Section I: Teaching English in China continued—Teaching Qualifications and Requirements
Last Updated: August 31, 2011
In practice, a significant schism exists in regard to teaching qualifications in China: As a rule, public schools and universities will require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree while private English language schools will be far more interested in an applicant’s ability to successfully engage and retain their student population irrespective of education, teacher training, and—especially in underdeveloped cities and remote locations—even experience.
In reality—as the private sector is the largest employer of foreign teachers in China—the majority of people teaching English in China do not meet the minimum requirements, i.e., a bachelor’s degree and at least two years of relevant work experience. The bottom-line is that if you are a White native speaker of English from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the U.K., or the U.S. (i.e., the "Big Five"), especially between the ages of 22 and 45, you will be able to find a job teaching English in China with or without a degree, prior teaching experience, or a TEFL certificate.
If you have read the chapter on China’s Education System, the reasons for this are already clear to you: The humanities, including foreign languages, are relatively devalued in China as academic disciplines and, consequently, the teaching of English has been compartmentalized into four separate skill sets and de-professionalized in that the role of the foreign English teacher is reduced to simply facilitating the practice of listening and speaking skills. In the vast majority of cases, it is both fair and accurate to think of the foreign teacher as the Chinese English teacher’s teaching assistant. Everyone in China knows that this vocationally limited position can be neatly filled by just about anyone who speaks English natively, looks the part, is friendly, and has the patience of Job.
Consequently, although China’s SAFEA has established specific advisory minimum requirements for the hiring of foreign English teachers, the vast majority of provinces have failed to adopt them and those that have generally fail to enforce them. In great part, the tolerance—if not wholesale acceptance—of unqualified foreigners can be explained by the fact that the rapid and tremendous proliferation of private English language schools across the country has created an insatiable demand for foreigners that simply cannot be satisfied by those who actually meet the minimum qualifications. However, this once statement of fact may be slowly changing and it appears that the question regarding which teaching requirements have been adopted and are enforced in China is becoming a superfluously moot one.
Strong anecdotal evidence now suggests that the recent economic meltdown in the United States has resulted in an ever increasing percentage of applications from more highly qualified candidates than ever before, overrepresented by degreed young adults with white-collar jobs (and an absence of strong family obligations or significant financial debt) and those who have recently graduated with a master’s degree in education and can’t find suitable employment back home (or can’t afford to live on their starting teachers’ salaries given the relatively higher cost of living). If this trend continues, it will have two predominant effects on the EFL industry in China: Employers will be able to demand more work for the same (or less) money and unqualified teachers will be far less competitive for the most desirable teaching positions and locations. There are indications that this trend has already begun to have adverse market effects in that several qualified teachers with advanced degrees working at universities have reported contract hours of 18 to 20 periods per week (as opposed to the traditional 12 to 14) and several foreign teachers at private schools have complained that mandatory office hours are being unilaterally imposed (without additional pay).
Despite this recent increase in better educated applicants, the vast majority of private English language schools are far more concerned with a Westerner's ability to successfully engage young children in a classroom than they are with a bachelor's degree. Generally speaking, an attractive young woman from one of the "Big Five" Western countries with just a TEFL certificate and a proven track record as an EFL teacher in China will be far more desirable to any private English language school than a middle-aged man with a master's degree in an unrelated field who has never taught or traveled before. A notable exception to this rule comprises joint-venture schools and Western universities with campuses in China: They strictly adhere to the minimum requirements and seek out professional educators only. Related, universities and colleges in China will insist upon a minimum of a bachelor's degree and, as of 2008, an increasing number are holding out for foreign teachers with a minimum of a master’s degree. However, what universities in China say they want juxtaposed with what they realistically need (in terms of actual job function) and are willing to pay for are rarely one and the same.
Occasionally, a university will genuinely need a foreign English teacher with a master’s degree or doctorate to teach in a graduate program in linguistics or foreign language but that type of position is relatively rare in China and the salary differential is nominal. Generally speaking, a recent college graduate with a degree in sociology and a 55-year old doctor and former professor of linguistics, with 20 years of graduate school teaching experience, will be assigned the same classes in oral English with an average salary differential of no more than 800 yuan (US$117.00) per month.
The vast majority of private English language schools in China simply do not care what type of education you have just as long as you are capable of engaging their students and keeping them coming back for more. If the school happens to be in a province that has adopted and enforces the bachelor’s degree requirement, owners have been known—if they are unscrupulous enough—to save you the trouble and will simply forge a degree on your behalf if they really need you (although you can easily imagine how such a school, in turn, regards and treats its foreign English teachers: You might want to consider spending some time in a North Korean prison camp as a more rewarding alternative). In addition, and especially in the absence of more qualified applicants, a university's FAO can always petition the municipal foreign affairs office for special dispensation to hire a foreign teacher who does not meet the SAFEA minimum requirements. In such an instance, one would be teaching legally in China without the benefit of a bachelor’s degree.
Aside from unscrupulous schools that manufacture fake degrees for their teachers, we personally do not know of nor have we ever heard of even one Chinese employer ever validating a foreign teacher’s credentials. As long as the digital copy of the diploma looks good enough, it is never questioned. Rarely do employers ask for accompanying transcripts or original documents. Consequently, it is not surprising that one recent study revealed that at least 40 percent of all foreign teachers in Taiwan had procured employment using fake degrees (Bruyas, 2007). That is, while Taiwanese employers claim to hire only foreign teachers who have a bachelor’s degree, what they are really doing is hiring foreign teachers who are in possession of a convincing Photoshop’d replica of a degree.
