There are many reasons that bring people to teach in China. Some people see it as basically a paid holiday (it isn’t). Some people want to immerse themselves in the culture (they probably won’t). Some quite simply cannot cut it in their home countries and are running away from debt/relationships/reality. Whatever their reasons, TEFL teachers are always in demand in China, and it’s always possible to get work here. Let’s take a look at some of the realities of being a teacher here:
You are hired because of how you look
So you spent a month learning about interaction patterns and multiple intelligences. You know the difference between the presents perfect and continuous. You know all about graded language and concept-check questions and ‘realia’ and a million other facets of TEFL minutiae. Oh, you’re Asian-American? Sorry, no dice.
Let’s be honest for a moment: you didn’t get this job because you’re a fantastic teacher. It could well be that you are, of course, but that’s incidental; you got this job because parents (i.e. the money) want to see a foreign face.
This is one of the key facets of this business: parents pay more because your school has white faces (I’ll come back to this). Language schools who do not have foreign teachers have to charge less; it’s that simple.
What does this mean for you? This primarily depends on two things: where you come from, and the colour of your skin. The sad reality is that for many Chinese people, ‘English speaker’ equals ‘white’. Some schools will prioritise white teachers over darker-skinned ones. Some parents/grandparents will become immediately displeased if assigned a non-white teacher, even if that person is a fantastic teacher.
Ironically, the people have it absolutely the worst are ABCs (American-born Chinese) and BBCs (their British equivalent). Parents just simply refuse to believe that they could possibly speak English as well as a white person, because linguistic ability is obviously dictated by melanin levels. In twelve years I have never seen an ABC or BBC working as a teacher in China.
It’s not all rainclouds and gloom on this front. Schools are gradually opening up to the possibility that maybe teaching ability and personality are more important than simply being white, and language schools are more diverse than ever. But if you’re not white, you may occasionally encounter some dipshit mum upset that her kid isn’t being taught by a ‘proper’ foreigner.
Chinese holidays are not really holidays
If you’ve never worked in China, then it may come as something of a shock that a national holiday is not received here with joy, but with plenty of grumbling and trepidation. “But Lee,” you might say, “why the fuck would you bitch about a holiday?”
First off watch your language, hypothetical reader. Kids read this shit. Secondly, a holiday is never a holiday in China.
Let’s say May Day, a Chinese national holiday, falls on a Saturday (a traditionally busy day for a lot of TEFL teachers). This means cancelled classes, which means lost profit, and management are not having that shit. They’re not a fucking charity. No – instead, they’re gonna switch all the Saturday classes to Monday. You just got Saturday off, but now you’re working Monday instead.
“Big fucking deal,” you say, being the foulmouthed deviant you probably are. “You still get the same amount of days off.” Well technically, yes, this is true. But that Monday that used to be your day off? They can’t afford to give you another day off that week. You’ll get a day in lieu, sure, but a day in lieu ain’t no two days off in a week. Long story short, China may be one of the few countries in the world where national holidays actually make your working life worse.
Your school is a business first
There are exceptions to the above. Some people work for universities or middle schools, but they’re few and far between. Most of us are in the TEFL trenches taking middle-management grenades. And if you’re working TEFL at a private school, your school isn’t in it for the betterment of mankind. They’re a business.
And there’s nothing wrong with that; you get a (hopefully) fat paycheck at the end of the month because of that. The product that you offer is in very high demand in China. But fried chicken is in high demand, too; that doesn’t make KFC any less shitty.
The reality is that certain people in your company don’t give a shit about the quality of the product. They just want money in hand and fresh bodies through the door. If little Jimmy’s English is dreadful after four years of study at your school, you might not want him to go the next level. It might be in his interest to actually go back a couple of levels.
But you have a whole array of people who absolutely do not want poor Jimmy’s English to get any better. Your Chinese TA doesn’t want Jimmy to repeat a course, because her bonus will go down. Your manager doesn’t want Jimmy to repeat, because his mother might get angry and refund. Jimmy’s mother doesn’t want Jimmy to repeat, because she thinks Jimmy’s a couple IQ points just north of Bruce Wayne.
This is just one example, but the point is that money trumps education. Keep pushing bewildered kids through levels, even if they’re learning jack shit. Keep squeezing new students into the school, even if you have nowhere to put them. Keep bowing to parents’ whims and putting kids in levels that are all wrong for them. Doesn’t matter, it’s all money in the bank!
It is what it is, but it’s worth being prepared for it. Your school is a business first. Even if its name suggests otherwise.
Your Chinese colleagues will get treated atrociously
Going back to that Chinese TA who wants little Jimmy to go up a level, even though it’s going to suck for him: what a bitch, right? Doesn’t she care that Jimmy’s spent four years thinking he’s been learning a particularly confusing form of kung fu?
The reality is that the Chinese staff in any TEFL school get treated like dog shit. Their pay will be one fifth of yours at best. They will get docked pay for any arbitrary reason management feels like pulling out of their arse. Only five minutes early? Bye bye fifty kuai. Didn’t prepare a 2000-word report on this motivational business book we told you to read? There goes another hundred. Didn’t wear makeup today? That’s another fifty gone.
You may think you have it bad sometimes, but they have it way worse. It’s a simple matter of supply and demand; there is a finite supply of foreigners willing to relocate to, and work in, China. But there are always English-speaking Chinese people willing to work in a language school. If TEFL Tom doesn’t like it, he goes back to the UK, and the school just wasted a whole lot of time and money. If Cherry the TA doesn’t like it, tough shit. She can leave or they can fire and replace her.
Bear this in mind, and don’t make their working lives any harder than they already are. They’re just cogs in the machine, same as you.
Despite all this…
It can actually be pretty rewarding
I just left my job of twelve years, and some of the reactions that I got from students were heart-warming, even for a cynical bastard like me. Some kids I had seen go from adorable six-year-olds to awkward teens twisted by the grotesqueries of puberty, but they still remembered those classes from six or seven years earlier, and they still remembered my name. Some kids, who were nothing but little bastards in my classes, broke down and cried. Plenty gave me gifts, and some of them had obviously put a lot of effort into making them for me.
So it’s worth remembering that, for all the bullshit that goes with the job, there’s a good side to it. We all remember our favourite teachers. Some of the kids will, on some level, remember the lessons you taught for the rest of their lives. You made a difference.
And if that isn’t a diabetes-inducing, saccharine-as-shit way to turn around a depressing article, I don’t know what is.