MKL Q&A Forums

Professional advice
when you need it

Click Here

What We Use in China

What Exactly Is An English Teacher?


A recent comment from another article led me to think about the term “English teacher” for a few moments, especially in regard to how the Western world defines it.

When I hear the term “English teacher,” I am personally reminded of my former high school English teachers like Mrs. Miller in 8th grade, who taught us grammar, and Mr. Shutter in our senior year who desperately tried to introduce us to American literature (I can still remember how painful it was having to read 30 pages each night of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans).

In the context of how many foreigners there are “teaching English” in China, I then wondered, If I were to return to the United States next week, could I get a job teaching English? Well, I know that to teach English at the university level, even as an adjunct lecturer, I would need a minimum of a master’s degree in English or a related field, such as linguistics. As I don’t have a field-related master’s degree, teaching English at the university level is definitely out of the question.

What about teaching English in high school? Surely with a doctorate and over 23 years of university teaching experience, I would be qualified to do that? So I arbitrarily selected California to learn about what requirements I would need to fulfill in order to become a certified high school English teacher there. As it turns out, I am not qualified to teach English in California.

California’s teaching credential is a two-tiered system: 1) Preliminary (which requires a minimum of a bachelor’s degree with one year of supervised student teaching experience, as well as several basic skills exams and one subject matter exam in English), and; 2) Professional Clear (which requires an additional year of schooling to complete classes in Special, Computer, and Health Education).1

Basically, if I wanted to become a certified English teacher in California, which I imagine is more or less representative of the other 49 states, I would have to go back to school for at least one more year to complete an official teacher preparation or credentialing program that specifically includes supervised student teaching. I would also have to take and pass two exams: the California Basic Assessment Educational Skills Test (actually, it’s a series of three basic skill tests) and the California Subject Examination for Teachers (in English as the subject, of course). You can click on the provided links to explore the content matter of these various exams: They are surprisingly quite extensive and involved.

After I looked through these requirements and studied the subject matter of the several exams I would have to pass before I could call myself an English teacher, I discovered a newfound respect for Mrs. Miller and Mr. Shutter, and wished I had shown a lot more interest in class during our discussions of Willa Cather’s Shadows on the Rock, some 35 years ago.

I also reflected on the two genuine English teachers I have met throughout my years in China: both were “retired” educators and administrators, one from Canada and the other from Australia. The English teacher from Canada, John, eventually left China in frustration in favor of Thailand (with his Chinese wife in tow), as he was never properly utilized in all the years he tried to make something positive and appropriate happen, and the Australian teacher, Ray, I think is still plugging away at a middle school somewhere in Henan province. Because he is a real English teacher, the school actually adapted their curriculum so that he could cross-teach English classes that had been previously and traditionally assigned only to Chinese English teachers. I have an enormous amount of respect for both of these English teachers (in fact, I used to often contact Ray with grammar questions) and wondered if their Chinese employers truly appreciated how fortunate they were to have such teachers as these in their midst. At least in one case, the answer is no. Finally, I thought again about how the role of the foreign English teacher in China has been de-professionalized and compartmentalized and I wondered, in retrospect, if that didn’t bother both John and Ray.

I think if I were in their shoes, it would definitely bother me to be reduced to the position of a teaching assistant when I was considerably better qualified to teach English than my Chinese counterparts were.

Related Articles:
On Being a Good Foreign English Teacher in China
What Do Foreign English Teachers in China Actually Teach?


  1. California Teachers’ Association. (2008). Adapted from High School Teacher Requirements. Retrieved Sept. 19, 2008 from


# RE: What Exactly Is An English Teacher?Jack Crawford 2010-02-13 09:26
And all that government certification that we ‘need’ in the states really gets the kids the best schooling that money can buy. He ha, what a laugh.
# RE: RE: What Exactly Is An English Teacher?Dr. Greg 2010-02-13 09:27
And what’s even worse, Jack, is that the emphasis on scoring high on these proficiency exams has changed the curricula for the worse across the board (according to my friends).

