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On Being a Good Foreign Teacher in China

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I recently had a long talk, actually a series of long talks, with one of our younger foreign teachers about what it means to be considered a “good teacher” in China by one’s administrators and school owners.

To understand my answer to this question first requires that one consider the role of the foreign English teacher in China in its proper context: It’s either to meet a highly contested and resented national Ministry of Education foreign language requirement that compels schools to expose Chinese students to a native speaker or—in the case of a private English language school—to make money for the school owner. In this context, the correct answer is clear: A “good teacher” is one who is popular with the students, makes few demands of the school, asks very few questions and essentially does whatever he or she is told. It’s really that simple.

This young foreigner is more sincere than most. He would love to think of himself as a good teacher—and perhaps he has the natural ability to be a good teacher one day and maybe he will finish his degree next year, go on for additional training and become a real one in his own country. Only then will he ever truly know if he is any good—only when popularity is no longer the only criterion being used to measure his performance.

I’m not suggesting that a teacher’s popularity with his or her students is insignificant or that it says absolutely nothing about the quality of a teacher: It often does. It’s just that when all the foreign English teacher is required to do in China is engage students in simple conversation and keep them coming back, it’s difficult at best to know precisely what that popularity truly means.

I know of a foreign “teacher” in China who is extremely popular with his students (actually, I know several just like him). There is only one problem with him as a teacher from my perspective: His students don’t seem to be learning anything. That is to say, most of his students—even the ones who have been attending his classes for years—can barely communicate in English. He is funny, he is engaging, he is thoroughly entertaining and he has an intuitive understanding of the psyche of young people that is quite impressive. His control over those classes of otherwise bored, overworked, terribly fatigued and mentally exhausted prepubescent Chinese kids is exemplary: It’s just that no one is truly learning anything of substance and—in all fairness to him—that’s because he isn’t trying to teach anything of substance. You see, he knows that 80% of his students don’t really want to be there and whether he could teach truly motivated students is entirely unclear as he had never taught one day in his life before moving to China. In that regard, he understands his role here in China as a foreign English teacher better than most—or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he accepts it better than most. (PS. He doesn’t sing in class that I am aware of, but he does have a slapstick comedy routine that would put even the Three Stooges and Marx Brothers to shame.) He is, in my opinion at least, the proverbial and quintessential “foreign monkey.” And, boy oh boy, is he damn good for business.

Is This As Good As It Gets?

Aside from being affable and entertaining, is it possible to be popular with one’s students in China based on and limited to the quality of the material being taught and learned? Yes it is, but that is an outcome that is primarily (if not only) possible with older students (particularly university and corporate students and, possibly, Western-bound senior middle school students) and, in the former instance, appreciation would rarely extend beyond one’s students unless that teacher is able to “give face” to one’s superiors by, for example, helping the department to show better at university- and provincial-wide English contests.

One year after I began teaching at a key provincial university, the university’s teaching office was forbidden by my department chair to provide me with my students’ teaching evaluations because they were significantly better than hers. (For the sake of clarity, I should also quickly add that at no time did I ever attempt to teach “oral English”: I would simply distribute interesting articles in class covering various topics I thought would appeal to 21-year old students, e.g., articles about relationships and dating one would find in magazines such as Psychology Today or Time, and encouraged them to speak freely, think independently and challenge me as much as possible: no easy feat in China.)

Is my young friend really a good teacher? I sincerely have no way of knowing the answer to that question for sure because he’s never had any genuine teaching experience outside of being hired to be popular and good for business in China. It’s not as if I can review his students’ exam scores, objectively test their proficiency in specific subject matter he was hired to impart, or even examine the existence of a correlation between attendance in his classes and performance on the College English Test (CET-4 and -6). I know he’s going home this summer for the explicit purpose of finishing his degree. I truly hope he does finish and I further hope that he gets a job as a real teacher so that one day he can answer that question for himself.


# RE: On Being a Good Foreign Teacher in ChinaPaul Stratton 2010-02-18 17:55
I have read the guide with great interest and learned a lot from it. Thank you.

I graduated this summer with a degree in Asian studies and was thinking about spending a year or two teaching in China. I have a couple of questions.

