Scottish TEFL teacher Aileen has been teaching English in Asia for almost three years. Aileen went live on i-to-i’s Facebook page to talk about her experience of TEFL in China and Myanmar, including switching to online learning during the Covid-19 pandemic. Watch a recording of the full webinar here or read on for edited extracts.
My TEFL journey starts…
I signed up to do i-to-i TEFL’s online TEFL course at the end of October 2017. I am a procrastinator at heart so it took me a while to crack down and study. Once I started, I was learning so much interesting information about teaching. I thought, ‘This is what I want to do.’ That was where my TEFL journey started.
I had no actual teaching experience. I used to work at Pizza Express and I did pizza making parties with kids. I was a young leader for my guiding unit. I had worked for some children’s charities before. If you don’t have teaching experience, think about things you have done in your life that can apply to teaching. You need your TEFL. You need a happy, bright, bubbly personality, ready to do anything but you don’t need previous teaching experience.
TEFL is the door. Just open it and you can go where you want.
TEFL IN CHINA
China TEFL internship
While I was at university, I had this wild dream: ‘I want to work with pandas.’ When pandas were taken off the critically endangered species list, all of the programmes that I had been looking at disappeared but with TEFL I could still go to China. I signed myself up for i-to-i’s China Internship Programme and hopped on a plane in February 2018.
I had no idea what to expect. I had a six-month student visa. (I had a few problems with getting my criminal record check, so I would recommend starting your visa application process early.) I had a letter from the University of Harbin saying I was here to learn Chinese and to learn how to be an English teacher
We had a one-week induction in Beijing. They observe you over the week and they decide where will be best for you to go. Luckily, they decided I could go to the south of China because all I had packed was warm weather clothes. I had one jumper with me. I wore it the whole week in Beijing because Beijing was freezing when I arrived in February.
My school was very happy with what I did during my internship. They offered me a full-time contract for another six months once I completed. I signed on and then got a full work permit.
Teaching in China
I had over 1,000 students in first grade and then I moved to eighth grade and again I had over 1,000 students. I taught about 40 students at a time and would see each class once a week. I didn’t really expect to be teaching so many kids at once. That was a little bit overwhelming at first. Once I got into it, it was great. You could do so many group activities. You could get everyone up dancing. The atmosphere was just amazing in these big classes.
I earned some extra money from teaching kindergarten kids. Once a week, I would read a book to my friend’s son and two or three of his friends and then we would play some games based around the book. I taught for an hour and a half and earned about £25 per hour. I taught some eighth graders for extra money as well. I continued that into the second half of my year because I love teaching and I could earn a bit more money.
My school provided my housing in the school grounds. It would take me about 10 minutes to walk from my apartment to the front gates of the school. It was beautiful. It rained quite a lot in the south of China but the only thing it really affected was that cockroaches came into the apartment when it rained.
Things are going to be scary but there are always people to talk to. My support guy was called Ben. If we had any problems, we just messaged Ben and he was always there to help.
The biggest thing that hit me in terms of culture shock – and it sounds silly to say it – is everything was in Chinese. When I had been abroad before, everything was still ABC even if I could not read the words. When we were on the bus from the airport, I was looking out of the window going, ‘I can’t read anything. I need to learn how to read all these Chinese characters.’ I did learn a few but I am by no means fluent in Chinese. The most I can say is, ‘I would like some noodles please.’
On the first day I sat down and we were served rice for breakfast. I thought, ‘This is so strange. I don’t know if I can eat rice for breakfast. I’ve only ever had cereal or eggs and toast,’ but by the end of the week, I was so excited for breakfast.
I don’t think anything else really phased me that much, apart from cockroaches. I thought I was fine with cockroaches until I moved to China and it turns out that I am scared of them. I have a post on my blog, welltravelledlass if you’re interested in finding out what my first week in China was like.
China work permit
The scariest part about getting a visa in China was the medical check-up. They took some blood, they checked my weight, they did an x-ray. It was crazy but my co-ordinator in China held my hand for the whole process and made sure I was fine. Apart from that, everything for the visa was handled by my school.
