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20 Things I Learned Teaching English at a Kindergarten in China

My year teaching English to kindergartners in Guangzhou, China is almost complete and I can’t believe it!

I’ve been reflecting on my time teaching English here and all the things that I’ve learned from my students. I’ve picked up more Chinese phrases. I’ve become more advanced at understanding 4-year-old humor. And I now know about 10,000 songs and games to keep kids entertained for hours.

At the same time, I’ve also learned some kind of cheesy life lessons. So here they are – 20 things I learned (along with some common Chinese phrases I use at the Kindergarten):

1. How To Communicate When We Don’t Speak The Same Language

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My kids come to me everyday with various problems to fix:

  • Laoshi, you bi ti! (Teacher, I have a runny nose)
  • Wo yao niao niao (I want to pee)
  • Niao wan le (I’ve finished peeing)
  • Ta da wo! (He hit me)
  • Ta bu shi geng wo yi qi wan (She won’t play with me)
  • Ta zai wode weizhi (He is in my seat)

Seriously the list goes on, and this can all happen in the first 30 minutes that I get to the school. I’m not fluent in Chinese, but teaching here has surrounded me with Chinese and encouraged me to learn and practice my Chinese more, and also to be creative in trying to communicate with my kids.

I’ve also had to learn the best ways to teach English to them – my lessons have to be interesting, engaging, and most importantly, easy to understand for kids who don’t speak English.

After a year together, we’ve created our own unique language together, a mashup of the Chinese I know and the English I’ve taught them. The boys will often say to me, “wo shi spiderman,” blending Chinese and English to say “I am spiderman!”

Sometimes I ask them, “Ni keyi jiao wo zhongwen ma?” (Can you teach me Chinese?) We learn from each other and our language barrier doesn’t stop up from sharing a connection and becoming close with each other 🙂

2. Ni Bang Wo

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Ni bang wo in Chinese means “You help me.” My kids ask me this a lot – to help them change clothes, to grab something, etc. It’s a good reminder to ask others for help when you need it!

3. Fear the xiao shagua (little idiot)

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If one child is very naughty in class, sometimes the Chinese teacher will tell them a “xiao shagua” (little idiot) will go to their house, play with their toys, eat their food, and no one will want to be their friend anymore. This is quite terrible sounding to a four year old and they behave much better because they’re so afraid of the xiao shagua (think of a little devious leprechaun).

Take whatever life lesson you want from that – this is mostly just a funny memory to me and something I’ll steal if I have kids one day.

4. Gan Ma Ku – Why Are You Crying?

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Bad things are going to happen and you’re allowed to cry. Give yourself 10 minutes to ku (meaning cry in Chinese), let it out, then breathe and move on. This is what my kids do; they are resilient and will bounce back quickly after a little crying session.

Sometimes they cry for really funny reasons though – read about it here: 9 Funny Reasons My Kindergarten Students Cried

5. Always have your Hao Pengyou

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Every morning after exercises the kids make a line and grab a hao pengyou – in Chinese this means good friend. It was the cutest thing watching the kids make best friends this year. Above is Ron and Kimi, who became best friends back in September. They always want to sit together and walk together, and even though they had a rough patch in March, they still remain BFFs. It’s good to have best friends you can be silly with.

6. Hao Wan Ma? Anything can be a game


My kids get the biggest kicks out of anything. Sometimes I’ll be doing a lesson and make a silly joke or face and the kids LOVE it, and if I expand on that I can make a game.

I taught them a “Left Hand, Right Hand” song, and in the middle of it there’s a little Salamander dancing and they loved repeating that word! So I made a game where they listen for my instructions, like Simon Says. I’ll say “Left hand, right foot, left ear, right ear,” speaking faster and faster and faster. They get frenzied doing the movements and so excited and then I’ll shout “SALAMANDER!” and they have to freeze.

Hao Wan Ma? Hao wan! (Is it fun? Fun!)

