Chinese kids in a classroom in Nanjing

Advice From an ESL Teacher Who Had No Clue What He Was Doing The First Day of Class

Posted on Posted in Teaching

After talking to students and teachers from Australia, Canada, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Italy, Ireland, and many other countries around the world, I’ve understood that your academic experience is going to be different depending on where you grow up; China is no exception.

Different classrooms and different students require a range of techniques to effectively teach without driving yourself or your students crazy.

Just to re-iterate the title of this post, I went through an orientation in the AYC program about teaching, but I still had absolutely no clue what I was doing at first. It was nerve-racking, downright intimidating, emotionally exhausting, and there was a lot of trial and error.

Now, I get excited about teaching my classes, the students have fun, and I can walk into my classrooms with full confidence and leave at the bell with a smile as they wave and say “goodbye Teacher Jack.”

In my first year of teaching in China, I’ve learned so many new things regarding this work that it is hard to pin them down. I hope that the advice I offer here, to foreigner teachers entering the Chinese classroom for the first time, allows you to have some traction as you begin teaching the first couple months of class.

Just remember, you are not alone in your anxiety and it only gets easier. Much, much easier. Let’s get into it.


It’s all about the environment

You want to start off your classes well? Smile. Laugh. Embarrass yourself a little bit. I introduced myself the first day with a Powerpoint that had awkward baby photos and the students loved it. Just prove to the students you’re human. Try to speak some Chinese (even if its wrong or terrible) because that shows you understand their struggle with English.

Your students will be a lot more willing to try English when they feel comfortable. Also, seeing you make mistakes with their native language lets their guard down.

Jack with a student on sports day



Your students have been taught since day one in primary school that the teacher’s word is law and you don’t question it… ever.  Remind your students every single class that they can ask questions if they are confused or if they need help with an English word. Just make sure they know you are ok with questions and that you WANT them to ask questions.


Who will answer? 

You have to directly pick out a student if you want them to answer a question or speak in front of the class. No one will raise their hand if you ask, “Would anyone like to answer the question?” 

Learning 80 different Chinese names can be a bit difficult so (if they already don’t have them) assign ‘study numbers’ to your classes. If you call out ’21’, you’re asking the student with that number to answer or speak and they will do so.


Critical thinking

One of the most confounding things I’ve noticed in the Chinese classroom is that rote memorization is love, rote memorization is life. They are taught to pass multiple choice tests, not answer open ended, opinionated questions. Students memorize their vocab books and activity logs, but when you ask them to apply that knowledge, you are met with blank stares.

In all of my lessons, there is at least one activity that requires students to speak their opinion about the topic and explain their opinion. Each class they are expected to be called upon with this activity so they remain engaged and are more willing to ask questions. Get them solving problems too.


The chattiness

Students will jibber jabber while you lecture or try to explain an activity. The students don’t talk to personally spite you; get that through your head. Just understand that they only understand 50% (if that) of what you’re saying so their attention can be fickle.

Eventually your students will know not to talk when you are talking (I have a loud, booming voice which helps too). Make sure to establish some type of attention seeking device for when your students are less than respectful and make that device clear. A sharp whistle (works wonders) or three quick claps are effective. If you look intimidating, a silent stare can get the class to quiet down, but you will be met with looks of fear.


Ask your students what they want to learn

I did this with every single class of mine on the first day. Asking students what they want to learn will basically write your lesson plans for you. Different cultures and food, conversational English slang, how to talk to an American girl, U.S. politics and history, English humor, and how to make friends were a few things my students listed.

Obviously I couldn’t teach all of this, but it gives you an idea on what your students expect from you. They’ll respect that you actually took their suggestions seriously and in turn, your lessons will be more enjoyable to them.

Chinese kids making Christmas cards

Remove your “ums” and “likes”

I’m still challenged with this aspect of public speaking, but your ability to teach and lead a classroom will exponentially increase with the less filler words you use. Whenever you use these stallers in your speech, your kids pick up on it which can be a bit frustrating.  Be conscientious of your speech and it doesn’t hurt to write out notes on your PPT or a note card.


Word Choice

So you have graduated college and you use an array of vocabulary to communicate, great! Now that goes out the window when you are teaching a class of 7th and 10th graders who barely know English much less understand you.

Although it may sound – and feel – like you are talking down to your students, make sure you use the simplest of words and talk at 50-75% speed. You just have to gauge your class’s English level to realize what vocabulary you can use to communicate your lessons. Otherwise, your entire lesson will go in one ear and out the other.


Lesson Planning

Plan your lessons ahead of class. It’s much easier going into the week knowing exactly what you are doing each day with all the materials ready instead of scrambling at the last moment. Make sure you make the purpose of the lesson clear to your students so that you are not met with “Why are we doing this?”

  • Preview: Show students what they are going to learn.
  • Presentation: Present the material to them and if you able to, use videos.
  • Practice: Have the students repeat new words, have them do dialogues, have them ask and answer each other’s questions, fill in the blanks, etc.  Just get them using the new information.
  • Production: This is where I have games come into play.  The students enjoy competing and they are using the new information without really realizing it.
  • Performance: Homework, finishing activities, talk to their parents in English using the new words, etc.

An example of a lesson plan


You are the fun class

These kids are at school from 7am-6pm everyday and their study habits are ludicrous. They have no time for creativity or leisure. You’re the class that allows them to participate; they don’t want to passively listen to you.

Ive had success with games that require conversation between classmates, talking about themselves and their interests, or activities that are competitive (e.g. Team hangman, 20 questions, tongue twisters).

Arts and crafts days (use sparingly) allow the students to decompress after a rough midterm week. Monthly show and tells are my bread and butter. Make your students be creative, imaginative, and original.

A Chinese student presenting a PPT


Here are some resources available for ESL teachers: ESL cafe,,, and This advice mainly applies to middle school and high school students, but some of it is applicable to primary school; I just don’t have an experience with primary school children. If you are working with 1st graders, good luck and god speed.


Share your best advice for English as a second language teachers in China in the comments below.
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