What I Learned Teaching English in Asia

It wasn’t all fun and games.

Phil Rosen
Jun 11 · 5 min read
Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certification? Check.

Six months of teaching English in Hong Kong? Check.

My time as an English teacher in Hong Kong was an experience, in every sense of the word. I’m glad it happened; I have no regrets; I’m glad it’s over.

No more alphabet songs and grammar lessons. No more Dr. Seuss read-alouds. No more giggles exchanged between me and four-year-old Chinese kids.

The miniature smiles, the innocence, the learning — I witnessed so much growth and academic progress, it is saddening I can’t see them through beyond the classroom. Some of my students that started off barely spelling their own names could now read short passages and take spelling tests.

Teaching for six-months is like planting a small flower. I watched this flower grow and grow; it sprouted small leaves and strengthened its stem. My nurturing hand tended to the individual needs of the flower, but I left the garden just as colorful petals began to blossom.

Despite the Herculean efforts and successes I saw, my students’ future achievements — the ones I cannot witness — will be even better.

Being a teacher is rewarding. The lessons and laughs I shared with my students resonated with them and myself. Each day of teaching guaranteed overwhelming affection (which is never a sure thing in an adult workplace).

Yet, amidst the many happy days were the many difficult days. Long hours and late nights, crying and peeing children, the mental drain of a monotonous routine.

Certain pieces of this puzzle proved trying. Students would often show up cranky, sleepy, and unwilling to sit still (though I too would buckle as a child under the stress of Hong Kong’s education).

Us teachers were expected to handle the tears, maneuver administrative demands, and execute our lesson plans. My goal was to be the best teacher I could be for my students. Whether that involved incorporating my own lessons into the established curriculum or lessening the workload for my students, my intentions were true to my students and no one else.

This irked the administrators. Their job was to, primarily, generate revenue by appeasing to the demands of the parents.

Balancing dollar signs and expectations of the adults drowned out the needs of the students.

It was disheartening at times, more often than I’d like to admit. I was a cog within a machine that prioritized business over education quality. On innumerable occasions, I was ordered to pass students onto the next course because the parents wanted their child to be at a certain level.

Whether these students were ready to move on was irrelevant. I would object that this or that student wasn’t ready for the next level, but this was usually shrugged off. The decision was already made.

They completed the payments and signed forms without consulting the teacher or student. Too many pupils were placed in classes beyond their abilities or maturity.

Of course, I know that business cannot be altogether ignored. Company profit is important — that’s what provided my salary. But when cash becomes king within an education venture, things can turn suspect. Kids are kids, they are not their parents’ wallets. Unfortunately, placing the expectations of parents above those of the students said otherwise.

Luckily the teachers — myself included — were excellent and nurturing. We prioritized students and provided a quality learning experience. We were the ones teaching in classrooms, building relationships with students, and facilitating the education. And yet, with each student that passed an exam, with each student that moved up to a new class, dollars would accumulate for the corporation.

Parents in Hong Kong stack expectations as high as skyscrapers on top of their children. For a five-year-old, going to school and completing a few hours of homework per night is not enough. This is the bare minimum.

A child must enroll in Chinese classes, English classes, math classes, dance and swim team, and an instrument or two just so they do not “fall behind.” In Hong Kong, stress is a burden that strikes early and reliably, like pimples during puberty and getting wet in water.

Teaching exposed me to the brilliance of these young Chinese students. By age four, these students have been through hundreds of hours of studying, writing, and language learning.

The kids here are mature, articulate, and well-prepared for academic success.

The emphasis placed on memorization and revision leaves me wondering about the creativity of this entire cohort. Creativity takes practice and can improve over time; ignoring it can stifle it over time too. The culture expects students to memorize and reiterate in massive volume.

From what I’ve seen as a teacher here, innovation is valued much less than filling in the blanks and coloring between the lines. Square blocks go in square holes and circle blocks go in circle holes, no exceptions.

Extend this through twenty years of schooling and the result would be a formidable workforce: hard-working, diligent, industrious…what about the imaginative side?

A child following rules without fail can make for a timid adult that feels most comfortable within pre-established parameters. How much does this cap potential and stultify dreams?

Of course, I hold biases as a Californian — stress was minimal, school was easy, I had free time to loaf. Comparing my own, halcyon experiences to those of a new country and new generation isn’t a fair appraisal.

And yet, I find respite in the idea that things are usually not what they seem. I hope I’m wrong about the education of Hong Kong.

I hope my perception of Hong Kong’s schools and the implications on students is misinformed.

My students these past six months have been a shining light and lifeline to the job; their bright outlook helped me acclimate to living outside America. When they would view simple happenings and big events with the same boundless joy, it inspired me to do the same.

Little things are nice too, you just have to notice them.

The stress they’ve told me of, the hours of homework and studying — I wish I could discover that these were childish exaggerations, overblown complaints of an altogether tolerable workload. When they complain of having zero free time, I hope this was an innocent miscalculation. My students have a lifetime of potential and the whole world waiting for them.

I’ve been lucky to spend six months with these budding bundles of inspiration and glee.

I do wonder if my students will look back in a few years and remember their teacher, Mr. Phil from California.

What will they remember about me? My jokes? My enthusiasm? My grammar lessons? They have gifted me a lifetime of memories despite the brevity of my stint; I can only hope I gave them something worthwhile in return.


This article was originally published on Phil’s Next Stop in January 2019.

Phil is a travel writer and editor. He currently lives and works in Hong Kong. If you liked this article, you can see more of his ideas on his travel blog and Instagram.

The Post-Grad Survival Guide

We're confused twenty-somethings, but we know the 9–5 isn't for us. Tips on blogging, freelancing, and building your side hustle. A good bit of life lessons and travel tips thrown in, too. Living life on our own terms.

Phil Rosen

Written by

Editor based in Hong Kong. Contributor to The Writing Cooperative, Post-Grad Survival Guide, Startup & Live Your Life On Purpose. https://philsnextstop.blog

The Post-Grad Survival Guide

We're confused twenty-somethings, but we know the 9–5 isn't for us. Tips on blogging, freelancing, and building your side hustle. A good bit of life lessons and travel tips thrown in, too. Living life on our own terms.