Working As an English Teacher in China

With the job situation so bad in the UK, many people are looking outside of the country to seek employment. Some are considering teaching English abroad as an option and some might even look as far as China for work. In this article I want to pass on some information and a little advice about working as a teacher in China and what you can expect from a life here.

Qualifications.
You will need to have a teaching certificate in teaching English and this comes in the form of a TEFL certificate – Teaching English as a Foreign Language. However, you are not going to get a good job with just that; for many teaching positions here you will need a degree, especially for jobs in the big cities like Shanghai and Beijing. Of course if you are already a teacher, then it will be much easier for you. It is possible to find teaching posts with just a TEFL but they will be in lesser schools in the main cities or in schools in other smaller cities.

Online TEFL – Teaching English as a Foreign Language.
There are many courses you can take to gain a TEFL certificate and many online courses too. I took an online course from a company called i-to-i; it was 120 hours. However I wasn’t impressed with the course. Firstly I found that it didn’t really teach me much about teaching and secondly I didn’t consider the online tutor to be that helpful. My wife Crystal however, who is Chinese and a qualified English teacher, took at the same time an ITTT International course. She thought it might come be useful one day, especially if were to go to Europe. The ITTT course was more expensive than mine and it turned out to be much better.

She learnt the subject in greater depth and had better support from her online tutor. A word of warning however about TEFL courses; if your knowledge of grammar is shaky, you will either need some help or will need to embark on some further study. I have to confess that my knowledge of English grammar was very poor indeed and ironically it was my Chinese wife who was able to help me through the course. It does seem amazing that one can speak, read and write reasonably well in English and yet have a poor knowledge as to how one’s own language works. I guess you could say we native speakers learn our language organically, whereas foreign students gain it in a more regimented way through text books and concentrated study. I can write better than my Chinese wife and of course speak better but she knows much more than me about pronouns, adjectives and passive voice etc.

Teaching oral English however doesn’t rely on explaining grammar but it is advisable to know more than your students. If a student were to ask you a question to which you cannot answer, you are going to look pretty stupid! What’s more your students will happily tell their teachers about your apparent lack of knowledge

City based TEFL courses overseas.
Many companies offer courses in the country where you are planning to teach. This of course is a good way to get an introduction to a country before you start teaching. However, a couple of teachers I met did their course in Beijing which is nothing like the small city they ended up in – Zunyi. Zunyi is where I have been teaching these past three years. Apparently they had a great time in Beijing, visiting the bars every evening and they got to see some of the great tourist attractions but financially their six months in China was a loser.

The advantage of finding work through a TEFL organisation such as i to i is that they will surely find you work, however this comes at a price. You will have to pay a tidy sum for the overseas course and secondly you will not get paid the going rate at whatever school you end up at. There is also another disadvantage with this – you are not independent and will have to deal with two or more agencies if you encounter problems, which is sure to happen. You will also have to pay for your airfare to and from the UK which can amount to £800 or more by the time you include internal flights. Many schools however will pay for one return flight every year or pay a completion bonus of a similar amount. The lesson is – if you allow others to make all your arrangements, it will cost you a lot of money.

Types of teaching positions
If you have a degree and teaching experience, you’ll probably be able to get a good job in a university/college teaching whatever subject you are experienced in, for example English literature, economics etc.. Educational institutions often have specific names such as Zunyi Medical College but that doesn’t mean the only subjects they teach are medical; you will find here, students majoring in English and other subjects not related to medicine. The school I teach at is grandly called the Aerospace School but the only subject that could be remotely connected with this is a metalwork workshop; so don’t be put off by the name of the school.

If you have a degree but don’t have teaching experience you can still find a reasonably well paid job but you will only be expected to teach oral English. Chinese English teachers reach a very high standard in grammar, probably higher than most folk in the UK; therefore it is unlikely you will be asked to teach it. What’s more, you need to speak Chinese in order to explain the grammar rules clearly and it is impossible to do so without speaking Chinese. If you don’t have a TEFL certificate but not a degree you can still find a job teaching oral English in either a middle school, junior school or kindergarten but your salary will be lower.

In china there are universities and colleges which are basically the same thing; senior middle schools (students 15-18 years), junior middle schools (students 12 -15 years), primary schools (6 – 12) and kindergarten (aged 3 – 6, although some children start much younger) and all will teach English as part of their curriculum. Some kindergarten in the big cities will employ native English teachers but of course these are very informal classes and you should have a Chinese classroom assistant to help you. Don’t expect a Chinese assistant in schools for older students. Some schools are privately owned and some are state run. My school was previously state run but is now privately owned.

