A Guide to Your ESL Classroom: Perspective in Teaching Young Adults

It seems most abroad ESL teachers land jobs for the 3-12 age range, but I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to teach university Freshmen. Having older students was great since we were able to engage in mature topics, you can give them more responsibilities, and they are generally well studied. On the other hand, older students meant having a more bare bones classroom, bringing a whole host of issues along with it.

Note: This guide is essentially telling you to make a syllabus for your students, since you probably wont be required to, and the specifics you should address based in the Chinese culture. It doesn’t hurt to make it formal, and post it online for them to access all the time.

Here’s what I’ve learned while teaching older kids:

Respect Me, Dude

Something I’ve learned is that you’re always trying to navigate the spaces of being respectable and being fun when it comes to young adults. If you’re like me, or most ESL teachers, you’re fresh out of undergraduate school yourself. You look young, and it’s easy for your students to want to be friends. That means a few things:


There doesn’t seem to be the same barrier between students and teachers that there are in America (at the least when you are young and foreign). Your students wont hesitate to ask for your WeChat, Weibo, or phone number. They’ll want to take you to eat meals. They’ll give you gifts. Some students will talk to you after every class. That sounds great, but when it comes to grading, you’ll remember who gave you that life size teddy bear*. How do you feel about that?

Contact Information

Before your first class, ask yourself if you really want your xxx number of students all in possession of your contact information. I made the mistake of allowing over 500 kids to have my WeChat. Needless to say, a lot of my students kept asking me why I wouldn’t respond to them when I first started teaching- Oh, I don’t know… because I was stupid and gave 500 people my number within five days?

Here’s some tips for that issue:

  • Use WeChat for your personal life.
    • Make sure you connect your bank card to this too, as a lot of vendors will take this as payment (since only larger businesses tend to take literal cards).
  • Use QQ for your students.
    • You can make groups on this platform, making it easy to message an entire class if necessary. Some uses for this might be: canceling class, rescheduling class, giving weekly homework assignments, or reminding students of upcoming tests.
  • Use a website. I made my Contact Me page easy for students to use. Make sure you don’t require an e-mail address.
    • You can ask for their phone number, WeChat, or QQ instead.
  • E-mail: most students in China will not have e-mail. If they have an e-mail account, it’s actually just their phone number: xxxxxxxxxxxxx@qq.com. I don’t recommend this method. It’s a bit unpredictable if it’ll work.
  • Phone Number: Most people don’t do a lot of calling or texting in China. They stick to third party messenger to lower the phone bill costs. As a result, it’s probably safe to give people your number. I’ve only been texted/called in cases where students were helping me since I could not speak Chinese well enough (to go to the doctor), or by my boss.


Chinese students are easily embarrassed. Be gentle. I like to be really silly and animated, and help them to realize they can easily fix the given issues, rather than lecturing them. They’re used to being lectured. There’s no reason for you to lecture them unless they’re really being bad students. This also goes back to how you’re viewed: if you’re close in age to your students, they may consider you cool, a friend, or a peer. This can work in your favor, but it can also cause you to get stepped all over. It also means you have to be careful that you don’t become the uncool peer, rather than a strict teacher when asserting your dominance. Here’s the key issues I’ve had:

