Deciding to volunteer in China as part of my gap year was relatively simple: I knew I wanted to come back to China for a length of time (since I’m originally from China) and I wanted to volunteer as a teacher for the experience. Not only is teaching a potential career for me in the future, but I also wanted to learn more about the Chinese education system and I wanted to be more immersed in their lifestyle.
My initial plan was to go on a five-month paid internship programme with a TEFL company where I’d be placed in a school for five months, given accommodation, food and a small living allowance per month. But this fell through and the plan never came to fruition. At the time, I was at a loss at what to do but it turns out that this was a blessing in disguise.
What I actually did was volunteer in a secondary school in Chengdu for two months (and for a further two months I’ve been able to study Mandarin intensively in a language school near Beijing).
So what are my thoughts?
If you didn’t catch my latest post showing TEFL in photos, you won’t know that I was assigned a total of sixteen classes. I taught the youngest year 初一 (year 8 for you Brits, or grade 7 for the US folks) which has 10 classes. I also taught 6 senior classes 高一 (year 11/grade 10).
I loved, loved, loved my students. In the short two months that I was there, I had formed close relationships with them and began to see their confidence with speaking English increase. It was so rewarding to see! I have so many memories and stories about my time at their school – my time there, despite being stressful and tiring at times, was absolutely amazing. I actually miss them so much that I’ve planned a crazyyy trip to see them
next week for the Dragon Boat Festival (you may have read about that here). Update: due to VPN and connection problems, this post has been published a week late and I am currently on my way back from this trip. It involves two 18+ train journeys with five days to catch up with them, spend time with them and possibly sightsee even more. I know I’m crazy but hey, that’s what life’s all about right? Random, crazy adventures!
China is known for having huge class sizes and my school was no exception. Most of my classes had well over 45 students and one of my senior classes actually had 68 students! I only taught each class once a week so it wasn’t a whole lot of time (especially as each lesson was only 40 minutes) but still meant I could teach them a decent amount. My lessons were purely for the students to practice speaking English and for them to learn more about English culture. My job wasn’t to teach them any grammar or to teach them from a set textbook. My classes were meant to be fun!
I was, however, required to create a PPT for every lesson. I used this and utilised the blackboard for my lessons. I taught the following topics:
The Chinese like to chant so whenever I taught them new vocabulary, I would get them to repeat the word together at least three times. I also incorporated interactive activities: for example when teaching food, I would open the floor for students to come and write an item of food in English on the blackboard; for my lesson about English school I gave each student either a Chinese word or an English word and they had two minutes to find the person with the translation – that was a fun starter activity! I also got them to speak in groups and pairs during the class activities and then pulled students up to the front to show their peers.
Sometimes classes would be difficult to control, and this was especially the case when I first started. In the first week of my lessons, most of the juniors’ teachers would sit at the back to either a) watch the class and learn new things themselves or b) to be there in case I needed any help controlling the students. There were still a handful of teachers that stayed in the lessons every single week but after two weeks, a lot of them just left me to it (which most of the time I much preferred). As for my senior classes, the teachers weren’t even there from day one (except one – yes, one was always there chanting along with the students and scribbling new vocab down in her notebook!) I think that leaving me alone with the students was good because it established that it was me; I was the teacher and I controlled the class completely.
And of course I would adapt the lessons to whether I was teaching juniors or seniors depending on their ability. Although, having said that you would be surprised. Some of my senior students were the same level as my junior students and vice versa!
In my last week at the school, I decided to take the students outside to play lots of group games which was a lot of fun:
Every week Monday-Thursday from 1pm-2pm I would have English Corner. Twice a week I would see my Junior students, and twice a week my Seniors. These were a handful of students who wanted to improve their oral English and get some extra practice in. What I wasn’t aware of initially was that the school itself wanted us to prepare new lessons especially for the English Corner. But in reality, this did not happen. Instead, we chatted and talked about a variety of different things along with playing a lot of group games (in English of course). I became very fond of my English Corner students as I saw them far more frequently and I got to know a lot about them.
I feel the students need an entire post of their own! I don’t even know where to begin…
The students are absolutely lovely. At first, they are quite shy but they are very happy and excited to be meeting a foreign teacher (yes, even though I look Chinese). During the first couple of lessons, students (both juniors and seniors) would come to the front and ask me if I had WeChat or QQ. At this point, I only had WeChat and I was reluctant to give this out to them. Whilst walking around the school playground and to and from lessons, students would enthusiastically wave and say hello. The other volunteers and I actually joked at the amount of times we said “hello” everyday – perhaps over 40 times!
It was after the first month that we were taken out to a Mayday Festival by one of Giada’s students (the Italian volunteer). The day was really fun and we got to go to something we wouldn’t have otherwise known about. I already had my English Corner students on WeChat (those who had it – most only have QQ) but I realised that if I didn’t make a QQ account, I wouldn’t be able to stay in touch with my students when I leave. And that was something I desperately wanted to do. So I made a QQ account and started giving that, and my WeChat ID, out to students who weren’t in my English corner.
