Q&A Interview with Sophie Digby for TEFL Heaven China

Interview with Sophie Digby, China Q & A


What is your name, age and nationality?

My name is Sophie Digby, I have recently turned 21 and I am from Plymouth towards the south west of England. My nationality is British.

What is your education level and background?

I finished University in June of this year (2017), and will be graduating with an upper second-class honorary degree in Special Educational Needs from the University of St Mark and St Johns (Plymouth Marjons) in October. I have previously completed three a levels, four AS levels and 11 GCSEs from A*- C, Including Maths and English.

Have you travelled abroad previously, and if so where?

I have travelled a lot with friends: I have done New York to Florida and rented a RV to complete the west coast of America. I have done a lot of Europe with my family: France, Germany, Spain, Turkey, Bulgaria, Prague, Poland, Italy, and the Netherlands. This year once I completed my degree,  my best friend and I were lucky enough to back pack around Thailand and Bali, which was my first time coming this far east in the world!

What motivated you to teach abroad?

Since I was younger I always knew I wanted to teach therefore all of my education has been based on working towards that goal. From being lucky enough to travel and see a lot of the world I caught the travel bug and want to travel, unfortunately due to being a student I didn’t have the funds to be able to travel freely and to complete everything on my bucket list. I decided to pair my love for teaching and travel together to be able to fully immerse myself in a new culture, something which traveling only shows you a bit of: living in a new country shows you a lot more of that place and culture.

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

Personally for myself it was proving how strong, independent and spontaneous I could be. During university and travelling I have always lived at home or with people I knew so always felt comfortable but a little bored of not having any challenges and undertaking the same routine. I have already succeeded in my experience and still have so much further to go with my personal development. Moving across the world where I knew a few names but not the people or faces was the biggest challenge of my life, away from my family, friends and home comforts but it has been the best and most exciting decision I’ve ever made and do not regret any of it. I have developed into a stronger person and have become so independent living in my own apartment, working an incredible teaching job where I plan and teach my own lessons and am always spontaneous with my travelling and plans outside of the job.

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

I applied for the program completely by myself, I didn’t even tell any of my family or friends to start off with. I had finished my degree, interview and had two places to start my masters in the following September which I knew I wasn’t ready to do just yet. I applied for the TEFL course as another option that ‘might’ happen but gave me another path to follow. It was only when I had an interview with the TEFL Heaven team that I told my parents, it seemed like such a perfect course for myself that I almost thought it was to good to be true and wouldn’t ever happen. They fully supported me and told me to delay my masters and do something for myself, to take a break from education and to see the world whilst I can.

Did you know anyone who had taught abroad before you?

One of my teachers when I was in secondary school told me about undertaking a TEFL course and teaching abroad and it sounded like a dream. At that time I was so young and still had many years of education left that I just pushed the thought to the back of my head, it was only when I had a break in between courses and found myself getting bored of the same routine I took the leap and I do not regret it.

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

My concerns were money, the anticipated culture shock, not knowing anyone and finding somewhere to live. I did get a bit stressed but with the support of TEFL Heaven and being put in contact with the trainers and people on my course, my nerves were settled making me more and more excited to undertake the challenge as it was getting closer. This was where I learned how strong I was and how spontaneous I needed to be, there was always going to be somewhere for myself to live and with how quickly things move in Shanghai I knew I didn’t have to worry as I would always find somewhere.


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

The urge to travel became super strong after coming back from travelling Thailand and Bali, I knew then if I was to continue with my masters that I would not enjoy it and the idea of travelling would also distract me. I was lucky that I didn’t have anything to tie me down, I completed university, was living with my parents so didn’t have a house and was in between jobs due to just finishing university so had the freedom and ability to be able to move to another country. I chose TEFL Heaven after doing a lot of research into the different courses and what I could get out of them, the opportunities presented, the support received and from other peoples experiences of the company. TEFL Heaven seemed the best company by far, was all positives and ticked all of the boxes I needed in order to feel supported and confident about undertaking the course.

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

The practical experience. Undertaking any other course or the online version, yes was cheaper but seemed really impersonal. My learning style means I like to be doing things, applying the theory to a more practical side of learning so that I remember it and it doesn’t just go in one ear and out the other. Being able to have experience in planning lessons and to be able to teach a variety of different lessons to different age groups was so so so helpful for my teaching practice. Even with teaching experience from the UK, the teaching of a foreign language is a whole new experience due to not having the ability to explain something in English, learning to be clear and precise and being able to reflect on my practice was valuable.

