Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.

22 Mar

In an ideal situation, as a new teacher you’d be given a fresh new classroom with the wrapper still clinging to the untouched blackboard. A shiny plasma screen glints at you from the corner of the room, and the computer is already hooked up and ready to go.

Reality is slightly different. ^^  If you’re lucky enough to get your own classroom, you may have to equip it yourself. The bottom line when starting your new teaching job in Shanghai? Come prepared with absolutely everything you need to teach – and be pleasantly surprised if you have more than you expect.

What do I mean? Well, if this is your first day of teaching and you haven’t seen your classroom yet, don’t prepare a flash program or a PowerPoint presentation. Murphy’s Law states that the day you need the computer is the day you’ll find out you don’t have a computer, or the teacher tells you theirs is broken. Maybe your format isn’t compatible with an outdated system – or vice versa. Until you know in detail what will and will not be available to you, come prepared with the basics.

  • Colored chalk – believe it or not, young kids are easily enthralled by your stick figures done in colored chalk. It brightens up the board and makes class a little cheerier. While white chalk is universal, not all schools carry colored chalk, so pick up a supply until you know for sure.
  • Colored magnets – these are great for designating teams (both for games and for class control) and again, they add a splash of color to a dull board
  • Stickers/stamps – these make for great rewards systems (which I will detail further on). Shanghai kids are by nature, highly competitive. They love counting up their stamps and stickers to see who has the most int he classroom.
  • Large color flashcards – again, if that PPT with your wonderful slide show isn’t working, bring your backup. You can find printing places and color copier shops on every corner in Shanghai and it doesn’t cost much at all (less than 1rmb per sheet) to get large 8×10 color pics. Color attracts students attention, and small FC’s are hard for kids at the back of the room to see.
  • A game plan – you may laugh, but a lesson plan is something that can save your class from devolving into chaos, and yet it is one of the things most people swear they don’t need. A proper school/university in your home country would demand lesson plans from you in advance – why should you treat this job any differently? Plan your class and when you’re done – plan some more. The golden rule of thumb – if you teach for 35 minutes, plan for 45.

The First Day

The first time I was in a classroom, I had nothing. I was told we were going to look at a school. About ten minutes after we got there, I was ushered towards a classroom and told ‘You’ll teach in 5 minutes’.

‘Teach what?’ I asked, completely flabbergasted and clueless.

‘Anything you like’, was the answer and then I was pushed through the door.

Forty pairs of eyes stared at me curiously and I had to fight back the urge to jump out the window (the door was blocked by curious local teachers who wanted to see what I was going to do). ‘Hello,’ I said shakily, and as one, they chorused back, ‘Hello!’

‘How are you?’ I ventured.

They parroted back: ‘I’m fine thank you and you?’

Aaaaaaand that was it – I was tapped out. I wracked my brain frantically, trying to figure out where to go from there. I grabbed a piece of chalk and began nervously sketching animals on the blackboard. The children watched me with bright, interested eyes, and to my shock – and relief – they began calling out the names.



Oh, thank the gods, we had a starting point! I drew a big house, about a dozen more animals and set about teaching them about the English word ‘pet’ and whether or not they had one. By the time we had established that the triangle sitting on top of the square on the blackboard was indeed supposed to be their apartment and not my house back in Canada, the bell rang and they charged out of the room. I collapsed, limp as a wet dishrag and completely exhausted from 40 minutes of tension-filled terror and scrabbling to fill time.

One of the local teachers eventually detached herself from the group and came over to me. She had a sympathetic look on her face and she held out her hand to me, saying, ‘Would you like me to help you?’

I swear, I burst into tears and begged for her guidance.Thus began the next three months of her teaching me how to teach.

Now, I was lucky. Not everyone gets a local teacher kind enough – and brave enough – to walk up to the foreigner and offer their help. Most of the time, the local teachers take time to warm up to us because we come across as intimidating. In many cases, we’re physically bigger than they are, and we speak English fluently – which makes them nervous about heir own ability. Chances are, unless they’ve dealt with a foreign teacher in their school previously, they’re going to be wary around you until you prove you’re there as an actual teacher, and not just a paycheck-surfer, traveling from place to place and teaching just to earn some spending money.

Come prepared to handle everything on your own, and be happy and grateful if someone guides you along the way. A simple chant, a get-to-know-you game, something that gets students opening their mouths and moving along (TBR / TPR = total body response / total physical response). Get them to practice simple commands you’re going to need them to know in a modified Simon Says – raise your hand, stand up, sit down etc. It will make your life so much easier in the long run, and you won’t need any translating done.

Most importantly, smile! Have fun with these kids! They will love you automatically, and they want to do whatever you want to do! If you’re not having fun, chances are neither are they. So check your dignity at the door and get in there!


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