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Section I: Teaching English in China continued

Office Hours and Other Free Work

This chapter discusses the various ways in which Chinese employers will make additional demands on your time for little or no extra money. These include, but are not limited to, office hours, English Corners and speaking contests, commercials and advertising campaigns, as well as attending school-related and official government functions during which time you might very well be expected to sing for your supper (quite literally).

Office Hours

Other School Business?

The imposition of mandatory "office hours" is a relatively new take-back feature creeping up all around China in private school contracts. This specifies that the teacher will be obligated to spend additional hours in the office each day when not teaching (in a few cases, they will ask for as many as 40 hours per week including teaching hours, in what amounts to a full-time job without nearly adequate pay). The teachers are told this is to allow them time for "lesson planning." The truth is, it is so visiting parents and potential adult students can see the foreign teachers on display. Needless to say, no teacher should agree to this provision without compensation. Aside from office hours, there are several other ways that both private and public schools do cajole free and low-paid work out of unsuspecting foreign teachers.

Sometimes, too, this vague term "office hours" is simply used as a cover for compelling free (or low-paid pay) work out of a teacher (such as curriculum or website development, extra curricula activities with the students outside the classroom, etc.), who has formal academic experience or expertise in other areas. If you see the words "office hours" in your contract, that should serve as a Big Red Flag to you. You need to specify, very clearly, what is precisely intended by this and at what rate of pay you will be compensated. Under no circumstances should you ever agree to demands on your time that are unpaid. If the employer insists, regardless of the justification, just walk away from the offer.

The reality is, a reputable school—one that respects its teachers and treats them well—will not require additional work or time from its foreign teachers that it is not willing or able to pay for, pure and simple. If the school's intention is to engage you for personal services other than teaching, then they need to say so explicitly and they need to pay you accordingly, if you so agree.

English Corners and Contests

A very common practice at universities (as well some private schools) is to engage the foreign teacher as the host of a weekly "English Corner," as well as to have him or her serve as a judge or quizmaster during their semiannual English language contests. Both of these activities warrant some discussion, as the considerable amount of work involved in them is seldom fully disclosed until after the teacher has begun work.

English Corners are a ubiquitous and often troublesome fact of life for foreign teachers in China. Essentially, a foreign teacher is asked to initiate and speak to some topic that might be of interest (usually topics that address cultural differences) to Chinese students (or adults) with the intent of engaging the impromptu group of drop-ins in an active discussion. Universities typically treat this as a voluntary extra-curricular student activity, while many private language schools use them as a marketing tool in which the foreign teacher is taken to a large bookstore or some other public place where those who are interested in learning English are likely to be found.

Most students attend these English Corners solely to listen, and to be informed in an entertaining manner about Western life. If pressed to initiate a topic of discussion themselves, or when cajoled over a period of several minutes to raise a question, the students will typically and simply ask "Do you like Chinese food?" or "Do you know how to use chopsticks?" If asked a direct question, based on the 10 to 15 minute soliloquy you have just given, the student may respond with a monosyllabic answer. A big part of the problem is that the issue of face is very important in China, so unless the students are very comfortable with their English language skills, they are unlikely to risk embarrassing themselves in front of their peers by making a mistake. So, in practice, English Corners amount to little more than providing students with the opportunity to listen to a foreigner talk continuously to himself for up to two hours at a time, and, consequently, have absolutely no more pedagogical value than if the students were to watch an English language DVD by themselves back at their dormitory (without subsequent discussion). Despite this reality, virtually all universities and most private schools heavily subscribe to them as both useful and desirable.

All universities hold and participate in campus-wide and provincial English language competitions, as often as four times per academic year. Each department holds an English contest for their own students, and then the winners of the departmental contests compete against one another in a university-wide competition. There are typically two categories of winners: Those who are English majors and those who aren't. Students who win the university-wide contest will then compete at the provincial level, and the winners of that contest will be sent to Beijing for the national competition. Universities, especially the department heads responsible for the English language program, are heavily invested in the outcome of these competitions, and they tend to be extremely political.

As a foreign teacher, you will undoubtedly be asked to participate in these English contests first as a tutor, to help the students prepare their speeches and to correct their pronunciation, and, later, as a judge, usually on the departmental level, and then as a "quizmaster" at the university and provincial levels. A quizmaster is responsible for asking impromptu questions based on the student's speech, after which the contestant has two minutes to respond.

Universities maintain very different policies regarding how foreign teachers are compensated, if at all, for participating in English Corners and English contests. Some universities factor English Corners into the teacher's workload, while others treat it as mandatory overtime, in which the hourly rate of pay will generally be 70 to 100 yuan. English contests are an entirely different story, and the rate of pay for participating in these is usually determined after the fact based on budgetary constraints, and often amounts to a rate of pay that is considerably lower than the stated pay rate for overtime in one's contract. The point is, you should really ask what the expectations are regarding your participation in these extra-curricular activities, and how they are compensated for, before you sign the contract.

You Ought to be in Pictures!

Foreign Teacher Poses for School Ad

Another thing to be prepared for, one that is not directly related to office hours, per se, but that involves unpaid demands on your time, is that many private schools will cajole the more attractive, younger or professional looking teachers to participate in TV shows, commercials, educational programs, voice-over's, and other promotional media events. These "wonderful opportunities" (only made available, you know, to a few special and favored teachers... wink, wink) are virtually never paid for. The school owners bank on the fact that as most foreign teachers seem to so highly relish the chance to have their "15 minutes of fame," they will never once raise the question of compensation for what can turn out to be hours of their time. You will have to decide for yourself if providing your free time on your day off to participate in promotional media events and photo shoots—to be used for as many weeks, months or years as the owner cares to—without compensation of any kind, makes you a star or a fool.

Having written this, we do think there is a difference between cooperating with a school's need to promote their business and allowing yourself to be exploited. It is customary for schools to ask to take and use your photo for display inside the school as well as in advertising campaigns. Virtually all foreign teachers readily agree to this, as it doesn't involve a significant investment of their time.

The Honor of Your Presence is Requested Required...

Finally, virtually all local and provincial governments sponsor various holiday celebrations and banquets to which foreign teachers are invited. Your attendance is greatly appreciated—and may even be required for those working at public schools and universities—as it gives both the school and the government considerable face. In addition, foreign experts who have been imposed upon for low-paid or free services by higher-ranking government officials (associate director and above), such as for copy editing, private tutoring, and voice-over's, etc., will typically be seated at the head (#1) table along with the highest-ranking officials as an expression of appreciation and a form of compensation.

One phenomenon you should be prepared for in China, especially if you are tone-deaf or a little shy, is that foreign teachers are often expected to participate in some type of social activity during these events that often involves singing or making speeches (during which time you will praise the glory of the school, its leaders, and China). Sometimes this amounts to the "performing White monkey syndrome" while, at other times, inviting your participation is a truly genuine way of including you along with the Chinese as a valued colleague. You will have to evaluate each occasion on its own merit and decide for yourself if, in reality, all you are being asked to do is sing for your supper.

Notwithstanding this one caveat, many foreigners actually enjoy participating in these social functions as it affords them the opportunity to meet and network with other foreigners as well as government officials. Proper business attire is required, so it is strongly advised that you bring along suitable clothing for such occasions.


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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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