An Interview with Darren at Shane English in Shanghai, China
GS: So, can you tell us a bit about how you first got into English teaching?
DR: I’ve been pretty fortunate to have experienced some fantastic holidays when growing up, and have always enjoyed finding out about different places and cultures, not much excites me more than the thought of ‘adventure’. A couple of summers ago, I backpacked around Thailand, which gave me a taste for Asia in particular, and I wanted more. I thought, I didn’t just want a ‘taste’ of a different culture, but I wanted to actually live it, and teaching seemed the most accessible way.
I’d heard of TEFL, but didn’t know too much about how to get into it, so attended a recruitment fair at my University where I got some more info. I also got involved with voluntary teaching opportunities at the same time, which really gave me a taste for the rewards of teaching. I decided to take the plunge, and signed up for a TEFL course in my final year of study. It took until the summer to complete the course, as I couldn’t find the time at Uni, and then I started looking for jobs in Asia. China was actually third on my list to begin with, behind South Korea and Japan. If I’m honest, I didn’t know too much about any of these countries, I just wanted to explore somewhere new!
GS: Could you give some details about your dealings with Gold Star TEFL Recruitment?
DR: Having applied through a huge range of recruitment agencies, I can comfortably say Gold Star made things the easiest. In particular, Mark (who still emails me to check how things are!), was more than happy to answer any questions I had, however small they were. This was particularly helpful, as the whole process was completely new to me, and he made it seem more straightforward than perhaps some of the other agencies did. If it wasn’t for their promptness with emails and help with the administration side of things, I probably wouldn’t be in Shanghai now. He was the middle-man between myself and the school I now work for. Now, I often find myself around the recruitment staff here at the school, and overhear their conversations with Mark, and, again, they’re more positive about him than people from the other agencies!
GS: What advice do you have for people about the recruitment and interview process when looking for jobs teaching in China?
DR: I’d say just be honest, with yourself and the employer. Whether that’s your qualifications, work experience, reasons for teaching, where you want to go or anything else. I was a little worried that not having enough experience in teaching, or that the fact that teaching may not actually be my chosen career path, might work against me in getting a job. In fact, I think I got offers from all of the jobs I had an interview with. They are looking for someone who is enthusiastic, has personality, and more than anything, someone they can get on with as a colleague!
We all exaggerate things we’ve done, but don’t lie on your CV, there’s really no need and you will probably get found out anyway! You also need to be honest with yourself. For me, this is something I’ve wanted to do for a while, and I couldn’t wait to get out here. I am motivated to put in the effort, and get as much out of the experience as I can, by putting lots into it.
If I am honest, the job is a means to an end for me personally. But I know that there are other people (the students) relying on me to do the job well, as they are paying good money to learn. I also enjoy the job far more than any other job I’ve had. I would say there are a small number of people who maybe don’t see it this way, and should probably be slightly more committed not only to a bunch of kids who idolise you, but also an employer who has paid for them to get into their country! I’d say if you think you might be one of those people, ask yourself whether or not you should be teaching!
GS: You are teaching at Shane English in Shanghai at the moment, can you tell us about your impressions of the city? What do you like most about living there?
DR: Where do I start? I’ll say the best thing about Shanghai, and what makes it probably unique in China, is that it’s more of a mix of old meeting new than I thought it would be. The Pudong side of the river has gone from farmland to an iconic metropolis in the space of 25 years, which is astonishing. On my way to work at the weekends, I get the metro to the northeast of the city. There is about 30 seconds where the view opens up, and on one side is the most stunning view of the Pudong skyline, with the sun rising behind it in a deep haze (I’ll openly accept this ‘haze’ is probably the massively polluted air, but it looks stunning!) If you look the other way, below you is the hustle and bustle of the less wealthy, older end of the spectrum, where wooden huts and tiny ancient roads are filled with market stalls.
So that’s Shanghai as a place. The best thing about living here; there are probably two, which, in a way contradict themselves. The first, is that every day you will see at least one thing out of the ordinary. Whenever I got the tube in London, I would be content in my knowledge that the music on my iPod was, for the entirety of the journey, the most entertaining thing available to me, and anything going on outside it, wasn’t worth my attention. In Shanghai, whether it’s the guy sitting next to you on the train with a pigeon in his pocket, the lady on the bus who spontaneously bursts into a song, or the clutter of people walking down the street backwards, you’re likely to be entertained at least once a day by something other than your iPod.
The second would be the feeling I’ve had recently, where it starts to feel like I’m settled. I’m not saying it feels like home, but I don’t feel like a tourist any more. My Mandarin is improving, which helps this feeling. Not long ago, I visited a guy that I go to now and again, who sells dumplings on the street. As I approached, he asked whether I wanted beef or pork, I said “Beef today, please.” He then asked if I wanted anything else, I replied that I wanted two today. He questioned “Two?” (they’re quite big), and I said “Yes, I’m hungry”. He chuckled. I’m not saying that I’m anywhere near comfortably speaking Chinese, but it was the first conversation I had where I knew the other person had completely understood me. So long as I’m learning new phrases, there’s no way I’ll get bored of that!
