Living and Teaching in China

In this blog post, Rowan, who has been a member of Teaching Packs since 2017, explains what it is like living and teaching in China.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to live and teach in China?

My name is Rowan, and I started teaching in China in 2003. The reason I first came here, quite simply, was that China was a great place to get a job teaching English as a Foreign Language; and this rather impulsive decision turned out to be the best I ever made! And so I came, and taught, and married, and returned to Britain to train as a primary school teacher. Now, after working at several schools in both Britain and China, I have settled down at an international school in Suzhou, where I teach a Year 5 class.

What kind of school do you currently work in?

Our school consists of three main buildings, with over a thousand students. I work in the Junior School, a rectangular, red-brick building with three stories. This was originally the whole school – but, as student numbers grew, an infant school was constructed next to it, and then a Senior School. When the older students moved into their new home, they left us some excellent facilities, including a fully equipped kitchen, woodwork room, computer suites and dance studios, so we’re quite a special Junior School!

Living in China

The Senior School.

What kinds of students attend?

As an international school, we have students from all over the world. Many of our students are learning English as a second or even third language, and so our curriculum is designed around supporting them with this. Teachers work hard to make lessons accessible for them and to support them, and we also have dedicated ELL (English Language Learner) teachers to help them. All of our students wear smart school uniforms, with school shirts, blazers and ties, and behaviour is generally of a high standard. Each class has a Parent Rep, to help with home-school communication, and we often invite parents into our school for Open Mornings and workshops.

What would you say are the major similarities and differences between your school and those in the UK?

In many ways, we are a typical British school. We read Roald Dahl and Michael Morpurgo, and we study the same science and maths and English topics, often using British resources and plans – naturally enough, as most of our teachers are British-trained, and full of ideas from their experiences in Britain, from Gloucester to Glasgow.

Living in China

Classes are arranged for children to work in groups.

But in other ways, things are quite different. While most of our teachers come from Britain, we also have colleagues from around the globe, including New Zealand, Australia and the USA. This enriches our teaching, and it’s wonderful to meet people from all over the world. Although our curriculum is based on the UK National Curriculum, we have enhanced it to meet the international context of our many students, so that we can focus on big questions such as ‘How does it work?’ and ‘Would the world survive without water?’ – questions that are relevant and interesting across the world. Another big difference in our school is the presence of specialist teachers, for Chinese, Music, PE and Art. I do sometimes miss teaching these, but I understand that specialist teachers provide the children with great advantages. And anyway, at least I have plenty of chances to do art activities in other lessons!

Living in China

Children learning electronics.

What additional opportunities are available to the children (e.g. visits, clubs)?

Lots! We have a great co-curricular programme that offers many different clubs – sports, music, dance, academic, and plenty of “fringe” clubs, such as my own circus skills. Students also have many leadership opportunities – Eco Council, Student Council, House Captains, to name but a few.

School trips are also a big part of the curriculum. Each September, my school holds a single magnificent event – China Week, which involves the children going out to explore China. In Year 3 they visit famous sites around Suzhou, then end the week with a sleepover in the school library. Then from Year 4 onwards, the year groups go on trips to special locations. This year I took my class to an island near Shanghai.  We spent our days catching crabs, working on local farms, visiting a wetland nature reserve, and cooking and eating local foods. It was a great experience, and a lovely example of how teaching in China offers new opportunities!

How does your own school compare with others in China?

There are many differences between our school and local schools in China, some of which are down to the number of pupils who are in each class. Chinese classrooms often have around 50 students learning together, whilst in our school we have much fewer in number – no more than 24 in any one class.

Setting up my class for the start of term.

This means that the classroom environment is also different – our school is designed for student collaboration and discussion – tables are grouped together and students have a lot of voice over how their classrooms are arranged to best support them with their learning. This is different to local schools where desks are often in neat rows of wooden desks. Additionally, our teachers are continuously circling our classrooms, supporting different students and challenging those who have completed their tasks. This is different again to a Chinese classroom where the teacher usually stands at the front of the class and teaches their students the materials for each unit. Rote learning is the core of Chinese education, both due to tradition and as a response to the large class sizes. Fifty students in a class, and ten or more classes in each year group, are entirely typical. Each subject is taught by a single teacher with learning heavily reliant on textbooks, and there is very little differentiation. There is no “Topic” learning, which is very different from my school, which values cross-curricular links. Every day, Chinese students have morning exercises, and eye exercises at least once a day. Chinese students are also responsible for cleaning their classrooms, sweeping and mopping them together.

Despite these differences, there are also many similarities. The teachers in both types of school are really passionate, caring about helping the children learn. In addition, music and sports skills are highly valued alongside the academics.

Can you give us an overview of what it is like living in China?

It’s a thrilling experience, with every day is an adventure. My life has been enriched in so many ways since I came here. They say that travel broadens the mind, and living in a foreign country for so many years has been a wonderful experience. I am so glad, too, to have a son who is growing up as a child of two different cultures.

Living in China

The Gateway to the East, one of the many new constructions in China.

Mandarin may be the official language, but China is full of dialects. Mandarin Chinese has a pictographic system of writing, with no actual alphabet, and there are virtually no links between it and English. Since each Chinese word is essentially a picture, I have found mnemonics a great way to learn Chinese, and have even written some books on the subject.

Apart from the language, the greatest cultural experience is probably eating. A good rule of thumb is salty food in the north, sweet in the south, and spicy in the west. Another is that you get more noodles in the north and rice in the south. If there is a universal Chinese dish, it’s probably a bowl of dumplings (jiaozi, pronounced “jeeyow-dzuh”), little packets of pastry with minced meat and vegetable filling, much like Italian tortellini. I have learned to love many Chinese dishes. The northern hotpot, where you dip very thin slices of meat in a bubbling pot; the kebabs, fruit cakes, and delicious flatbread from Xinjiang (shin-jeeyang) in the west; Eight Treasures Rice Pudding, a dome of sweet white rice, studded with candied fruits. In short, Chinese cooking is immensely varied and wonderful!

Living in China

Delicious north Chinese food.

The weather tends towards extreme, with very hot summers, and very cold winters more or less all over China. As well as this, pollution is a concern in some parts of China.

There’s so much more I’d like to talk about – the holidays and festivals, the Chinese culture of face and favours, the Great Wall and the great cities, WeChat instead of Whatsapp, the Dragon Boat Day, Chinese New Year, and much more that. Sadly, I have no more space to talk about these. So if I can finish with one thing, then. I’d like to say that the best thing about coming to China has been the great hospitality, openness and friendliness of all the Chinese people I have met. I came to China as a guest in their country, and I hope I have done my best to act as an ambassador for mine.


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