The first year teaching abroad can be exciting, intriguing, scary, overwhelming, and everything in between. Add to that the challenges of going abroad in the midst of a global pandemic, and you have a journey you will never forget, and stories you will never tire of telling.

In this new series of posts, we will share insights and advice from several of our teachers who are concluding their first year teaching internationally. Our first post is from BASIS International School Guangzhou World History teacher John Ely. He has shared great reflections from his time teaching abroad so far, let’s take a look!

What influenced your decision to teach abroad? Why did you choose to teach in China?

We have been looking to expand our educational experience, as well as gain more life experience abroad. We are familiar with China and when we were looking for opportunities to teach abroad this country had the most opportunities that were similar to the U.S. Teaching at an American school in another country has many benefits and allows us to really apply our prior skills while also expanding our technique. China has a lot to offer in terms of history, geography and culture, but also allows us a great opportunity to travel to many other countries nearby, once travel is reopened.

What do you enjoy most about teaching internationally?

Teachers are lifelong learners and living abroad provides us the opportunity to expand upon our teaching experiences in the classroom, while also learning more about the world. We learn in school and outside every day. It also provides our children with a unique perspective that will influence their view of the world for their entire lives. I also really like getting to know people from other countries. BASIS International School Guangzhou (BIGZ) has staff from all over the world, which allows us to compare cultures and stories, increasing that learning experience. I also like having the ability to represent the U.S. in a positive way. The world’s opinion of the average American differs greatly depending on the person, and I am proud to represent my country in a new or eye opening way for other foreigners.

Chinese New Year break Family Fun

With the unique circumstances of going abroad during COVID-19, what type of support did you receive from BASIS International School Guangzhou that helped to ease this transition?

We were offered our positions and signed our contracts about two weeks before China was locked down in early 2020 so we were able to complete most of our visa application process ahead of time. The visa process is a bit daunting to being with, and adding the layer of uncertainty, ever changing guidelines and rules, on top of the closed consulates and everything else, it seemed almost impossible. But the BASIS staff at our school was there for us the entire time. Without Caroline Xu, from the BIGZ HR and visa team, we would not be here today. She was always quick to answer questions on email and helped us through every step of the process when we got stuck. BIGZ also sent us masks during our time in the States to keep us safe while we were prepping to arrive!

Another important thing is that even though we could not arrive at the start of the school year, we were still assigned positions, whether teaching, tutoring, or in some other capacity while overseas. The willingness of the administration to work with us and accommodate to the different situations was not only reassuring, but amazingly well done.

What has been the most challenging part of your first year teaching abroad? What has been the most rewarding?

The most challenging part of this entire process is the uncertainty and the ever changing guidelines with regards to COVID-19. We have all become experts at improvisation when need be, which is truly amazing to watch, but we really have no clue what happens next. When we can leave China? When we can get home? Will we have to quarantine again? How will local people view us as foreigners? Some of these things can seem to change from day to day.

The most rewarding aspect is the fact that our daughters have really settled into the new lifestyle easily. They are happy to be in school with friends, they love all of the cool stuff China has to offer for little ones, and are really getting into the culture and language. They are excelling in the school and being pushed hard, but gently, so that they absolutely LOVE going to school every day. We were worried that this whole experience might be too much for them, but they have adapted in a way that I could not imagine.

What did you learn this year that has helped to improve your teaching practice?

BASIS International School Guangzhou exterior

I have learned a lot this year. I am used to teaching in an urban setting, but on the southside of Chicago. The students at BIGZ are a completely different type of academic challenge. I have found that my ability to teach skills using a student centered model is NOT what the students here wanted, at least not at first. But over time, they have adapted to a new style of learning and critical thinking that allows them to actually become student teachers.

When I met them on Zoom back in September, while living in California, they wanted me to give them knowledge through PowerPoints, but after becoming familiar with a different style of learning, they have made significant improvements. I am confident that they will be able to learn on their own in the future and have developed skills that will allow them to continue to grow. I think having fought through their initial reluctance and pushback actually helped me become more confident as an educator. Not only was I able to “prove” myself to the students, but to myself as well. Trying your skills in a new, foreign environment has allowed me to reflect in a new way, allowing me to really identify my strengths and weaknesses.

When you came to China, what did you find pleasantly surprising that you didn’t expect?

It was nice to see classrooms and schools operating normally. Other than frequent testing and the inability to travel, our young daughters have hardly noticed the pandemic at all. We do wear masks, but we can take them to movies, museums, parks, restaurants, and pretty much all the other amazing places China has to offer with no problem. Guangzhou also has a lot of Western culture, so it is not difficult to find food we like, or connect with other expats who give us the “in the States” feeling.

What advice would you give teachers who are considering teaching abroad?

Flexibility and open mindedness are obviously a given for teachers planning to work and live abroad. Of course in these uncertain times of ever changing guidelines and restrictions, anything can happen. In my opinion, keeping a positive attitude about everything is the key to success here. So many people get bogged down by the infinite negative possibilities, the hurdles or the changes to their lifestyles that they miss out on the great aspects of being an expat.

John Ely is a World History teacher at BASIS International School Guangzhou. Originally from the United States, the 2020-21 school year was his first teaching with us in China.

Visit our careers site for more information about teaching abroad with BASIS International Schools.

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