Gold Star TEFL Recruitment has been assisting teachers secure the very best teaching jobs in China since 2009 and has close connections with China’s leading schools. For details on teaching jobs have a look through our website and submit an application today.
Read more interviews with teachers in China here.

An Interview with Nicola Holt in Suzhou, China

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GS: So, can you tell us a bit about how you first got into English teaching?
NH: My very first experience as a teacher was actually over 20 years ago when I was a student myself at a University in south Germany. Money was a bit tight, and I answered an advert in the paper for a private English teacher to a struggling student. After a year of teaching him English twice a week in the evenings, he improved so much that the family and I kept in contact for many years, sending each other postcards – this was actually so rewarding when I look back, I’d forgotten how much pleasure I had derived from his achievements! However, when I returned to England my career took a different turn in business/marketing. And it wasn’t until last year in 2011, when I decided to leave ‘the corporate world’ behind to undertake a ‘mature gap year’ with my husband volunteering around South Asia and South America that I started to teach again.

During my year out, I undertook several volunteer projects of which two included teaching – one in an orphanage in Nepal, and another, teaching the poor children of a rural village in Southern China. These experiences made such an impression on me that upon my return to England in January 2012, I decided to take my TEFL and head back to China to teach full time – which lead me initially to Guangxi province and now, to my current school in Suzhou.

GS: Could you give some details about your dealings with Gold Star TEFL Recruitment?
NH: I came across Gold Star when searching for some teaching materials online. The advertisement looked interesting and I applied. I mainly ‘chatted’ on email with Aidan, who was very helpful, professional and guided me to this school, which he felt fitted my teaching experience well. He also kept in contact during the interview process, and afterwards to find out how things were going.

GS: What advice do you have for people about the recruitment and interview process when looking for jobs teaching in China?
Nicole Holt Teaching English in Suzhou 2NH: There are literally thousands of opportunities teaching English in China and so searching and finding a relevant opportunity can be a real minefield. I think it’s critically important to consider before applying what your strengths are, (mine were teaching young professionals and middle school children), the type of school/environment that would best suit you, (which may lead you to focus your search on kindergarten, primary school, middle/high school or language institutes) and the location where you’d like to live and work. Bear in mind that schools have more regular hours, but living accommodation is usually restricted to being ‘on site’ at the school and it can be difficult to ‘escape’ the ‘professional teaching’ role outside of hours.

A language institute can be more demanding in terms of hours and you will be required to work weekends and evenings as this is when most ‘professionals’ have time to learn but you have more ‘freedom’ as to where you live. The choice of location is also vital. After all, you want to have a life and to enjoy the sights/culture, and it may be important for you to have some contact with other like-minded people, especially when you’re in your first few months of a new job, which impacts on whether you want to work in a rural location, or a larger town/city.

For me, this meant I looked for a position in which I could use both my English teaching experience as well as the many years experience I had gained in business in a city which had international contacts and was well developed. Consider also who owns the company/language institute/school and their structure. I’d had prior experience of working within a Chinese company and managers beforehand, and this was very important to helping me adapt to my new role, which is owned, run and purely based in China.

On a practical note, make sure you’re on Skype and that you have a Chinese mobile phone and a reliable internet connection beforehand. Know your CV, plan out your strengths and be prepared to give examples of lessons that you have given that play to the company’s ethos/teaching methodologies. My school is very experiential and task-based in its learning style, so I was well equipped beforehand to talk about the teaching experiences that I had that played to that style. Also, prepare the questions that you want to ask them carefully. I would advise asking to speak to an existing foreign teacher of English before accepting the job too to find out ‘what it’s really like’.

If you’re offered a job, be prepared also for the ‘online teachers test’ that you will invariably have to take as part of securing your work visa – this tests your behavioural style, knowledge of China and cultural adaptability plus TEFL teaching knowledge.

GS: You are teaching in Suzhou at the moment, can you tell us about your impressions of the city? What do you like most about living there?
Nicole Holt Teaching English in Suzhou 3NH: The city of Suzhou is vast and very well spread out and will take me a while to get to know! There are literally all types of areas from ancient, Chinese homes on the canals, to modern hi-tech industrial parks, and man-made World Heritage garden gardens, temples/pagodas and some very expensive, luxury Western shopping areas as well as Chinese markets and more local ‘neighbourhood’ shopping areas, which is where most of the Chinese buy their produce.

My initial impression is that it’s a very clean, well-developed city with practically everything you could want and have back at home in the UK. Transport links are very good with 4 railway stations, a metro and regular cheap buses. The only problem is there isn’t a single map that has all these details on, so local support and knowledge from the Chinese is essential! The best thing about living here is it’s proximity to lakes/canals/walks and shops, gyms and restaurants as well as cheaper market and food stalls.
It’s very safe and the people (especially the students) are welcoming and tolerant of ‘foreigners’. I really look forward to being here in Spring, when we can really appreciate the fresh air by the local lakes of which there are several and they are not crowded with people either!

GS: What do you like most about teaching English?
NH: The best thing about teaching English is seeing people actually ‘get something out’ of your lessons. When I feel at the end of the lesson that their knowledge has grown, and I hear that they are speaking and talking in English with each other, it’s actually great, and makes me smile. It’s great too to see the shy and reserved ones join in on role plays and start to grow in confidence to speak to you/others in their 2nd language. I particularly like it that my students and I ‘get on’ as people, and have a laugh whilst learning together.

