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.