Visiting Chris' students in Lianyungang :)

Benefits of ESL Teaching

by Heather on 14 January, 2013

I just finished my first semester teaching ESL (English as a Second Language). After administering and grading 505 final exams, I’m on vacation for the next six weeks. It’s off to Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, and maybe Laos and/or Vietnam in two days. But before I go, I wanted to reflect on the benefits of ESL teaching.

I could easily write a list of ten reasons why you should consider teaching ESL. For instance, its an undercover vacation, not to mention the tax exemptions (something to consider when I think about efiling for next year). But let’s be honest, that list has been written over and over again by the travel blogging community. Instead, I want to tell you about my personal experience teaching ESL in China.


My Oral English students taking a five minute break from writing their bucket lists.

My Oral English students taking a five minute break from writing their bucket lists.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it’s not easy being 10,000 miles away from your family and friends. (And I’m not sure if it gets any easier with time.) What I do know is that teaching ESL is rewarding! It doesn’t make the cold nights warmer or the crappy western food more tasty, but it definitely beats going to sit at a desk and staring at a computer screen for eight hours per day. (I only spend between two and four hours per days working and managing on my website, thank you very much.)

The truth is, I feel very special to be able to teach these students. They’re diverse and interesting. They wave to me and say “hello teacher” when they see me walking around the school. They smile at me and ask me to take a picture with them during class. They laugh at my jokes, even if they don’t understand my jokes. They tell me that I’m beautiful, even when I’m not wearing makeup and I haven’t showered for a day.

Some of them want to learn English. They grasp onto every word that I say. They ask questions. They sit there in amazement at the words that are coming out of my mouth. Those are the students whose names I will remember five years from now. Those are the students who I will miss when I’m no longer on Chinese soil.

Of course, there are students who makes me want to scream and pull out my hair, who come late to my class because they overslept or they were in the bathroom. (You were in the bathroom for twenty-three minutes, I think not.) Those are the students who I try to connect with and talk to, but they aren’t interested in English. They may not even be interested in learning. Sadly, I’ll probably forget those students.

Let me tell you about a few of the students who I will remember:

Dior is one of my Business English students. He’s tall and large-framed (unlike the average Chinese person). He looks like a teddy bear. He’s sweet and kind. When asked to tell me one thing he would include on his bucket list [insert link], he told me that he wanted to donate his organs when he died. And he’s so inquisitive. He asks me a question every day in class. I often end class with, “Do you have any questions?” Silence. “Do you have any questions, Dior?” …and he never fails me.

Newton is a student from one of my Oral English classes. He starts all of his presentations asking a questions to the audience. It makes me smile every time. He also offered to copy and staple 125 copies of my Business English exam for me after taking his Oral English final exam. When I offered him money for the hour of time that he spent helping me, he adamently refused. He said, “In Chinese culture, students do not take money from their teachers.” I gave him a chocolate bar instead. He was so happy to help.


My Business English students taking their final exam.

My Business English students taking their final exam.

Tony is another Oral English student. He won my vote of confidence when he did a presentation on Thanksgiving, then mentioned that many families watch American football on Thanksgiving. He also mentioned the movie The Blindside and talked about how he loved that movie. I smiled and explained that my favorite team was the Baltimore Ravens. (The main character of The Blindside plays for the Ravens.) He further won my appreciation when he told me, “I am so happy to be taught by you. Thank you!” after he finished his final exam.

Sunny is another one of my Business English students. She’s the monitor of Dior’s class. She’s lovely. She always has the computer set up and ready to use when I arrive in class. And she’s always helping me turn everything off when class ends. When I gave her class my email address at the end of our last class, I explained to Sunny that I may not teach them next semester, so they can email me if they want to keep in touch with me. She responded with, “Oh, what a pity. We like you!”


One of my Oral English student's bucket list.

One of my Oral English student’s bucket list.

Paul, another Oral English student, is always willing and happy to help anyone. He once sat with one of his classmates for thirty minutes after class helping them prepare their presentation for the next class. The other student spoke minimal English, so his help was so vital for this student to pass Oral English. (I can’t exactly give thirty minutes of my time to every student when I have 505 students.) Also, when asked to help me read the Chinese instructions on my antibiotic, he read the instructions, then went back to his dorm to research the name of the antibiotic to make sure that he was giving me the correct information. After, he rushed back to my classroom to tell me all about the medicine.