Salary
Whatever school you teach at in China, you’re not going to make a lot of money. However, you can have a comfortable life here because generally the cost of living is much lower. In the bigger cities, someone with a degree and perhaps a background in teaching can earn around 12,000 rmb a month which currently is about £1,200. However other teaching jobs in the big cities start at around 8000 rmb. If you go to one of the smaller cities you can expect to earn a lot less but it depends on what type of school you teach at. At a private English language school which teaches mainly at weekends and evenings, you will earn more than at middle or junior school. So many students take extra classes at the weekend or in the evening and their parents have to pay extra for this. At a large and successful privately owned English school in Zunyi, the teachers get around 8000 rmb which is a very good salary here. In contrast, at a state owned middle school, the teachers there earn a mere 2500 but there is a good reason for this difference. The two teachers who work there gained their qualification in Beijing through i to i, prior to coming to this city. The school will be paying a lot more for their services because they will also be paying the TEFL organisation and agents. So as you can see, salaries can vary greatly.

Accommodation
Many schools will offer accommodation as part of the package and of course accommodation will vary greatly. I am very fortunate, I have a lovely apartment with two bedrooms, a living room, dining room, kitchen, shower room with western loo, TV DVD and computer, and the rent/electricity is paid for by my school. However the teachers I referred to earlier have a single room in an office building within the school complex, and the shower room with squatting toilet they have to share with other members of staff. What makes their accommodation even worse is that the school imposed an eleven o’clock curfew for them to be in during the week and the school bell was outside the door and even at weekends they had no rest from it. Do try and find out what sort of accommodation you will get in advance of coming. Having said that, if you come with an agency it’s going to pretty difficult to find out any concrete information in advance. Bear in mind that some schools will not pay for your accommodation and you will have to find it yourself and of course you will need help with this.

Last year (2009), I made enquiries through an agent to get a teaching job in Shenzhen. The salary I was offered was 8000 rmb which is nearly twice as much as much as I get now. The agent also offered me a small room in a shared apartment with three other people (teachers) and the price for this one room was 1700 rmb. So with higher costs of food and travel, I would have been no better off and my living accommodation would have been much worse – I declined the offer.

Cost of living in China
Like any country, the cost of living varies greatly between city and provincial areas. Salaries are higher but so too are living costs in a big city. I can’t give you prices of things in other cities but I can give you some relative examples from the city I live in. A simple meal based around rice or noodles will cost 5 rmb (50p) whereas a decent meal for four people at a simple restaurant will cost 60 – 100 and at an expensive restaurant, 200 – 300. Taxi fares start at 5 rmb for quite a long distance and all bus fares in the city are 1 rmb. So although my salary is low, I can live very cheaply indeed. In fact because I spend so little and don’t use a credit card or have a loan to pay, this is the first time in my life that I could actually save money on a regular basis. It is wonderful to have no debt and no worries about money.

Other considerations

Internet: The Chinese government strictly controls what people can view on the Internet, especially adult sites. At the time of writing you can’t use Facebook and YouTube, and much to my annoyance even Blogger is blocked. I created a lovely blog about Chinese tea and now I can’t use it. If you can’t live without Facebook or YouTube then don’t come to China.

Food: In the bigger cities, you can dine on a wide variety of western foods but expect to pay much more for this. If you are a western fast food fan, you’ll find more outlets than you can shake a stick at in the bigger cities but in the smaller cities you won’t find many. In my city there are three KFCs and that’s all. Large cities will have supermarkets like Walmart and Carrefour and even in Zunyi there are two Walmarts, which sell a small selection of western foods.

Entertainment: In the big cities you will find all the entertainment you could hope for and of course western bars selling western beers and spirits but expect to pay high prices for these. In smaller cities like Zunyi, you’ll be lucky to find any.

Language: Don’t expect everyone in Beijing or Shanghai to speak English because although every student in China will learn some English, most will not use it and forget it. Today English is the second language taught at schools but forty years ago it was Russian. Also most of the signs will generally only be in Chinese. This can be especially difficult if you want to catch a local bus. If you want to be independent, and you may well have to be, you will have to try and learn some Chinese. However, every city and region has its own dialect. The national language is mandarin and is taught in all schools but different dialects are spoken in every city. Don’t expect to learn mandarin and then understand a conversation in Shanghai because there they speak Shanhaiese.

Cultural differences: See my article Culture Shock – A westerner living in China.