In China, I paid for my visa myself but that depends on the school you are working for. Check in the contract if they are going to pay for your visa or if you have to include it in your budget. In Myanmar, I had to pay for my initial visa and then I got a visa after that.
TEFL pay in China
For my first six months in China, I was on an internship. I was given a stipend of about £200 a month, which was cash in hand. That was definitely enough to live on and I managed to save some of that money every month to go on trips within China. I travelled to the Terracotta Warriors and I got to see the Chengdu panda research base, which was why I went to China in the first place.
My wage went up by quite a lot when I went into the second half of my year. I think it was £900 a month. I had a Chinese bank account, which my school helped me to set up. On teacher’s day, I got a bonus of 1,000 yuan and I got a bonus at the end of my teaching contract that I used to travel around China. I know people who are getting paid more and I know people who are getting paid less. It depends on your experience, if you’ve got a degree and if you’re working for a private school or a public school or a language centre.
Say ‘Yes’ to opportunities
My friend took me on the back of her scooter to this little community centre where some experts were playing beautiful traditional Chinese instruments. They filmed me watching and then they said, ‘Now you.’ They sat me down at the bench. One of the experts put his hands on top of my hands and gave me the little stick things to play with. I played this beautiful Chinese instrument horribly. They filmed it and they put it on Chinese TV.
That was one of the best experiences I ever had and going into it I had no idea what was going to happen. When you’re teaching English abroad, opportunities are going to come to you from the strangest places. Be wary of scams but I recommend saying, ‘Yes,’ to everything that seems safe.
TEFL IN MYANMAR
Moving to Myanmar
The placement company in China asked me to email information about my experiences to somebody who wanted to use their services. Afterwards, he said, ‘We have jobs in Myanmar. Would you be interested?’ I said, ‘Yes, that sounds amazing.’ I always wanted to visit Myanmar and go to Bagan which is the most beautiful place.
I had a phone call interview and was invited down to a month-long TEFL course that they had in Thailand so I could get used to the way they did TEFL in their schools. It was one of the most amazing times. We had Thai culture lessons. We got to experience what it would be like to teach in a Thai school. We got cooking lessons. I rounded it out by going to the Full Moon Party in Koh Pha Ngan. That was August of 2018. I went back to China and finished my final six months in China. I arrived in Myanmar in February 2019.
The visa process for Myanmar is so much easier than for China. I needed a letter from the company I was going to be working for and $50. It has to be a pristine $50 note but that was the most difficult part of the whole process. You give that to immigration. They put a sticker in your passport. You go and get your bag and that was it.
Some schools apply to have a six-month visa and some schools will ask you to do visa runs. It depends on your school and how long you are going to be staying.
Teaching in Myanmar
When I arrived in Myanmar, it was so different. In China, I had over 1,000 students. When I came to Myanmar, I had 15 students five days a week. It was amazing. I was able to really build up a connection with them and focus my lessons to their needs. It gradually increased and now I have around 40 to 50 students spread over five classes.
In China my group of foreigners was small. In Myanmar, I am based in Yangon and there is a huge community of expats. One of my favourite things to do in Myanmar is the drink and draw. They give you a canvas and you paint things. It is a great way to bond with your fellow teachers. In China, the only thing I could really do with my friends was go to restaurants.
I am a celiac. In China, I learnt to say, ‘I am allergic to…’ which was really helpful but it was still a little bit scary for me eating out. Getting even the basics for me in China was quite difficult – things like gluten-free cereal and bread. In Myanmar, I have been able to find gluten-free cereal and there is a local baker that does gluten-free bread and gluten-free cookies. It has been great in terms of what I can eat here.
Myanmar runs on Facebook
Everything in Myanmar is run on Facebook, including finding housing. When I got to Myanmar, my housing was provided. This year I got a stipend for housing and finding accommodation in Myanmar is super easy. You go onto Yangon Connections and then Yangon Connections will hook you up with all of the accommodation Facebook pages.
