One of the Best Decisions I Have Ever Made!
When I graduated from college last year as an aspiring teacher, I was hesitant to dive right into full-time work at a U.S. high school. I didn't have a lot of relevant experience, and I feared that the formidable demands on my time and energy, coupled with the steep learning curve, would prevent me from enjoying myself—or worse yet, would cause me to sour on the teaching profession altogether. So, I was overjoyed when I heard about Lanhu, a paid professional opportunity that not only offered a year’s worth of classroom time to sharpen my skills but also carried the promise of adventure in a part of the world that many westerners never have the privilege of seeing. The application process was quick and simple, and from the outset my contacts at Lanhu were sincere and personable, helping to ease my anxieties about what seemed to me a rather drastic life decision. Lanhu placed me at a university in a midsize city, adhering exactly to the preferences I expressed during my interview. Since then, Lanhu’s commitment to my comfort, security, and professional development has never wavered. The speed and cordiality with which the program director has responded to all my messages—which have ranged from simple lifestyle queries to one panicked, late-night plea for help in an unfamiliar train station—has frankly astonished me. More generally, Lanhu’s training and support have been well tailored to shield me from the unpleasantness of culture shock. Lanhu’s weeklong training session, held shortly after my arrival in China, was greatly beneficial as a forum for exchanging and absorbing teaching techniques and cultural coping strategies. But perhaps even more valuably, it allowed me to meet and form bonds with dozens of fellow volunteers stationed around the Hunan province. During that week, I was able to establish a network of friends and colleagues whose warmth has helped to melt away the feelings of loneliness and alienation that naturally emerge when one ventures so far from home. The university where I live and work with my girlfriend—we were able to apply to Lanhu as a couple, which is a rare luxury in the field of TEFL—has been a pleasant home base. The campus is full of water and greenery, and I have been provided with a very livable and spacious apartment. My weekly schedule has been so relaxed that I almost struggle to decide how to spend the wealth of free time it affords me. I teach seven oral English classes per week, with each class comprising about 30 students and lasting 100 minutes. My salary is generous considering the free housing, light workload, and low cost of living. I saved up more than enough money during my first semester of teaching to finance a six-week, 15-city backpacking trip through China, Thailand, and Cambodia during the winter holiday. (I should mention that traveling within China is a breeze thanks to the country’s highly developed railway system.) The university where I work has a small international exchange department dedicated to foreign teachers. Though the department is not always as responsive as I’d like, their kindness is constant, and their assistance has often been vital. When I was first getting my bearings in China, they helped me get a phone plan and open a bank account, and since then they have taken me out to dinner several times. Such generosity (along with a healthy dose of curiosity) has been the abiding attitude toward me among the university’s faculty and students. Despite my woeful Chinese language skills, faculty members did not hesitate to welcome me into a teachers’ basketball league, and students from the debate club convinced me to serve as a judge for one of their competitions. I was cheered on by thousands of people when I ran the 400 meters at the annual student-faculty sports meeting. In fact, I’ve been made to feel like a full-fledged member of the university community in every way except one: I have had virtually zero contact with any of my superiors in the foreign language department. Aside from being delivered a couple of workbooks for each grade level, I have received no indication from my department about what I should teach, how I should teach it, or how I should grade my students. This is evidently not an atypical situation; other Lanhu volunteers have confirmed that many Chinese schools are totally hands-off about foreign teachers’ methods inside the classroom. Initially I was frustrated by the lack of structure, but with time I came to appreciate the freedom, and now I consider it to be essential to the appeal of teaching in China. There are no curricula imposed upon me, no parents or school administrators looking over my shoulder, and no standardized tests looming on the horizon. Though I cannot hope to avoid these necessary evils as I move forward in my career, their absence from this particular job has been like a fast-forward button for my development as an educator. Because I often teach the same lesson to several classes during the week, I am able to experiment with my approach as I see fit, taking note of my missteps and successes to create robust, informed plans for immediate self-improvement. And after eight months on the job, each one a palpable improvement over the last, I can proudly report that signing on with Lanhu Cultural Exchange was one of the best decisions I have ever made.