ESL Teaching in China - What you need to know!

Kate Russell’s article on overseas opportunities (‘How Old is Too Old?’ Education Review June 2015) pointed to the numbers of older teachers leaving New Zealand and Australia for end- (or near-end) of-career stints in Asia and other places.

Another group of Antipodeans heading to the same places to teach are non-professionally certificated teachers armed with little more than a degree, an online ESL certificate and a sense of adventure.

Given the central place of English in commerce and international relationships generally, it is no surprise that access to relatively low-paid native speakers has been seized on by Asian countries. Certificated teachers with many years of classroom experience behind them can access jobs in so-called ‘international schools’ that in terms of pay and allowances are not too dissimilar to their home-country incomes.

ESL benefits

The non-certificated ESL (English as a Second Language) teachers heading overseas are remunerated at about a quarter the level of the career teacher group, yet there seems to be no shortage of takers.

Generally, the non-cash or non-taxable benefits available to certificated career teachers and non-certificated ESL teachers, are similar and include free on-campus apartment, annual return airfare allowance or refund, access to subsidised cafeterias and a mid-year (February) travel allowance to encourage teachers to get out and about.

However, it is in the monthly salary that the difference between to the two groups is seen most starkly. An ESL teacher in a public sector university or vocational college will likely be remunerated in China at between RMB5,500–6,500 per month (around NZ$1,270–1,500).  A certificated teacher in an international school would receive five times that amount.

Oral English emphasis

Generally, while certificated career teachers slot into their home specialties, ESL teachers are invariably thrown into classrooms and told to teach ‘Oral English’. In China, through a lethal combination of naivety and parsimony, supporting resources are usually pretty sparse and it seems to be a matter of: ‘If you can speak English, you can teach it’.

There is an additional complication in the Chinese Oral English classroom, which I only came across when researching my book about my China experiences. Skyping with a former student from my first year in China (2004), alerted me to the fact that the high school to tertiary transition process in China is slanted against Oral English.

‘Gao Kao’ – China’s tertiary education gatekeeper

The existential impact of the tertiary access exam, the Gao Kao, on young Chinese, is hard to overemphasise. The ranking status of universities is such a predeterminant of career success for aspiring Chinese students that they adopt all sorts of stratagems to enter the more prestigious schools. Other than geographical area ‘home province’ enrolment schemes, universities maintain an absolute reliance on Gao Kao scores to determine admissions. This means that often students with well-off parents will stay back another year in high school, with the expectation that a second Gao Kao attempt will yield a better score and hence entry to a higher-ranked university.

One fluent, English-speaking high school-leaver told me that he had accepted a place in the School of Russian at a prestigious Beijing University because the school’s ranking had a career value that far outweighed the questionable usefulness of majoring in Russian.

My former student from 2004 accepted a place in the School of Public Administration at the prestigious Dalian Maritime University, even though she could have easily entered the English programme at a lower-ranked school. The ‘Tier One’ ranking of Dalian Maritime trumped every other consideration.

Oral English ‘drought’

The real ‘whammy’ of the Gao Kao system for foreign Oral English teachers though, is not the pass marks that his/her tertiary Oral English students may have required to get into that particular school, but rather, the fact that the Gao Kao tests have no Oral English component. For high school students in their Gao Kao year, there is no earthly incentive to devote time to maintaining Oral English skills. If a student makes a second attempt at the Gao Kao, their Oral English ‘drought’ is not one year but two.

Foreign teachers are often heard to remark that they can’t understand how students arrive as freshmen in the tertiary sector, after intensive English since Middle School, unable to string two words together. Only when the the self-defeating nature of the Gao Kao is explained does the ‘light bulb moment’ occur.

Foreign teachers, confronted with ill-prepared students and little, if any, resources, often experience early burnout. No wonder the ‘in-China’ tenure is thought to average  16 months, or about three semesters.

Chinese universities and vocationals add to the calumny by insisting on percentage marks rather than an A, B, C, format. Assessing Oral English skills is subjective at best and trying to fairly differentiate the 89 per cent student from the 90 percent student is nigh on impossible. Teachers generally meet classes once per week and they may have seven or eight classes each of fifty-plus students, all covering the same material. In this setting, maintaining fair and equitable marks across the totality of your contact students is difficult.

As Kate Russell suggests, maturity is a plus for people going overseas to teach. In my experience, for non-certificated ESL teachers, the mature ability to ‘ride the bumps’ and take the long view often marks the difference between ‘made it’ and ‘crashed and burned’.