Let me ask you (or anyone else) this: If credentialing is not the best way to insure a minimum level of competency, then what is?
# RE: What Exactly Is An English Teacher?Mark Anira 2010-02-13 09:27
You are comparing apples to oranges. English teachers in the U.S., Canada, U.K. and elsewhere need credentials because they are teaching English. I read in another article where you wrote foreign teachers are hired because they are needed to fulfill a national requirement or are good for business. You are 100% right, so why should John or Ray feel bad?

I am the DOS at a large private school in northeastern China. We have one of these “real teachers” with a master’s degree from Canada at our school. There are 16 of us total. He’s 58 years old and recently retired. I only hired him because my bosses put pressure on me to bring in a “high-level teacher” for P.R. purposes. Nobody including him knows why he’s here and the kids complain about his classes all the time. They complain he’s “boring” and he’s bored too. He’s been here about two months and I think the school is going to let him go at his request.

Our best teachers (notice, I didn’t use quotes) have no degrees and are under 30. Your right that it’s not “English teaching” but it is still teaching and it’s fair to call them teachers. You also wrote in another article that the main goal of the foreign teacher is to get the kids involved, to make them feel relaxed and to do whatever you can to get them to use the language. You were right there too, so why should John and Ray feel bad?

This isn’t rocket science. Minimum requirements are not enforced in China (in some places still or where the boss has the right pull) because they are not needed to get the job done well. On the other hand, if the licensed Chinese English teachers were doing their jobs, and if the public school language programs were effective there wouldn’t be any private language schools. You are also right (in another article) that if the Chinese owners knew they could fire us and not lose business, they would. We are an expensive pain in the neck for them and they hate it. I see that happening down the road.

The Ministry of Education requirement that a foreign teacher must be present at university language departments is being *hotly* contested across all the provinces and so is the CET-4 requirement too (English test for non English majors). If those two rules are rescinded, then the need for foreign teachers at private schools will follow soon after.

What will happen is that the funding that used to be allocated for 5 foreign teachers will be used to entice one visiting professor from the west to lecture for a semester and you’ll start seeing more academic cultural exchanges and partnerships between western schools and China.

From my seat here, I think we are going to see the end of the need for such large numbers of foreign teachers in China. Maybe 5 years from now, maybe 10, but it’s coming.

Great site by the way and that guide is sorely needed. I make all our applicants read it before hiring them.
# RE: RE: What Exactly Is An English Teacher?Dr. Greg 2010-02-13 09:27
Thanks for the comment Mark. I agree wholeheartedly that foreign teachers are in fact teachers. I never wrote or suggested otherwise. My point here is that foreigners are not, for the most part, being engaged to teach English and (elsewhere) that the most valuable role that we serve in China, in my opinion, is not in improving listening and speaking skills but in being available as exogenous mentors and role models. See “Why Do We Stay?”

Most of my students whose English was at the top of their classes, while they were still in school, lose it within one year after graduation because they never use it. They’ll come visit me a couple of years after graduation and we end up speaking more Putonghua than English.

They forget the English but they remember the time we spent listening to them and they appreciate the fact that we cared. Personally, I think that’s our greatest and most important role here and you don’t need a degree to give of yourself and your time.
# RE: What Exactly Is An English Teacher?chriswaugh_bj 2010-02-13 09:28
You are comparing apples and oranges, but not because we “don’t teach English”- some of us do, actually. My current job requires me to actually teach the English language. Of course, I’ve also held many jobs that fit Mark’s description of the business. Anyway, it is not useful to compare my job with that of an English teacher in the California public school system, or in any school system in any of the major English speaking countries. I don’t teach English to native speakers. My job is teaching English as a second/foreign language. There’s a hell of a difference. My job is more comparable to that of a French or Spanish or TESL/TESOL teacher in New Zealand or California. As for university-level teaching, the job of a foreign teacher is more comparable to that of a tutor (don’t know the appropriate American term, sorry) in my home country than a lecturer or professor- in other words, a foreign teacher in a Chinese university should be taking care of the practical, real world application of what they learn from their lecturers. I had such teachers at Otago University and never would’ve presumed to question their qualifications or suitability for the job.

Am I legally qualified to do my current job in my native NZ? No. Do I care? No. My qualification (a BA in French) and experience are all in language education, and I am confident that I am doing a decent job of educating my students.

