Probably one of the biggest unknowns of people considering teaching in China is the day to day life at home and at work. What will my home be like? What will my social life be like? What will the workload be like? Will the atmosphere at work be enjoyable? And will the aggregate of all those things give me a positive experience in China?
These were my questions before I came to China anyway, so I thought I would piece together a few words in an effort give a general picture of what life is like here, day to day, working for First Leap.
I live in Xianlin, a northeastern suburb of Nanjing. Our apartment is on the 17th floor of one of about 20 or more similar sized buildings inside a large enclosed community. It looks out over schools and malls and the subway line. On clear days we can see the peaks of distant hills and a bridge which crosses the Yangtze River. It’s fun to watch the weather come in, lightning storms make for great viewing.
It’s a beautiful community we live in. Buildings tower above winding paths, playgrounds and ponds which are all nestled in trees and flowering bushes. During warm evenings, grandparents dressed in their pyjamas usher toddlers on walks to the playground, e-bikes whizz along the cobbled paths and old men play Mahjong by the pond. I couldn’t guess with any decent accuracy how many people living in this community, but if I tried I would put the number above 5,000. Everyone is really nice to one another, saying ‘Hi’ in the elevator, holding the gate open etc. All of our foreign friends and, from what I understand, most people working for First Leap live in a community much like this one.
Our local food options are great! Soup, noodles, rice, bbq, roast duck, dumplings, seafood, Korean food, western food and pizza are all readily available within a short stroll from our place. The local supermarket is vast, we can find pretty much anything we like there except salt and vinegar chips.... The vegetables there are never very fresh in the supermarket but there's a giant vegetable and meat market close by and there’s a number of fresh fruit shops too. We typically visit them all.
When it’s time to go to work we jump on our e-bike and wind our way along paths lined with cherry blossom trees and various kinds of shrubbery. This path is dedicated to bikes so there’s no need to dodge cars or people. E-bikes are the primary mode of transport here in China. It’s great to see and shows a progressive look forward to a time where dirtier modes of transport will become obsolete. The locals drive like mad though so I recommend driving with extra caution.
Arriving at work, we’re greeted by the girls at front desk. Our First Leap centre is tucked away from the main road, surrounded by trees and a couple of other learning centres. Inside the walls are painted in First Leap colours, the library is full of books, there are stacks of toys on a shelf that kids can buy with ‘frogs’ (a currency given to them for diligence).
Photos of teachers and students line the wall up the stairs and there’s a podium for high achiever kids to stand on and receive their awards. Kids can be heard drilling in unison, singing songs and playing. Many of them run loose around the centre while parents relax on the benches in the foyer and outside in the sun. When your students see you they are always excited; the younger ones will show you their favourite new toy so you tell them how awesome it is and ruffle their hair. The older ones can speak English so you ask them about their day and if they did their homework.
The office space is where we spend most of our time at work. In our office, we have seven foreign teachers from all over the world and around twenty Chinese teachers. We all chat and banter, talk about everything under the sun and go out for lunch/dinner/hot pot pretty regularly.
I really like the interactions we have with the Chinese teachers and really treasure the friendships I’ve made with them. They help us with ordering food and things we need from the internet. They translate confusing messages and in turn, we clarify oddities in the English language for them and help them with pronunciation or colloquialisms.
Prepping for classes is the majority of the work we do at First Leap. Art classes require cutting out squares or fish or kangaroos. World culture, science and global leadership classes require sourcing objects and materials for experiments and activities. Music classes are where you can learn to master the tambourine or xylophone!
Most of your preparation time is spent familiarising yourself with the flipchart and keywords and phrases. I like to build my lessons around a series of questions the kids can learn to answer or ask each other.
When it’s time to go to class I grab my things and head to the classroom. This is where the magic happens, this is truly the highlight of my experience in China. Above all the attractions and historic sites, above all the bars and amazing restaurants, the classroom has been where I’ve found the best experiences. Teaching these kids and developing meaning relationships with them, watching them grow and learn is about as rewarding as anything I can think of.
In class, we stand in front of a large smartboard and work our way through an interactive flipchart unique to the keywords and phrases that we’re teaching that day. We play games on and off the board, sing songs, drill and try to encourage discussion in the older kids. High fives and reward systems enforce the positive reinforcement philosophy of First Leap and the kids love it.
Each kid is different and requires different strategies to keep them engaged and learning. We have a tonne of support and training in First Leap to help us maximise the use of class time to improve both ourselves and the kids learning.
At the end of the day, us foreign teachers head home or to a local restaurant and laugh together about the crazy things we saw the kids do that day; being buried underneath 10 kids who just want to give you a hug; that two-year-old who last week cried when she saw you, but now squeals with joy when you walk into the class; when a kid finally uses that cool slang you taught him and all the other hilarious moments that happen on a daily basis.
The foreign teacher network in First Leap is pretty big. We catch up often as a larger group for work activities or a rendezvous in town, but typically we hang together as smaller groups in each of our districts.
Our district has three centres and around 16 foreign teachers between us all. We catch up on a regular basis for drinks or dinner and other activities like bowling, paddle boats and visits to the lake. Sometimes we go on weekend excursions as a group to places like the Terracotta Warriors in Xi'an or the water park in Tangshan. There's a good cohesion of different sorts between us and it's kept together by friendly banter and the sharing of interesting experiences.
It’s a good life, teaching English in China. It’s always interesting, always challenging and always surprising. There’s nothing else like it.
Josh Tasman is a teacher at Xianlin Center, Nanjing. He has worked for First Leap for over a year and a half in both Beijing and Nanjing and hails from the south island of New Zealand. Feel free to contact him through his email firstname.lastname@example.org or read more from him at https://inourfootsteps.wordpress.com/