7. No Money No Shopping

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I give the kids (fake) money if they are good in English class. At the end of the week they can use this money to go shopping and buy a toy. But I always remind them – if you don’t listen, no money. If you are talking, no money. No money, no shopping. (I don’t always speak perfect grammar with them – sometimes I simplify to get my point across).

Anyways, it’s a good lesson for me to remember as well. If I have no money I can’t go shopping (or traveling). Save your money for what you really want.

8. When You’re Angry Keep Smiling

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Every morning I’ll ask the kids: How are you? We learned emotions a long time ago and they always tell me “I’m angry!” but they say it with a giant smile on their face. It’s funny to them, but good to remember even when you’re angry or sad to keep smiling.

9. Run Like You’ve Got a Newspaper On You

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One day the Chinese teachers had the kids try running with a newspaper on them without it falling and I nearly died laughing. It was so funny to see them try to go really fast with newspapers flapping against them. Throw self consciousness out the window and run like a maniac.

10. Tiao Wu Tiao Wu! Dance!

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When my kids hear any upbeat song it’s like a trigger for them –  they immediately jump around and act like monkeys on crack.  This happens especially with Baby Shark and Dream English’s Jump Jump Jump song. And every week in P.E. class they always have to tiao wu. When the music comes on, dance!

11. Playtime Is Good For The Body (And Soul)

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You can be an adult and still have play time right?

12. Suns Don’t Have To Be Yellow & Reindeer Can Have Four Eyes

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Be creative! Think outside the box! Put as many eyeballs as you want on that reindeer!

13. Ni Kan! Look!

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If you do something you think is good don’t be afraid to show it off. Tell everyone, ni kan! Look! Be proud of your hard work!

14. Xiuxi – Have a Rest

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Taking time for a nap is totally fine no matter if you’re 4 or 24.

15. Taking Lots Of Selfies Is Okay

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They’re only 4 but they already know how to take selfies (zi pai). Don’t listen to the haters and take as many as you want.

16. Ting Anjing, Wo Anjing


The Chinese teachers taught this call and response to the kids. They’ll say, “Ting anjing” (Listen, Be Quiet) and the kids have to respond “Wo anjing” (I’m quiet). Listen to others with wisdom and experience.

17. Don’t Take Too Many Bananas


The kids have fruit time everyday and the aiyi (auntie) in the class will prepare the fruit and make sure the kids all have enough. One day the kids had bananas and they were each supposed to grab one. But one kid snuck back into the line and took two (it was one of these kids pictured above…that’s all I’ll say). One kid didn’t get a banana at all and the Chinese teacher was soooo mad! So don’t do that.

18. Liang Ge Bu Gu Dan

We sang this song almost every morning – it’s called the Finger Dance Song and the lyrics count up from 1 to 10. For two it says: Liange Bu Gu Dan, which translates to “Two is Not Lonely.” It’s a cute song and always stuck in my head!


19. Can You See A Rachel? Yes I Can

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My kids loved a Shape Song I taught them. It goes like: “Can you see a circle? Yes I can!” But the kids always changed the lyrics and would always sing it to me: “Can You See A Rachel? Yes I can!” It was so funny to see how they changed the English words – they’re so clever. Adapt and have fun.

20. Bu Pa – Don’t Be Afraid

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Mostly I’ve learned life will come at you in surprising ways. I never imagined I would be teaching kids this young…for an entire year…in China. This year challenged me to be both a better teacher and a better student, and in the process I kind of fell in love with these little faces that I get to see everyday. Don’t be afraid of trying new things or of situations that may seem too challenging at first.

I’m so grateful for this year I had with my Chinese kindergarten students and all the little lessons they’ve taught me along the way.

Wo ai ni, wo de xuesheng!

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  1. It’s been so fun reading about your experiences Rachel! There are lots of great lessons here. I know your students have been blessed by having you as a teacher.

    Liked by 2 people

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