that was the equivalent of Leamington Spa in terms of importance to the overall country, but it was a city of over eight million, which is about the same population as London. It took well over an hour (in no traffic) to get across the city to the second train station (and yet there were only two train stations) due to the sheer distances involved.

All the shops etc were in the very centre of the city and you couldn’t walk anywhere because of the distances involved, so I got a lot of taxis. Taxis were incredibly cheap. 45 minutes in a taxi into the city centre was about 80RMB (about £10).

Would you go again if you knew everything you now know about China?

Oh, absolutely.

Jason now works as a freelance science education consultant. He runs a science education website and a physics revision app which he designed. You can find him at www.scientificanow.com

You might like these other articles about China:

How to get a China visa if you’ve changed your name

10 things to do in Xi’an, China (and 7 more I wish I’d done)

Infographic about expats in China: Where they’re from will surprise you

In pictures: Shanghai, China

20 best things to do in Beijing

Author: Torie Adams

I am a thirtysomething travel writer, lifestyle blogger, photographer, and USA Today bestselling author in Northern Ireland, aka Mama Adventure. As a writer, I have written articles that are published in Offbeat Bride and on Buzzfeed, and as a photographer, I have taken photographs that are published in local and national news outlets in the UK. I have a blog at www.mamaadventure.com Twitter: @mamaadventurez

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