I think you are saying that teaching primary and second school students in private English schools is not very rewarding and that it’s more of a business than a real school. But from what I’ve seen, there is a big difference in salaries. Why is it public universities pay so little compared to private training centers?

My second question is does it matter which university you teach at or is the experience about the same at any government university? What about private universities? Would the teaching experience be usually better there?

Thanks again for a really informative website!

Paul Stratton
# RE: RE: On Being a Good Foreign Teacher in ChinaDr. Greg 2010-02-18 17:55
Hi Paul,

Salary differentials between private training centers and public universities are very deceiving. While it is true that private language schools do often pay as much as 1 to 2000 more per month, that increase is offset by the fact that a teacher is working considerably more hours per year for that salary at a private school.

For example, let’s take the case of a private language school that pays 5,500 for 16 hours of teaching per week. Just to keep it simple, we will treat the time needed for class preparation and grading homework as a constant (the same for both positions). Paid vacation is highly variable at private schools, but the norm is about four weeks per year. At 5,500 per month, that yields a gross annual salary of 66,000 yuan. If we divide 66,000 by 768 annual work hours (16 hrs x 48 weeks), that yields a pay rate of 85.94 yuan per hour.

Let’s compare that to a public university that pays 4500 for typically 12 to 16 hours per week. Again, to keep it simple, we’ll assume 16 hours per week. The big difference, however, is that one is only working 34 weeks (two 17-week semesters) for that salary instead of 48. At 4,500 per month, that yields a gross of annual salary of 54,000 yuan. If we divide 54,000 by 544 annual work hours (16 hrs x 34 weeks), that yields a pay rate of 99.26 yuan per hour which represents an increase of approximately 15% per hour over what one would earn at a private school. (Most universities will pay a 12-month salary if the teacher renews his or her contract.)

In addition, most universities don’t care if their foreign teachers moonlight, while most private schools do. Thus it’s often quite possible for foreign teachers to pick up several hours of choice part-time work during the week and even to teach in both winter and summer programs.

To answer your second and third questions, no, not all universities are the same. While it is true that conditions at public universities are far more standardized than they are at private language schools and training centers, differences do exist in how foreign teachers are regarded and treated by their supervisors and foreign affairs officers. My best advice is to make certain you speak with at least one foreign teacher in the same department you will be working in before accepting a job offer. Take a close look at the summary checklist of questions you should ask before doing so.

As a rule and all other things equal, the quality of students will be better at a public university than they will be a private one: Private universities are, generally speaking, degree mills for students whose college admission test scores were too low to enter into a decent government university.

Good luck to you.
# RE: On Being a Good Foreign Teacher in ChinaAlan Myers 2010-02-18 17:55
Corporate training isn’t everything that it’s cracked up to be either. Most of them are tired from a long hard day’s work and they have no choice but to be there. They will try to show off in front of the teacher and each other about how ‘good’ their English is like they are saying that they really don’t need to be there.

Like you said, the only time you really get motivated students in a corporate environment is when there is a carrot at the end of the stick, like getting the chance to work or study abroad. Then watch how seriously they take the class.

Alan Myers
# RE: On Being a Good Foreign Teacher in ChinaJohn Paxton 2010-02-18 17:56
I think job satisfaction depends a lot on what the teacher is looking for. I know a foreign teacher who will only teach young children because that’s what she is most comfortable doing and she did it for years before moving to China. If you put her in a college class, she would be completely lost.

Also, as you point out, what foreign teachers are hired to do and what they actually do in the classroom is usually not the same thing. Keeping the numbers up is important at a private school but foreign teachers have a lot more freedom at universities in China than they do in their own countries. I agree with you that the real problem at universities is that a serious and effective foreign teacher will be too threatening and usually doesn’t last more than 3 years.
# RE: On Being a Good Foreign Teacher in ChinaDouglas Uhlman 2010-02-18 17:56
I have completed a similar program in Austria. From that program, I continued on to teach for the last 8 years. There is a marked contrast from being a native speaker in a foreign classroom (where you are the fun part of their educational experience) to teaching in a classroom where you are responsible for outcomes. Being good at presentation is only part of being a good educator.

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