Teaching English in China: one UEA graduate’s journey

An Englishman abroad (photo: Amelia Lane)

An Englishman abroad (photo: Amelia Lane) - Credit: Archant

If your child has recently finished their studies and is considering what to do next, teaching English abroad can be a fantastic experience, both professionally and personally

For students keen to move to a new country, to immerse themselves in a new culture, teaching English abroad can offer an invaluable experience. Here, Tom Castle, a language graduate from the University of East Anglia, reveals the ups, downs and challenges of what it is like to teach abroad – and why ultimately it is a great opportunity for any young person today.

“I can barely believe it’s been four years since I graduated from UEA. July 2014 was the end of my fourth academic year as a student of Modern Languages, specifically Spanish, and the person I was then was a world away from the fresh-faced, but mostly terrified, 18-year-old I’d been when I started.

“During that period, I’d had my first experience living in another country, which was both scary and hugely transformative. But now I’ve come full circle on another four-year cycle which has brought me back to the UK to study once more.

“The choice to study Spanish at university was made without a particularly clear end goal in mind. I liked the subject, my A-level teacher encouraged me to do it and I knew that having a languages degree was a useful asset. The UEA seemed a good fit, so the stage was set.

“I got a lot out of studying languages in Norwich, and I will always have a soft spot for the UEA. Undoubtedly though, the highlight for me was the third year, my year abroad. To be frank, it was tough. Overseas, by myself for the first time, in small-town Catalonia, I was so far out of my depth. Despite all the homesickness though, I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

“I chose to do my third year work placement as an English language assistant in a high school. I could rattle off an entire dissertation about that experience but suffice to say it was an invaluable time – but also a valuable time, because I had a salary. From day one, where I was told; ‘so, just go and teach some English, OK?’ to my final day nine months later when a colleague told me she walked past the classroom and thought I sounded like an actual teacher, it was a revelation for me not only in terms of confidence, but also direction.

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“In the six months following my graduation, I enrolled in a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) course. This was an intensive weekend course of 20 hours over two days, with subsequent online course work to bump that up to a 120-hour qualification.

“For this, you see, was the master plan. My partner Amelia and I had done some research (well… I helped. She did most of it) into working abroad as English teachers. We had degrees, we had TEFL certificates and that was all we needed.

“This is what took me on the most unusual journey of my life. We spent 2015 in Australia, visiting my partner’s family, before landing in China on January 1, 2016. It was quite a way to start the year.

“To get there, we’d scoured some TEFL job sites, done some research on good cities in China and then narrowed down a shortlist of our top choices. A Skype interview later, and we were moving to the south-eastern city of Fuzhou, just next to the Taiwan Strait. We hopped between a few different schools; kindergartens, extra-curricular training schools and even universities; and gained a pretty good view into the chaotic, baffling and vivid world of China.

“It’s an intense place to live and work, but I’ve come away with so much. It’s the kind of place that can teach you a lot about yourself, as a professional and as a person, even if it does so the hard way at times. I was also fortunate to meet a lot of good people among those who had maybe been there too long, and those good people made it all worth it.

“So, the full-circle. I’m back in Blighty now, about to undertake a master’s degree in the frozen northern wilds of Durham. Bit of a change from sub-tropical China.

“It’s a chance to take a break from TEFL work, which is rewarding but demanding. But it comes with a plan, which is to make myself more employable with said master’s, before returning somewhere else

far-flung and picking up where I left off.”

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