Dr. Burton Tells Us About Teaching English in China!

Travel Teach & Play publishes a new interview with a globe-trotting English teacher every week. This week we spoke with Dr. Rob Burton, who has spent the past 6 years teaching English in China!

How long have you been teaching English overseas?

I’m in my 6th year here in China

What countries have you taught in so far?

Mainly in China but I did a couple of guest lectures in Vinnitsa, Ukraine. (and, of course I taught in Universities in the UK for over 20 years)

Tell me a little about your background.

I was born in Birmingham but moved as a child to Weston Super Mare (The Brummie Riviera). I went to a bog standard hopeless secondary modern school for boys where I failed miserably. Did a 5-year apprenticeship as a centre lathe turner.

Emigrated to South Africa (It was the 1970’s – no one had told me about apartheid). Left after 18 months once my eyes were opened. Joined the British Army (forgot they taught you how to kill people) Left after 3 months. Worked in factories in Holland for 3 years. Did TOPS course to become a carpenter worked on building sites. Eventually went back into factories. At 30 thought what the hell am I doing? Do I want to do this for the rest of my life?

Got a place as a mature student at the University of Plymouth (then a Polytechnic). Got a Sociology Degree. Became a researcher at University of Exeter and p/t tutoring at Plymouth and Exeter and for the OU. As it was free to staff at Exeter started a Ph.D.

Worked as a lecturer for 10 years then as the Market Research Manager for the University of Plymouth.

How did you first get started teaching abroad?

I was always interested in teaching abroad (As you can see above I have always had itchy traveling feet) even as a student seeing the ESL teaching ads in the Guardian.  Then the University of Plymouth tried to make me redundant and failed and then for two years tried to bore me out of the job.

Eventually, I took voluntary redundancy with the express purpose of coming to China for my last shot at adventure before I got too old (I was in my late 50’s by then).

Who was your first employer in China?

My first employer in China was a New Zealand agency. EMW. I thought that they might be a safe pair of hands for my first visit to China. First I was offered a high school in Nanjing – but then 2 days before my flight they changed it to a college. Nanjing College of Information Technology – it was a nightmare. I bailed out after 6 months.

What was your first night in your new home like?

I was given a modern flat. It was disgustingly dirty. There was black mould everywhere (I have since understood that this is common during the really humid and hot Nanjing summer – even my own apartment now suffers in the summer while we are away).

I had been left two packets of biscuits and a bottle of water. The gas ring didn’t work. I had been given vague instructions how to find the nearest supermarket and left to my own devices. I found the supermarket bought snacks and cleaning materials and spend the evening cleaning the place. Welcome to China.

Describe the first time you set foot in an ESL classroom.

There were about 30 students all on a Canadian College programme that would see them get placements in Canada. It was the usual introduce myself and get them to introduce themselves. After that, they barely turned up. I was told later when I complained that my classes were ‘optional.’

How do you plan your lessons?

I teach oral English with the focus firmly on the IELTS speaking tests. I plan my lessons based around a book I have written about succeeding in the IELTS test.  I have 3 classes I see 5 times a week. This is what I do - Grammar, IELTS, Vocabulary, Speaking and a class I call English Mix to add some fun and interest so we don’t bore each other.

What teaching advice would you give to another teacher?

In a Chinese classroom, a lot of the teaching advice you will have learned in your TEFL class will not apply. For example, Learning Outcomes. In most cases, the best outcome is that you have managed to fill your allotted time without having to resort to movies or Youtube.

You have to seriously reconsider (downwards) what you can achieve in the classroom to make sure that you do not come away feeling that you have failed.

What do you do in your spare time?

I spend most of my time writing novels and painting. I have written an IELTS textbook, a Memoir, and a Novel all of which are on Amazon (self-published). I have a novella out to edit and am halfway through my second novel.

I also proofread for the translation Department of Nanjing University.

If I go out I take photos. I consider myself semi-retired. I do not go chasing part-time teaching work. I am happy with my salary.

How would you describe the local nightlife?

As it’s a big city there is a lot of nightlife available for the expat. Downtown Nanjing has an area called 1912 which I have been to. It is garish and loud and the haunt of rich Chinese. But one has to be careful it can get out of hand as a few of my fellow Americans found out to their cost.

Have you been involved in any romances while overseas?

I do have a Chinese girlfriend who is younger than me. She lives with me and we have been together for around 4 years now. All is good. I’m not getting married nor will we be having any children.

What amenities are nearby?

