Travel, Teach, Live in China

Questions to Ask Before Accepting a Job Offer at a Chinese School
By:Gregory Mavrides, PhD - middlekingdomlife.com

China Foreign Teachers’ Quick Reference Guide

The following article has been adapted from the comprehensive Foreign Teachers’ Guide to Living and Teaching in China that first appeared on the Internet in its original form in March 2007. It is specifically based on the mini-checklist of questions to ask and issues to consider, before accepting any job offer, in appendix A of the guide.

This quick reference is not intended to be a substitute for reading the complete online guide, but it will provide prospective foreign teachers with enough information with which to make an informed and intelligent decision when considering future job offers.

There are a total of 33 questions and issues to consider and they are organized across five categories for the reader’s convenience: 1) Initial Screening; 2) Teaching Responsibilities, Work Schedule, and Compensation; 3) Housing Issues; 4) Work Milieu and Physical Environment, and; 5) In-Kind Benefits.

Initial Screening

1. Is the school licensed by the SAFEA to hire foreign experts?

2. Will the school send you the foreign expert invitation letter and work certificate?

3. Does the contractual addendum contain a nullification clause?

4. Does the school stipulate a probationary period and, if so, what is the duration?

5. Does the school pay for the foreign teacher’s residency permit and physical exam?

6. Did the school provide you with the names and contact information of both current and former teachers?

The very first issue you should concern yourself with is whether the school is actually licensed to hire foreign experts. Many are not and will try to disguise this fact by encouraging the teacher to move to China on a business (F-) or tourist (L-) visa. In fact, many licensed schools will also attempt to encourage teachers to do the same in what amounts to a glorified personal interview (at the teacher’s expense). Never agree to arrive in China for the purpose of earning income with anything other than a Z-visa. If a school or recruiter provides you with any resistance whatsoever in this area, run—don’t walk—away from the offer as quickly as possible.

When reviewing the addendum, especially those provided to you by private English language schools, what you should carefully check for are stipulations that serve to nullify the entire contract at the sole discretion of the employer (these are usually "buried" towards the bottom of the addendum). During the SARS epidemic a few years ago, student enrollment at private schools abruptly fell off and many schools simply had to close due to a severe cash flow problem. Nevertheless, under the breach of contract clause, they were required to pay each of their teachers up to a 10,000 RMB penalty, plus provide them with a return airplane ticket. Subsequently, what many schools did thereafter was include a stipulation in the addendum that allows them to terminate all teaching contracts if need be without this constituting a breach of contract. If you see such a clause in your addendum, you should insist that it be removed because it essentially allows the school to terminate you at anytime for any reason they deem important.

Similarly, you need to question extended probationary periods, i.e., anything over three months in duration and you should carefully examine what criteria will be used to determine successful completion of the probationary period. Many of these stipulations regarding probationary periods establish a unilateral policy of “at-will employment”: That is, it allows the school to fire you for any reason or no reason at all.

For full-time contract employment, the school should definitely assume responsibility for processing all paperwork and paying all costs related to the teacher’s foreign expert certificate (FEC), physical exam, and residency permit. Despite this, it has become the norm for schools to require foreign teachers to obtain and pay for their own photos required for processing each of these documents. However, this cost is nominal and should run you no more than 50 yuan for eight passport-sized photos.

Finally, the best and easiest way to screen potential employers is to simply ask for the names and e-mail addresses of two teachers, preferably one who is no longer employed at the school. If the school balks at all at this request, move the offer in the trash folder and promptly delete it.

Having just written this, it is also important to keep in mind that the school is not going to give you the contact information of a former or current employee it knows will bad-mouth the institution, so you will have to carefully read between the lines in most cases. For example, you ask a current teacher if the apartment is adequately air conditioned and she responds with “Well, I’m older and I’m always cold so, yes, the one unit in the bedroom is really enough for me—but I can’t speak for anyone else.” At that point you should realize that the correct answer is “No, the single unit in the bedroom is grossly inadequate for cooling an entire apartment and during the summer months you will either be a prisoner of your bedroom or sweat like a pig anywhere else in the apartment.”

Teaching Responsibilities, Work Schedule, and Compensation

7. Does the addendum stipulate a specific pay date and does the school pay on time?

8. Is the teacher free to engage in outside employment?

9. What is the salary versus the number of face-to-face teaching hours per week?

10. How are income taxes handled by the school?

11. Number of office hours and other work?

12. Typical amount of time needed for preparation and grading homework?

13. Does the school have multiple branches and are teachers required to work split-shifts, especially across multiple branches?

14. If so, is travel time compensated for?

15. Is overtime mandatory or voluntary?

16. Does the school have English Corners and contests, and, if so, what are the rates of pay?

17. How many days off per week do you have and are they contiguous?

18. Total number of paid vacation (non-rescheduled) days off per year?

Check the school’s SAFEA contractual addendum for specific mention of the aforementioned points and if the contract is silent on these matters, you will want to question current teachers about their applicability.

