Welcome to the latest installment of Let’s talk About, where we tackle the most pressing China-related topics. If you’re late to the party, firstly, mine’s a cold one. And secondly, you can catch up on previous posts about internet dating and the importance of being funny at your leisure. For now, though, we have to crack on.
You remember the glory years of teaching in China, right? Depending on who you talk to, they started around the turn of the century (the 21st Century) and lasted until new legislation introduced in 2017 which, in turn, was part of a wider educational reform. This new legislation required foreign teachers working in China to have a bachelor’s degree, a Criminal Background Check, and a TEFL qualification (or teaching experience). Crucially, the new legislation required these documents to be checked and notarized by a registered solicitor, which effectively put a stop to people breezing through on false documents. Additionally, the new legislation held not just the teachers but their employers responsible, ensuring the schools did their own level of policing, which they hadn’t really done before.
Pre-2017, the teaching landscape in China was like the Wild West. The assumption was that all you really needed to be an English teacher was to be a white native speaker. To be honest, that assumption wasn’t very wide of the mark. During that time, I knew a lot of foreign teachers who had blagged jobs using fake degrees they’d bought online. The likelihood is that many of the places they worked for knew the degrees weren’t real, they just didn’t care. All they worried about was that on the face of it they looked real, and by making sure they had one the schools had done their due diligence. It wasn’t their fault if the teachers they employed pulled the wool over their eyes, was it?
I’d just like to point out here that some of those guys working on fake degrees were actually very dedicated, capable and efficient teachers. They had to be, because they were flying without a safety net. On the other hand, some of the worst, most inept and wilfully incompetent teachers I have been unlucky enough to deal with have been fully qualified. Just because you happen to have the right accreditation, it doesn’t make you a good teacher. In a perfect world maybe it would, but we all know the world isn’t perfect. So yeah, its not an ideal system, but at least the Chinese authorities took steps to regulate it.
The changes meant that a lot of unqualified teachers were forced out of the job, and that caused a knock-on effect. Suddenly, there were less teachers available to work in a still-booming sector. Happily for legitimate teachers, that drove the salaries up allowing foreign teachers to earn a lot more. My first job in China was teaching a university in Beijing in 2007-08 where the salary was 4,800 RMB. The last job I had in China eleven years later paid three times that. But even this silver lining came at a cost. The schools decided that if they were going to be paying top whack for foreign teachers, they were damn well going to get their money’s worth. And who could blame them? The happy-go-lucky approach to teaching, where you were given free reign and considered yourself lucky to even be given a text book to use, disappeared over night. Back then, they didn’t care what you taught. All you had to do was turn up. In fact, you weren’t expected to teach much of anything. You were more of an entertainer. The real teaching was left to the Chinese teachers who knew what they were doing, and were being paid a fraction of what the foreign teachers got for doing it, which made some of them rather resentful of us. Understandably so.
Now, in this brave new world, foreign teachers are not only expected to teach 18 periods a week, but are constantly being coerced into designing courses, moderating exams, and any amount of extra-curricular activities like participating in English corners, judging contests, adjudicating debates, or being guests of honour at singing or dancing competitions. Office hours, previously something only seen at training centres, are becoming increasingly common as schools and universities try to squeeze out as much blood as they can from you, and new loopholes are appearing as representatives from other departments try to circumvent the terms of your employment contract by having you work extra hours on the down-low. That 18-hours a week which looked so appealing on your contract is soon extrapolated to 30 or 35 hours, and on top of that you still have to prep classes, mark homework and attend meetings, all under the constant glare of the higher-ups who just can’t wait for you to fuck something up so they can give their egos a boost by putting the tawdry foreigner in his place.
You might say the schools are well within their rights to expect all this extra work, and who knows, maybe you’re right. I’m not making any judgements here, I’m just relating how much things have changed. The ‘glory years’ of not having to work very hard are gone forever. Foreigners teaching English in China have to be professional, educated, and prepared to work long hours. Yes, the money is better, but many think the pay-off isn’t worth it. What’s the point of working abroad if you are always too busy to enjoy it? You may as well just find a comparative job in your home country, where things are more familiar and you don’t have to put up with people staring at you in the street.
The situation has further been exacerbated by several factors, including COVID-19 and the associated travel restrictions and yet more legislation which came into effect on September 1st 2021. This latest rules were aimed at governing the private tutoring sector, where so many training schools had previously operated and effectively banned for-profit tutoring core subjects (like English) ostensibly to boost the birth rate by lowering living costs. This will undoubtedly spell the end for most training schools, even the big chains, which in turn will push more teachers toward government-sanctioned schools and universities making competition for jobs even more fierce. The general feeling is that China is making efforts to keep more of its teaching jobs (and therefore its wealth) ‘in-house’ which could be interpreted any number of ways. Sceptics are convinced that the reason behind it all is that China just wants less foreign workers. How this will all pan out is anybody’s guess.
Reading through this post something occurred to me. This has all been written from a teacher’s perspective. A teacher who was there in the so-called glory days of teaching in China and all the days since. The education sector evolves and mutates over time just like anything else, and sometimes change is tough to deal with. Sometimes, you have to accept things the way they are and roll with the punches.
But what we should never forget is what this is really all about, and that’s the students. They matter most. As long as they get a decent education, and get what they pay for, it’s all good. Hopefully, the government, the schools, and the teachers can all pull in the same direction and work towards a common goal.
This is China 4: Misadventures in the Middle Kingdom Part 4 – The Return is out now on ebook and paperback.