Kelsey Clarke - 2015 Program Participant

International volunteer teaching children in China

Teaching with a headset and microphone

You previously volunteered in Ghana, what prompted your interest in teaching abroad?

I volunteered as an English teacher in Ghana after realizing that I wasn’t ready to go to university and commit myself to studying something that I wasn’t sure about. Studying at university has always been a part of my future, as I want to study, but teaching, being abroad, and learning new things experientially everyday has made me feel more educated than ever before. From learning a new Chinese word, to realizing that this is life, and can be my life, rather than always planning for something that may not even become reality.

Why did you choose to teach in China?

I wanted to be able to make a comparison between my teaching experiences. For me, China is still such a mysterious country. Everyone knows that this country exists and we likely all own something made here, but there is so much that is hidden. That’s why I wanted to come to China, and now I can also tick off another continent! This is my first time traveling to Asia, the closest I’d been before is Turkey. I have definitely been able to make my comparison between Ghana and China.

What set i-to-i apart when you were comparing other TEFL programs abroad?

I did my TEFL training course with i-to-i TEFL before I knew about any programs, and then the internship was suggested to me; I thought why not. The actual internship program is through a placement company called Immerqi. The first time you go to a completely different country, you want a safety net, but now that I’m in China I realize I could’ve done it by myself. However, I have enjoyed the program.

Describe a day in the life of your teaching internship in China.

I wake up between 6:30 a.m. and 7 a.m. in my three bedroom apartment that I share with Frederikke, another teacher here from Denmark. I get ready and walk around five minutes to the school canteen for breakfast (usually steamed rice buns/boatze and soy milk or rice pudding). Then it’s office/teaching time. Our office is conveniently called the “foreign affairs office”; I still find that humorous. I share the office with the three other foreign teachers and three Chinese English teachers (Coco, Daisy, and Alex) who are our main points of contact if we need anything. I have on average between three and five lessons per day, each of which are 40 minutes long.

Foreign teacher clapping with local students in China

Clapping rhythms

In between classes, I do lesson planning, write for my blogs, read a book, or make travel plans. Each day, we have an almost three hour break. All of the students and teachers use this time to nap, and they think it’s so strange that I don’t sleep. It’s a huge chunk of the day, but it’s hard to get used to having so much time to relax in the middle of the day. But, who says having beds in the office is a negative?

I teach at four different schools. All are a part of an educational group here in Changsha called Shazitang. Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday are spent at our base school, Tianhua boarding school, and Wednesdays are at Xinshibo (another primary boarding school which is an hour drive away, but we’re lucky because the school provides us with a driver). Then alternate Fridays are two other schools, one is public. They are the most challenging but also always prove a great way to end the week.

School finishes at 5:35 p.m., and then we can have dinner in the canteen. We also found a noodle place close to the school, so we go and practice our Chinese with the owner who is also really eager to learn English. Win win! The days are long, and when we get home at night there doesn’t seem enough time to do anything. I usually just do some more writing, and recently I have started teaching via WeChat which is pretty cool.

What has been the most memorable part of your internship so far? 

When I read this question so many memories ran through my mind. Each day brings something new. Being here sometimes you don’t notice everything you should because it becomes normal. But, when you realize what’s going on around you, it’s really crazy. From the time my grade three teaching assistant asked me to name her twin daughters to when of my grade three classes randomly shouted “We love you Kelsey!” at the end of one of my classes to when Frederikke and I danced around a lecture hall singing into toilet roll microphones with 100 five and six-year-olds to Abba. So, of course the teaching has been memorable, and with each class there is another memory made. That’s the most important for me, as long as I am making memories for both myself and for the students.

Last week I had a grade one class wearing my clothes, one very enthusiastic boy wore my flowery dress with great pride! Chinese/English names are also VERY memorable, so I have students named Airport, Monkey, and Rainbow. The list could go on! Having to use a microphone to teach is also an experience, and a really effective teaching resource for the class sizes here in China.

To also just list a few more things I have done at the school: I have been on many school trips, presented a talk about protecting the environment to all of the teachers, ran a weekly debate club, and ran the radio (the school has a radio system and once a week we talk about a topic over the radio).

Presentation environmentally friendly practices

Environmentally friendly class

What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your teaching placement?

The biggest challenge for me so far has been not being able to get to know my students and build a real relationship with them. I teach 1,200 students every two weeks, more even in some classes, that’s just an average. Some classes have up to 70 students. It’s impossible to get to know them individually. I’m “over” it now, but I feel like it’s such a shame.

I think this placement in China has been about improving my teaching and professional skills, rather than building a rapport and making a huge difference to students’ lives. This is also one of the main comparisons I have made between teaching in China and in Ghana. In Ghana, I taught the same class of students all day everyday for the time I was there, we all grew so close.

How have the i-to-i TEFL staff supported you throughout your program?

The program is run by Immerqi more directly, and the staff are good. I haven’t really needed anything important, thankfully. They have done two Skype chats, one with teaching tips and another talking about our options after we finish at our schools, so they were useful.

What has surprised you most about your students and teaching in China?

I have learned the importance of individuality here, not because I’ve witnessed it, but because of the extreme lack of. Imagine being one of many students all aiming for the same thing and never being noticed for your achievements. I think this is why competitions are so huge in China, so many children are put into English competitions to show how good they are. The amount of scripts I have had to record for students is crazy. It’s a competitive culture.

What teaching or cultural advice would you give to others interested in your TEFL internship in Changsha?

My advice for anyone thinking about this program would be to go for it definitely! When it comes to teaching, don’t take yourself seriously in the classroom (for primary students anyway). I find that the younger ones are much more interested in my classes when I am acting like a complete idiot.

The culture will hit everyone in different ways, but the main point I always bring up is that you need to make sure you communicate as much as possible. Clarifying everything is important, even if it sounds silly. We have weekly meetings here with the other teachers and I am always the one asking questions at the end (it’s becoming a running joke on my part), but I know how important it is. Answers can be a bit vague, and a guessing game isn’t always fun!

Kungfu lesson in China

Kungfu lesson

What makes the Hunan Province of China such a great place to teach English abroad?

Hunan is a beautiful province, and I live in Changsha which is the capital. I never expected it to be like this. I have met so many fantastic people from all over the world and had so many opportunities. Hunan is known for its spicy food, so it is great if you love spicy food. If you don’t, you will like it by end of your second week. I’m also sure that wherever you teach in China, you will be pleasantly surprised. The country is so big that there are huge variations from province to province.

You’re a regular contributor to i-to-i TEFL’s blog, how does one go about becoming a guest blogger?

I knew that I wanted to blog whilst I was here as I write my own blogs anyway, but I wanted it to be read by a greater audience. I asked one of the advisors here and they put me in touch with Elle from i-to-i TEFL.

How have your experiences in China impacted your life so far?

One thing I am 100 percent taking away from this experience is to live my life now and not to keep looking into the future so much. I’m not quite sure how I came to learn that lesson, but that has been a pretty big thing for me. I feel like a more relaxed person now.