Finally:
If you want to come and live and work in China, my advice is put aside your thoughts of home and accept life as it is here. Don’t compare life at home with life in China; if you do you’ll only get deeply frustrated and want to go home. Life in China can drive you up the wall at times but there are many wonderful aspects about living here also which may not at first be apparent. You need to take your time in settling in and it may take you a long time to begin to feel comfortable here. Once you get to know the people you will find them warm and generous and their culture has so much to offer. Who knows, you might even want to settle in China! There are so many things to consider before you accept a job as an English teacher in China, too much to write about here – read my other articles in my blog for more information about life in China.

Problems in English Education in Japan: The Three C’s

Everyone involved in the language education sector in Japan will freely admit that English education in the country has been on a level at best over the past couple of decades, and many arguments could be made that the standard of English from school-leavers is actually decreasing. At the same time, education in South Korea, China, Taiwan and elsewhere in Asia are experiencing English language booms with children becoming very proficient in the language from an early age. While there are a number of reasons causing this relative decline in Japan, I think there are three main contributing factors resulting in this status quo. These are a suppression of creativity in students, and the lack of challenge presented to them.

Creativity

I write this from the standpoint of a teacher at a junior high school, although the latter factor certainly applies to later grades of elementary school, and is an issue I will go into later. The education system in Japan revolves around a set event, and preparing for it. At elementary school the students are focused towards getting into Junior High School; once they get there their sole goal is to pass the high school entrance exam (for those that will go to high school). Once into high school, the aim of every student is to pass the “Centre Test”, the Japanese name for the university entrance exam, which will focus the rest of their lives. Anything that is not involved with getting to these goals is deemed unimportant, and grammar points not to be tested (even if important to learn for English language comprehension) are passed over.

At the senior high school level, I was lucky enough to teach at a high level school, which offered two English-based subjects that were not on the Center Test: Model United Nations and PCLL (a subject with 3 components: speech, skit and debate). When these subjects were introduced, teachers were met by a strong resistance from parents, who complained that their children shouldn’t be wasting their time on things that wouldn’t directly be tested. It took a strong principal and group of teachers to defend their position and to try to explain the benefits that the subjects would have; both within the English language skills spectrum, and throughout their range of studies and beyond. The argument was made that these subjects were not just preparing students living in a small village in Okinawa for a single test, but giving the adults of tomorrow the skills, knowledge and means to develop for life in a truly global society. I know there are a whole bunch of buzzwords in there, but it’s the best way to explain it. And whenever I meet former students from that high school (who are invariably doing very well in their lives), they remember clearly those classes, the themes discussed, and the skills they learnt.

It was a high-level school to begin with, but the fact that it was willing to look a little outside the box transformed it from being an average to low level school 15 years ago, to one of the top 3 in Okinawa today. But look down to the general situation of English language education at junior high schools in Japan (even more so in Okinawa), and things are much different. Scarily enough, I am still unaware if there is any actual syllabus set out by the Ministry of Education in Japan that states what students should know at the end of each year of learning. The textbooks that are approved by the Ministry of Education certainly teach different material at different points to students, so there is no consistency there. But what there is consistency in, is removing all traces of creativity from students. At elementary school students learn that the answer to the question, “How are you?” is, “I’m fine, thank you. And you?”. There is no other response. At junior high school you would expect students to be able to be given range to express their real feelings, but even then they are limited to a handful. You are allowed to be good, fine, tired, hungry or have stomach ache. Other feelings will not be on the end of year exam and so should not really be discussed.

Students are spoon-fed information so much that they become unable to think of even the simplest things by themselves. A perfect example of this would be earlier in this academic year. The sentence being learned (sentences are almost always learned in phrase form, meaning students are frequently unable to understand how the grammatical structures in them are formed) was “I visited my grandmother at 8 o’clock”. After a little practice most of the students were able to say it reasonably well, and I wanted to give them a chance to control what they say, so asked the first student to say the sentence but change the time from 8 o’clock to something else. This was explained in Japanese so the student understood (more on that later too), who made as big an acknowledgement as your typical Japanese junior high school student can muster that they understood. And then they were given the floor to make a modified sentence. And for almost 2 minutes the class waited. The student put their head down, looked into their book, looked out of the window hoping focus would shift off them, consulted with two or three of their classmates, and then eventually gave the same original answer, “I visited my grandmother at 8 o’clock”. It took another student a minute before they could actually change the time to nine o’clock. A similar barrier was created when the family member was asked to be changed from mother. This seems to be the norm, rather than the exception. They get drilled into them a sentence structure (in this case “my mother… “) that it is the only thing they can comprehend. When given the chance to use a word like “father”, “brother” or “sister” in place of it, the choice seems overwhelming to them rendering them unable to make what many would deem to be a simple and unimportant choice.

