Interview With Sara Nighbor: An American Teacher In China

Meet Sara Nighbor, a fun and enthusiastic teacher hailing from Wisconsin and teaching in the beautiful location of Kunming, China. She made the move from  law to teaching and she has never looked back, read her story to find out about her adventures in China and her insights into the interesting differences she has noticed whilst teaching.

Sarah Nighbor Hiking

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Please tell us a little about yourself

I am 26 years old, born and raised in Wisconsin, and went to law school in Sacramento, CA. I’m just a small town girl living in a big world. I am an attorney back home in Wisconsin. I like helping others, I like to laugh, I like food, I love my family and friends, and I love traveling. I lived in Galway, Ireland for a short time and found I had the itch to travel.

A few years later, while waiting for my bar results, I decided to take advantage of the lull in my career and do something I had always wanted to do – teach overseas, I now teach English in China. I currently work for Romp N Roll and my placement is Kunming, located in the southern Yunnan Province. My favorite thing to do in Kunming is walk around after work; go store-to-store and just browse while practicing my Chinese (sort of – they usually try to practice their English and I cave because my Chinese is bad).

How have you enjoyed teaching to date?

It has been an eye opening experience. Not as easy as I would like to admit I thought it would be. There is so much more that goes into running a classroom than just standing in the front and teaching English words. I’ve learned that classroom management is an integral part of being a teacher. In the beginning I wasn’t very good at it. Now, I feel fairly confident in the classroom and it has made my classes a more enjoyable experience for the children.

I love being able to recognize some of the kids by name and getting hugs before and after class. Kid hugs are the best kind of hugs. No matter how difficult the classes were, I always enjoyed working with the children because of seeing the curiosity and joy when we do something new on their faces. Makes it worth it every time.

What advice can you give to new teachers interested in teaching in China?

Learn some basic Chinese, yes, no, some numbers, and maybe even the pinyin pronunciation if you can. It will help you immensely. It can be very overwhelming to arrive in a nation where barely any English is spoken. Finger pointing and body language are helpful but I feel it is also a sign of respect to try to learn Chinese. It makes it a lot easier to communicate as well. Also, keep an eye out for the “foreigner tax.”

Can you tell us about a particularly powerful moment in your classroom?

Most moments are pretty amazing. It’s a spectacular feeling when the children know what to do or understand you before everything is fully explained in Chinese. You’ve been teaching these children for months and then BAM! you look up and notice they are doing all the body movements with you, you can ask and they know what’s next and how to use the equipment.

My best moment just happened with a developmentally challenged child I have in my Twos class. He was often overwhelmed in the gym due to all of the lights, brightly colored equipment, and music that plays. His parents (and grandparents) took my suggestion of coming into the gym when there are no classes and we play together on the equipment to help him adjust. Just a few days ago he came up and gave me a hug, which is HUGE for him. Then we played in the gym together and it was fantastic.  When I saw all the hard work his parents and I had put in to help him feel more comfortable at the center, it was one of the best feelings I’ve ever experienced.

What are the positive and negative aspects of living in China?

If I discussed all the positive and negative aspects I’ve found while living in China, we would be here all day. I’ll just mention a few. Family is pretty far away but Skype helps considerably. The natives in Kunming have been wonderful to me. The older generation loves to ask me what I think of China and the younger generation loves to ask me what America’s like.

The cost of everything here is super low; I spend about $1 on my dinner every night on fantastic food in China. I’ve cooked at home three times since I moved here. That’s a plus for me since I’m not a fan of cooking.  It is…not as clean as America. The pollution standards are lower so there tends to be a lot of dust in the air. It can make it hard to breathe on really bad days, I’m lucky with Kunming, the air is regularly clean and breathable. I can only think of two or so bad days. The dust means you have to clean a lot. Besides that I love exploring! There are so many interesting places to see and things to look at. Living in China has taught me to appreciate all that I have back home because so many people here grow up with a lot less.

I guess all I can say is no matter how much you read about the culture in China, you won’t really understand until you take the leap and come visit!

Have you had the opportunity to travel much in China or in Asia?

I haven’t had the opportunity to travel far. I did my training in Beijing and had a chance to explore a little when I first moved to China and now that I live in Kunming, I’ve explored the city quite a bit. I still find a new street or alleyway that I’ve never been down before. The city is so compact I think I could explore Kunming all year and still find new places. I like to explore the area I live in first and then branch out. I plan on traveling to a few surrounding cities in the Yunnan Province such as Dali and visiting the Stone Forest (look it up, I promise you won’t be disappointed) before heading to other nations close by.

I’ve posted a few select pictures of the food found here, the Safari that I visited, and the beautiful Green Lake on my blog: http://lulunighbor.wordpress.com/ Feel free to check it out!

How do you like your school in general?

My school is not a school per-se, it is a city center community building. Romp n Roll teaches through Art, Music, and Gym classes. Our students range in age from six months to six years. Our classes are usually 45 minutes in length with some lasting an hour. My center is located in Kunming only opened a few months ago. I’ve been watching this business grow from the bottom up and it has been quite the experience. I love the area; we are right in the middle of the city. The parents here are very kind and nice, they ask me about home and bought me gifts over the Holidays. I’ve had offers to dinner and they suggest places for me to visit.

Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about?

Kunming is a beautiful city with several things to see and do. If you have the chance to come visit or explore the area, be sure to check out the Stone Forest, the Tiger Leaping Gorge, and old Dali. Kunming is called Spring City of the East because of the beautiful weather that hovers between 50s during the winter and 80s during the summer. It has several lakes and other beautiful natural areas that are worth visiting. Plus, the food is fantastic and the locals really enjoy foreigners. I highly recommend it for the next trip you might be planning!

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