Interview with Alexander O’Hara, China Q & A

PERSONAL PROFILE

What is your name, age and nationality?

My name is Alexander O’Hara. I’m a 22 year-old from the United States.  

What is your education level and background?

I received my undergraduate degree from UNC Chapel Hill in North Carolina. In college, I studied Biology and Neuroscience. I’d like to continue my education in these fields when I return home.

Have you travelled abroad previously, and if so where?

I have some travel experience, but it was mostly in the form of vacationing. I’ve visited the United Kingdom, France, and Italy. I’ve also been to Canada and the Bahamas. TEFL Heaven presented the first opportunity I’ve had to spend an extensive period of time abroad.

What motivated you to teach abroad?

I’ve never had the chance to satisfy my desire to throw myself into a foreign place and culture before this point. The end of undergrad felt like the perfect time to take a step back from the role of the student and try my hand at teaching. I’ve wanted to give something back to the world of education for a long time, and traveling abroad to teach seemed like the perfect way to simultaneously fulfill both of these personal goals.

What did you want to personally achieve during this experience, and have you succeeded?

More than anything, I came here to look for some sense of direction. I wanted to take a step back from the path that I was on back home, and see if that still felt like the path that I belonged on after being immersed in a far–away place. I haven’t been here terribly long in the grand scheme of things, but I already have found some internal peace, and think that the guidance provided by this journey will be incredibly valuable in shaping my future decisions. I also really wanted to be able to make a positive contribution to the educational system in my time here. Education has provided me with structure and direction since childhood, and I’ve come to love learning. I wanted in some way to show the importance of learning to the next generation. Teaching here has allowed me to do that and so much more.

Did you apply for the program with a friend or on your own?

I decided to apply to TEFL Heaven with my girlfriend, who also attended my university. She was also looking to take some time off before obtaining an advanced degree, and had spent some previous time in China. The stories of her past experiences here ultimately helped us decide that this was a place where both of us could meet our unique goals for traveling abroad.

Did you know anyone who had taught abroad before you?

I have a couple of friends of friends who had taught abroad (several through TEFL Heaven), but I knew of no one immediately close to me who had done this before. I was able to ask them a couple of basic questions, but once I had set my sights on China this became my own adventure. I had no real connections to China, but I’ve found the expat community here to be amazing and welcoming. Finding friends is never hard, and there are tons of people who are also looking to make new connections. Meeting new people here is as easy as visiting any of the areas frequented by expats. The Chinese are wonderful and welcoming people, and you’ll find yourself making friends across the language barrier as long as you’re willing to sit down for tea or a meal when you least expect it.

What were some of your concerns before you began teaching abroad?

I’ve come to love learning, but I was unsure if that would translate to an ability to function as an effective teacher. I had some experience in peer mentoring, but to take on a classroom of my own seemed imposing. My TEFL course almost immediately alleviated those fears. By showing us the methodology behind teaching and then offering ample chances to practice our skills in real classrooms, this program quickly established a foundation to teach effectively in myself and in all of my classmates. I was further worried about beginning life in a foreign country, and here my course staff really stood out. They helped with things like opening a Chinese bank account and setting up a cell phone plan. They’d help with translation (all of them spoke some to fluent Chinese as well as English) whenever I asked. They also connected all of my course mates to their alumni network in Shanghai. This proved to be valuable when searching for housing and making new friends.

TEFL PROGRAM INFORMATION

What made you decide to do a TEFL course and choose TEFL Heaven?

I came across TEFL Heaven when considering a variety of programs that I had seen online. I had a friend of a friend who had traveled to Thailand several years previously through TEFL Heaven, and she assured me that it was a comprehensive and trustworthy organization. I spent some time researching them on my own as well, and from the reviews that I found I decided that this was an organization that could help me accomplish the goals that I’d outlined for myself for this trip. I’m glad that it did. TEFL Heaven made the experience as easy as possible, and I felt like I had support at every step of the journey to get here.

What made you choose a face-to-face TEFL course over other options?

My personal educational background has proved to me time and time again that interactive, face to face instruction is the style that best suits my own ability. I’ve taken online or mixed courses in other subjects in the past, and I found the potential for distraction or only engaging halfheartedly with the work to be high. I wanted to learn to teach the right way if I was going to be trusted with my own students, and I knew that for myself that meant learning face to face, with an instructor there to help me with any questions as they arose. I’m glad that I chose this style, because my course ended up being a lot of fun. Getting to teach in schools around Shanghai and learning how to play games and teach in person were a blast, and made the four weeks of training fly by.

Which TEFL program did you do?

I participated in The Shanghai course. The course was comprehensive but incredibly fun and rewarding. They emphasized real teaching practice, and all of my fellow trainees were able to teach between 2 and 5 real classes each week.

What did you enjoy about your TEFL course?

The instructors are all experienced teachers with many years of classroom experience in China under their belts. As such, they were able to tailor this course to being the most effective teacher possible in Chinese schools. The skills they taught translate to classrooms around the world, but I enjoyed this emphasis on how to best work with students from a particular culture that was vastly different from my own. The course was incredibly fun, and we’d often get meals with the instructors and spend time with them outside of course hours learning about all that Shanghai had to offer. Sometimes the course felt demanding, but the skills taught produce highly effective teachers with the confidence necessary to quickly begin teaching their own students in China.

How prepared did you feel for your teaching position?