This lack of creativity being observed, and even encouraged by some English teachers, affects the students somewhat when they come to exams, but much more it is rendering many incapable of communicating effectively in English in a real-life environment. Because they learn certain phrases and set structures only, whenever anything goes outside of those boundaries, the students are unable to follow it and respond. Originality is something that is seldom heard or read, as the set phrases are the only way the students know how to express their ideas.

I should not that this is definitely not the case all the time. Students frequently have the ability to impress and surprise with their English and willingness to try connecting grammar points they have learnt, but not necessarily learnt together, in order to communicate their thoughts. These students, even if they don’t have the best raw English ability, are usually the ones that see the biggest improvement in their language skills. But it is definitely the majority from my experiences.

Challenge

The second large part is the lack of a challenge for students. I am a firm believer that if you challenge students then you will get the best out of them. It is a fine balancing act, as pushing them too much and in the wrong way can provoke resentment and a student simply refusing to learn (especially as the student enters their teens at junior high school). But I feel many teachers in Japan are catering their classes for the lowest level learner present (some who try hard but find English very difficult, and others who are unwilling to learn in any of their classes). This means the majority of students who actually start the activity (many just wait for the answers or do nothing at all) finish quickly because the activities are not at all testing for them.

Let me give you an example. A handout that accompanied a textbook chapter was recently given to 2nd year English students (13-14 years old). The page was roughly set up as you can see below:

*********************************************************

Grammar point: “Yes, I am.” / “No, I am not.”

Explanation in Japanese about meaning and usage of grammar point.

Question 1

  1. Are you going to clean your room tomorrow?

Y_________________________________________________________

Hint: Yes

Question 2

  1. Are you going to see your friends tomorrow?

Y_________________________________________________________

Hint: Yes

Question 3

  1. Are you going to visit your grandmother tomorrow?

Y_________________________________________________________

Hint: Yes

*********************************************************

It then went on using the same style but for “No, I am not”. Learning then went on to cover the “you”, “he”, “she”, “we”, and “they” forms, but the activities were virtually the same; simply copying the answer from the section above. Following that worksheet, focus was moved onto another point and this section just covered could be checked off the list and forgotten about. No expansion of answers, experimenting with making their own questions (studied in the previous class) and asking their peers was permitted, because it wouldn’t be in the test and therefore was superfluous. And there was no chance to take what they had learnt and take it to the next level, increasing their understanding of that point and giving them the chance to link it to other points that know now and will learn in the future.

Vocabulary tests are infrequent, and when they occur students are usually given 5 words to learn, with them knowing the exact order in which they will come in the test. Consequently, you have students only practicing in the last 5 minutes before the test and then being desperate to get the paper so they can write down what is in their short term memory before they forget it. Asking a student the meaning of one of their test words 15 minutes into the class is akin to getting blood out of a stone, as it has long since disappeared from their short term memory banks. Once again, no real assessment of English knowledge or ability is attained by conducting the test; it is only seeing who can spit out the exact words they were given in the 30s-1min between closing their books and receiving their test paper. I can only speak from my point of view, but at the junior high school I had weekly vocabulary tests (either L1->L2 or L2->L1, or a combination of both; not known until the test was given), which comprised of at least 20-30 words, with 10-15 being chosen at random. When this was mentioned previously to co-workers they remarked it must have been so hard for students to do. It wasn’t easy sometimes, but it made us very efficient learners.

Once again the students who try to push themselves (which must be done individually, due to there being no “gifted learners” class or similar in most schools) by working to understand more than the brief outline presented to them reap the rewards, when it comes to test time and also outside the classroom, when conducting any activities in English.

But now that I mentioned tests, it brings me onto another “C” that is a large factor in why English education, and in other subjects too, is undergoing such problems in Japan.

Consequences

Consequences, or rather lack of them, cannot be underestimated in the mediocrity of English language education in Japan. Thinking back, I feel I studied pretty hard at school, mainly because I know my parents had given me a great opportunity, and I didn’t want to waste it. In certain subjects I worked hard through fear of incurring the wrath of the teacher; others have said they worked hard to get into a good university, because they wanted their parents to be happy etc. Homework was always done to the best of my ability and tests were studied hard for. We all knew that if weekly vocabulary tests were failed (under 50%), retests would occur lunchtimes or after school every day (same vocabulary list but different test words) until 50% was achieved. Some students found it difficult at first or didn’t like the retests, but within a month or so everyone was trying hard to get the best score possible. At the other end of the scale, high scores were put towards points to a “Good record” in your homework diary book; a record of every piece of work you had to do at home, and which parents had to sign each week, so they could see how well you were doing, or trouble you had been involved in at school. This was a simple system but motivated some people greatly as they wanted to impress their parents and show what they could do.

