Articles for Teachers
Having little luck finding an attractive job offer in the U.S. in 2004, I decided to take my skills where they were wanted -- abroad.
Enticed by the "Teach English in China -- No Experience Necessary" ads saturating the online classifieds, I emailed my resume with one hand and packed my bags with the other. I had no idea what to expect, but then, the great unknown can be what makes a job like teaching English in the People's Republic so appealing.
As the world's largest economy opens to foreign investment, education has become one of China's thriving sectors. Confucius probably wouldn't stand for it, but he wasn't wearing pinstripe suits and driving a shiny black sedan. The country may be Communist in theory, but the renminbi -- Chinese currency -- is emperor.
A Chinese adage says that the best advice is often born from the most challenging experiences. After three years helping the sons and daughters of Han learn English, I've had my share. Westerners looking to teach in China may want to consider the following before packing their bags.
Some foreign English teachers may be shanghaied at least once during their time in China. Baiting unsuspecting Westerners to China with false promises of a high salary, deluxe apartment, airfare reimbursement, visa or other incentives is a common online scam. Blame it on temptation. Often Chinese laws are too fluid and relationships ("guanxi" in Mandarin) with authorities too intimate, leaving some foreigners with little protection against scams.
The moment I arrived in the Middle Kingdom I had what some seasoned expatriates call "the complete Chinese experience." The "school" that had accepted my application turned out to be a nickel-and-dime operation run out of an apartment by a guy in his bathrobe. I'd come half way around the world for a job and found myself out of work.
I was literally lost in translation. Despair and a desire to return home to Mom set in. But I quickly learned that, commensurate with its sizeable population, China has a profusion of kindergarten, primary, middle and high schools and universities in even the most remote cities. In short order, I wound up with a position and salary more attractive than the one I had originally accepted.
Chinese parents may work night and day to pay for pricey English lessons so that their child can get a head start in this competitive society of 1.3 billion. Unfortunately, academics are not an issue to many of China's new educational entrepreneurs who put profit before curriculum and quality. Classroom experience and Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) certification is nice, but in many cases a Western face is all a native English speaker needs to land a teaching job in China.
In more reputable schools, most prospective English teachers don't have it so easy. I endured a weeklong interview process, including a series of teaching demonstrations before 300 stern-looking parents, all while I was still jetlagged and suffering from culture shock. I must have done something right, because I was chosen to teach at a top school in the province.
Being rice-wined and dined by my prospective employer over 30-course banquet dinners did not distract me from negotiating a fair salary. Many foreigners ("laowai") prefer to live in a cosmopolitan city like Beijing or Shanghai than a small town such as the one I had chosen, and I was able to use this preference as leverage during contract discussions. All deals in China, like the price of fruit at the marketplace, can be negotiated.
Most English teachers in China needn't speak Mandarin in the classroom. Instead, we instruct students through a process of language immersion and simulation, which in time invariably leads to proficiency. Diligence and a little creativity are all that are really needed, but like performing on stage five times a day, it takes its toll.
Over the next few years, I would meet a number of disappointed young Westerners who came overseas as English teachers expecting to party all night and spend their free time pursuing adventures in the countryside. That, I would tell them, is a lifestyle for tourists, exchange students and embassy brats, not the hardworking teacher.
As a foreign expert English instructor, I'm scheduled for up to 30 classes a week and spend most of my free time planning lessons. I'm up at dawn with the older folks practicing their Tai Chi and not back home until after 10 p.m., about when the migrant construction workers also are getting off work.
I never thought I'd be an educator. I didn't like most of my teachers when I was a kid. Teachers the world over are typically low paid, overworked and underappreciated. But the fatigue and the hit on my income -- compared to what I might earn in the U.S. -- are what I pay for being part of a rapidly-changing China. As it turned out, I'm not so bad in front of the chalkboard -- I actually like it.
-- Mr. Carter is a business English trainer in Beijing.
Tom Carter http://www.tomcarter.org/ of San Francisco is an internationally published freelance photographer and travel writer specializing in the People's Republic of China. Tom has traveled extensively throughout all 33 Chinese provinces and autonomous regions and currently resides in Beijing.