Which TEFL program did you do?

I undertook the 120-hour classroom TEFL course based in Shanghai.

What did you enjoy about your TEFL course?

I enjoyed a lot of the course, the instructors made the lessons so much fun. Even the more boring content, which is crucial to know, was put across to us in a fun way, with my group we were laughing and that worked so well for all of us. I enjoyed teaching in the training school and appreciate the experience of teaching in the public school as I got a lot out of undertaking the challenges, most positive and negative. I really enjoyed observing other teachers and fellow classmates as everyone had different teaching styles and we learned a lot from it.

How prepared did you feel for your teaching position?

I felt really prepared for my teaching job, the TEFL course was so well thought through that I observed, planned and taught a variety of different topics, ages and content in both training schools and public schools. This allowed for practice, opportunities to observe and time to reflect on what went well and what could be different for next time. As well as this it meant I had loads of lesson plans done for the curriculum used in China meaning I had some lessons which just needed to be adapted slightly, I knew how to write a lesson plan, how to lay it out and how to plan one using the curriculum which would save a lot of time. As cliché as it may sound practice does make you better and due to having so much practice, which did scare me at first, my teaching and lesson planning improved so much and I felt comfortable in front a small and large class of children, which has really helped me when I first got my teaching job.

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

I have been teaching at my job in Shanghai for one week, but I’ve been here for two months training, taking my TEFL and training with my job.  I came to China thinking I would be here for one year but after settling and due to loving it so much I think I’ll be here for longer. I definitely plan to travel and teach for a couple of years to come.

How did you secure your English teaching job?

I secured my English teaching job with the help of the team in China. They were so helpful with everything to helping with our CVs, getting us interviews, running mock interviews and giving us questions to ensure that we fully understand what it is like working for that company. They were also willing to help read through our contracts to ensure that we got everything we needed for example, insurance, bonuses, monthly pay and anything else we needed help with.

What type of school or organisation do you work for?

I work for an organisation.They are great as a company. They have foreign management and have been really helpful with my training, finding an apartment, checking contracts and are also willing to help me in any aspect of my life outside of the job as well as anything job related.

What does a typical working week look like for you?

A typical working weeks means my weekend has become a Monday and Tuesday. This didn’t take long to get used to due to so much happening in Shanghai that you never miss out on anything. I’m lucky to get a lot of lay-ins working for a training school so typically start work at 2:30pm to 3pm and work through till 8:30pm – 9pm. On Saturdays and Sundays I work from 8:30 till 5:30. All lesson planning, marking, grading and material creation is done during office hours as well as teaching.

What age group or range to you teach?

I’m contracted to teaching any age between three years old to twelve years old, with class sizes being between ten and twenty and their ability ranging within each class. I only have a few kindergarten classes with most my classes being junior age. There are only a few advanced classes.

What do you most enjoy about teaching your students?

I enjoy having fun and playing games with the students. They really work well off learning in this style due to them having fun, they almost forget they are learning. The job is really rewarding and you can see progression in understanding and pronunciation of the words, which makes myself, the teacher, feel really good.

How did you get your work visa?

As soon as I got a job the company helped me to complete my work visa. I just had to ensure my documents were notarized and authenticated. I needed a DBS, my degree certificate and my TEFL certificate. A DBS (new CRB) is already notarised so it just needed to be authenticated and because I undertook my TEFL in China, it came authenticated so all I needed to complete was my degree certificate. I wasn’t fully sure on what to do but my work was really helpful with breaking down the steps and how to do it, the only thing I had to do was to complete the steps by myself.

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

A friend (who I met on the TEFL course) and I found an apartment together. Its super easy here and everything moves so quickly which makes it a lot less stressful. You can go through an agency which would do everything for you but there is a charge with that, due to wanting to save money we looked through the SMART Shanghai website and we can do everything through WeChat. This was also really easy but just meant we had to register with the police by ourselves. This was also easier for us to do as my company looked over the tenancy agreement.


There is a massive culture shock moving to China, it takes time to get used to and then you can laugh and appreciate the pros and cons. One thing that really shocked me as a blonde hair, green-eyed westerner was that people stare a lot and have been known to take pictures of me. This is a completely innocent act as China (Shanghai isn’t so bad because of how modern it is) isn’t used to having many westerners living here.

