Nick Barrett ’19 was a History and Economics double-major at Saint Anselm College whose senior thesis in the History Department’s research seminar was about the impact of World War II on the Maine lobster industry. Barrett is now about as far away from Maine as one can be—he’s been teaching English in Shenzhen, China, since late August. One Thing after Another was intrigued by Barrett’s story, so this blog decided to ask him some question about his unusual experiences.
Q: What grade level of students do you teach English to? What level of language proficiency would you say your students leave your class with?
A: I teach 7th and 8th grade Oral English. I see each class once every two weeks, and I teach 12 classes a week. Each class has roughly 50 students. In total, I teach 1200 students. The level of English in every class varies greatly from student to student, and so I am working on making sure that students can recognize certain conversational English words. I make sure that students use their English in class, and I speak no Chinese, so I only use English during the class. Ideally, my students understand what I am saying to them and are able to respond correctly and coherently.
Q: What is the most challenging part of your job?
A: The sheer number of students I have is fairly daunting. Luckily, I do not have to give homework, quizzes, or exams, but because I have 1200 students, I have a hard time developing a relationship with them. I am a novelty to them, and they all enthusiastically yell “Hello!” as I walk by, but I cannot even begin to learn all of their names and understand the best way to handle each individual student. It’s hard to see progress in your students when you teach this way, so I do feel a little frustrated. My Chinese teachers claim my students are making progress, and that talking with me does allow them to become more proficient in their spoken English — a skill that is becoming more and more important in China.
Q: Why did you want to teach in China, and when did you make the decision? Would you want to teach anywhere else or teach any other subject?
A: China was really my best offer. I did not explore the ESL market much, and I have learned that the traditionally large ESL markets such as South Korea, Japan, and the Czech Republic are becoming saturated; job security and wages are precarious. Countries such as China and Vietnam are becoming more popular for ESL teachers because of increased opportunities and wages. I also welcomed the opportunity to work in China, as it is the second largest economy in the world and a basic understanding of the culture and Mandarin would not hurt future employment opportunities.
Q: How did you become an English teacher in China? What qualifications were required?
A: The process was fairly simple. I signed a contract with SeaDragon Education in March 2019. I then had to complete an online TEFL course to become certified in teaching ESL in a foreign country. After that, I had a few hoops to jump through to get a working visa, but my company aided me with the whole process. SeaDragon Education also found me a school to work in (they facilitate the placement and payment of foreign teachers throughout Shenzhen) well before I got there—which is not always the case for foreign teachers. When I got to China in the last week of August, I quickly found an apartment, had some basic teacher training, met with my school, and taught my first class the following week.
Q: Are there any interesting stories pertaining to your classes or your life in China that you would be willing to share?
A: One of the more interesting parts about my life here is how international my friends are. I have friends from all over the globe, all of whom are ex-pats and foreign teachers. The community of foreign teachers is large and allows us all to support each other because we are all, well, foreign. Some of the normal conveniences we enjoy at home are not available here here, and being able to hop on WeChat (the Chinese messenger app) and send a message to a huge group of teachers and instantly receive feedback is incredibly helpful. You can find answers to questions ranging from simple things like how to use a certain delivery service to something as complex as what hospital to go to in case of an emergency. I also have many Chinese friends whom I have met at school. They speak very little English, but we play in a teacher’s basketball league together so I have become fairly close with the teachers who play. They, too, are a great resource if I ever have any questions about how to get by.
Q: Why did you decide to become a history major? How has this helped prepare you for your current vocation?
A: I had 8 credits from my AP history courses when I came to Saint A’s, and I have always enjoyed History, but I also knew I wanted major in Economics. Instead of choosing between the two, I decided to do both. And it didn’t hurt that the History and Economics & Business departments are in the same building. I also wanted to be sure I knew how to analyze and present information effectively which is a major part of my job here. I explain concepts to students who do not speak the same language as I do, so I have to research creative ways to explain the concepts and then implement them effectively in the classroom. I also do a decent amount of writing with lesson planning, so the basic skills I learned in history classes really help me with writing my lesson plans. I also believe that being a History major in a foreign country is a huge advantage, since learning about new cultures and what drives them was already a major part of my education. You appreciate the culture more if you know the history of it. Living abroad, I get to experience a new culture up close and personal, not through explanations in textbook or a monograph.
Q: What do you plan to do afterwards?
A: I have no plans. I have the option to renew my contract here after the current school year, but I have not thought that far ahead yet.