To conclude: Yes, I am “exactly” an English teacher, as are the majority of foreign English teachers in China. No scare quotes necessary around the words English or teacher, either individually or as a phrase.
# RE: RE: What Exactly Is An English Teacher?Dr. Greg 2010-02-13 09:29

I appreciate your interest and that you hold a very different point of view, but I would challenge your statement that the majority of foreign teachers in China are bona fide English teachers: to the degree that they are hired to do nothing more than facilitate the practice of listening and speaking skills and that the majority employed to do so in China are non-degreed.

Setting aside the issue of teacher credentialing in New Zealand and the United States for a moment, it is clear to me that English teachers in our respective countries—who are specifically teaching English as a second language—are doing a great deal more than practicing listening and speaking skills. You can redefine anything you like to make it all-inclusive, but what does it mean? (A perfect example of this in other fields, for example, would be the term “accountant” or “engineer”: terms that are used to describe a very broad range of members from those who are essentially glorified bookkeepers to Certified Public Accountants, in the former case, and from industry certified computer technicians, e.g., Microsoft’s MCSE or Cisco’s CCNA, each with no formal educational requirements, to those with doctorates in engineering, in the latter case.)

China is one of the few countries in the world to treat oral English as a separate curriculum within the context of its overall foreign language program. Notwithstanding individual editorials from dedicated and well-qualified teachers such as yourself, can you direct me to just one article in the ESL/EFL or L2 educational literature—publ ished in a professionally recognized refereed journal—that establishes a sound pedagogical basis for splitting-off the spoken part of a language in foreign language curricula? If doing so were academically valid, you’d see the very same practice in New Zealand, Australia, England and the United States—although I understand that this discrepancy is not something that particularly concerns you.

Finally, because it is academically invalid, you won’t find any educational leaders in China who, once safely out of earshot away from the university’s CCP representative, support this splitting-off of oral English from the rest of the curriculum and, as such, truly see the need for foreign oral English teachers in China. This is my entire point in a nutshell, a major impetus behind the writing of the guide, and a schizophrenogen ic reality that prospective foreign teachers absolutely and positively need to be alerted to before they arrive in China.

Are there some foreigners in China who are actually teaching English as a foreign language in an integrated, pedagogically sound manner? Yes, there are a few—but they are in a very small minority and the need for such a teacher in China is quite limited. Of this I am quite certain.

Several people, yourself included apparently, have felt a considerable degree of anger towards me for allegedly viewing oral English teachers in China unfairly and disrespectfully when, in fact, all that I am doing is reporting—in a very realistic and valid manner—how foreign English teachers in China are utilized and how they are perceived and regarded by the educational system and the owners of private English language schools in China. I am not writing about these phenomena from an Ivy League tower somewhere halfway around the world: I am reporting what I see from ground zero, having lived and worked here for more than five years, and only after careful consideration and discussion with dozens of private school owners and university professors in several foreign language departments. You can shoot the messenger or you can try to change the system from within by joining forces with China’s educational leaders against the CCP’s Ministry of Education (and good luck with that). But to respond to that anger by claiming I am distorting the reality of the situation is not only incorrect but terribly misleading to prospective foreign teachers who may be reading this in search of valid and reliable information.

For an excellent outside discussion of the problem as well as suggestions for improving the situation, I suggest you take a look at China EFL: The Unqualified, Teaching (sic) The Unmotivated, In a Hostile Environment” by Qiang and Wolff, in addition to two guest author articles for this blog by Dr. Wolff titled “China EFL: One Reason for Midnight Runners” and “China EFL: English Corner”.

Finally, if you have a personal experience with teaching English in China that you feel adds something to the discussion or reflects differently on the current situation as depicted by this site’s guide, I strongly urge you to write it up and submit it to us for inclusion in our collection of personal stories. Just click on the link to the right for submission guidelines. After all is said and done, I think this would be a lot more useful to our readers than a group of us with opposing viewpoints debating exactly what an English teacher is or isn’t.

In light of this, and by having offered an alternative for expressing differing viewpoints, I am closing further discussion of this topic.

You must be logged into your account to post a comment.


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.

Read More


Link Partners

Website administrators are invited to partner-up with MKL. Our link directory supports text links or banners and features thumbnail photos of your home page.

Add Link