Teachers in China typically work in one of two environments – the public school, or the language training center. During my course we were able to teach in both settings several times each week. The Shanghai course participates in a volunteer English teaching program in which their trainees offer free English classes to students who otherwise would be unable to afford them. We taught these courses in both public schools around Shanghai and in a training school setting. When it came time to begin applying for jobs I had several classes under my belt in both environments. I elected to apply to training schools, and I felt sound in my decision because I had already spent several weeks teaching in that environment.

How long have you been teaching in China and how long do you plan to stay?

I’ve only been working in Shanghai for three weeks now. It’s been an incredible experience. I’ve already considered stretching my planned one year stay into two years. One year isn’t enough time to fully appreciate a city (much less a country) this big, and I’d like to leave here without any lingering regrets.

How did you secure your English teaching job?

The director of my course, Ginger, has a myriad of connections in Shanghai’s teaching world. He was able to line up multiple interviews of all of my course mates a week before we had completed our training. By the time we graduated, everyone who wanted to immediately begin to work had secured a job. Teaching jobs are abundant in Shanghai, and the team in China offer a variety of channels by which all of their trainees are able to secure one.

What type of school or organisation do you work for?

I’m still considering between two schools, which are both highly regarded in Shanghai.

What does a typical working week look like for you?

I’m more familiar with the training school schedule, as that’s the setting I’ll work in. Teachers in these schools typically work Wednesday – Sunday, with Monday and Tuesday off. Hours range between 3 – 9 PM on the weekdays to 8 – 4 PM on the weekends. More experienced teachers often see their hours reduced to 5 – 9 PM on weekdays with no difference or even an increase in their salary.

What age group or range to you teach?

I’d like to teach kids somewhere in the second to fifth grade range. I’ve tried my hand at teaching adults, but I decided that it wasn’t for me. I love working with the younger children, and often forget that I’m training or working because they make classes so much fun.

What do you most enjoy about teaching your students?

One of my personal goals in coming to Shanghai was to help instill a love of learning in a younger generation. I think that working with the younger kids is the perfect opportunity to do this. Not only are they fun, but they tend to genuinely want to learn English and learn about you. Their enthusiasm is authentic, and seeing them grow as students right in front of you is a highly rewarding experience. You can play games with any age group, but playing games to help students of this age learn is both effective and a blast. I’ll say it again. When you have a class you enjoy teaching, work becomes what you look forward to that day.

How did you get your work visa?

I came to Shanghai with my criminal background check and university diploma authenticated. I advise that everyone begin this process several months in advance of their arrival date. It takes a long time, and is necessary to secure a teaching position. Once I was here, my course director was able to send my documents to the schools I was interested in. The schools finish the process of acquiring a work visa.

How did you find somewhere to live and what is it like?

Finding an apartment in Shanghai was actually one of the easiest tasks I’ve undertaken. After talking to my course directors and course alumni I had a general idea of which areas had higher expat populations, and I decided that I’d look for housing in these districts. Online forums like SmartShanghai feature an abundance of housing listings. I was able to quickly form a list of possible apartments, and after visiting several I decided on one and signed the next day. A word of advice – the turnover rate for apartments here is very fast, and so if you do see a place that you like make sure you let the agent, current lease holder, or landlord know ASAP before someone snags it from you.

COUNTRY INSIGHT

China is a fascinating place. I’ll begin with the food, which is incredible. Authentic Chinese food is very different from the Chinese food I was accustomed to in the US, and I say this in the best way possible. Nearly everything I’ve tried has been delicious, and Shanghai has such a high density of restaurants that there’s always something new to try.

The culture is vastly different from the United States, but it isn’t incompatible in anyway. I’ve had a great time visiting museums and interacting with as many people as a I can to learn more about Chinese culture and history. One time I was invited to take tea by a total stranger who’s shop I happened to be in at traditional tea time. He brewed the tea in front of me and then we communicated using translation apps on our phones and hand gestures, and we managed to actually put a conversation together. Transportation is easy, as Shanghai has one of the most extensive metro systems in the world. There are also bikes everywhere, and apps you can install on your phone that let you use these public bikes for a very small fee. 

The expat community is very welcoming, and I’ve had no trouble making new friends. Whether you want to spend the night out or just grab dinner and a drink, you’ll quickly be able to find someone who will go with you.

What are your monthly expenses?

Rent: 3000 rmb/month (453 USD)

Food: 400 rmb/week  (60 USD)

Other bills: 200 rmb/month (30 USD)

Social life: 200 rmb/month  (30 USD)

Transportation: 50 rmb/month (7 USD)

Phone: 100 rmb/month (15 USD)

Other costs: Generally negligible

Would you say you are able to live comfortably on your monthly salary?

Absolutely. Teachers in China are fortunate enough to be highly sought after, and are paid salaries higher than many native Chinese. Living expenses are generally low here, and depending on the type of housing you seek you’ll find yourself saving far more money than you spend in nearly every situation.

 ADVICE FOR PROSPECTIVE ENGLISH TEACHERS

What advice would you give someone thinking about teaching abroad, and would you recommend teaching English in China?

Teaching abroad has thus far been the most amazing experience of my life. To be able to live comfortably in a very different country and work a job that rarely feels like actual work is an experience that I’d recommend to anyone. Shanghai is a massive, thriving place. It was intimidating at first, but the best way to become familiar with it is to go out, walk around, meet people, and make an effort to get your bearings. I’ve already begun to learn some basic Chinese phrases just from everyday encounters, and I guess I look confident enough now to have other Western tourists asking me for directions to various landmarks. I wasn’t sure if I could make it in a massive city like this. I want to tell anyone who is considering it to take that leap of faith and come. I haven’t regretted it for a second.

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