Harry has been teaching English in the rural Henan provence of China for the past 2 years. I was fortunate enough to get the chance to talk to him about his experiences and how he ended up becoming a TEFL teacher. He provides an excellent firsthand account of what teaching is really like and how to become a teacher.
Interview with Harry Sheehe (conducted in Jiaxian, China):
1. Briefly, what did you do prior to becoming a TEFL teacher and why did you decide to Teach English as a Foreign Language?
Before I was a TEFL teacher I was in school. I was a teacher right out of college and during college I was a bartender one night a week at a local bar where I knew the owner. The reason I decided to teach English was that it was a way to travel relatively cheaply and get paid to do it, and to learn Chinese… I really wanted to learn Chinese.
2. Were there any surprises or things you didn’t expect when you got to China?
I didn’t have too many expectations so I don’t think that I was surprised too much. I knew that parts of China were more impoverished than others; so I was kind of expecting that. So I wasn’t too surprised.
Qualifications and TEFL certificate:
1. What qualifications do you have?
My TEFL certificate was a 100hr online course. It was the same course that was on the Footprints Recruiting website. It was pretty cheap and it got me my TEFL certification. I also have a degree in mathematics from Mansfield University.
2. What company did you decide to get your TEFL certificate from?
I got my certificate from the company that was on the Footprints website. I can’t remember the name, but I figured that if Footprints is there for TEFL teachers, then the company that they endorsed would be a good one.
3. How long did the course take you?
It was a 100hr course. Basically, they give you 20 chapters of the book that you download online. Then they give you worksheets to do from each chapter; so 20 little packets of homework and then the final test. After you email them, they will email you the test to download … it’s basically just the worksheets put together. It was pretty easy, I got a B on it.
Actual hours was probably 20 and I did it in about a month (you weren’t allowed to take more than 6 months to do it). I was so afraid I was going to fail the test and have to pay more money because you can opt to take the 120 hour course, which comes with a tutor. With the tutor you can hand the test in and they will help you.
4. How much money was your TEFL course?
It was really pretty cheap. I can’t remember exactly, but I want to say around $150. One of the reasons I picked it was that it was relatively inexpensive. I didn’t have a lot of money only working one day a week (in college).
5. How long after you finished your TEFL course did it take you to get in country?
I took the course over the summer. I was talking to Wise English (the company that I work for now) before I completed the course and they said that as long as I was in the process of completing the course it was fine. I don’t want to say I got the job before I completed the course, because anything can happen, but it was set up that I was going to be working for Wise English before I finished the course.
So, I finished it in June or July and the school year started in August. I would have gone in August, but I had some problems with my visa and had to go a little later.
1. Where was your first teaching position and why did you decide to teach there?
My first teaching position was in Jiaxian, Henan, China. I chose China because at the end of college I didn’t know what I wanted to do and the lady at the career center said, “Well what are you passionate about?” I said, “I’d rather just hang out with my friends and do nothing, haha… but I also kind of want to travel.” So she gave me a list of websites of how to teach and travel or work abroad. So I got onto Footprints Recruiting and they responded. Through Footprints I got a hold of a company called Wise English and we talked about a teaching position in Weifang, China; but there was a problem with my age and work experience. In that particular provence in China they wanted me to be 25 years old at the time and wanted 2 years work experience.
The rules are a bit different in Henan though, and they said that they were starting a new school in Jiaxian (Henan provence). So I decided to go to Jiaxian.
2. What was the school, classroom, & surrounding city like?
My biggest stereotype of the Chinese is that they were very organized and that turned out to be absolutely untrue; at least in this town (Jiaxian). From what I hear though, that is common elsewhere too.
It’s fairly rural where I’m at, but that’s what Wise English told me to expect. I grew up in a small town back home so it wasn’t very different in that sense. People are a little smaller minded (not saying that I am “higher” minded, haha).
3. What kind of things did you do when you weren’t teaching?
Honestly, last year I realized about 2 months in that my schedule in China was not that different than it was back home. I worked, came home, hung out, watched TV, went to the bar, went to dinner, etc.
