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Section I: Teaching English in China continued

Educational Milieu and Teacher Support Services in China

This chapter will discuss the typical work environment encountered by foreign teachers in China and what they can expect in terms of teaching materials and related support services.

Physical Work Environment

Students in Cold Stark Chinese Classroom

Students must wear their coats for warmth in a typically stark and utilitarian classroom. Poster on rear wall admonishes students to keep the room clean.

One of the things you should be mentally prepared for, before you arrive in China, is that your school's work and classroom physical environment will typically be quite different than what you are accustomed to or expect from a school back home. In addition, support services, e.g., office supplies, secretarial support, textbook ordering, etc., which we take for granted back home, is virtually nonexistent in China.

The classroom's physical environment will often be stark and utilitarian barring all but elite (read expensive) international schools. In public primary and secondary schools, as well as in many successful private language schools, aside from public announcements and warnings, there will be a striking absence of any type of educational paraphernalia or wall decorations, e.g., maps, colorful posters, etc., that often adorn a Western school. The classrooms are commonly in desperate need of refurbishing, yet it appears that no one but you notices. Heating and air conditioning, if the classroom has them, will often be quite inadequate, and there are typically rather rigid restrictions on what time of the year these can be used and at what temperatures they can be set (irrespective of the need). In one major key university in the southern part of China, where temperatures in the spring and summer often surpass 90 degrees (32 C), none but the multimedia rooms containing computers have air conditioning.

Only high-ranking educational officials—e.g., university presidents, vice-presidents, departmental deans and associate deans—are provided with their own offices: All other faculty typically congregate in a large room with a conference table that serves as their collective office.

In addition to esthetics, there appears to be very little attention paid to sound proofing. Often, you will be teaching above the din of the students reciting English at the top of their lungs in the adjoining classrooms.

Textbooks, Teaching Materials, and Office Supplies

If you will be teaching at a private English language school, you will be using one of several standard EFL textbooks that are published in China (for a description of the more common ones, see unit "What Foreign English Teachers in China Actually Teach"). However, if you will be teaching at a government school, you will most likely face a very different set of circumstances.

Textbook selection is a far more complicated process in China than it is in our respective native countries. Suffice it to say, your choices in textbooks (and it is unlikely you will have one) will be quite limited for a variety of reasons. As a rule, the book must have been written or coauthored by a Chinese national, approved by several review committees in ascending hierarchical order (a process that can take well over a year with absolutely no guarantee that the finished work will ever be approved for publication), and then printed in China typically through a government-owned university press. It is not a matter of simply grabbing the textbook catalog from the department secretary and selecting a book that meets your fancy. The chances are great that the book you are handed and instructed to use will be relatively poor in quality: typically a relatively thin paperback volume that was first written in Chinese and then translated (often poorly) into English. It will be replete with errors in grammar, syntax, spelling, and word usage.

... it is just assumed that the teachers will make their own arrangements for whatever materials need to be used and distributed in class

As an alternative, you will be highly encouraged to develop and supply your own teaching materials gleaned off the Internet (and that can require several hours of prep time per week. In addition, this is a common practice that is also expected of both Chinese and foreign professors teaching professional courses other than foreign language). Certainly, you will not have the option of ordering and using a standard EFL textbook that is published exclusively in the West. If you do have a copy of it with you (or can otherwise obtain it through an Internet distributor), you might be allowed by your department head to ask the class monitor11 to (illegally) Photostat enough copies of it for the entire class (who, in turn, distributes and collects the money for it from the rest of the class). This system of reproduction is even employed at first-tier universities throughout China. In great part, it is a matter of cost. Western publishers price their textbooks as if they are made of gold and the cost is simply prohibitive for the vast majority of students in China. Conversely, the cost of photocopying is generally minimal at 1 mao, or USD 1.4 cents, per page. We are not defending the practice, just explaining it.

Related, if you find that you are in need of an audio cassette player or some other audiovisual equipment we take for granted back home, you will typically run into difficulties. If you are fortunate enough to be working for a school that is well-endowed by the parents or rich alumni, you will most likely be able to schedule the use of special multimedia rooms (these are typically rooms with a computer, projector and a pull-down screen). However, and for the most part—especially at government schools—your choice will be to supply it yourself or do without it. That is, in most public and even private language schools, it is just assumed that the teachers will make their own arrangements for whatever materials need to be used or distributed in class, and will provide at their own expense all but the most basic supplies, e.g., chalk and blackboard. In fact, most conscientious teachers seem to buy a relatively inexpensive inkjet printer and incur the cost of generating enough copies of whatever materials they need for their entire classes. This unspoken expectation and demand is often an enormous source of frustration and resentment to most foreign teachers, especially for those who are working at very successful and profitable private English language schools.

Related to the issue of office supplies is one of quality: In all but major international cities, office supplies, particularly in regard to personal stationery, is quite limited. Although one can readily find a ream of inexpensive 20lb A4 "all-purpose" printer and copier paper, it is virtually impossible to find high quality vellum and cotton fiber papers. In contrast, one can easily find a wide range of pens, including Mont Blanc and Waterman, as well as other imports.

Decent brand name laser printers, such as HP and Epson, can be purchased for under 2500 yuan. Laser printer toner cartridges tend to run anywhere from 700 to 900 yuan per cartridge, depending on location, but you can typically use one cartridge for printing up to 3,000 pages. Conversely, inkjet printers—with the capability of printing in color—are considerably less expensive to purchase upfront (in fact, the manufacturers just about give them away) because the real profit is made through the sale of their relatively high-priced ink cartridges, which typically only yield between 500 to 800 pages per cartridge depending on the type and quality of the document being printed. Consequently, it is generally cheaper to purchase and use a laser printer over time, particularly if you use your printer every day.




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Middle Kingdom Life is the premier award-winning educational website for foreign teachers and Western expats in China. It was founded by an American professor in psychology and sociology for the purpose of disseminating valid and reliable information about living and teaching in China. The site's mission is to protect and enhance the interests and social welfare of foreign teachers and Western expats in China.

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