Now let’s jump over to Okinawa and the vocabulary test I mentioned above consisting of 5 words that the students already know the order of, and they are the only words they have to learn. A student doesn’t study at all, sleeps for the duration of the 10 minute test and gets 0 points. They don’t really care because there is no consequence of the test. It may or may not be put into the student’s final term or year-end grade, but since these grades have no real meaning either there is no incentive for them to put any effort in. Retests are non-existent at lunchtime or after school (in the case of the latter I was told, “Students want to go home or have clubs”, and sports clubs usually take precedent over academic things). So you can end up with a student at the end of the year who has completed no homework assignments, got 0 in every test and possibly mustered the energy to write their name on their end of year exam before going to sleep, and just being told they must work harder next year. They don’t, and so the process continues until they leave the school system. There is a reward system in place in the form of stickers or stamps, at a lot of junior high schools, and these motivate some students to volunteer and do work. But I always remember reading a quote from someone much more skilled than me, who said that prizes/bribes/rewards are good, but care should be taken to ensure they don’t become the sole reason for learning. Once this happens, and the reward is removed, so is the motivation for studying.

The discipline system does leave a good deal to be desired too in Japanese schools. I’m not advocating bringing back corporal punishment (initially wrote “capital punishment”… a Freudian slip, perhaps?), but students seem to wield complete power, even more so than in Western schools. It is virtually impossible to remove a student from a class because it is “depriving them of an education”, even if their actions are depriving the rest of the class of the chance to learn. Which can lead to anarchic classes sometimes. In a class I witnessed a few weeks ago there were 20 students; 7 were sleeping, 6 were talking with each other across the classroom, 3 were reading their own books, with only 4 students attempting to listen to the teacher. Every so often the teacher would try to wake up some of the students or stop them talking to each other. The students would just wave or push away the teacher and go back to what they were doing. In addition, principles and vice-principles are not involved in the disciplining; that role being assigned to a different teacher each year.

This has ended up being a lot longer than I thought it would be, so thank you if you’ve stuck with it and got through it all. These aren’t all the issues involved, and there are some good sides to English education here. Hopefully in an article I the near future I will take a look at some of the other factors involved in teaching English here in Japan.

Let me know if you agree or disagree with anything I’ve said.

Teaching English As a Foreign Language

It may seem to be a strange concept to think of teaching English as a foreign language. But not everyone in the world today speaks English. In fact English as a first language is about number three in world rankings. The first is one of the Chinese dialects. However, English is the common language for the computer. It is important for international travel. English is also the language the UN voted to use for diplomatic discourse with embassies. So it is not that unusual for someone to be teaching English as a foreign language. There are also many bi-lingual speaking people in the world. It is not that uncommon.

Teaching English as a second language is also not that uncommon in the United States. With a large influx of non-English speaking people entering the United States, there are many people who speak another language as their first language. They also attend school here and need to learn English. Or they may look for employment in the United States and they need English for job progression and even basic employment.

There are many public schools in the United States who have hired ESL teachers to teach English to the students attending the school. In fact many full time teachers also offer tutoring in English after their school day is over.

There are a lot of people who simply want to speak English better. They may have grown up in a home where two languages were spoken and they have a rudimentary knowledge of English. They want to improve their English speaking abilities. This makes it easy to teach English in this environment as the attendees really want to learn the language. This is different from students say in junior high that have no interest in learning English as a first or second language or any other subject for that matter.

Many companies send their employees to another country to live and conduct business. Sometimes they are sent to the United States to set up an office or distribution system or another form of business. These employees will have to learn English in order to be successful at their jobs. A lot of people are employed teaching English to these employees. They may be required to teach English to these employees in their home country before they come over to the United States. In that case, the teaching position would be in another country.

Some companies, however, send their employees to the United States or another English-speaking country and expect them to learn their English there. This still affords more opportunities to teach English as a foreign language.

There are many opportunities to teach English beyond the traditional English teacher in a traditional school environment. This may be an opportunity to leave your country and learn another language in a country where you might be the teacher who teaches English to the citizens of that country. This may also lead to a new life in another country which could be fun.