Arleen Cotas has been teaching English in Jinan, northern China, for 13 years.
It’s a stellar effort, so naturally I wanted to interview her.
Arleen, you’ve been teaching in China for 13 years. What’s your secret for longevity?
I didn’t come to experience China as a country. I came in June 2004 to teach English to Chinese people.
Experiencing the culture and the living conditions, I found it agreeable to my character.
The secret is finding a place that rewards me in so many different areas of my life – new experiences every day and new places to see.
Most of all, I’ve been able to teach a language that is prominent in the world to a culture that wants to become prominent in the world.
Can you tell us about some of the teaching jobs you’ve had in China?
I am currently teaching oral English at Shandong Jianzhu University, in the city of Jinan.
Over the past 13 years, I have experience teaching across different student levels and ages. I have taught in various public primary and high schools, universities and English training schools.
What’s the best thing about teaching in China?
Teaching at a university in China is particularly interesting because students are at an age where they’re beginning to question some of their own beliefs.
Whenever I ask a question about China’s history or politics, like the one-child policy or education system, the class is split.
Some students simply say, “I think it’s good. It’s what we need in China,” without giving the issue much thought, like they’re regurgitating what they’ve heard their parents say.
Others, however, are delighted at the opportunity to speak their minds. The experience is an excellent English lesson for them, and an even better history lesson for me.
Being an English teacher can be a lot of fun too. Aiding students in their effort to improve their speaking skills, I always find fun ways for them to use English.
Connecting with the students is a must for any teacher. It will undoubtedly make the classroom environment more enjoyable for the whole class.
The best thing about teaching is watching students improve their speaking skills and enjoying the learning process. The Chinese education system is regimented and exam-oriented so I always try to imbue my students with a sense that learning can be a fun and enjoyable experience.
All in all, teaching in China has been a rewarding opportunity for me.
What are the biggest challenges in a typical Chinese classroom?
Overcoming a barrier of silence is personally my most challenging and frustrating task.
It’s when students don’t want to talk because they are generally afraid of making mistakes. For this problem, I would use different approaches to get them talking.
The second big challenge is that students lack the ability to think outside the box.
The Chinese education system is largely based on teaching toward passing exams. As a result, teaching methods largely rely on cram-and-memorize tactics, which don’t encourage students to think independently.
As ESL teachers, we have the rare opportunity to introduce creative thinking in our classroom.
Whether it’s a group project where students have to create a product and devise a marketing campaign to sell it to their classmates, or simply asking questions that drive them to think beyond the opinions their parents have instilled in them, creativity isn’t a concept they’re accustomed to.
Students in China aren't accustomed to creativity, says teacher Arleen.
However, being creative in the classroom can be beneficial. Through this method, I’ve seen shy students start speaking more in class, and others who started with reserved opinions begin to open up.
As they feel more comfortable with me, even their frustrations about home life can seep into conversations.
Just urging them to think helps to implement a skill that is rarely nurtured, one that will undoubtedly benefit them long after class ends.
What does a typical ‘day in the life’ of Arleen look like?
My days are usually full of teaching!
Weekdays are spent teaching university students and weekends are for the younger kids. During my free time, I spend doing the things I love, such as my hobbies.
What kind of changes have you seen in the Chinese education system over the years?
In all the time I have been in Jinan, Shandong province, I don’t believe there have been significant changes.
In my opinion, unless the whole education system in China is revamped, then each year will be the same for students and teachers alike.
Having said that, Chinese students are becoming more aware of how helpful and important good English communication skills are. As a result, more and more students want to go abroad for further education.
What’s it like teaching English in Jinan, in northern China?
On first appearance, Jinan doesn’t seem to have a lot to offer. It’s a sprawling metropolis with its fair share of pollution.
Despite this, Jinan has a definite allure. Aside from its well-known attractions like Baotu Spring, Thousand Buddha Mountain and Daming Lake, it has a plethora of hidden gems.
The old town next to Daming Lake has centuries-old white-washed cottages, cobble-stoned pavements, canals and rows of weeping willows. It has a relaxed and laid-back feel that perfectly matches its picturesque surroundings.
Shandong province is colloquially known as ‘Friendly Shandong’. I have often heard foreigners in other parts of China say that when it comes to being friendly, Jinan is in a league of its own.
Can you tell us about some of the delicious food you can eat in Shandong province?
Shandong is home to many dishes that are as appetizing as they are filling.
Shandong, or Lu, cuisine is one of the famous regional cuisines in China. It originated from Confucius’ family banquet and was adopted by the imperial kitchen. It has a great influence and is representative of the North Chinese cuisines.
My all-time favorite Shandong food is ‘jianbing’. This tasty snack is a fried wrap filled with greens, fried eggs and a sprinkling of spices. I would recommend this to anyone wanting to experience some local Shandong cuisine.
Teacher Arleen loves eating jianbing, which is found throughout Shandong province.
What kind of activities do you get up to with other teachers in your free time?
Everyone has a different schedule so sometimes it can be tough getting together. We do make sure though that we have occasional dinners and holiday gatherings to catch up on each other’s lives.
Have you done much traveling throughout China?
I’ve been to Beijing and climbed the Great Wall of China a few times. It’s always a great experience.
I’ve also visited ultra-modern Shanghai, relaxing Ningbo, the garden paradise of Hangzhou, fast-paced but well-managed Hong Kong, rustic Inner Mongolia as well as the bustling cities of Shenzhen and Guangzhou.
There are still plenty of places I hope to visit in this beautiful country. Hopefully I can do that in the near future!
What advice do you have for someone thinking about teaching in Jinan, or in China more generally?
While having Mandarin skills is not necessary, it is a definite help. In a city of around 8 million, there are still plenty of people who don’t speak English.
Therefore, my advice would be to learn a little bit of Mandarin before coming to China, even just a few words. It will make living and teaching in China easier.
It is also important that your motivation to go to China is to teach, not to come for vacation or travel.
What are your plans for the future, both personally and professionally?
I plan to stay in China for a few more years to teach and travel.
I would also like to take some language classes to go beyond the street-level Mandarin I have acquired from talking to Chinese friends and students.
Do you think you could teach in China for more than 13 years? Have your say below.