4. Did you make friends with the locals?
Yeah, I made 2 good friends: Mr. Ding and Ryan (I have no idea what his Chinese name is, haha). Ryan can speak good english and we became really good friends because of that. Mr. Ding doesn’t speak english, but it forces me to speak and learn Chinese. I met another guy through Ryan this year as well; his name is “The General.”
The first day:
1. What kind of training did you receive leading up to your 1st day of classes (aside from the TEFL training)?
Well, since I had some trouble with my visa, I came about a month after the school year had started. So the school training was very rushed. I observed a class or two and then Kelly (another teacher) and I shared a class where he taught half of it and I taught the other half. The other 2 teachers (who were also new) did the same thing.
2. Did you feel prepared?
Absolutely not. I was prepared as much as I thought I could be. I made the lesson plan and had an idea of what I was going to do, but the first 5 seconds were like, “what? … what am I doing?”
3. Would you say you were nervous?
Oh yeah. I was really grateful for Mary, the Chinese TA who was there for my first class. She helped me a lot by standing in the front of the class with me and translating what I wanted. It took a lot of pressure off because there were 50 kids staring back at me and half of them were kind of afraid and half of them were really excited.
1. What age group were you teaching and how many students did you have per class?
I have about 45 on average. Last year I taught grade 3 and grade 5 which is about 9-10 and 11-12 years old.
2. How many classes did you teach a week?
I taught 20 (45 minute) classes a week, last year and this year.
3. Do you feel like you had support from the school if you needed help with anything? Were their enough classroom supplies, materials, and teaching aides available?
Supplies like that were great. We got them as soon as we asked. Sometimes we went and got what we needed from town if we wanted it (little stuff).
4. Did the school help you with visas?
Yeah. The school basically took care of all that. We didn’t have to do anything except for the times we had to go to Pingdingshan (nearby larger city) to get our picture taken for the Residence Permit. We also went to Zhenghzhou (the capital city of Henan) to do our medical (required by the Chinese government to get a residence permit).
5. How many working hours a week did you spend outside of the classroom?
Probably an hour a day. It was kind of like just looking back on what worked and what didn’t work … so by work I mean just sitting down and figuring out what happened and occasionally getting flashcards ready and decorations (for the classroom) and such.
6. Did you write your own lesson plans?
Advice to Others:
1. What is the best and worse thing about teaching?
The best thing is, I like my students and I’d like to think that most of my students like me. Even the bad kids like me and they know I’m just trying to get them to do something.
The worst thing, at least in this situation is that I wish I could speak their language so I could tell them what I want them to do more clearly. When they are being noisy and rowdy it would be nice to be able to do what the Chinese English teachers can do; being able to talk to them and let them know that they are disappointing me. It sucks when you are yelling at them and they think it’s a game.
2. Why did you decide to keep teaching English? Will you continue to teach English?
The biggest reason I decided to come teach in China is because I wanted to learn how to speak Chinese and I figured, what better way to learn Chinese than in China. So that’s one of the biggest reasons why I wanted to stay here (a second year). Having a couple years or 3 years in China will help me in my career in the future. Plus, if anything, I can tell an employer that I know how to think on my feet because nothing is set in stone here.
And I like teaching! It’s very rewarding. So yeah, I’m going to continue to teach next year which will be my third year.
3. If you could give one piece of advice to someone who is considering going out and getting their TEFL certificate, what would you tell them?
Just make sure that you’re the kind of person who can deal with this. It’s definitely different and not everyone can do it. The culture shock and being away from home is tough. This year I was much more homesick than last year; last year was kind of the honeymoon period where I was excited about doing this. If we got Christmas off I think that would change everything. I didn’t go home the first 2 years (during the 10 month contract).
Another piece of advice would be, just be open-minded. Like in any foreign country, you need to be open-minded. Just because they don’t do it your way doesn’t mean it’s wrong, it’s just different. Realize that, especially in China (because that’s what I know), if you go to a small town where there are not many foreigners; they paint with a wide brush. Act properly when you’re out. That’s not just to keep your company happy, but people are going to treat you how you treat them.
Do you have any final comments?
I really like it! Every once and awhile I have that moment of, “I’m in China!” By now I’m fairly used to it and it’s fun, but I think that it’s something everyone should do.