Who’s teaching China’s next generation?

The influx of foreign teachers into China is both a boon and a problem, reports Chris Dalby from Beijing.

Chris Dalby

Topics World

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’Hundreds of Jobs in China! Immediate Teaching Opportunities! China –ALWAYS Seeking Full-Time Teachers!

A quick scan of the countless online English as a Second Language (ESL) job boards reveals some startling facts. At a glance, it would seem that China is truly opening itself up to the world. What better way to learn and cooperate with other countries than by asking their best and brightest to come and teach here, in China? Schools up and down the country, from rural coal-mining communities to the bright lights of the big cities, are able to profit from China’s ever-broadening attempts to attract foreigners – native English-speakers – to come and teach English to the next generation of Chinese.

At least, this happy marriage between foreign teachers and Chinese schools is the theory.

In reality, the number of teaching jobs across China, their constant availability and their seemingly accommodating work conditions, could be said to spell trouble. Since so many schools are competing for a limited supply of incoming teachers, an increasing number of educational institutions are lowering their standards in order to hire their own token ‘wai jiao lao shi’. This approach is understandable. Possessing a foreigner can raise a school’s reputation, giving local communities the impression that the school has high academic standards; having a foreign face amongst the teaching staff, especially in remoter areas where foreigners are rarely seen, can help to attract students to the school.

However, the desire to employ a foreigner, at any cost, can cause problems. As more and more schools are allowed to hire foreign teachers, inevitably an increasing number of under-qualified, untrained individuals are being given jobs. There are now numerous stories of foreign teachers breaking their contracts and disappearing (they are called ‘midnight runners’). Also, there are reports that some foreign teachers are exhibiting in-classroom behaviour that some Chinese educators or parents consider shocking or offensive; many Chinese are used to teachers practising high levels of decorum. By far the most common complaint about foreign teachers is that they have a strong accent or speak too quickly, making it difficult to understand them.

Jacques Peeters, recruiter for New Times International, one of China’s biggest ESL agencies, tells me that the challenge lies in ‘getting the good teachers here, and not the ones looking to travel and who do not realise that it is a job they are committing themselves to’.

Too often today, with the world’s eyes fixed on China, many people are drawn here because they are captivated by what they consider to be a mysterious country. Despite the fact that salaries in Chinese schools are below those on offer in its Far-East neighbours, Korea and Japan, the attraction of working in China is still strong for teachers from Europe and the US.

‘I like some aspects of Chinese life and I am mightily intrigued by them’, said Bec, a teacher from Wales working in Beijing. Comparing working in the capital with her former job in a school in Shijiazhuang in the Hebei Province, she said: ‘They are different in so many ways, yet both are “Chinese”. People say that Beijing is not “real China”, but I disagree. Beijing affords the anonymity that I desperately missed at times in Shijiazhuang.’

Most of the Westerners who come to teach in China are young people, often freshly graduated from university. The majority of them are forward-thinking and intelligent individuals who take their responsibilities in China seriously – and yet, there is sometimes a lack of appreciation amongst newer teachers for the seriousness of the commitment they are undertaking when they sign a contract with a Chinese school.

A message needs to be sent to incoming teachers: China is a developing country and, as it moves forward, its students need well-trained and reliable people to teach them English. It is lamentable that some foreign teachers who come to China are really only looking for a quick travel opportunity. Their sometimes rash actions do not only let down their students; they also have a potentially negative impact on the reputations of other teachers who come to China to make a real difference.

Part of the problem lies within the schools themselves. In the race to attract foreigners, schools often make outlandish promises: they promise comfortable apartments, high salaries (for China), pleasant and easy working conditions. Then, once hired, many teachers are confronted by a somewhat harsher reality. Extra classes are scheduled at a moment’s notice; timetables changed; additional living costs are charged without consulting the teacher, which causes understandable anger and confusion. To allow teachers to gain a sense of trust and security, schools from Beijing to Benxi must consider updating their woefully outdated regulations on dealing with foreign employees.

Popular websites such as ‘Dave’s ESL Café’ are rife with unpleasant accounts of working in Chinese schools. This is a shame, because, in truth, success stories of teaching in China far outnumber negative experiences.

However, the tide does seem to be turning, for the better, as Chinese schools and foreign teachers get better at negotiating contracts and working together in unison. ‘New Times started in 2003. At the time, incoming teachers would receive positions within a day. From the second year on, a positive change occurred with both New Times and its contact schools: there was a demand for more professional applications and backgrounds from teachers’, says Dou Songlin, president of New Times International. ‘And in 2006, we implemented a new vetting procedure for both schools and teachers, to ensure that both sides were provided with quality working environments.’

Previously on spiked

James Woudhuysen raised three cheers for China’s economic miracle. Phil Mullan argued that education is not for the economy, stupid!. Sheila Lewis asked whether the rise of China should be seen as a threat or an opportunity for the West. Daniel Ben-Ami asked who’s afraid of economic growth?. Or read more at spiked issue Education.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


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