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It’s Okay To Not Know What You’re Doing

I taught English in Xi’an, China and I had no idea what I was doing. I walked into the university in China with almost nothing prepared. I just learned as I went along and got better at teaching as time went on.

I went to university for Computer Science for one year then continued school elsewhere for Computer Animation which only lasted half a year. One of the major reasons why I didn’t finish is because of money. I couldn’t go back unless I paid off the previous semester. None of my classes had anything to do with teaching.

When I was applying for teaching positions in China, I was worried that they would want a bachelors degree and/or TEFL or ESL certifications. I started with a simple Google search for positions in China which resulted in dozens of positions. I emailed all of them and included my resumé. Many of them claimed they required a degree but I sent them an email anyway.  A day or so later most of them got back to me with open positions and were interested in hiring me. Here I was worrying about not being able to find anything because of my qualifications but to my surprise I actually had a large selection to choose from. After careful consideration, I chose Siyuan University and I was leaving in less than three months.


I could have studied teaching material but instead I felt lazy about it. I was too occupied getting things sorted out at home after coming back from a year round-the-world. I walked into the school not knowing a single thing about teaching.

The school provided material that we were supposed to use in all of our classes. I had about a week to study them and get use to my new life. I went over all of my material and could not help but laugh how horrible the textbooks were. I planned out the first day and what we would go over. I thought to myself this would be easy.


I walked into my first class to forty freshman girls clapping and wooing.

I was suddenly nervous and I didn’t know why. I was still early so I thought I would put my things down and go to the restroom to get fresh air (there’s a joke somewhere there). I thought to myself what the hell am I doing.

I went back to the classroom and introduced myself. Everyone in the room was quiet and just gave me a blank stare. We went around the room and did some basic introductions. After that we went right into the textbook. This lasted for about 10 minutes when I realized I was screwed. This textbook wasn’t going to help me at all.  I had to toss the whole idea of ever using the textbook and improvise. I later got a call from my boss that the students complained they couldn’t understand me and I had to slow down.

After a few months of improvising and planning better, I started to get better at teaching and the students started to learn better. Some of the other English teachers also had no experience teaching so we started to trade lesson plans, ideas, and collaborated on lessons.  Things were getting easier and I felt more confident about teaching as time went on. The students were actually starting to learn and when you realize that as a teacher it’s kind of amazing and rewarding.


When the second semester started, I knew exactly what I had to do to prepare. I planned out several lessons sometimes for weeks ahead of time. Since most of my classes were once a week and I had several classes a week, I would use the same lesson throughout the entire week then change plans for the following week. I walked into class rooms with confidence and I started to feel like a real teacher. In the first semester students were sleeping and texting during class but by the second semester I was kicking students out of the room and taking their cell phones away. That got their attention and their respect of who I was as a teacher.

This was an important life lesson for me. I did something I never thought I could do and never thought was in my reach. By the end of the year, I felt like a better person. I might have been the teacher but I felt like I was the one learning the most. I was in a far away land with totally different culture than how I grew up, taking a job I had zero experience in, took the risk, and owned it.

16 thoughts on “It’s Okay To Not Know What You’re Doing

  1. great article! im considering teaching english over in south america and am extremly nervous at the idea… so many questions, where to elarn tefl, how to get jobs, what to do when I get a job… but this really helped. Thanks!

  2. how do you even talk to non english speakers to get started. Still I’d like to try it.

    1. They speak some english which is enough. They don’t really need to know any english at all for you to teach it.

  3. Great piece!

  4. Respect! I think I’d stutter throughout the entire first class. And the second. And the third:D

  5. Michael, you truly have learnt on the job. It sounds like you quickly adapted and got some good results.

    I’ve often wondered how people manage with TEFL when they don’t have experience so it is great to read of how it was for you.

  6. Wow Michael, really amazing experience! I too, had some experience in teaching early in my life and I know exactly how important it is to have an understanding with your students. Otherwise, you feel uncomfortable like hell!

  7. Sounds like a steep learning curve, but you must have been so proud of yourself by the end of it! Amazing that you were able to get the job without a TEFL qualification, have been thinking about getting one myself, but have heard mixed reviews about whether they’re necessary.

  8. Great article Michael. The more options on funding helps with the anxiety of taking “the plunge”. Thank You

  9. Great post! I’ve been thinking about teaching English as a “second act” career. You’ve given me a lot to think about!=

  10. Wow.. I love this post! A Great experience and I was really moved by your inspirational story.

  11. Looking to teach english in China myself any suggestions on good websites to find jobs on that aren’t a scam?

    1. Since I wrote this I have been to China and taugh English at FirstLeap English Schools. I am now back home so I am not affiliated with them at all but I do have to say it was a great experience and they were very helpful. It was scary at first like anything is but they eased the transition and were there to help along the way. I would recommend them to anyone who wants to go teach english in China. The only bad thing about them is that they make all the lesson’s and there are people who have not taught before making the lessons so there were a few lessons I did not agree with.

  12. People like you really cheapen this industry and to top it all off you are encouraging others to do the same! Would you be happy with teachers who are ‘too lazy’ to research materials teaching you or your children? Or is that just OK in foreign countries?

    1. The lack of English teachers altogether in China says a lot about the industry. The fact that I was able to obtain work without any former qualifications tells us that they are in desperate need of English teachers and I saw that first hand. While I was unprepared at first, I came out determined to provide the best possible education to my students. It’s also worth noting that fellow teachers that DID have qualifications in that exact field were far worse than I was. They were unprepared, culturally shocked the entire year, depressed, and didn’t seem to be doing well the entire time. Meanwhile I fit I in just fine and my students learned quite a bit from me. In fact, I still talk to many of them and it’s been several years.

      Going prepared would have been essentially pointless for this position. Many other teachers that did go prepared had to toss everything they had. One of them in fact was 60+ year old long time teacher from Canada. They weren’t ready for what China would throw back at them. There is nothing you could possibly do to prepare yourself for the culture shock of teaching in China and that’s okay. The only way to get better is to actually teach in China. I am far more qualified to teach English in China because of my experience than an English major that has never been to China.

      I’ve also learned that it’s much less about your qualifications than it is about your personally to become a teacher.

  13. I love it! This is how I love my life, I never know what I am doing and if it is important than I learn and if it is not then my time isn’t waisted unproductively. Just like my blog, I wanted to become a travel blogger about a year ago, had no idea of how this whole game worked and i just figured it out and learnt along the way because it was important. Great post with a great lesson, its not a great thing to stress yourself out trying to figure out what you MIGHT want to do in your life

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