Challenges faced by foreign teachers in China

From my experience and observations whilst teaching in China there seem to be two broad category of expat teachers – young, freshly graduated “skylarkers” looking for some extra income, the majority of whom don’t really have a passion for teaching, education nor any intentions of committing to a school and, professional, career-minded teachers who keep on educating themselves and keep current with new, effective methods of teaching. Of course there are those who fall somewhere in between; the individuals who perhaps did not want to teach but were somehow led/advised that it would be a safe path for the short or mid-term until they could find themselves in better, more interesting/higher paying fields of work.

My article deals with a few of the main concerns that are faced by teachers that fall into the second category. Many foreigners that are career teachers go to China with very high expectations from nearly all aspects of management. From the very beginning they are subject to vast amounts of miscommunication with recruiters and schools that are interested in hiring them. They are sold the idea that their worth is less than they think, that teachers on the whole aren’t really highly paid. Whilst the teaching industry is not the most affluent, teachers do deserve respectable salaries for all their merits. Think about it, a lawyer spends years becoming a qualified professional in his/her field. Does a teacher not do the same? A bachelor’s degree and a Master’s degree are not cheap. TEFL or CELTA courses are not free. All the time you spend learning your skills should be considered by schools and recruiters when they are thinking of hiring you. Unfortunately, that is less and less the case these days.

Education is a philosophy, not a business. In China, however, everything is business. – Mustafa Yildiz

Instead of acquiring professionals that would not only produce quality work but stay with a school that they felt comfortable in, many institutions hire an image that they think would boost the appeal of their company. White faces, light hair and eyes that aren’t brown. That sounds like racism, you say? It is. The small percentage of schools that don’t have those racist tendencies still have the other vice that’s plaguing would-be-teachers – the Native English Speaker requirement. In reality a lot of schools use this requirement as some sort of code for “Caucasian” as they quote a new government rule that Native English Countries are only a handful or the largest political powers worldwide – America, the UK, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Why the hell is anyone really bothering to learn English if only these few countries speak the language then?

As a side note, I’d like to mention that so far, the best English language teachers I’ve met have all been second language speakers. There is no way any native speaker could break down grammar the way those second language speakers did to me. All the stuff I glossed over in Primary school and essentially ignored in high school were studied by these people like one studies to become an astronaut. Thoroughly.

Another point of contention are the ridiculous new heights of oppression that foreign teachers’ contracts are getting to. Not only are teachers are being made to haggle and bargain for salaries that barely match their qualifications and experience but some companies have turned it into a game. I personally had the experience of one school allowing their recruiting company to handle the salary negotiations. I was told via email at nearly midnight (it was truly by chance that I had checked my emails that late that night) that I had passed the interview and I had a maximum of 12 hours to submit a salary expectation/request. The thing is, if my salary request was too high it would be rejected by the school board and I would have one more chance to give them a suitable salary quote. After that I would no longer be a suitable candidate.

Welcome to the Hunger Games: school hiring edition.

What if my salary request was too low or actually a lot lower than what the school thought I could be paid? I am still waiting for a reply to that question.

As for the contracts themselves, there are a lot of deduction policies that I haven’t really seen/experienced anywhere else. Among the more intimidating ones were thing like a company being able to terminate your contract without compensation if you did not attend work and could not contact them for 16 hours. Monetary deductions for punctuality and students’ performances in tests, the list actually does go on.

In addition to this there are even some companies that do not even offer decent holiday packages for their teachers. So on top of harsh contract conditions (which one recruiter even got offended and told us was standard fare in China), a low salary and multiple opportunities for deductions, there is also the really depressing cherry of working during the major holiday periods. Whilst your friends at public and private schools get three weeks off for Spring Festival, you get three days from some training centers. Good job, Chinese management.

I have come to believe that modern Chinese management is all about how much you can control your assets. There is a strong feeling that positive reinforcement is weak and would be ignored outright. Western, open-minded ways of teaching are desired on the surface but not in actuality. I even got the impression from some teachers that the unhappier you are, i.e., the more stressed out about your job, the more you give without asking for anything and generally the less opinion you have, the better you are treated in the long run by management. It’s absolutely not true. The more you are of the aforementioned things, the more you are taken advantage of and flat out disrespected by management.

So, whilst there seems to be a lot of negativity in this article, this is only one side to what teachers may experience working in China. As for myself, I have experienced both sides of the coin and, being the optimist that I am, will be going back, hopefully to experience the good side of working in an environment of learning and positive growth once again.

Author: Leshanta Roop

Leshanta, though she looks Indian, actually hails from the small tropical country of Trinidad and Tobago. Her partner, Mustafa, is Australian with Turkish heritage and sometimes refers to himself as the Australian Turk. Together they travel the world in search of new adventures whilst creating podcasts that showcase their opinions on a variety of topics, some of them very sensitive and controversial.

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