An addendum that offers the teacher a reasonable degree of protection should specifically stipulate a pay date, e.g., “last day of the month” or “by the fifth day of the following month.” It should obviously include the monthly salary and specifically how many face-to-face teaching hours per week are required. In addition, different schools maintain very different policies regarding income tax. Technically, the income tax exemption for foreign teachers is currently 4800 yuan per month. Some private schools, as a matter of course, assume responsibility for paying the teachers’ taxes so that the amount being negotiated is net, not gross, salary. You should ask how income tax is handled by the school.

Review the contract carefully for any mention of “office hours”: This is a relatively new take-back feature cropping up all across China, especially at private schools, in which the foreign teacher is expected to sit on display, when not teaching, for future students and parents to get a good look at, particularly in the evenings and on weekends. You should avoid any school that insists on occupying your time without paying you for it.

Similarly, if you have to spend a total of two hours in transit commuting between three different branches over the course of a single day, those two hours should be factored into your workload because they represent a demand on your time. Related, if you will be expected to frequently commute between branches, your travel expenses should be compensated for.

Ask the current teachers how much time they typically devote to preparing for class and grading homework and exams, if applicable, and factor those hours into the equation when considering job offers. Inquire about any hidden work, English Corners and contests, rates of pay, and whether overtime is mandatory or voluntary.

All government universities and colleges, as a matter of course, include a provision that prohibits all teachers (Chinese and foreign) from engaging in outside employment, but it is rarely if ever enforced. However, if you see that provision in a private school contract, you should take it seriously and literally. At the very least, you should ask the other teachers if the provision is enforced. If you are going to be limited to earning whatever salary the school is paying you, you need to know that before you sign the contract.

Finally, check the addendum to see if there is any mention of specific days that teachers are expected to work or, conversely, days that foreign teachers do not work. At most private language schools, teachers work from Wednesday evening through Sunday afternoon and, therefore, Monday and Tuesday are their two contiguous days off per week. However, if the contract is silent on this issue, it might very well be that the school reserves the right to use the teacher seven days a week if need be. In addition to work schedule, paid holidays and vacation time should be clearly stated.

Housing Issues

19. Apartment will be inspected, repaired, painted as needed and cleaned before arrival?

20. What floor is the apartment you will be assigned on and does the building have an elevator? If so, does the building have a backup generator and, related, how often and for how long each time does the area lose electricity?

21. Does or will the school provide a Western-style, coiled-spring mattress?

22. Are utilities and Internet included and, if so, are they shared across several apartments?

23. Is a kitchen included, and if so, what provisions for cooking are there, e.g., gas/electric range, microwave, etc.?

24. Are kitchen and cooking utensils provided?

25. Did the school provide you with representative photos of the apartment you will be living in?

26. Adequate air conditioning/heat in all rooms? (ask this of teacher only)

There is about as much variability in the type of housing arrangements offered to foreign teachers as there are schools and it can range from being put up in a dingy 2-star Chinese hotel room (particularly common with short-term summer teaching positions) to being provided with a fairly new, 3-bedroom, 140 square meter (approximately 1500 square feet) apartment with a bathtub.

Despite the fact that every school and university has a sizable cleaning staff, the apartment you walk into—often just after having traveled up to halfway around the world—will often be dirty and in a complete state of disrepair: It will appear as if you were never expected. You will either need to be psychologically prepared for this before you arrive or, in the alternative, you must explicitly state in writing that you expect the apartment to be inspected, repaired and painted if needed, and cleaned before you arrive as a pre-condition of the contract (if you do not specify this, they will not bother to do so). Related, if you are applying for jobs from overseas, ask to see representative photos of the same apartment you will be provided with.

Shortly after arriving in China, make certain that you ask to see your apartment before signing the contract (often you will be taken directly to the school’s main branch for contract signing prior to being taken to the apartment). The apartment provided to you by the school is the single strongest predicator of how you will be treated by that employer over the course of your contract. If the school presents you with an unsuitable apartment (controlling, of course, for that particular city's housing standards), ask to see another apartment or, in the alternative, for a monthly housing allowance so that you can procure suitable housing on your own (and make certain this stipulation is added to the addendum before signing the contract).

If the school denies these reasonable requests, you should then refuse to sign the contract until you are provided with suitable housing. Unfortunately, this usually becomes a lose-lose situation, because if the school finally and begrudgingly acquiesces into providing you with a better (i.e., more costly) apartment than they had originally planned, they will in turn attempt to have you compensate them for that in other ways, and you will find yourself struggling with them throughout the entire duration of your contract. Therefore, it is absolutely essential that you speak with at least one current teacher at any school you are considering for the purpose of asking explicit and detailed questions about the quality of the housing, as well as the school’s response time to reasonable requests for repairs. If you receive any indication that there are significant housing problems or that teachers are basically left to their own devices if anything goes wrong with the apartment after they move in, you should immediately walk away from the offer.

Most old-hands in China choose to live off-campus and will negotiate a separate housing allowance as part of their remuneration package. Most private schools and even a few government universities will consider this option—typically for those who have been at the school for awhile or, at the very least, are already in China. This option would not, generally speaking, be available to unknown entities applying from abroad, and this is one of the primary reasons you need to choose your first position in China very carefully.