I live in Jiangning, an outskirt of Nanjing city proper.  We have local shops and restaurants. Auchan the French supermarket is about 10k away on my electric bike. There are local KFC’s, Starbuck’s, McDonald's if you want that sort of stuff.

Some big Malls with Western Style bars/restaurants are around – having an electric bike is a must (no license required).

What are some things China does well?

Using technology to make life easier and simpler. For example, I barely carry cash nowadays. I use my phone. My wechat app is connected to my bank as is the Alipay app. Even the street vendors take electronic payments.  Didi the taxi app is also very useful.

I also feel extremely safe in China. Female colleagues say they have no qualms about walking home alone late at night.

I like living in the 21st century – not old, dirty and rattly UK.

What are some annoyances about living in China?

For me, as I’m over 60 the worry that I might not get another Z visa (my school says its OK but I’m not convinced) – there is a ceiling of age 60 for teachers (Not university).  The casual racism of some of my fellow expats. The last minutism of Chinese management.

The phone goes at 7:50 – ‘Rob you have a class.’  Me: No I don’t not till 10:30. – No we changed it – didn’t anyone tell you?’  Or Rob please prepare your midterm exams – hand in the document tomorrow – this at 4:30 in the afternoon.  Or ‘Please be ready to speak to parents this afternoon – your PPT should be about 15minutes long.’

This stuff is really annoying we keep telling them you must give us 5 days notice of any changes – but they ignore that.

What advice would you give to a teacher who just arrived in China?

Shopping is hunter-gathering. You will find the things you need, but not all in one place. So the thing is, is you are near somewhere that carries your favourite treat or food, buy it then don’t wait because in large cities like Nanjing it might take an hour on the metro and a taxi ride to get your favourite treat.

Make friends with your Chinese colleagues they are the ones that will take you to the hospital if you need a doctor (You find your doctor in a hospital, not a local surgery) or to buy you stuff off Taobao and show you many kindnesses.

Enjoy the country don’t be terrified by it. Sometimes I wonder why people actually come to China as they are terrified of everything, the food, the water, the air, the restaurants. Go eat street food – I regularly eat at my local street food place the chow mein is great. You can see if the place is clean and the oil is good. The guy is using a wok for goodness sake. If he is feeding his local community then he isn’t likely to want to kill them and his business.

I brush my teeth using the tap, I wash my fruit under the tap. I do not drink glasses of water out of the tap – that’s what bottled water is for. I drink tea – I’m British. I have not had a major stomach upset in 6 years in China.

Any other tips or comments you would like to add?

Do your research – do not come to China on a tourist visa even if the school or agency promise to convert it to a Z visa.

If you are coming to China download a VPN on to your computer/phone/tablet otherwise you cannot access social media such as facebook, google, twitter etc. I recommend ExpressVPN it’s worked well for me over 6 years.

If you can afford it buy a MacBook – the school computers are full of viruses if you have a PC you will spend your time cleaning your computer. My 2011 MacBook pro has never been infected. Its robust and paid me back – I use it every day for hours. Here in China I have upgraded the computer to SSD, had a new touchpad, new keyboard for less than half the price of the UK.

BUT technology is the same price here as it is in the West. Buy your smartphone and computer at home  - and the products here have Chinese operating systems. (Although I have dumped my iPhone for the much better Huawei Mate 9 – better than the iPhone and half the price of an iPhone -  95% of it is in English – enough to work around)

Download the APPS you need – like wechat, qq, maps, translating.

Make sure you have internet banking at home.

Learn how to torrent. If you want to watch movies and your favourite TV programmes you have to torrent (download) them. This is illegal in the West but not in China.

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About Nate Drescher

Nate spent 10 years teaching overseas before returning home to Canada to start his own publishing business. In that time he taught in South Korea, Thailand, Russia, Ukraine and Poland!

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2 Comments on “Dr. Burton Tells Us About Teaching English in China!”

  1. Thanks Nate for this eye opening and informative interview. I’ve read all of them. I from the US and have taught business English in France for over 20 years. I ‘m semi-retired now living in Nice and working on a blog for new teachers called businessenglisallure.com. Maybe my story would be interesting to your readers. I’m a former journalist and enjoy your style of interviewing. Good luck with your site.

  2. Really great post about teaching English in China! There is an additional way to make income in China is to sign up as an online tutor of English on the variety of platform. The one I recommend is Preply, as you can set your own schedule and pay rate, plus giving you lots of flexibility in a way you teach.

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