14 Notes on teaching English in a Chinese university, in the middle of a quiet burnout and impending unemployment

1.  Two weeks ago I renewed my gym membership, which I had let lapse about six months ago.


Work in pairs, please


Sometime last Autumn, I had  figured that the five flights of stairs I had to climb 8 or so times a day between classroom and office were enough to keep me going through winter, combined with the 5km or so I walked whilst monitoring in the classroom, and the 40 or so minutes I walked to and from work during my commute . I carried a pedometer in the classroom as a clock. I averaged 12,000 steps during a six-hour teaching day, not including my commute.  In spite of this inadvertent regular workout, I still felt drained, exhausted,  and my trapezoidal muscles hadn’t been unclenched in years. My spinal column clicked.

Just after I found out that my job was probably going to disappear at the end of June, I decided that I needed to address my clicky back, my chronic insomnia, my taut trapezoidals, my general feeling of physical malaise.  If my life was going to go up in flames, at least I’d try to salvage my health along the way.  So, I rejoined my gym.

This post is not about the gym though. If I wanted to talk to you about running, I wouldn’t have dragged teaching into it. This is a post about teacher burnout. About what it feels to be somewhere in the middle of your own burn out.

2.  At the gym, I try to do about an hour on the treadmill, just to get the kinks out and to exhaust me enough so I can hopefully get some sleep at night.

I haven’t slept more than 4-5 hours a night since we moved to Shanghai over two years ago.  An hour on the treadmill is a tedious endeavour which I mask with podcasts I’ve downloaded. I’m currently midway through a lecture series from Stanford University’s history department (20th Century US Civil Rights Movement). It’s a video podcast, filmed in an actual classroom, in an actual course.  And this is where the teaching part comes in.

3.   For an hour, several times a week, I watch a teacher walk into a classroom, calmly, methodically.

He greets his class. The classroom is quiet, except for the few students who reply to his greeting. He starts immediately. He elicits ideas and concepts from the previous lecture. A few students put their hands up and give well thought out answers. Most of the time he lectures, telling stories and reinforcing the sense of place and context. The students take notes. Using pens that they had brought. In notebooks that they had brought. Pins drop with a thud.  For an hour, the lecturer speaks, occasionally elicits and gets at least one or two replies. At the end of the hour he thanks them and bids them goodbye.

If you are a teacher, this is possibly a wonderful moment of pure fantasy.


4. I’ve been teaching since the beginning of 2002, so I am currently somewhere in my 9th year.


Kids go Vegas


I had already had a massive burn out in 2006 in Turkey, after my year teaching at a university in Istanbul. That burn out led me to not renew that job (although it was an excellent job in many respects), to sell all my stuff, to give up my flat, to book a flight home, to research warehouse positions at the Vancouver Ikea. I wanted to stop having to use my brain.

I was so fried from trying to manage huge classes of barely motivated and painfully wild 18 year olds that I spent a lot of my weekends dreading Monday. I was drained- emotionally, mentally, physically. Just walking down the hallway at school, passing by the loud, rowdy clusters of kids made tired. Entering the classroom and trying to get (much less maintain) control exhausted me.

I was responsible for the behaviour and performance of 26 kids in each class. Things were thrown. Things were lit on fire. Threats were made (not by me). Kids would get up and walk around and talk. Mobile phones were out and used.  The noise level could be painful if not carefully controlled. Those 26 kids usually didn’t give a shit. I had to give a shit. It was my job.  You couldn’t turn your back on them or else you’d lose them. That made writing on the board a challenge- how to face them and monitor them whilst still writing legibly without watching what you’re writing.

I quit that job, didn’t go back to Canada as I had planned, but went on to teach adults in companies and then spent a year getting fat sitting at a desk as academic director of an Istanbul language school.  Adults were much easier.


5.  In China, the situation has been quite different.


Bribery has no effect on your grades


For the past two and a half years, I have been teaching in 2 Australian joint venture university programs.  These kids are doing part of their degree here and, if they get good enough grades, will continue in, say, Melbourne or wherever.  You’d think that this would be a relatively painless teaching position: university level classes not teaching EFL but rather EAP- basically, academic English skills like essay writing and presentation giving and note taking and critical reading– to students who will need these skills in the immediate future. You’d think.


6. My students here are quite polite and quite quiet compared to the chaos of Turkish classrooms.


They won stuff for being brilliant.


I like my students here. I don’t automatically gird my loins when I enter the classroom as I had to when I was, say, teaching 35 Turkish ten year olds. I do, however, often wonder why I even try.

I am fairly certain that it’s a coping mechanism on the kids’ part. They are able to shut down so thoroughly in class that it feels at times like I could be teaching the walls, or a room full of the undead, or a sack of root vegetables.  Questions are left hanging in midair, unanswered.  Even when called on by name, there is often dead silence. The passivity is so thorough that it is palpable.