Work Milieu and Physical Environment

27. Does the school appear to value the role of foreign teachers or are they simply viewed as superfluous? Related, ask if foreign teachers are ever assigned to teach classes other than "oral English."

28. Are the classrooms adequately equipped for their intended purpose?

29. What is the nature of the relationship between the Chinese and foreign teachers?

30. Is the school’s FAO (if the school has one) responsive and sensitive to the needs of the foreign teachers?

Aside from salary and other benefits, you should consider the school’s work milieu and physical environment because these will affect your mental status and overall degree of satisfaction no less than housing, workload, and salary do.

How are foreign teachers regarded by the school’s owners, administrators, foreign affairs officer (FAO), and Chinese teachers? It’s an important question and you should give serious thought to this before accepting any job offer. To better inform this point, some background information about the status of English as an academic discipline is in order here.

What all foreign teachers in China eventually learn is that English as a foreign language is not academically valued in China. The basis for this can be traced back to Zhou Enlai’s 1975 reform policies known as the Four Modernizations, which were officially adopted after Deng Xiaoping assumed control of the CCP in late 1978. These policies were designed to make China a great economic power by the early 21st century and centered around agriculture, industry, technology and defense. The implementation of these reform policies does not require mastery of the humanities and social sciences. Only students with very high scores on the Gao Kao exam (China’s college admission test) are assigned to scientific and technical disciplines and will ever have a real opportunity to contribute significantly to Chinese society during their lifetime: All others must study a foreign language or sit through a four-year course in, for example, tourism as a consolation.

The truth is English as an academic discipline is begrudgingly tolerated by China’s academic leaders as a highly contested national curriculum requirement. Clever businessmen exploit it as a “get-rich-quick-scheme” as China’s nouveau riche drag their children, as young as four-years old, to private English language schools in droves in the questionable hope that English language proficiency will provide their children with an economic advantage later on in life. In this context, foreign oral English teachers are viewed either as a government-mandated imposition or, in the case of private training centers, as a very costly and acrimoniously resented business expense.

This institutionalized devaluation of English as an academic subject—as well as the resentment towards foreign teachers that necessarily accompanies it—find expression in both big and small ways. In some cases, it is very well disguised and the foreign teacher may be fairly unaware of it. In others, it is pervasive, insidious and oppressive. It is not unheard of for foreign teachers to be treated rather poorly by both the school’s administration as well their Chinese colleagues. If you are going to be openly resented and conspired against because of your higher salary and overall better conditions, it would be worthwhile to know this before you accept a job offer and move up to halfway around the world.

Finally, inquire about the suitability of the school’s physical environment. Are the classrooms adequate for their intended purpose? Is there sufficient sound-proofing between classrooms? Are they properly climate controlled in the winter and summer? These issues may appear to be trivial concerns but when you are trying to teach business English to a group of corporate clients next to a classroom of screaming six-year olds, you won’t think so.

In-Kind Benefits

31. Does the school provide medical or health insurance?

32. What about travel allowance?

33. Does the school periodically provide gifts or bonuses?

Most schools offer some sort of nominal health-related insurance as well as travel benefits to their foreign teachers. It is customary, at private English language schools, to reimburse foreign teachers for their one-way airfare to China upon completion of a six-month contract (or after completion of the initial six months of a one-year contract) and, then, to reimburse them for their return airfare home at the completion of a one-year contract. Some schools offer straight reimbursement, others offer fixed amounts irrespective of actual costs (and the fixed amount is often less than the actual costs). In some cases, especially at government universities, the travel allowance is simply deferred income that is paid irrespective of whether one travels or not (usually 1,100 to 2,200 yuan paid just before the Spring Festival and an additional 5,000 to 10,000 yuan paid at the end of the contract).

Of course, if one is credentialed and experienced, benefits such as plane fare and travel allowance can often be successfully negotiated before signing the contract. If you have a master's degree in any field, but especially English, linguistics, or a related discipline, you should be able to successfully arrange for a 12-month contract (up front and not contingent upon renewal) and 10,000 yuan per year as a bonus paid semi-annually (in lieu of travel compensation), when negotiating with a public or private university.

As a rule, medical or health benefits are limited to accidental injury insurance, and foreign teachers are advised to either extend their current health benefits (to cover them in China) or to look into supplementing their health benefits with insurance plans designed specifically for foreign teachers (see, for example, Globasurance and Goodhealth Worldwide).

Standard "health benefits" at government universities typically include coverage of up to 80% of 2,000 RMB, maximum, for outpatient services and 80% of 10,000 RMB, maximum, for inpatient services related to accidental injuries only. If, for example, you develop a respiratory infection or contract the flu, visits to the hospital and the cost of your medication will not be covered by the school's accidental injury insurance policy. However, the cost of a hospital visit is typically no more than six to eight yuan (less than $1.12 USD), and medication costs tend to be considerably less than they would be for similar medications in the West (assuming the medication is real).

For an expanded version of this checklist, it is recommended you review Middle Kingdom Life’s comprehensive summary checklist.


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Questions to Ask Before Accepting a Job Offer at a Chinese School -- Gregory Mavrides, PhD - middlekingdomlife.com
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