Working as an educator in China

[Note: below is a guest post from a friend, Glenn Howlett, who is originally from the UK.  As mentioned in Chapter 9, due to the high demand, there are approximately 100,000 foreigner teachers and experts working in China.  For comparison, there are about 600,000 foreign residents currently living in China.  Should you come to China and work in one of these positions?  Unlike the transient backpackers that come and go, Glenn is a focused professional and was awarded a teacher of the year award in Anhui three years ago and thus gives a unique perspective to this labor segment.]

I’ll start by stating that I’ve been in China coming up to 7 years and I’m 29 years old. I’ve worked for 4 years in a small city (but excellent University) in Anhui province and approaching 3 years in a “private University” in Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu province. In addition to these full time jobs I’ve helped colleagues by teaching someone on their behalf (helping my colleague to build their relationship with someone, this is called guanxi (关系) and is vitally important in China) and also worked in an established training centre during summer vacations.

The term I’m probably labelled by is a “Foreign Expert” which usually means some kind of EFL or English teacher. This has been my role in my two Universities, and also occasionally been handed a “Cross Culture Communication” course. At the training centre I’ve taught both Oral English to students preparing an IELTS examination (International English Language Testing System) and Oral English to children at a summer camp. From what I’ve found teaching “Oral English” is whatever you choose it to be, I consider myself to be a responsible individual so I prepare thoroughly and always try to improve both my teaching and lessons… however I’ve found that you’re never really put under any pressure, never have a curriculum provided and whenever you approach a colleague or liaison to ask then the common response is always “to just do anything.” Therefore it seems that many “Foreign Experts” really do take that to heart and do whatever… or nothing at all. In my experience Universities are quick to show appreciation if you’re exceeding their expectations and in Anhui I received a provincial award for my efforts.

I don’t believe that I’ve faced too many problems here, compared to others. As already stated a lack of direction, curriculum and teaching materials are just the norm. You will probably receive a textbook but really I only find them of use when teaching extremely low level English learners. Possibly two inconveniences that I’ll mention are salary and problems being solved.

  • In my first position, I was to be paid monthly at “around” a certain date. This proved to be extremely inconsistent as if the “boss” was away (which was common) then you didn’t receive the salary on time. I remember one time I wasn’t paid for 7 weeks! Then just a week after I was paid on time for the following month. In my current University no such problems exist.
  • With regards to problems being solved… maybe I’m being specific to living accommodation problems. If there’s a problems you contact the correct person, he/she’ll have a look to clarify the problem, then they’ll contact a guy to come and take a look, again just to clarify. Then after sometime action will be taken, this can be extremely frustrating as many of these problems could seem minor to them but to “us” are huge… like a broken shower, dodgy plumbing, dodgy door lock, broken air-conditioner or shower etc. From my experience you really need to point out the obvious: “OK my shower/air-conditioner/toilet is broken, you expect that it won’t be fixed for 3 days — give me a key to another flat.”

Most immediate opportunities open to foreigners in the education industry are as “Oral English” teachers, occasionally overlapping with other courses. However in big cities there are many teachers employed in Chinese public High/Middle Schools, Kindergartens and International Schools. In my opinion only the large capital cities will see options other than an “Oral Teacher.”

You can probably maintain usual hobbies here, especially in the large cities. I regularly play football (soccer) on a foreign team that I joined and also with students in my University. Traveling must be an important hobby here — China is so large and varied, you really must make the effort to get out and see this country while you’re here, especially since most don’t know if they’re here for 6 months or 10 years.

The overall lifestyle will be completely different for everyone, I started in a small city of a “poorer” province (compared to it’s Eastern neighboring provinces) so everything was a complete culture shock. Luckily there was often a pool of 3-6 foreigners who were in the same boat and all got along. This is an excellent environment to understand the Chinese ways, culture and language, sadly for most they’re always missing “home comforts” or long for the foreign lifestyle again. In the large cities you can probably find many ex-pat areas/bars and circles of friends, sports groups and organisations, even western restaurants and supermarkets. This of course is much more comfortable but at the same time you probably won’t experience the Chinese way of life, and the cost of living a foreign lifestyle here is quite high. In my mind it’s not worth the cost of such meals or drinks. I’m much happier doing my own thing with my wife, playing football (soccer) or going to the gym and travelling.

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