Nevertheless—and despite the fact that Chinese school owners and universities simply don’t care enough about English language teaching to verify the authenticity of their teachers’ degrees—using fake degrees does incur a certain element of risk as it makes you entirely vulnerable with other foreign teachers who will be able to accurately assess your background over time. Unlike the vast majority of our Chinese employers, other Westerners understand the subtleties of the English language and have a much better intuitive feel and appreciation for how four to eight years of post-secondary education affects thinking processes, viewpoints, and self-expression. You can fake a college degree with Chinese employers but you can't fake four to six years of a decent liberal arts education among better educated foreigners unless you are otherwise extremely well-read and very well-spoken.
One such Westerner—pretending to have a "3-year university degree with a joint major in sociology and anthropology"—was exposed in time as a fraud when over the course of several normal conversations he inadvertently revealed that he did not understand what "biweekly" meant (thinking that it meant twice weekly) and that he had never read, heard, or used the words "nuance" and "scrotum" before (referring to the latter as a "ball bag" and becoming visibly uncertain and momentarily silent when the proper term was used). One need not run a background check on his name and passport number to ascertain that not only had he never attended college, it is unlikely he even completed high school. Once discovered, he was reported by another foreign teacher to the school's vice principal who, in turn, informed the owner of the school. The teacher in question was demoted (he had been the school's head teacher) and his contract was not renewed. Chinese private school owners can easily accept a foreign teacher who is relatively uneducated just as long as he is effective in engaging their students: However, the thought of having been "cheated" or "lied to" is completely intolerable to them. He was actually quite fortunate to have been working for a private school at the time because if he had used that fake degree to obtain employment at a university, once discovered and confirmed, the consequences would have been immediate and much more severe, i.e., fines, deportation, and permanent banning.
The reality is, unless you are determined to teach English at a university without possession of a real degree, the use of fake degrees is essentially unnecessary. Finally, rarely does the absence of a TEFL certificate deter a prospective employer from hiring a foreign teacher if he likes everything else he has seen on the applicant’s curriculum vitae. Our best and certainly safest advice is that if you don't have a real degree then limit your job search to private English language schools exclusively. If you find yourself having difficulty securing employment in the more desirable locations without a college degree, then shift your job search to the less sought after areas, e.g., northern and western China.
Another reality, in regard to teaching English in China, involves the issues of race (ethnic background) and one’s country of origin. For the most part, and especially with private language schools, foreign teachers are hired as much (even more so) for their overall appearance and ability to attract new students as they are for their teaching skills. The reality in China today is that White and relatively young faces from the United States, Canada, England, Australia and New Zealand are considered best for business. Many highly qualified foreign teachers, particularly of Black and Chinese descent, as well as those from countries other than the aforementioned five, have reported varying degrees of difficulty finding employment in China, although a few do with a great deal of persistence, especially if they happen to already be in China.
Foreign teachers of Asian and African descent should avoid private language schools altogether and should focus their job search on public (government) schools and universities only. There is a great deal of debate about whether those who are facing obstacles based on race and nationality should focus their attention on large cities or small, remote locations. Some argue that schools in large international cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou will be more desensitized to issues of race and nationality due to the far greater preponderance of foreigners from Europe and other parts of Asia in these major cities—and, in fact, we know of several teachers from the Philippines and India, as well as Spain and Germany, who are teaching in these international cities. Others claim that, owing to the law of supply and demand, those who are not White or nationals of the “Big Five” should limit their job search to remote locations where the competition will be negligible. Virtually everyone is in agreement that personal appearances can go a long way in overcoming many of the obstacles one might otherwise encounter via e-mail correspondence only.
By all means, be honest and straightforward about who you are and where you come from. Many non-native speakers will attempt to obfuscate their nationality by initially withholding a copy of their passport or, far worse, by attempting to initially pass themselves off as a different nationality altogether (e.g., a native of France with recent Canadian citizenship presenting himself as a “bilingual Canadian”), hoping that once contact is made the truth of the situation won’t matter as much. Of course, this never works and it automatically precludes one from consideration where there might have otherwise been a chance if not for the initial attempt at duplicity.
Unfortunately, Western-born Chinese do face a particularly difficult situation in China more so than any other group of foreigners seeking employment. The reality is that most mainland Chinese do not consider Western-born Chinese to be either fully Western or Chinese and so they often encounter biases and discriminatory practices that most Caucasian foreign teachers do not have to deal with. One American-born Chinese girl we worked with, whose ancestors were originally from Guangdong province, was in tears most of time as the Chinese would often chastise her for not being a "real Chinese," yet, at the same time, the parents would frequently complain to the private school's administration that they shouldn't have to pay a higher rate for classes with a foreign teacher because the "Chinese girl" was not a "real foreigner." This bias is highly prevalent across China and, again, may be overcome through personal appearances at public schools and universities.
For a very personal and in-depth discussion of the enormous difficulties faced by non-White, non-native speakers in China, it is suggested that you read the article titled Teaching English in China for Non-White, Non-Native Speakers.
During your job hunt, try to find a public school or university that actually uses foreign teachers differentially based on education and experience (easier said than done). Certified primary and secondary school teachers should limit their search to international schools or those that are joint ventures with established Western academic institutions. Private schools that engage the services of a Western manager (e.g., head teacher) or director of studies (DOS) might also tend to value the role of the foreign teacher more than the majority do.
Those with doctoral degrees and academic backgrounds in fields other than English should focus their search on International Schools within large key public universities (see unit Teaching in Fields Other Than English).
Finally, if you do decide to accept a position at a private language school, especially if you are doing so without proper qualifications, it is highly recommended that you make certain you have access to enough money to return home if need be, as schools that tend to hire unqualified people are where the most severe abuses and exploitation of foreign teachers occur.