I had so many students talking to me (some in Chinese, some in English) and I actually wish I had made a QQ account and given out my info to the students sooner! I could interact with them more outside of the classroom as well as practice my own Mandarin. Through speaking to the students, I learnt a lot about Chinese ‘slang’ and learnt a lot of new vocab. I was also able to help more students with their English – it was brilliant.
One night, some of my students and I planned to play cards together. Alice and I stocked up on snacks and after their evening classes on a Sunday, we went to meet them. We played cards for a good hour and just talked: it was really nice. This then became a regular occurrence (almost every night) and the three boys were always willing to show me good places to eat for lunch and dinner. Because I saw and spoke with these three students so often, we became really close. If they ever come to England, I will definitely arrange to see them.
On the 18th June, a whole bunch of us went to Dicos (a Chinese chicken fast-food chain) as it was buy 1 get 1 free. The students invited me to so many things and told me information that I wouldn’t otherwise have known – it was so handy.
On other days, students would randomly bring me small gifts – either food, a drink, maybe something they had made themselves. It was just so lovely. If I was walking along the corridor or across the playground, students would come and talk to me. At lunch when I ate in the canteen, this too happened.
I love my students and, in a way, I wish I had stayed longer.
Accommodation and food
The school provided us with accommodation for the duration of our stay in their newly-renovated dormitory. We lived in the school’s dormitory on the ground floor (students who also resided at school lived on other floors). Our rooms came equipped with wifi, a Western toilet and shower, air conditioning and a fridge. The room also had the basics: a bed, desk, chairs and a wardrobe. To wash our clothes, the school had bought a washing machine and provided us with hangers and a pole to hang up our wet clothes.
Initially, the school had decided that Alice and I would be sharing a room while both the Italian and German volunteers got their own rooms. Usually, Alice and I wouldn’t mind in the least sharing but this was a completely different situation: we were going to be teaching. We would need to plan our own lessons; we would have different timetables. Sharing a room for two months whilst simultaneously teaching English was just not convenient. Luckily for us, the school set up another room and we were able to have our own space.
For food, the school gave each of us a card loaded with 500元 where we could get breakfast, lunch and dinner at their canteen Monday-Friday. Breakfast was incredibly early (6:50am!) so I only went and got it once. Lunch and dinner were pretty much the same: rice every day with two or three other dishes. These were served on a metal tray with a spoon. At first, I barely ate any of the food at the canteen because it didn’t taste great and I didn’t like having rice every single day. Gradually, I began to get used to the food and I knew which dishes I liked so I could just point and ask for one particular dish to have with my generous portion of rice. There was this one dish consisting of peppers and pork/beef which I really liked. The sauce that came with it was also really good with the rice. Other dishes available included: tofu, tomato + egg, cucumbers, Chinese lettuce/cabbage, a really bitter dish (didn’t like this) and other pork/beef bits.
If the food wasn’t good one day, we would just eat at small restaurants outside the school. Or I would eat lunch with my students and they would take me to try different, delicious food. Overall, the food wasn’t as bad as I thought because particular dishes were actually pretty good.
For our last week, we were taken out by the senior teachers and our supervisors for a farewell dinner.
Although the Senior students had school on the weekend (Saturday 8am-3pm & Sunday 6:40pm-9pm), as a volunteer I did not have to teach. The weekends were our chance to travel around Chengdu and have a break from the hectic school week.
The first weekend I had here my family and boyfriend had come to visit me (I hadn’t seen them in four months at this point) so it was really lovely to catch up with them. We went to see Chengdu’s Culture Park, the Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding, People’s Park, Khuanzhai Alley and the Embroidery Museum during that weekend. That weekend was also a national holiday for the Tomb-Sweeping festival so I had Monday off too. The following week, my family had left Chengdu to travel around China but my boyfriend remained. We went to see more sites around Chengdu – Tianfu Square, Sichuan Art Gallery and visited People’s Park again.
Other weekends included going to see the Wenshu Monastery, Golden Bridge and other various places around Chengdu. Some weekends were spent studying Mandarin (i.e. finishing off my grammar notes and learning vocab) as well as having lazy, chilled days editing videos, writing blog posts and watching TV shows or films.
One week, the school had some sort of exam for the students which took up two days (Thursday and Friday) so we were left with a four-day holiday. Alice, Giada and I planned to take a quick trip up to Xi’an. We took the sleeper train on the Thursday and arrived very early on Friday morning. Going straight from the station, we hopped on the Terracotta Warrior bus to see the Eighth Wonder of the World. The following day we also visited the ancient Xi’an city walls, the Giant Goose Pagoda and the Great Mosque.
I think I covered most things with as much detail as I could without making this post incredibly long. I will be posting more about my daily life, FAQs, Pros & Cons etc. so if you have any questions at all just pop them in the comments section below!
If you’re not following the adventure already, here are the links:
Instagram & Twitter – @violahelen_
Snapchat – violahelen
Peace and love,