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Teaching English in China: Job Satisfaction Test

How Satisfied Are You as an English Teacher in China?

This 20-item test is based on standard measures of job satisfaction developed by organizational psychologists for predicting employee retention.

Years of research on teacher job satisfaction have identified four primary domains that are highly associated with job satisfaction and teacher retention: administrative support; student behavior; school atmosphere, and; teacher autonomy. In what might be surprising to some, salary and benefits are weakly associated with overall teacher satisfaction and retention (Perie & Baker, 1997).

Our brief assessment below will accurately measure your current feelings in regard to all four domains related to teacher satisfaction. The test is followed by a discussion exploring the special difficulties facing oral English language teachers in China and will offer possible alternatives for those who are unhappy with their work.

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Depressed Foreign Teacher

Teaching English in China poses a uniquely challenging set of problems that are unlike those produced by any other educational environment in the world, barring one or two other Asian countries such as Thailand and Korea.

For starters, English language education is not valued or respected by China's academic leaders: English language study is routinely assigned as a major to incoming students who scored too poorly on the National College Entrance Exam to receive their fields of choice. The truth of the matter is that outside the foreign teacher's classroom and excluding foreign language proficiency exams, one cannot find a genuine need for the English language in mainland China.

Related, the only real requirement for teaching English in China is having had the good fortune to be born in an English-language speaking country, i.e., what matters most is that you are a native English speaker, although non-native speakers can and do find employment as oral English teachers in China with a great deal of persistence. This reality alone is demoralizing to anyone who considers him or herself to be a real educator.

The ubiquitous absence of genuine positive regard for English language skills by China's academic leadership entirely explains why there is absolutely no systematic credentialing process in place for the proper screening of foreign English teachers in China. With very few exceptions, no attempt is ever made on the part of prospective employers to verify their foreign teachers' education, experience, background, or references. Compare this to the rigorous hiring practices employed by Middle Eastern countries and the difference in how English language education is valued becomes readily apparent. In stark contrast to the current state of affairs in mainland China, one actually needs good English language skills to flourish in countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Due to mainland China's academically ludicrous and contemptuous implementation of language program curricula (that have no academic equivalent outside of southeast Asia) and the consequent absence of proper teacher credentialing, teaching English in China is regarded no differently by Western employers (schools, universities, and companies) than it would be if one had been completely unemployed during the same period of time. Specifically, teaching English in China for an extended period of time (defined here as a period of more than two years if you are in your 20s or more than one year if you are older) produces a vocational black hole that most never recover from.

While many current foreign teachers are simply unaware of this aforementioned black hole, others are simply impervious to or unaffected by it for one reason or another. There are a few legitimately qualified EFL teachers in mainland China who—despite the fact that they could have taught elsewhere and know that they are professionally pigeon-holing themselves here—choose to remain in China year after year, typically for some other, higher reason. Perhaps they are married to a Chinese national who does not want to relocate. In other cases, they may have started a successful business—often a private language school—and don't want to just abandon that. Still others may have established genuine roots and a considerable social support system and are unwilling to sacrifice that for greater professional satisfaction.

Others—who moved to China to teach oral English as a forced choice—may learn over time how to decathect from their careers and find satisfaction in other areas of their life. As one such foreign English teacher on an anonymous EFL forum so poignantly and honestly put it:

I know I am poor and live on nothing and basically hand to mouth. I have lost and given away the 400 books I came here with. I have only old clothes to wear. But spiritually I am rich. I don't fit into modern China's get rich as fast as you can mode of life. But I am doing what I love. I have tai qi wherever I live. I play wei qi. I am down to the weight I was when I was 19. I am 62 and, just like the story, go from job to job. Sometimes getting paid sometimes not. But this keeps my mind nimble.

My best friend is 6-years old. My wife's son. I live for him right now. I could pack it up and head back home and like they said I would have gained nothing of value to return to Canada with. But these things like homes, cars, and retirement plans really don't make my heart soar anyways.

Finding Alternatives if You are Unhappy

In the case of a protracted history of teaching English in China, unfortunately, the best cure is prevention: Do not move to mainland China to teach English as a career alternative without first giving serious consideration to the fact that you may find yourself here for a much longer period of time than originally planned. However, if you are in your 30s, 40s, or even 50s, and have come to the conclusion that teaching English in China is not for you, there are a few suggestions we can offer you.

For starters, you need to determine if teaching is a career that you would like to remain in. If so, you will need to gradually accumulate the proper credentials so that you can continue to teach where credentialing actually matters. Many reputable and accredited Western universities now offer online advanced degree programs in education and TESOL (teaching English as a second official language). One of the main advantages to working as a foreign English teacher in China is that you have a lot of free time. Put it to good use. As you are going to be teaching English in China for awhile anyway, you might as well spend some money and time placing yourself in a position where you can later find greater professional satisfaction and earn a lot more money as well. One of biggest disadvantages to online education is that it requires a considerable amount of self-discipline and determination.

For those who definitely do not want to pursue a career in education, the goal here is to critically and objectively evaluate what marketable skills you have acquired over the course of your time in China and then, on your résumé, address and refer to your time teaching English in China as just about anything other than that. Perhaps you studied Chinese part-time at a university--then that's what you should emphasize. Maybe you conducted some part-time work as a copy editor, then by all means stress that. If you were ever asked to write a program or design a special curriculum (typically for a private language school in preparation for a special teaching assignment that never materialized after the work had been submitted), then it is reasonable to describe yourself as having worked as an Educational or Program Consultant. You get the idea. You can be creative without lying.

In closing, an excellent resource that will guide you through how to rethink your experience and redefine your skill sets is the classic text What Color Is Your Parachute? 2011: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers by Richard N. Bolles. You can purchase this text through and many online bookstores offer it as a downloadable eBook. This is the "career-changers bible" and should be read by anyone who is hoping to pursue another line of work, especially by those who are middle-aged and with limited formal education.


About Us

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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