  • Talking over you, or other students: with that many kids, they’ll often get to chatting with one another and not mind you. Usually a good Shh! will get them to pay attention.
    • Also, create a sign/PPT slide for your classroom that says something along the lines of, “If I have to tell you to be quiet, everyone in the class will lose a class point.” No one wants to be the kid that cost everyone a point. It’s good to have this translated into Chinese below, for the students with worse English skills.
    • Every once in awhile I have to lecture my kids about being disrespectful. I hate it, but it has to happen from time to time. Usually one of these methods will keep them in good behavior for the rest of the year. Some tactics:
      • Remind them: When you talk while someone else is talking, you are being disrespectful. You are disrespecting your teacher, your peers, and saying it is okay for them to disrespect yourself.
      • Give them some good old sayings, they love those: “Do onto others as you would have them do to you.”
      • Point to that sign you made about everyone losing class points when you can’t pinpoint a specific group of students (as this often means almost everyone is not listening).
We were watching a TED Talk. Count the students looking at their phones instead.
  • Phones: If there’s one thing that I still can’t wrap my head around, it’s how shamelessly students will use their phones in class. You’ll look at the class and see 30 lit up screens. The boys in the back undoubtedly are playing League of Legend together. The girls are watching a video in the front.
    • Don’t be afraid to take away a couple phones. You don’t have to make a big deal of it, just gesture that you want the phone while teaching. They’ll give it to you begrudgingly, and the rest of the class will put their phones away. Since I use phones in the class for things like looking up definitions, I’ll give the phone back after the given section of my lesson is done.
    • If it’s a major issue, take the phones and give them to your supervisor. It might be good to keep some masking tape and a marker, so you can write their student number and names on the back.
    • Tell the students to leave class. Whether they leave class or not, they’ll be embarrassed and straighten up.
  • Asking for leave/ to use the “toilet”
    • Personally, I don’t want students always asking me during class to use the “toilet,” or messaging me because they’re on their period (yes, really). Make it clear early on what your policies are on missing class and leaving to use the restroom.


Unfortunately, China has gained quite a reputation for its cheating students (as well as how they handle cheating). You will without a doubt need to address this in your classes. I strongly urge you to see if the school has an Honor Code. If not, make your own. And make sure you translate it to Chinese, or it will fall on deaf ears.

You must be very clear about what cheating is considered. You may tell your students not to cheat, but they may think that means they can talk to one another. Don’t be afraid to take points away from students, or even fail them. I suggest creating a strike system, since this is a long embedded habit you can’t expect them to correct over night (3 strikes and you fail perhaps). Make sure to address:

  • Phones
  • Talking to friends or classmates
  • Books/notes
  • Copying any type of text
    • You will, with certainty, assign an essay only to realize 30 kids from the same class have copied one another, word for word
    • You will also find that they like to copy IMDB, Wikipedia, and other very obvious sites. If something seems too good to be true, quickly do an online search of the first line of the writing to see if it was copied.


Teach your students about primary and secondary sources, as well evaluating their worth. I wont say more, but here’s a paper someone write once in my class to illustrate why I suggest this.

Bless your heart. Luckily she cited the Internet, generally speaking.


You may have a chalkboard, a whiteboard, a Smart board, simple projector, or several of these options. Hopefully you have the pleasure of a computer to project images. If so, consider the following:

PPT (PowerPoint) vs. Word (and Utilizing Them Best)

Your students will refer to it as a P-P-T (and they will call an APP an A-P-P). With that aside, here’s things to consider.

  • Can your students in the back see the board/screen?
    • If not, you may need to assign seats (which is GREAT for attendance if you have more than 20 or so students).
      • Note: The students in the back tend to be there to play games on their phones, or sleep. When you ask them to pay attention, they’ll often say they can’t see (or “Kann bu dong.”). It’s a bad excuse, basically.
    • Consider creating a template for your classes that is mindful of visibility: for example, using complementary text and background colors so colorblind students can see, or fonts that work well for those with Dyslexia. You make it once and you never have to worry about it again, yet it could make a difference in someone’s life every class.

The other thing to consider is teaching your students how to give their own PowerPoint Presentations if you expect them to use a PPT. Everyone in China seems to have at least one smart phone, but few people have computers. This means it’s unlikely your students will even be able to put their PPT’s on the computer in a timely manner. Considering this is an issue for American students, I didn’t bother with PowerPoint Presentations after the first time. I learned my lesson!

My Word document (before I adopted the dyslexia recommendations).

The Board

The most I have to say here is that they wont like you’re handwriting. Sorry. Almost all Chinese students seem to have great handwriting. Unless you’ve practiced improving yours, it will look most like chicken scratch. Therefore, be mindful when you write on the board. Make sure your n’s and h’s look different, and so on.

You’ll need to beat out your chalk board dusters from time to time (the students don’t seem to be the ones doing this). You may even need to buy your own chalk (or ask a Chinese teacher to buy it for you).

The Classroom Computer and the Internet:

You probably wont have an internet connections (in China). This makes sense when you consider the Great Firewall of China, and the things unspoken in the culture. That’s okay, it just means you need to keep a few things handy in case your lessons don’t work out.