GS: What do you like most about teaching English?
DR: Teaching in China is great fun on the whole. It seems, here, that there is a culture of it being ‘cool’ to be the smart kid. Every student wants to be the one who answers the question, writes on the board, cleans the board, even gets the teacher a cup of tea! I wouldn’t say that was the case when I was in school in England. In the middle schools I teach at, some classes even have a class leader, or captain, who shouts at the rest of the class to be quiet, which saves me a lot of bother!
By far the most rewarding thing, though, is when you ask a student a question, and not only do they answer perfectly, but they extend their answer with another piece of language you taught them weeks ago. It’s just good to know you’re doing a good job, and they want to show you that that’s the case!
GS: Can you tell us about your favourite class at the moment?
DR: My favourite class is also my youngest. This is taking nothing away from the older, higher level students I teach, but as far as pure enjoyment goes, these guys are superb. It’s my first class on a Sunday, 8.30am, and I’m often a little groggy, particularly if I’ve stayed up to watch the footy the night before. Whereas in most jobs, you’d have a cup of coffee to kick start the day, I’ve got my wake-up kick in the form of eight boisterous, incredibly adorable 4 year-olds.
I wouldn’t say it’s always an easy lesson to teach, but it’s always fun, and I spend half the time laughing with them. There are six boys and two girls. The boys spend most of the time tearing the room to pieces, and the girls spend most of the time hugging, or trying to hug me. The class is mainly a variety of games and generally running around. So long as they’re speaking English, the more energy the merrier, they’re waking me up for the rest of the day!
GS: Talk us through a typical day teaching English in China.
DR: I wake up later than planned, throw some breakfast down, and jump on the metro. I try to arrive around half an hour before my classes start to get together all the resources I need for the day, chat to whoever’s about, and clear my head before attempting to teach. Then the classes begin, which, for me, are 1.40 hours in length, with a 10 minute break in the middle. I teach a range of ages and levels so the classes can be really varied, which I enjoy.
There are four lessons a day, with decent breaks and a lunch break between. This time should probably be used productively, in the shape of lesson planning, but I spend most of it eating and talking. After the last lesson I head home, sometimes via a bar or restaurant, and plan any lessons for the next day. Lesson planning can seem more daunting than it actually is. I’ve kind of got into a routine of teaching with relatively similar lesson plans, and fitting the language around it. Once you’ve taught a class a few times, you know what works and what doesn’t, you just need to keep it varied so the kids don’t get bored!
GS: What are the teaching resources like there?
DR: I think we’re very lucky with the resources at our school. We have touch screen TV’s with all the songs and listening exercises on, as well as the Internet if we want to use it. The kids seem to enjoy the books and flashcards, and there are plenty of toys and games available to make the lessons more fun. I try not to become too reliant on the resources, though, as the primary objective for us is to be conversational teachers, so the only resource you really need is your voice!
GS: How many teachers are there in your school?
DR: Shane English has three schools in central Shanghai. I teach in one of those schools, in Yangpu district, where there are three English teachers, and lots of Chinese staff there including teaching assistants. The TA’s are fantastic. It’s worth building a healthy rapport with them, as not only are they obviously there to help in the classroom, but they’re also a great resource for local knowledge, language tips, and just generally making life a lot easier.
GS: China is full of surprises and unexpected adventures, tell us about one you have had recently.
DR: I had one very surreal night last month. I had been fortunate enough to stumble across an exceptionally wealthy family, who wanted me to paint a series of pictures for their luxury ‘clubhouse’, a property where their family and friends come to hang out and help themselves to free wine, food and cigars (it appears my art degree is finally paying dividends).
We arranged a meal at the clubhouse, obviously I obliged. 5 hours later I was in the designated ‘karaoke room’ in the loft, belting out Elton John over a Cuban cigar and some incredibly expensive whiskey with a Chinese family. Not your average night out, it has to be said.
Probably the best piece of advice I could give out here is just to be as open minded as possible. The people, if a little shy at first, are lovely. Simply by looking different to the majority of the population here seems to give you a status (being ginger, it seems, wins you bonus points)! I have been taken to a music concert, the odd meal, invited to a wedding, been given impromptu Chinese lessons by strangers on the street, VIP in nightclubs, all without spending a penny.
It is probably the English way to say ‘no’ to such offers, as we’d rather save them the hassle, or keep ourselves to ourselves. The Chinese don’t see it this way, and saying no is more likely to offend them, as they would see it as what they have offered not being good enough. Simply turning up and being foreign is ample amusement it seems, you just have to act surprised, humbled and exceptionally grateful the whole time!