I consider my role more as a coach/guide than as a straight ‘teacher’ and this means I like getting them to ‘think’ in English, as well as acting a role or speaking with each other using the language we learnt together during the lesson.

GS: Can you tell us about your favourite class at the moment?
Nicole Holt Teaching English in Suzhou 4NH: I have 2 favourite classes at the moment. One is at a large multi-national company where I have freedom to develop my own lessons and content according to their specified business/personal English needs. The group varies in size from 3-10 people every week, however, even though the classes are small, they all have a great sense of humour, we have nicknames for each other, and they’re really ‘up for’ having a go at all sorts of exercises and situations I put them in! This includes telephoning them from a make-believe UK company and ‘wheeling in’ foreign visitors to role-play being important customers. I get a real buzz out of making English ‘real’ for them and they get nervous and scared, but really seem to have learnt and have fun during the process.

My second favourite lessons are my ‘activity classes’, which are again about 10 people, comprising lower level English learners. Again, I focus on adapting the lessons from the textbook, and making them ‘real’ for the students. What’s great about these lessons is that they’re really keen to learn about other parts of the world, other cultural habits and ‘ways to do things’ that are not Chinese. These learners are at a difficult point in their learning of English, struggling to pick up on new vocab and make conversation, so I really enjoy getting them motivated to want to move on and up in their English and help them ‘over the hurdle’.

GS: Talk us through a typical day teaching English in China.
NH: Typically, I teach from 1pm to 9pm daily, 5 days a week, including weekends. I have 2 days off in the middle of the week as my ‘weekend’. I’m in the early days of learning how to deliver over 120 different types of lessons in all of the schools learning suites at the moment, so my mornings are often spent planning for the day ahead too! During my teaching hours, I take private classes of 1-4 people, activity classes of 10 people, and conversation/discussion classes of up to 30 people. I will invariably teach 3 hours straight, back-to-back, then have an hour or two off, before another 2 hours of teaching. An average day is 5 hours teaching and 4-5 hours office work/preparation time. The school has it’s own textbooks and we have flexibility in how to use them, as long as the main teaching content is covered.

Discussion/conversation classes are at the teacher’s own discretion, so you can select and talk about topics that you feel will encourage lively discussion/debate and will be interesting to your students. As these happen twice/week, you need to keep up to date with current news and read around a lot. It’s amazing what I’ve learnt about England since I’ve left it! I think I know more now about my own country living in China than I did when I was in it!

Nicole Holt Teaching English in Suzhou 6

GS: What are the teaching resources like there?
NH: There are textbooks and teachers lesson plans, however, you can choose to use your own initiative, which I prefer. There is a theatre for showing videos and overhead projectors in some of the classrooms plus one company laptop to share between a number of teachers. Flashcards and other visual materials are up to you to produce, although some of the local teachers of English, who are Chinese and teach the lower levels have often made their own worksheets and visuals in previous classes, which we can share. There are whiteboards in every classroom, and one ‘interactive’ white board to share amongst approx. 10-12 different classroom areas.

GS: How many teachers are there in your school?
NH: There are 3 full-time teachers of English, one of which includes myself. Added to this, there are a number of part-time teachers (5-7) who teach approx. 10 hours a week each, and are used to supplement the full-time resource, often during the week. They often run private 1-1 classes and discussion/social talking classes which focus on ‘free talking’ and gaining confidence in speaking English with a foreigner.

GS: China is full of surprises and unexpected adventures, tell us about one you have had recently.
Nicole Holt Teaching English in Suzhou 7NH: ‘Yi wai’ management (pronounced ‘ee why’ in English, meaning managing an unexpected surprise!) has become such a usual part of our daily lives that it is, in fact, difficult to pick one out! On a personal level, don’t get your hair coloured in China without someone who speaks fluent Mandarin – mine was dyed grey – not ideal for a blonde 40-something!!

I’ve also gotten use to the fact that if you go anywhere, you’re expected to give a ‘performance’ in English, which can be to sing a song, teach something in English or a dance – literally behave like a performing artist! So, I have my old ‘staples’ up my sleeve, like the ‘hockey, cookey’ and the ‘cha, cha slide’. Recently, my partner and I were invited to visit and tour a local large manufacturing company and to visit the children in an orphanage that the company supports. We had been told to prepare to entertain 6 year old kids and take them stuff for Christmas.

When we got there, the kids were all 6 months to 2 years old, and all the stuff we’d prepared and sweets we’d bought were entirely irrelevant. Afterwards at the company we had to give an impromptu ‘lesson’ to the senior managers –fortunately, thinking on our feet, we were able to use the lesson we’d prepared for the kids and get the senior managers acting like kids at Christmas! They seemed to love it and entered into the spirit of it – thank goodness. But then again, it is Christmas, and so thank goodness for kindness and goodwill to all men!!

Read more interviews with teachers in China here.

Gold Star TEFL Recruitment has been assisting teachers secure the very best teaching jobs in China since 2009 and has close connections with China’s leading schools. For details on teaching jobs have a look through our website and submit an application today.
Apply now

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