Honest is another Oral English student. When asked to tell me what “home” meant to him during his final exam, he told me that his father was a doctor and his mother was a teacher. He told me that they both worked very hard so that he could go to school. During the semester, he had to miss the first half ¬†of one of my classes for a student union meeting He apologized over and over again. One morning I asked him how his day was going. He said that it was going great. I asked, “Why?” He told me that he was happy because he had my class that afternoon.

Another Oral English student's bucket list.

Another Oral English student’s bucket list.

On the other hand, I have students who aren’t so excited about learning English or about their education.

Ronnie is one of my Business English students. He’s intelligent and he speaks English well, but he’s lazy. He showed up ten minutes late to his final exam. On a three page final, he didn’t write a single word on the second page. I saw him riding his bike after I graded the final exams. He saw me with my luggage, so he asked where I was going. I told him that I was going to Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, etc. He told me that I would have a great time and I agreed. We waved goodbye. He started riding away, but I decided to call his name.

I had to know. Why did he skip the second page of his final? His response: “I planned to make preparations to study for the final, but my friend came over and wanted to watch films last night.” I guess I can respect his honesty. I told him that he was smart and that I was disappointed in him. He replied, “I am so sorry. I swear I will do better next semester.”

I had a few students (whose name have already escaped me) who refused to speak a word during their oral final exam or a few students who were caught cheating during their written final exam. I didn’t want to fail any students this semester, but they left me with no choice.


Visiting Chris' students in Lianyungang :)

Visiting Chris’ students in Lianyungang :)

So, the benefits of teaching ESL:

You improve student’s lives. You give them an invaluable skill (to speak the English language). They listen when you speak this new (and exotic) language. They smile at you. They wave to you. They yell, “Hello teacher,” when they see you. They laugh at your jokes. They want to “make friends” with you. They think you’re amazing and awesome and fantastic!

You meet students who you will never forget. And they say things that you will never forget.

What do you think?
Have you ever taught ESL? What would you say about the benefits of teaching ESL?

Megan January 16, 2013 at 3:08 pm

Hi there,

A friend introduced me to your blog, and I think it’s so awesome that you do what you do! I am currently studying to become an ESL teacher, and I’m just curious about how one goes about teaching ESL abroad, as it has been one of my dreams for a long time to do this. Do you recommend any specific programs to teach with?

Thanks so much!

Heather January 16, 2013 at 10:29 pm

Hi Megan,

I’m really glad that you found my blog. Who introduced you to my blog? I felt the same way about wanting to travel and teach abroad for several years. I finally decided to just go for it last year! Because you’re studying to become an ESL teacher, I’m sure you know that most ESL teaching jobs require a Bachelors degree and some type of TEFL (or CELTA, which is super expensive) certificate. As far as looking for jobs, you’ll have to find a place where you want to move and look at job posting boards. You can also use a recruiting agency to help place you in a job. You asked about specific programs that I use to teach. I don’t use any. I teach Oral English and Business English to university students. The Business English teaching is from a book that the college provided. The Oral English class does not have a book, which means I can talk about anything. At the beginning of the semester, I asked them to pick ideas for lesson. I’ve based most of my lessons around those topics. A few words of advice: speak loudly, slowly, and clearly; be confidence; and smile. Also, make sure your lessons have engage, study, and activate phases; encourage your students to talk and minimize teacher talking time; and be firm at the beginning, then less firm after your students begin to respect you. I hope that helps, even though I couldn’t give you an exact answer to your questions.

Thank you for reading! :)

Ryan March 20, 2013 at 9:30 pm

Ahhh! I cannot wait to get into this. Dying to teach English somewhere in Asia, and I’m hoping to do it by fall! Awesome tat your experience has been great (even though you have those rascally students). Did you get a certificate before hand or use a certain site to find a job?

Heather March 25, 2013 at 2:36 pm

Hey Ryan,
I’ve really enjoyed teaching abroad. In fact, it’s the only thing that I really love about living in China. Is there anywhere specific that you’re looking to teach in Asia? I got my TEFL certification online through I looked at job boards specific to Nanjing, China, but there are plenty of job boards for different areas. I also know that Dave’s ESL Cafe is really popular for ESL teachers looking for jobs.

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