My First Week Teaching in China

I had very little knowledge of Chinese culture or what I would likely encounter, before arriving in Shanghai. After a couple of years working in an under-resourced school in Eastern Europe, I was sifting through options for my next move and saw an advertisement for jobs with Disney in their English centers around the country. I was amazed by the content and the technology that was available to their instructors. I suppose, looking back, I was seduced into the position by the promise of pre-made visual aids, showtune karaoke, and interactive whiteboards, but unlike most seductions, the Chinese classroom with Disney really delivered a high-value experience.

Arriving in Shanghai

I was flown to Shanghai from San Francisco and after a half a day was in the airport in Pudong. I was picked up by a man, who I now do not recollect at all, who had my name on his plastic plaque and delivered me to a hotel near Zhongshan Park.

It was evening, and my first ride through the city amazed me. All the lights were UFOs to me, the buildings were wonderfully weird shapes, and the overpasses for some reason got me reminiscing over Batman films, I guess because Gotham City was my default reference for shadowy mega-cities. I was tired, but genuinely in awe.

Onboarding and Training

The next morning, I woke up to a phone call to meet an onboarding group in my hotel. I met around thirty other new teachers, who Disney apparently trains in big batches. We waded through HR’s paperwork together, banded in small groups or pairs to go apartment hunting, and made sure to stay on schedule with our trainings which took the greater part of the first days.

During these training sessions, teachers learned a lot about how to use classroom technology and other aids, and they could practice their skills after observing the current teacher’s classes.

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Each class starts with turning on the projector, knowing how to find the correct content in what seems like thousands of files, re-aligning the touch-screen on the whiteboard, and finding the correct props from a room full to the brim with toys, puppets, and any other everyday object you can think of. After that, there are trademarks everywhere. Disney has its own content, songs, methods, and magic tricks, and while teachers are encouraged to put their own spin on what is provided, there is more than enough to follow in each assigned lesson without having to think of extra activities or ways of teaching the targets.

Training to assess students were also provided and they have their own procedures to ascertain student entry-level and a way to assess students individually and as a group using electronic hand-held controls.

My first day of teaching

After some days of training, I had my first teaching day in an actual center. Most of the centers are located inside of large malls. I felt very nervous, but somehow having people just walking by and having the food court smells outside wafting in, made me feel like I was just out for errands. The lobby of the center is called a clubhouse, and there are tables for coloring and tv screens showing cartoons as kids wait for their sessions.

On my first day, I taught only three classes. My students ranged the whole gamut of the acceptable range for their courses from 3-14 years old. The older students were immediately friendly and forgave small mistakes as I figured out technical things. With the younger kids, I had the help of a Chinese Assistant, who took care of little accidents, spills, and helped me navigate bathroom breaks. I quizzed kids with flashcards, played lots of games, sang and made them sing, made recordings of our singing, and gave them stickers on their way out.

Settling in to life in China

The teaching itself was probably the most predictable thing about those days, and for that, I really appreciated my employer. If you aren’t used to using a complex subway system and following signs through huge transfer areas, that will feel different and alternatingly exhilarating and frustrating. There are some places in the city where a line change could take more time to walk than ten city blocks.

You may also see people throw up in trains, change their baby’s diapers there, or suddenly realize you are sitting next to an exotic animal. Around my fourth day in the city a man entered my car with a large tortoise on what looked like a cat’s leash. Expect some oddities on your commute and plan accordingly and give yourself ten extra minutes to pick up egg tarts or bubble tea.

I did not begin to feel a routine taking shape until I was in the city for many weeks. It takes at least a few weeks to find an apartment, then the best drunken noodles on your street, then potential friends.

In the first week, I narrowed the world down to the classroom and how to get there, and made sure I understood that before I took on more of my mall, street, or the rest of the city. When I got some rest over my first Tuesday-Wednesday weekend, I put on a blindfold I’d used in a class activity and slept for fourteen hours or so. I think this was as good a strategy as any.


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