Language Moments – My Experience Teaching English in Shanghai

My first year of teaching English in Shanghai seems so long ago. The chaos of 40 kids early in the morning screaming and running around ready to bash each other’s heads in was a huge test of patience for me. I wasn’t assigned a Chinese teacher assistant so I was on my own. After one class was done I had three more! 160 students this early, definitely requires coffee. After the semester progressed so did the behavior and we all were happy campers.

Best student holding up a “WAIT!” sign for note taking. When finished the other side says, “GO!” Talk about being focused.

The trick was beta testing what lessons worked and fixing which ones didn’t then using them for other classes. Also, including entertaining and relevant media and using that as an incentive to behave was key. The kids would end up self-policing by yelling out “dian ying!”/电影(literal translation, electric shadow, aka movie) If you don’t be quiet we won’t be able to watch the short movie at the end of class! Showing my 4th graders the Google timelapse of the Earth from 1984-2012 was a great experience, especially seeing their reaction when Shanghai came up.

Some of the kids at my other school weren’t easily persuaded so a different approach had to be taken.

Taught my students about the armless painter Huang Guofu from Chongqing who lost his hands from an electric shock incident at the age of 4. Had them draw dolphins using only their mouths. When the kid in the picture dropped his pen on the floor he tried to use his hands to pick it up. When I confronted him and jokingly said not use your hands, he proceeded to get down on his knees with his hands behind his back and pick it up off the dirty floor with his mouth while the rest of the class groaned out in disgust. Perseverance, character, and self-discipline were learned that day.

Coming into class I’m bombarded with students rushing over to hug me or pet my arm hair or beard. They find this strange because mostly all Chinese aren’t hairy. So after feeling like a pet animal I’ll yell at them to have a seat, it’s “zuo er jin you er chu”/ 左耳进右耳出 (left ear in, right ear out). The students will come up to my desk and shove their books in my face to show me that they completed their homework. After taking some time to settle everyone down then the class can begin.

I’ve always made it a habit remembering my student’s names. Even if they’re weird. For example, Cherry, Apple, Orange and every fruit you can think of, T-Rex, Seven, Heaven and Boss, to name a few. The names aren’t serious but I can’t quite take an adult seriously when they still hold on to a name like Mango or Watermelon. You know who you are. I didn’t have a proper Chinese name and instead picked “zhou long xia/周龙虾”, my logic was that the first character sounded like “Joe”, “long” means dragon (the year I was born) and together “long xia” means dragon shrimp or crawfish, one of my favorite foods. When the students started laughing at my name I made it a point that their names were just as funny. And that was that.

Sometimes the students after class will rush up to the blackboard, use the chalk and draw stuff or show off what English words they can spell. “Steve Jobs” and “iPhone” are common.

Here’s one of my favorite students trying to insult me. “Joe is gril” (supposed to be “girl”) Spellcheck little dude!

I had spent some time drawing a picture of a house on the chalkboard. The lesson for the day was learning “parts of a house”. When I was finished and we went over last week’s vocab, I proceeded to erase. Eric yells out, “No! Don’t do that! Take a picture with your phone.” When I asked, “Why?” He replied, “because it’s BEAUTIFUL!”

Beautiful is the right word. I’ve had a blast teaching in Shanghai and would highly recommend it to anyone.

Joseph Pallante
Joseph Pallante
An avid traveller, Joe enjoys spending time exploring the New Zealand countryside. In his spare time, he travels around in his campervan, writes about nature and how to live a frugal and sustainable lifestyle.

Similar Articles



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Most Popular