Shanghai is also known for spitting, it’s pretty gross but it is hilarious at the same time, you learn to just avoid people when they make a certain noise and the streets are cleaned enough that you don’t have to worry about where you are walking. One of the hardest things for myself moving from a western country was finding out a lot of things on the Internet was blocked, for example social media sites, Google and youtube. This is due to China having their own versions which are sometimes better, I can't imagine my life without WeChat now and I’m going to struggle when I leave as it has made life so much better and easier.

China has so many great dishes and a variety of good food to try, as a vegetarian to begin with it started off really difficult, I went out and ordered a stir-fry vegetable dish and it came with meat. The hot pots are amazing and my favourite dish has to be sticky rice, fried egg and a tomato sauce, the spinach and mushroom dumplings or tea eggs!! There are also a lot of weird dishes that exist in China, for example ducks neck or the black fungus (which sounds gross but is really good!). Shanghai is a massive city that is spread out, you have the centre, which does involve a lot of the tourist attractions, but there is a lot more that this city has to offer which isn’t so famous.

The transportation here is incredible, there are loads of metro lines with trains leaving every two to five minutes, the only down side is that it closes at 11pm so for night outs you have to plan ahead or find another form of transport to get home.  You can use a taxi, which isn’t too expensive or can order a DD (like UBER) for a lot cheaper; the only problem is the communication barrier. If you know someone who speaks Chinese use him or her to help you book this as it does save money!

There are many great places to see in Shanghai: Disney, Yuyuan Gardens, The Bund by day and night, Shanghai tower, Oriental Pearl tower and Jing’an Temple. These are the most famous places but there are many other places that Shanghai has to offer, examples of which are other temples, a lot of beautiful parks where you’ll see older people dancing, exercising and playing Chinese checkers which is so fast and confusing but is great to watch. The museums in Shanghai are on a different level to any where else in the world so are always worth checking out due to the architecture and the contents that they have to offer.

Some of the best nights out I have had have been in Shanghai, from drinking the cheap 50% rice wine and ending up in KTV to clubbing in a Spanish bar drinking gin and tonic. KTV is a karaoke club brand where you rent a room and get beers and use of the karaoke machine for the night; it has a protector to project the lyrics and music videos on the wall as well as strobe and disco lights to set the mood. There is a strip in the French concession, which has loads of club, and bars all of which are good and run different events on different days of the week. My favourite has to be revolution which is the Spanish themed club where at certain points of the night they clear the bar area, pour alcohol on the bar top and light it on fire whilst doing a bit of a dancing act behind, it's fun to see but can get pretty hot.

What are your monthly expenses?

Rent: 3500¥/ $530

Food: 480¥ / $70

Other bills: N/A

Social life: 300¥ / $45

Transportation: 100¥/ $15

Phone: 100¥/ $15

Other costs: N/A

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

I can live comfortably on the wage even after tax. I will be saving a lot of money whilst working over here and with Shanghai having two big airports I have the ability to travel cheaply whenever I have time off of work. With food and drink being so cheap, I have a lot more money to spend on things which aren’t essential for example travel and social activities.


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

Do your research on the area before you move out to it, with this in mind also remember that what you will be reading will be other people's opinions and therefore you may see/experience the area differently. There is a lot of negatives concentrated on when talking about China, take them with a pinch of salt, there are also a lot of positives and all in all this is a great city once you adapt to its style of living. Give each new city time, you may not like it at first when it sinks in that you are away from your family and friends, each city offers culture shocks and with senses being heightened you will feel like you don’t belong or want to go home. As soon as you meet a few people, learn the area and how to get around you will start to feel settled and can appreciate what each city has to offer.

Pack for all seasons when coming to China for a year, it has all the extremes of weather. It goes from 32 degrees, to early twenties and heavy rain for the next day: it is easy to buy everything you need clothing wise out here but the sizing is different so clothing will have to be tried on and it’s not cheap to buy good quality clothing.

The metro is the easiest and quickest way to travel, with this in mind make sure you have plenty of things to listen to/watch for the journeys as they can get super boring, everyone in China from young children to older generations is sat on the metro staring at a technological device. With a lot of things being blocked, investing in a good VPN for example, express VPN means you can still keep in contact with the western world. Also get as many people from your home to download WeChat as it doesn’t need a VPN and loads super quickly on the go.

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