Teaching English Overseas: My first class

(Last Updated On: February 28, 2009)

note: February 28 is my fourth anniversary of teaching English in China. At 8:25 am GMT +8, Feb. 28, 2005, I first walked into a Chinese classroom…

I didn’t sleep very well. I was still jet-lagged. Add to that I was in a new bed, in a new apartment, in a country I knew very little about. I went through my morning routine trying to come to grips with the strange shower configuration and attempting to shave in a nine-inch-square mirror. With bad instant coffee in my belly I waited for the knock on my door. It was February 28, 2005.

This was to be my first day of work as an oral ESL teacher at private school in Shenzhen (China). There was no training or school tour, I arrived a week later than the other new teachers. I was about to be launched, successfully or otherwise, on unsuspecting Chinese students.

Primary school students in China.
Primary school students in China.

I sat at my desk with a growing sense of dread. I thought about vomiting but in the end managed to hold that bodily function in check. Forty students to teach for 40 minutes? I must have been mad. I decided that introducing myself would be the best course of action. I made some quick notes in a little notebook that became my best friend over the coming months.

I was late as I searched for grade 6, class 12 on the third and fourth floors of the north wing of building two. A teacher in the hall waved me in. After introductions she asked, “Would you like me to stay in the class?”

“Oh, no,” I replied like a seasoned pro, “I’ll be okay.”

“Are you sure?” she asked. It must have been the nervous perspiration on my brow that gave my otherwise faux-confident persona away.


I took a deep breath and walked into the class. There was a podium on a raised platform and a blackboard. I set down my bag and looked at the class. Forty young, smiling Asian faces stared at me. They were silent.

“Good morning.?!” I ventured.

“Good morning, teacher,” said the class in unison.

Shiny young faces with bodies clad in identical blue and white track suits. I was in over my head. Pressing ahead, I found a piece of chalk and with a shaky hand scrawled my name on the clean blackboard.

“My name is Steve,” I told them.

“Steve!” they called back at me.

“I am from Canada,” I said.

“Canada,” they replied en masse.

I learned next that sending the Chinese-English teacher out of the room had been a bad idea. Not only could she add some semblance of order to the proceedings, she could also translate if I ran into problems. After some explanation I had the students stand one by one and say, “My name is…, I am ____ years old.”

“How old am I?” I asked them.

I received a course of replies, most eight to 10 years younger than my actual age. I felt very young for a moment. A couple of jokers added their thoughts: My age was guessed by one student at 100 and by another at 1000.

Next was the phrase, “I like…”

“What do I like?” I asked the students. They were silent and stared at me. I looked around the room. No one moved a muscle, although every eye was fixated on me.

“I like,” I said, “Basketball.” I did my best charades impression of basketball and wrote it on the board.

“What else do I like?” I tried. A hesitant hand went up.

“Computer?” hesitantly asked a female student.

“Yes,” I said enthusiastically. “Computers.” I stressed the S.

“What else do I like?”

I took a couple of minutes to get the ball rolling, but in the end I had a din of voices shouting out all the sundry activities they new in English.

“Do you know what I like?” I asked again, “I like food.”

One boy in the front row said in a loud voice, “That is because you are fat.”

I tried not to laugh. He was right, of course. Again, they called out a list of foods that they thought I liked.

To wrap things up I had them each stand again and say, “I like…,” followed by a food, activity, etc.

Then the bell, which was not a bell at all, but a little musical ditty, sounded. It was over, I had survived 40 minutes relatively unscathed.

That class became my favourite. Of the 25 homerooms I visited each week, that class was the best and most receptive. The other varied from lukewarm to downright nasty. I didn’t have many rules. I drew the line when my worst class started playing volleyball with a rolled-up raincoat.

And so began a new life and career, in a nation that has only been really opened to outsiders for 25 year. There is a learning curve, but I think I have managed to make it over the first hurdle.

19 thoughts on “Teaching English Overseas: My first class

  1. Very cool story, Stevo. I’ve thought of teaching, too (was once accepted by the JET program to teach in Japan) but the thought of handling classroom discipline on an ongoing basis wears me out.

    Just this week applied to be a volunteer tutor here. One at a time, as I once did on a job in SF, with foreign atorneys. I can handle that.

    how does one say “happy anniversary!” in Chinese?

    OmbudsBen’s last blog post..Gratitude for the vertebra connecting skull to backbone

  2. I am still new to teaching, but I remember my first class, just 6 months ago. Trying to teach 8 year olds about fruits, saying things that returned a lot of “shenme yi si”s and asking my assistant (yes I kept my assistant around) what I was talking about. It was funny.

    Lee’s last blog post..Everyone loves lists

  3. I totally “get it” Stevo. One of the reasons I began to “blog” was so that I wouldn’t forget these feelings. It’s to easy to have the memories fade away over time as things become old hat. Nice one buddy.

  4. A great tale, very aptly-written. Something we all as teachers can totally understand and feel strongly for. I used to teach English in Spain, and on my first day, I was all sweaty and nervous, but the warm students just made me feel like I was the student. When I was bound for home, I realised it was true, they had taught me more than anything I’d ever given them.

    Stevo, great job. I visited a friend who was teaching in Shenzhen as well, in a private school, I could just picture the class and the students again.

  5. that’s nice. teaching is really the noblest profession so congrats on your new job. being around young people is one of the perks of this profession.

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