You also might have a computer that erases everything once you restart it, meaning you can’t leave documents on it. As a result, this means you need to keep a flash drive or hard drive handy. Your trusty drive should contain:

  • Reference Material:
    • High Quality Maps: Your homeland, China, Asia in general, places you may travel, etc
    • Personal pictures: your family, home, yard, animals, etc (they want to know about these things).
    • Pictures of other things: your homeland foods, activities, places, people of note, etc
  • A pre-made document of games for students, and directions for playing (utilize some Chinese to best convey the games if they are foreign in nature- don’t assume they know the games you’ve planned).
  • Small programs: a timer, a randomizer (for topics, students, etc)
  • A couple movies with Chinese or English subtitles
  • A couple TV shows with Chinese or English subtitles
  • A couple documentaries with Chinese or English subtitles
    • TED Talks are wonderful. The students like them.
  • Your rosters
  • A base document with your readability template
  • A list of topics for games, debates, etc so you don’t have to make them up on the spot.

Finally, don’t expect any computers to have English. This isn’t a huge issue if you know how to navigate Windows. I also found that the computers don’t come reloaded with the English language pack, even if the option if in the settings. This is another argument for keeping a flash drive with you (everything on it is in English), even if the computer doesn’t erase everything.

Garbage Cans

This isn’t a classroom, but it is IKEA. It’s socially acceptable to leave trash for the employees to clean up, so you need to make sure your students know they are the ones to do the cleaning.

My university had some janitorial staff, but generally the classrooms were expected to be kept clean by the students themselves. Unfortunately, this often meant the classrooms would pile high with trash (on the floors, in the desks, and overflowing the trashcan to a point of not seeing the container at all). It was horrifying for me, but I quickly learned this is simply cultural. People are fine to throw trash on any ground because there are people always sweeping up- that’s their job.

If you have this problem, don’t get too upset. The best thing I found I could do was start cleaning when the students were in the classroom. If there’s something they don’t want, it’s you cleaning. They’ll take the brooms from you, problem solved.

Often the solution is simple: for me it was that the students didn’t realize they needed to elect someone to do the cleaning. Once it was made clear that no one was hired to do the job, they filled in for the duty.

Another thing I did when students didn’t take initiative was to simply offer extra credit before class, or during their 10 minute break for the two people who wanted to clean up.

The Bathroom:

The students will ask you if they can go to the “toilet.” It doesn’t matter what you’re doing- maybe you’re giving a passionate lecture- they’ll stop you to ask to go. I’ve made sure I used my Word document to tell them not to ask me, since adults don’t need to ask to use the bathroom. “Also, it’s called a bathroom/restroom, not a toilet!”


Your school probably has an attendance policy. That doesn’t mean your students know what it is, so make sure you tell them (in my department’s case, more than 3 absences = fail).

I also make sure to tell my students not to message me every time they want to “take a leave” of absence. (For some reason they will tell you they requested a leave, but usually the person they requested it from hasn’t told you or asked you if it’s okay.) So, the thing I do? Tell them not to bother me. Unless they’re really sick, I don’t care what the class absence is for.

“I don’t care if you missed class to sleep, you don’t need to tell me, just don’t miss more than three classes.” They all laugh, and then no one bothers me again about their period, the rain, or their still-drying-on-the-wrack-outside-while-it-rains clothes.

Setting the Mood: The First Day of Class:

Finally, here’s a replay of the list of things to talk to your students about on the first day. They may be small, but it’s amazing how much voicing your rules or expectations to the class early on can make a difference in your experience.

Your policies:

  • Bathroom
  • Garbage
  • Phones
  • Cheating
  • Attendance
  • Your contact method (they will all ask on the first day, I promise you)

Good luck as you venture out into your teaching! Make sure you prepare yourself- I guarantee you’ll be glad you did.

Check out my other Expat Guides for ideas on living, teaching, and traveling abroad, including where to find jobs. Thanks for reading!

*My students did give me a life size Teddy Bear (as a class, so it wasn’t an issue for me when it came to grading).


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