The Nasty Truth About Teaching ESL in China

Anyone who spends ten minutes reading online reviews of schools in China knows this: teaching English in China is a horrible, miserable experience you wouldn’t wish on anyone.

But why is it when people come here and actually speak to expats who have been teaching for a while, they hear a different story? Their friends say: it’s fun, they love their school, and they plan on staying two or three more years.

The reason is simple: selection bias. Wikipedia says selection bias occurs when, “…groups or data for analysis in such a way that proper randomization is not achieved, thereby ensuring that the sample obtained is not representative of the population intended to be analyzed.”

So what is it about the people who write these horrid reviews of ESL schools that skews the sample? Generally speaking, those who gather on ESL threads to bash their school are negative people who’ve developed a herd mentality. They say “misery loves company,” and what better way to increase your feeling of self-worth than to join into a frenzied mob of disgruntled teachers with an ax to grind?

Their posts often start like this: “I worked at Blah Blah Blah English School for three years and boy they were a bunch of….”.

Riiiiight. So, this place was so incredibly terrible you stayed for how many years?

Many people forget an important fact: You’ll have problems at your job in China….just like you did at your job at home! There’s no such thing as a “perfect job,” and being able to cope with difficulties in your workplace is a part of life. Learning how to deal with these problems means you’re not lying when you write, “Works effectively in cross-cultural settings.” on your CV.

There’s also a subset of people in China who “can’t hack it” in their home country, and are forced to stay in a foreign country for much longer than they’d like. They’ll tell you how much they hate the food, the people, their school, etc. If you talk to this person long enough, you’ll probably also discover they think their home country is rubbish, too. These people have no business teaching, especially teaching children!

Okay, okay – I’ll get off my soapbox now! Do you want to know the truth about teaching ESL in China?

  1. You’ll be surrounded by the laughter of happy children every day
  2. You’ll work with a diverse group of really interesting people
  3. You’re doing something bold and growing as a person
  4. You’ll see sights, eat foods, hear sounds, and smell smells you never imagined
  5. You’ll earn good money while doing work that’s challenging and rewarding

I know it can be pretty shocking to hear, but that’s the nasty truth! The people who teach overseas (and stay because they love it) generally don’t spend their hours trolling ESL message boards. Ya’ know, because they’re outside…enjoying their life. Maybe eating dumplings, or climbing a mountain, or writing in their journal.


Have you spent a year or more teaching overseas? We’d love to hear your thoughts and stories! If you have incredible travel photos, please send them our way!

Also, if you’d like to learn more about how to become a guest blogger, write us at with the phrase “Guest Blogger” in the SUBJECT LINE.

Written by Christopher Ribeiro | Managing Director at ESL Suite

roundedChristopher came to Tianjin via Buffalo, New York, and Los Angeles. He’s lived in China since 2009, and has traveled to over 20 countries on six continents. Christopher has been in teaching and recruiting for over five years – he’s the co-founder of ESL Suite, a husband, and father to two strapping little boys. If he’s not at work, you’ll find him in the gym, or narrowly dodging oncoming traffic on his fixed-gear bicycle.

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Music Monday: Nature Springs – The Good, the Bad, & the Queen

There’s a distinct feeling of spring in the air, so why not kick it off with a song that seems to have little to do with spring. The allegedly unnamed British super group of Damon Albarn, Paul Simonon,  Simon Tong, and Tony Allen (produced by Danger Mouse) formed in 2007 to release the studio album, “The Good, the Bad & the Queen”, for which the band is often mistakenly referred to.

I recall seeing the British super-group perform during a desert wind-storm at Coachella Music Festival in Indio, California. Fantastic show – it’s a pity they blew the band up after just one album. But, nothing fortifies the legacy of a band like having a fan base left begging for more.

Enjoy the music!

Music Monday: “Inside Out” – Spoon, live on KCRW

Spoon is one of those bands that’s quietly been so good, it’s easy to forget how long they’ve been around. The Austin, Texas five-piece was cool even before Austin, Texas became a hipster/indie-rock hub.

This is “Inside Out”, performed live on KCRW’s “Morning Becomes Eclectic”. Enjoy!

Music Monday: Chinese “èrhú” concert: Live at the Golden Hall of Vienna

In honor of Chinese New Year and ringing in the “Year of the Sheep”, this week’s Music Monday selection features the instrument most evocative of China: the èrhú. The èrhú is a two-stringed fiddle that has been a staple in Chinese folk music since the 10th Century.

One of the best parts about living in China is going for a stroll in a Chinese park and hearing an èrhú live. This video isn’t quite the same, but pretty darn close. Enjoy!

Music Monday: “Chinese Translation”, M. Ward live in the Bing Lounge

Besides the title, this song has little to do with China, but it’s a pretty darn fantastic song nonetheless. M. Ward is such an immense talent; it seriously looks like he was born with a guitar in his hand.

This is M. Ward performing “Chinese Translation” live in the Bing Lounge.

Music Monday: “Dog Days Are Over”, Florence and the Machine

Forget the coffee – here’s your Monday morning ‘pick-me-up’. Equally haunting, melodic, and sonorous – the vocal range by lead singer Florence Welch is astonishing.

