An Interview with Mary at Star-River Bilingual School in Shanghai, China
GS: So, can you tell us a bit about how you first got into English teaching?
MR: I had the opportunity to work with Chinese university students studying abroad in England for 18 months. The students would always ask me for help and I found myself enjoying teaching these Chinese students about English. Having experience with other languages, I know that learning a new language can be frustrating and difficult, so I wanted to make it more enjoyable for them to learn. However, it wasn’t until after I graduated university that I decided to actively pursue a career in TEFL. I did a certificate online through i-to-i TEFL and volunteered for a year with an ESL program for refugees in Colorado. I decided I wanted to get more certifications and did CELTA through International House Belfast this past summer in order to become qualified before starting my first full-time teaching position here at the Shanghai StarRiver Bilingual School (SSBS).
GS: Could you give some details about your dealings with Gold Star TEFL Recruitment?
MR: Gold Star was fast, efficient, and great to deal with. The website was so clear and answered all of the questions that I had. I emailed Gold Star with my documents they asked for and got a response from Aidan within two days with two incredible jobs to apply for, jobs I don’t think I would have found without Gold Star. Because the service is free for teachers, I was a bit hesitant at first, but I was so impressed with Aidan’s willingness to help. He answered my questions and even took the time to send me a congratulatory email when I was offered a position at SSBS.
GS: What advice do you have for people about the recruitment and interview process when looking for jobs teaching in China?
MR: First and foremost, be prepared. Have your resume updated, PDFs of your certifications, passport pages, everything you need. When you don’t have to worry about gathering your documents at the last minute, it takes a big weight off of your shoulders. Also be prepared to tweak your cover letter for the jobs that are sent on to you, it shows that you are serious about those positions. It is important to know what you want and how to present yourself in the best light possible. Know your strengths and weaknesses, show that you are willing to go the extra mile. The interview process was the most intimidating for me because I had three with the school I am with. I prepared for each interview thoroughly, including a demo lesson. It may sound silly, but practice if you need to. Look up common questions interviewers ask and prepare those answers in order to avoid getting flustered. But most important, relax and enjoy the process. It is good to be on top of things, but don’t stress too much.
GS: You are teaching in Shanghai at the moment, can you tell us about your impressions of the city? What do you like most about living there?
MR: Shanghai is huge! It was definitely a bit of a shock moving here and feeling very different at first. The foreign teachers at my school are great and my favorite part has been meeting the Chinese teachers and becoming friends with them.
GS: What do you like most about teaching English?
MR: I love seeing those moments when the students have worked hard at understanding something and they have the ‘ah-ha’ moment. I am a firm believer of autonomous learning, so I enjoy being more of a guide for a student’s education, rather than a lecturer. I want to help the students learn how to learn and love learning.
Teaching is such a wonderful profession. You can’t control all of the variables and there are so many things that are involved. You yourself need to be on top of your game, but also hand responsibilities to the students. With English, I have the opportunity to help learners expand their world with new ways to think about things, giving them new ways to communicate. Even more, I learn from the students about their languages, cultures, and opinions. It is a wonderful environment, even when stressful and busy.
GS: Can you tell us about your favourite class at the moment?
MR: My favorite class is my English S+ class. It is a smaller group of first graders, which is nice compared to my other larger core subject classes. The students are so fun (and maybe sometimes a little too fun) and work hard. We are able to have a little more fun and go a bit faster because they are at a higher level. I love that I can have higher expectations for the students, helping them realize that they know the answers and just need to work for it.
GS: Talk us through a typical day teaching English in China.
MR: My day starts around 6:00am, when I wake up and get ready for the day. I take the school bus around 6:50am and I’m at work between 7:30am and 8:00am, depending on the craziness of the traffic in the morning. I prep the classroom, help students unpack, and get ready for the day as the students arrive. Each day is a bit different for my teaching schedule, as I switch on and off with my Chinese co-teacher. Out of the 8 periods, I can teach anywhere from 1 to 5 a day. When I’m not teaching, I’m grading, preparing lessons, meeting with other expat teachers, decorating the classroom, or getting a moment to relax. Because I teach first grade, I have to be constantly involved with managing the classroom and the hallways between classes. The day is over around 4:15pm for school and I’ll either go home or go tutor, depending on the day. It definitely is a busy schedule!
GS: What are the teaching resources like there?
MR: My school wants to be modernized, so they provide good resources. Each room has a computer, projector and screen, and an iPad hookup and display. There are libraries for the primary, middle, and high school students. Most importantly, however, the teachers are the best resource.
GS: How many teachers are there in your school?
MR: SSBS is a massive school and has expanded quickly. By the end of 2017, the school will have every grade from 1 to 12 fully implemented and running. There are 38 foreign teachers and about 60 Chinese teachers, plus the administration and the support staff are Chinese.
GS: China is full of surprises and unexpected adventures, tell us about one you have had recently.
MR: Oh, China. There are so many quirks and things here and I’ve learned (and I’m still learning) that the best thing to do is to laugh and smile. There was one time when I went with another foreign teacher to try this free zen meditation. The traffic was a lot worse than usual that night and we couldn’t find a taxi to take us from Minhang to Pudong, since you can only use the dark blue ones to take you across the river. We tried to get an Uber, but my phone wasn’t working and there wasn’t a lot of time to make it. After about 20 minutes of frantic trying, we managed to flag down a taxi and get on our way.
When we got to the area, we were so lost. My Chinese is okay and my friend’s is about the same, so the driver was just pointing to this massive building. We figured trying to talk about where the place was a lost cause, so we decided to just figure it out on our own.
We walked into a building, thinking it was where we needed to be. Well, it turned out to be a hotel and the people working the desk just told us to go around the back. That always inspires confidence, so we walked around the back. There weren’t any lights and some rather dodgy characters about. We ended up just laughing about it, getting crazy looks as we were trying to find the elevator. We ended up following a random person to find it.
We called the elevator and when the doors opened, we were sure we were in the wrong place. There wasn’t a ceiling and all of the wiring was hanging out. There were a ton of people, so we were trying to squeeze in and hoping we weren’t breaking the weight limit. The elevator groaned and creaked, slowly creeping upwards. We happened to be going to the 18th floor, so it took a good while. When we got out of the elevator, we were not positive that we were in the right place: the floors were strewn with dirt and trash, there was a single naked light bulb hanging, and dingy walls. We walked over to a suite were the meditation was and it was like entering a new world. It was so clean and nice, a good atmosphere.
When the meditation leader asked us how we found the journey to her studio, we just laughed, not feeling so zen in that moment. It was good, but we ended up taking the wrong metro line home, so the original 2-hour meditation journey became a 5-hour adventure.