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My Journey to Professionalism in Teaching

Having read the 2018 winter issue of ChinaSource Quarterly, “Teaching in China,” a teacher with years of China experience responds with her story of how she grew as a teacher. 

Before I made the decision to move to China, I had visited twice before–once on a short-term trip to volunteer in English camps, and the second time on a semester-long study abroad program in university. Each time I went to China, I fell more in love with the delicious food, the fascinating culture, and the kindness and openness of the people I met. My experiences in China and the Lord’s prompting convinced me that China was the place I should build my adult life.

Yet I faced one problem. As a young adult, fresh out of undergraduate school, I had no idea how visas worked. During my previous trips to China, other people took care of visa applications and living arrangements for me. As I began to research how to move to China on my own, I discovered that work visas are not just handed out with no questions asked. I found out that if I wanted to get a job in China, then I needed to show that I could do that job better than a local person could do it; otherwise, the government would not grant me a visa.

I hadn’t planned on teaching. Although I love English and had even majored in English literature at university, I didn’t like public speaking. I am quite introverted, preferring small groups and one-on-one interactions. The thought of standing in front of a room full of students was too intimidating.

I tried to find other methods of moving to China, but none were suitable. I didn’t have the qualifications to work in a business, even though I had done that after graduation before moving to China. Neither did I have counseling credentials, a path I felt the Lord might be leading me into as a career. And I didn’t have the desire to raise funds to go as a full-time language student.

In the end, I decided that I would give teaching a try. I had the qualifications needed to work as a teacher in a smaller university in China, but I had no intention of remaining a teacher long term. I assumed that as I studied the Chinese language and built connections while teaching, I would then be able to go on to another, more preferable profession.

I never considered that, as Bradley Baurain points out in “Professionalism and Witness in TESOL,” “to use TESOL merely as a means to an end disrespects our learners, the learning process, and the gift of language.”

That being said, I did take my new job as a teacher seriously and tried to prepare as best I could. I asked others who had taught in China for advice and I spent time looking through my old notes from university for teaching ideas.

The first time I stood in front of a class, I was terrified and sweating buckets. When I look back on that first semester of teaching, I remember so many mistakes that I made. Most of those mistakes were out of ignorance—ignorance of teaching practices and about my students’ perspectives and experiences.

Over time, the students began to teach me, pushing me to pursue excellence and professionalism in my teaching. They would ask for models of the work I expected from them, to give them more written feedback, and to explain the differences between various IPA[1] symbols in English pronunciation. One student was shocked when I told her that most Americans don’t learn IPA. They might have seen it in dictionaries, but they really don’t know how to read it.

My students would respond saying, “Really? But how could you learn how English should sound?” My answer, “Well, we just pick it up as we go along!”

To my surprise, counseling opportunities came up with my students. One student often stayed after class to ask for advice about getting along better with her parents. My experience aligned with what Rose Heng and Henry DeYoung mentioned in “Introducing Modern Chinese Education” about Chinese students usually liking teachers from the West.

I found that my students were touched by the personal attention that I gave them. Like Grace Haynes, I took photos of each student on the first day of class so that I could memorize every name and face. Although my students didn’t know, I prayed for each of them by name as I compiled my class attendance lists, a practice that I still continue every semester.

Eventually, I realized that my heart had changed and I actually did want to pursue TESOL as a career. I joined an online master’s in TESOL program. During that time I was mentored by other foreign teachers in China, and I absorbed everything I could to become the professional teacher that my students deserved.

Although I don’t recommend that young people move to China following my method, and sometimes I regret that I didn’t start studying education before I moved to China, I do see God’s hand at work in my journey. Had I majored in education earlier on, I may have grown disillusioned with it before arriving in China, or I may have decided to stay in my home country as a teacher. I am grateful for the way that God shaped my career path and used the students I’ve had in China to teach me as much as—if not more than—I have been able to teach them.

The ideal scenario might be that we set out knowing that we want to be professional teachers with a commitment to staying in China long term and continuing in a long-term teaching role. However, I want to encourage those who may be uncertain and wanting to take a leap of faith in going to China. If you remain open to the Lord’s plan and truly engage in the work of teaching, understanding that students and colleagues are taking note of your efforts, you may find that God changes your heart as he did mine.

Image credit: Hainan Medical College by Anna Frodesiak via Wikimedia Commons
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G. L. Parker

G. L. Parker (pseudonym) has taught English in university and international school settings in China over the past decade.View Full Bio

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