About 30% of the kids are actively engaged in learning at any given time (more in my better class, fewer in my weaker class) and the other 70% are deep inside their own heads. I want to know how to get them out. I’ve struggled for two years to find ways to spark their interest, to get ideas flowing, to actively turn on their curiosity switches. Some kids have responded brilliantly. Most have retreated even more deeply into their quiet absence. Their passivity is so thorough and full-bodied that it actually seems tiring to maintain.  Surely they’re struggling to contain at least a glimmer of interest! Surely!


7. No pens, no books, no note paper, no dictionary.


Staring at the desk, staring at their hands, staring at the glow of their phone, which they’ve hidden quite visibly between their knees, playing Angry Birds. If there was a clock in the room, it would be stared at. My voice is tuned out. Questions are studiously unheard. Instructions are disregarded, ignored, unfollowed.


8. The ways my kids have avoided work whilst trying to look as though they hadn’t:


brought the wrong book (say, Chinese Law or last year’s IELTS reader) but carefully opened it to the page or unit I specified fr a totally different book; kept an electronic dictionary open to the search page as if about to search for a word…for 90 minutes; holding a pen with no actual ink cartridge poised above a notebook as if about to write but with no actual intention to do so (because there is no ink)


9. In my weaker class, I sometimes wonder if anyone would notice if I stepped out and never came back. 


In my stronger class, I let out a sigh of relief because I know that I will at least be able to talk to about half of them and be certain of a reaction and a reply.


10.  My kids can be hilarious.


Jay, Jerry, Hu and DL rewrite Cinderella


There are days when we barely stop laughing.  The class monitor in one group was re-named the Class Monster and a million monster jokes arose from this.

One of the boys has marvellously poofy hair and was nicknamed chrysanthemum because he resembled one from behind.

Another boy’s surname is Hu and we have had an endless stream of Hu’s On First jokes all year.

We did a lesson on injuries at one point (thank you, Cutting Edge Pre Int) and the kids wanted to know how to describe every possible variation on fractures, sprains, mutilations and amputations.

They have quizzed me at length  on how to say the word bathroom at every level of politeness and spent a month alternating their requests to go: Teacher, may I go take a leak? Teacher, I would like to powder my nose. Teacher, gotta piss. Teacher, may I be excused to use the facilities?


11. I really like my kids.


Even Santa’s good for a laugh


I can honestly say that I like all of my students on an individual basis. Some of them I will miss terribly when I leave.  They are kind people. They are, generally, intelligent people. They have good hearts. Some of them try so hard my heart aches for them. Some don’t, but I like them anyway, even when they sit like lobotomised bricks at the back of the room.

I see each group for 9 hours a week, for 34 weeks a year.  In this program, I am the only teacher.  We’re tight, we’re focused. There is no dilution.


12. One of my students last year named himself Blue and I spent 8 months restraining myself from referencing Joni Mitchell whenever I spoke to him.


One boy illustrates his name on essays with seasonal and topical themes


Hey Blue, here is a song for you. Another boy came out to me in a very moving, deeply personal end of term essay and never mentioned it again. One very bright and sweet boy started crying during a speaking exam because he was so stressed out and worried about his abilities and confessed that he had done terribly in high school because he was terrible at rote memorization and was tired of being a disappointment to his family. Another boy is mostly deaf but still tries to read my lips in class.

After a particularly rough day, I once complained to the classroom teacher that the kids were painfully apathetic and that I was at wit’s end and would cry if they did it again (a sarcastic threat that didn’t translate well into Mandarin). An hour later, three of my best, kindest boys came to my office and apologized on behalf of the class, pleading, ‘Don’t cry teacher! We love you! We do!”


13. My kids spend about twenty hours a week sitting on hard wooden benches (very Little House on the Prairie), in unheated, un-air-conditioned classrooms.


They’re smart and won full scholarships


Even though they are averaging twenty years of age, they’re still treated like junior high school children by the strict and all-knowing classroom teachers.  If they don’t come to class, she goes to their dorm and drags them out of bed. She calls their parents if they are lazy or naughty or academically slack.


14. Every year that I teach, I think about quitting.


Every time that it comes time to quit, I back out and continue teaching.  I really don’t know what’s going to happen after June this year.  I’m thinking of taking an intentional sabbatical to get my head together. I need to spend more time with words and language that isn’t mangled and filled with mass-dispensed cliches.


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About MaryAnne

I live in Hanoi. I used to live in Shanghai (hence this blog's title) but I left in 2013. I tend to travel. I cook stuff. I read a lot. I try to scare myself silly with regularity. I write about it all. A lot.