I definitely recommend if you are coming to Myanmar to join the Yangon Connections Facebook group. Whatever you are looking for, you just pop a question in there and it is going to give you the answer. We have found so many things.
Thingyan is amazing
Thingyan is Myanmar’s new year, in April. It’s a massive water fight for the whole of the city. We rented this pick-up truck with some bamboo sticks for us to hold onto, tied to the side. With our phones in waterproof bags, we drove through the town and got sprayed by fire hoses, by other cars driving past throwing buckets over us.
When I say it is a water fight for the whole city, I mean it is a water fight for the whole city. I have never experienced anything like it. I was so sad it had to be cancelled this year. The Myanmar new year is honestly one of the most amazing experiences I have had in my life.
TEFL DURING COVID
I was meant to teach in China from November last year to July this year but because of Covid I couldn’t get back into China. My school terminated all foreign teacher contracts.
My job in Myanmar said that they were still looking for teachers so I hopped on a plane and got back here at the beginning of March. I taught for a week and then everything had to close down because of the coronavirus. We were off for about a month and a half and then we started to open up for our students with online classes.
We started off just teaching basic grammar skills to our young learners and then we opened up listening and speaking for adults as well. Now, we are teaching from the textbooks and we’re also teaching listening and speaking clubs for young learners and adults.
My school actually opened for adults again in August but now we are back in the stay at home order. Some of the rules have been relaxed but bars are closed and restaurants are only open for takeaway. We are pretty much still in lockdown, but it is not called lockdown here. It is called stay at home.
If you have been to Myanmar, you will know that power cuts happen, the internet does not always work. It has been a little bit of a struggle but the students adapted really quickly. I have adapted slowly but I have got there.
Developing TEFL lessons
I create all my lesson plans but some schools will give you lesson plans to follow. When I was in China, I did not have a curriculum. I had a list of topics. I also tried to incorporate in what I learnt from my time in Thailand.
In Myanmar, I find my lesson base from the textbook and then I do extra activities. For example, I just did a whole project with my young learners, studying ocean plastic and the effect that using plastic bags for our shopping can have on the environment. We got to talk to an amazing marine scientist who listened to the hundreds of questions that my students had and took her time to answer every one of them.
Resources depend on your school. In China, I bought coloured paper so my class could make Christmas cards. I created my own little puppets to use in the classroom. I paid for all that myself. Here in Myanmar, we have a budget for resources. Once a semester, we can go and top up everything.
TEFL in Asia
It couldn’t be easier to find a job in Asia once you’ve completed your TEFL. i-to-i have a list of jobs on their website. I follow a few Facebook groups. There’s one called TEFL Jobs in Vietnam which is always advertising. There is such a demand for English teachers in Asia.
Teachers are in their 20s, teachers are in their 30s. I have met teachers in their 40s and 50s. It doesn’t matter what age you are. You just have to come at it with energy. You have to come at it with enthusiasm. You have to come at it with a passion for new cultures, a passion for teaching, a passion for experiencing life. You are more than qualified as long as you get your TEFL.
If you’re going to China, download the app ‘WeChat’. If you are going to Myanmar, make sure you have Facebook. Be open to cultural differences. Asia is probably nothing like the country you are coming from. Be open-minded and ready to experience that. Come to Asia. Come to Myanmar. You will have the time of your life.
TEFL changed my life
So many opportunities come with TEFL that you would not expect. You might end up on Chinese TV. You might end up in a city-wide water fight. You might end up on stage with all your students dressed as pirates fighting a sea monster. Who knows?
You will meet people from all over the world. You will be exposed to cultures that are unlike your own. Teaching English has changed the way I look at the world so much. Not only has it made the world feel smaller, it has changed the way I tackle everything in my day to day life.
Go into teaching English as if it is going to be one big adventure. That is literally what it is. It is the biggest adventure you are ever going to experience.