Teaching Traveling: Welcome to Neil Robertson, a Scottish traveler who spent four months teaching in China. Neil, tell us about your background.
Neil: I’m 25, Scottish, living and working in Glasgow now having been travelling for the last five years. I started in 2008 working in Italy and my travels have included trips to China, Japan, South Africa and Brazil amongst others. The experience that had the strongest impact on me was the four months I spent in the little known, but brilliantly named, city of Wuhu in Central China.
TT: Agreed, that is a fabulous name. Tell us more about your travels.
N: It’s a long, long way to Wuhu. Not famous or obviously significant, you can find it in the (relatively) tiny Anhui Province, about 4 hours by train west of Shanghai. But I loved Wuhu for its simplicity, its unassuming personality and its kind and considerate people. It’s also a great place to use as a base if you plan to travel throughout China over a few months. China is an extraordinary country and, for me, the most fascinating country in the world at present. Life in the big cities charges along at breakneck speed, while the calm and considerate approach to life in the rest of the country is just as captivating. My day job was teaching English to local students while in my spare time I was tucking away savings to indulge the adventurer in me and explore as much of the country as I could.
TT: Awesome! How did you learn about this opportunity?
N: I was employed by Aston Language Centre, a small teaching company that sub-contracts native English speakers to educational establishments throughout Wuhu. I came across them via my university careers service. Aston were a great employer and there was a lot of variety to the teaching – one day I could be teaching college students and then the next I could be spread eagled on a beanbag with toddlers. It keeps you on your toes, mentally and physically. Aston also employ other western teachers so I was alongside four British and American colleagues, which helped to reduce the culture shock.
TT: Great resource. How did you fund your travels?
N: My salary, by Wuhu norms, was pretty fair and covered my day to day costs. Accommodation was also provided as part of my contract so if I had just stayed in Wuhu for my four months I would probably have broken even. But to go all that way and not take some time to travel would be tragic, so trips to Shanghai, Beijing et al require extra funds. I had some savings set aside and it remains one of the best investments I’ve ever made.
TT: I bet! Tell us a particularly memorable moment from your time in Wuhu.
N: One of the colleges where I taught regularly invited me to their end of term party, which took the form of an X-factor style talent show. I’m a ridiculously dedicated fan of Bon Jovi and with much encouragement agreed to perfrom one of their songs, with my Chinese language assistant Wu completing the unlikely duet. I’m a terrible singer, just awful, but it was one of those once-in-a-lifetime things that I got to perform the Jovi on stage in front of hundreds of “fans” (perhaps stretching it just a little). I can die a happy man.
TT: Hilarious! How has this experience impacted you as a person and in your career?
N: I can’t think of anything that has affected me more strongly. Teaching is such an intensive way to make a living, it’s full of highs and lows but nothing beats that feeling of knowing you delivered a good lesson and had a positive impact on a student at the same time. I also found it addictive and although this was to be my last job as a teacher I now spend a lot of my time working in a Marketing capacity to aid the career prospects for young people in Scotland, particularly those from difficult backgrounds. I’ll always be grateful to my time in China for setting me down that road.
It also fuelled my love of travel – experiencing different places and meeting new people, also very addictive. I also work in travel consultancy with my co-owned small business. Sharing travel and work abroad stories is another big passion of mine, and there’s always more of the world to see.
The experience even turned me into an author! I wrote my own book while I was there and published it shortly after my return: Wuhu: A China Adventure which was a lot of fun.
TT: Wow! What advice do you have for teachers who want to travel or travelers who want to teach?
N: If you are considering a similar experience I can only recommend putting all inhibitions aside and giving it a good try. Choosing your employer wisely is key and having a short term contract as I did allowed for much more flexibility (my four months felt more like a year, in a good way). Overall, doing some research and being open-minded is essential, both in the classroom and in everyday life as an expat. These books really motivated me as well when I was looking for some extra reassurance and take into account the challenges of teaching, and of living in such a complex place as China: Wuhu Diary by Emily Prager and River Town by Peter Hessler.
It has the potential to be the most amazing thing you ever do, that’s got to be worth taking a chance on.
TT: Thanks so much, Neil! Readers, what questions or comments do you have?