This is “Dog Days Are Over”, by Florence and the Machine, live on the BBC.

ESL lesson: Alibi

group of young asian people are shouting

English Proficiency Level:

  • Intermediate to Upper Intermediate

By the end of this lesson the students will be able to:

  • Use “Wh” questions to “interrogate” their classmates
  • Ask and answer questions about the past


  • Student to student
  • groups of 3-5 work best, but may be more if the class size is large


  • 45-60 minutes


  • It’s impossible to be two places at once, so it might be a good idea to enlist the help of a teacher’s aide to coach the suspects, rather than alternating back and forth from inside and outside the classroom.


  • Four pieces of scrap paper for each group

This is one of my all-time favorite ESL activities; it encourages a ton of student-to-student interaction, and usually gets a lot of laughs from the students. It’s also versatile because you can grade it so it’s appropriate for different proficiency levels. I’ve done this activity with adults, teens, and even primary aged students.

When the lesson begins, I usually drill the class on simple past tense questions. You can start by modeling “Wh” questions in the present tense, (e.g., “When do you go to school?”, “What do you eat for breakfast?”), then elicit from them past tense forms of these questions.

After everyone has loosened up a bit and starts talking, you can set the stage for the “scene of the crime”. I usually like to tell the kids that someone stole my bicycle from the school parking lot, and the police saw three people running from the scene of the crime. You identify three students who will then go outside the class to make their “alibi”. The rest of the students are divided into three teams of “interrogators”.

While the three suspects are outside waiting, you coach the interrogators, and give them hints about what types of questions they should ask. Be sure to elicit past-tense questions from the students, and instruct them to write as many questions as possible.

Then, you can go outside to coach the suspects – they need to be sure their story holds water, so encourage them to agree on as many details as possible. Where were they last night? What time did they meet? If they went to a restaurant, where did they go? What did they eat? Who paid the bill?

Now, you bring in the suspects and let each of them sit with a group of interrogators for about ten minutes. Tell the interrogators to write the answers, because they will cross-reference them later. After the ten minutes is finished, have the suspects change to a different group to be asked the same line of questions. Repeat, so each suspect sits with each group of interrogators once. The class can get pretty animated once the kids’ stories start falling apart!

At the end of the class you can have a “trial” of sorts, and quiz the class about flaws in the suspects stories. Which details were the same? Which were different? You can even vote to see if they are released from custody or go to jail.

If anyone has done this lesson before, I’d love to hear how it went. And if you have any suggestions how to make it better, I’m interested to hear! Also, if you have an ESL lesson or activity you’d like to submit, please email me at:

Music Monday: The War on Drugs, “Red Eyes” | Live in Barcelona, Spain

Maybe I’m a little late to the party on this one (cut me some slack, I live in China), but does anyone else think these guys sound like Bruce Springsteen? I know, it’s always risky when making comparisons to a legend like the Boss, but c’mon – they’re from Philly, he’s from Jersey….it’s not too big of a stretch, is it?

Disclaimer: You can’t get angry about this post if you haven’t purchased any new music since Brothers in Arms

This is The War on Drugs, performing “Red Eyes” in Barcelona, Spain. From their 2014 album, “Lost in the Dream”. Enjoy!

City Profile: Shenzhen, Guangdong Province

Gone are the days when every aspiring teacher wanted to go to either Beijing or Shanghai – Shenzhen is the hottest destination for today’s TEFL crowd. Just thirty-five years ago Shenzhen was nothing more than a small village adjacent to Hong Kong Island. But, Deng Xiaoping’s great “Reform and Opening” brought swift change. Shenzhen became China’s first Special Economic Zone, and the economy subsequently took off. Today, Shenzhen is a boomtown – the first ‘Mega-City’ to spring up in the Pearl River Delta. It boasts a thriving economy specializing in international trade, foreign investment, manufacturing, and financial services offered by the Shenzhen Stock Exchange.

Because of the city’s humble beginnings as a fishing village, it doesn’t have as many cultural or historical attractions as Beijing, Nanjing, or Xi’an. But there’s an offset to this drawback; because of the many opportunities here, it attracts job-seekers from every corner of China. As a result, Shenzhen is one of the most diverse cities in the mainland. Regional cultures, customs, and cuisines from various parts of China blend seamlessly. Not to mention, Shenzhen has loads of modern sights and places of interest, such as the Window of the World, Xichong Beach, Happy Valley Theme Park.

Being a cosmopolitan city with a large expat community, there’s no shortage of western restaurants, bars and nightclubs; plus, plenty of parks, temples, theaters and museums. Shenzhen is a symbol of China’s modern economy, and the birthplace of the entrepreneurial spirit that is now found even in the most remote parts of the country.

If it’s for three days or a year, experiencing Shenzhen should be high on everyone’s ‘to-do’ list when passing through China.

Have a look at our China job board for more information about working in Shenzhen (or anywhere else in China)!

Music Monday: “Blue Ridge Mountains” – Fleet Foxes

Fleet Foxes makes really good music; that’s all I have to say about that.

This is a song from their 2008 self-titled studio album, “Fleet Foxes”. I’d love to be a fly on the wall for this live session at the Grand Palais in Paris, France.