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Teaching English in China

How hard could teaching English be?

By Greg SouthwellPublished 2 years ago 6 min read

I look around. All the Chinese students are sitting up watching me. This shouldn’t be too hard. After all, English is my native language. Also, I stayed up till 2:00 last night in my tiny apartment with its kitchen smelling of mould to prepare this lesson.

I wonder what I’m going to do now.

I plan to quit at the end of the week.

I look at the clock. The lesson has been going for ten minutes. I have two hours and fifty minutes to go.

I look around for the class roll. Chinese students tend to choose their own English names and this shows.







“James Bond?”


And so on. At the end of the roll I say, “Did I miss anyone?”

A hand goes up at the back of the class

“What’s your name?” I ask


I stare at him for a long time. “Could you repeat that?”




It takes me a while but I figure it out eventually. “Oh! You mean Elliot!”

“Yes teacher, I said that.”

“Okay, I really think we need to work on pronunciation.”

I go through the vowels. Explain that spoken English has 20 different vowel sounds but only 5 different letters. As soon as I say this I instantly forget 15 of the sounds. I panic, but very quietly.

I try to think what to say next. “Uhhh…..”

A student asks, “Is that one of the vowel sounds?”

I say, “Uhhh? Oh. Yes, yes it is! It’s the sound used in Uhhh…. Uuumbrella!” I tell them I will point out the rest of the sounds as I proceed through the lesson. This is a good idea. Especially because I haven’t prepared any material on pronunciation.

“Teacher!” a hand shoots up at the back of the class. For a moment I am taken aback. I didn’t know there would be questions. I think that considering I am teaching my native language then this question should be fairly easy.

“Teacher,” says the eager student, “What is the difference between walking down the street and walking up the street? Especially if the street is flat?”

I stare at the student for a few seconds. I suddenly realise that in my whole life I have never thought about this. I wonder why. Then I stop wondering why and start wondering how I am going to answer the question.

I decide to use a trick I saw another teacher use. I say, “That’s a really good question. Does anyone else know the answer?” This gives me a few minutes to try to think of one.

Everyone looks blank. They are waiting for me. “Well, all streets have building numbers,” I say, “so if you’re going from high numbers to low numbers then you are going down. If you’re going from low numbers to high then you are going up.”

The class murmurs to each other about how that makes sense. Desperately hope I’m right and vow to look it up as soon as I can find a computer.

It’s okay if I’m wrong though. I plan to quit at the end of the day.

Last night I designed a special code for each lesson plan to make it easier to read. I look at the lesson plan. I wonder what ‘fmfndjfifn’ means. I have a feeling that I may have written that at 2:00 in the morning after my twenty eighth cup of coffee. I sigh, very quietly.

I tell the class that we’re going to play a game. Games are good. They take up a lot of time.

I tell the students we’re going to play “I went to the market”. This involves people saying, “I went to the market and I bought a,..” then something beginning with the letter A. Then the next person repeats everything that has been bought and adds their own thing beginning with the next letter of the alphabet. This makes it a game that I can use with absolutely no preparation. These are my favourite kinds of games.

I explain the game to the class. And explain it again. And again. And again. And five more times. And get the higher level students to explain it to the class in Chinese, three more times, until everyone finally gets it.

I start, “I went to the market and I bought an apple.”

The next student continues, “I went to the market and I bought an apple, and a…” his face goes blank and he looks as though his entire world is about to come crumbling down around him.

I try to be helpful “What’s something that begins with a ‘B’?”

The student has a brilliant idea, “Honey?” he says.

I laugh. No one else in the class is laughing. With a totally straight face I say, “That is very close.”

The game continues and eventually I get to the rest of the lesson plan. I talk about grammar, at least what I remember, then pronunciation, then finally my favourite part of the class where I talk about myself. Students are always interested in hearing about life in other countries so this will keep them quiet.

I talk about my country. I joke that my country is very different from China. I tell them that in my country I have fourteen wives and thirty eight children and I had to come to China before the police caught up with me.

Everyone just looks at me for a long minute before I sigh and say, “No, that’s not true, that was a joke.” Everyone looks at each other for a second and then laughs politely.

I plan to quit at the end of this class.

Finally the class is over. The students file out with the look of people who were promised a blockbuster movie and ended up seeing a black and white film with bad sound and a lot of slapstick.

After everyone leaves one of the younger students remains and comes up to me.

“Thank you for class today teacher.” She speaks slowly, like the words are diamonds buried deep inside her, like she is struggling to let something break free. “You are good teacher. I learn lot from you.” Finally she says. “Thank you.” Then she bows stiffly, turns and leaves me sitting there on my own.

I stare at the wall for a long time, then I take a deep breath.

I go back home to my cramped apartment with the kitchen that smells like mould and stay up till 2:00 in the morning preparing the next lesson.

I decide for the time being that I might not quit just yet.


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