Thought Catalog

The Great Pretenders: China’s “Unfire-able” English Teachers

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“I’m hungover every time,” said Michael Weiler with a grin. Michael is a 20-year-old English teacher in Beijing, and every Saturday at 10 a.m. he tutors a 14-year-old Chinese girl called Daisy. “Sometimes I’ll go straight from partying to teaching, and because I stink I spray on loads of cologne.” Although Michael is from Austria, the school that hires him tells his students that he’s American because they prefer a native speaker. Sometimes he forgets whether he told a student he was from Connecticut, or Chicago. Michael was hired without any previous teaching experience and given no training. Just thrown into a room with students and told, “go teach.”

If you’re in China and the kind of person with foreign friends under 30, chances are you know an English teacher. And chances are, they don’t take the job very seriously. While the rest of the world flails in the wake of recession-related disasters, the world’s second largest economy is only finding itself a larger and larger presence on the international stage. And with this comes the people’s thirst to master the only true international language. Last year China Daily reported that 400 million Chinese people are studying English – one-third of the country’s population. (The majority of these would fall into the school age bracket.) And the value of the English-training market is estimated at 30 billion RMB ($4.5 billion US).

This insatiable demand for English teachers has led to a situation that Samuel Cowell, a 29-year-old (genuine) American teaching English in the south of China, has made teachers like him “unfire-able.” He says, “the school basically just works as a matchmaking service between teacher and student. So if I’m consistently late, or am not a very good teacher, they could fire me, but it just means they miss out on the commission. And there are just so many students here, and such a limited supply of teachers.”

When Sonia Rossi, a 25-year-old Italian student, came to Beijing to study Chinese, she found herself wanting to stay on after her course finished. For many young foreigners such as herself, lacking the language skills or work experience to join the professional class of expats in China, teaching English is their only answer. And an attractive one at that: work conditions are usually flexible, while the pay, for Chinese standards, can be exceptionally high. For casual teaching in Beijing 120-180 RMB/hour ($18-27 US) is standard. A local tutoring Chinese with similar conditions will be lucky to make 50 RMB/hour ($7 US).

English schools in China run into the hundreds – with some schools each operating hundreds of branches across the country – so naturally the quality ranges. Universities and international schools offer the best working conditions for teachers who are serious about their work, including high salaries, accommodation benefits and visa sponsorship. Naturally the expectation with these positions are that applicants come with qualifications, experience and signed contracts. However, the large proportion of China’s private ESL institutions are considerably less legitimate in nature. These schools will hire English teachers with one, basic requirement: “a white face”.

One look at Michael and you know you’re standing before a quintessential European. He’s tall, with pale blue eyes, white skin and sandy blonde hair. He landed his job at a private teaching school through a friend, and found it as easy as just turning up. “They wanted me straight away, no demo class, no interview. They just showed me a card that was red and asked me what color is it. ‘Red,’ I answered. ‘Oh OK. You’re in’.”

Not only was Michael hired without experience, he has been teaching with no guidance or training. In his classroom he sits encircled by three tiny desks, and three tiny chairs, for his three tiny students: Danny, Rabbit and Wei Wei. They are just four-years-old. “Man, Danny is such a fucker,” sighs Michael. “He never listens to me and often gets really angry. Sometimes if there are no teachers or parents around, I’ll say to him ‘you’re such a bastard’ in English very fast, so he can’t really understand. Or, ‘hey read this you fatass’. I’ve only ever really told him off once. And never again, because he started to cry.” I asked him if it looked bad in front of the other parents to have one of your students cry. But Michael shakes his head, “Mama Rabbit is always there, but she knows how much Danny’s a bastard.”

At least Michael stopped short of actually teaching his kids how to swear, unlike this foreign teacher who not only directed her students to recite a Russian swear word, but wrote the word on the board, as reported on The Shanghaiist earlier this year.

For both Michael and Sonia, the fact that they’re not native English speakers means they can’t command a hiring price as high as that of an American or Brit. One private kindergarten in Beijing answers job applicants with an email outlining their different pay brackets based on nationality: “10K for native speakers, 8-9K for experienced European teachers and 6K for African or Asian teachers.” Which is why the intermediary company that hired Sonia – they take a cut of any jobs they land for her – told her to tell schools and students that she’s Irish. Unfortunately, Sonia’s pronounced Italian accent is a far cry from the lilting tones of an Irishwoman. “Of all the English-speaking countries, why Ireland?” she complained to Roddy, her agent. “Do you know how hard their accent is?” Roddy had this stroke of inspiration after Sonia had told him she spent two months working as an au pair in Ireland. And, as he had correctly presumed, it turned out none of the Chinese teachers who hired her, or the students she taught, could tell the difference.

While Sonia has become apt at faking her nationality (at one school where she was passing as an American she turned to Wikipedia in order to prepare for a presentation on Thanksgiving), sometimes it saddens her that she can’t be honest about her background. She has begun telling people that her father is Italian, as a way of introducing into the conversation some of her true heritage. Michael too finds ways to sneak in his Austrian background. “Once I asked Daisy to name the world’s most famous pianist. She started saying Beethoven, Bach, and so on, so finally I asked if she knows Mozart. She did, so I asked her where’s Mozart from? And she said Germany.”

While teaching pre-kindergarteners is often just a mixture of singing, playing games and running through flashcards, Michael’s sessions with Daisy, whose English is fairly advanced, can be a touch more demanding. Occasionally she queries him about words he isn’t familiar with. “In those cases I ask her to check it in the dictionary and write it down. I say it’s because she’ll remember it better, but actually it’s because I don’t know!” Other times he’s flubbed that it was because of her poor pronunciation.

While Samuel has never had to lie about his ethnic background, it seems most of the schools he’s worked at have had no qualms with lying about his professional background. Having taught in multiple locations across China, he says it’s commonplace for institutions to write fake bios or pump up teacher credentials to students. “There’s always an end of school rush with kids wanting to do a TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) test to enter Hong Kong University. So the school will say, ‘hey this guy’s students have all passed TOEFL, he’s our TOEFL expert!’ Meanwhile I’m like, ‘what’s TOEFL?’” In other instances they exaggerated the length of time he’d been at the school or in China.

If there’s any one reason why these young teachers seem to lack any guilt about their small deceits and lax teaching standards, it’s because they realize it’s the schools themselves – and to some degree the parents as well – who don’t really care.

“I’m not a real teacher, I’m an actress pretending to be something I’m not. These kids are so little, sometimes only three or four-years-old, so they’re not learning English seriously,” says Sonia. “I used to find it weird that the parents are always telling me how I’m beautiful. Then I realized these lessons are just about giving them status. In China, if your kids go to school and they have a foreign teacher – a beautiful Irish teacher – everybody in the neighborhood knows and you gain face. So it doesn’t really matter what happens in class.“

For Chinese parents who are serious about their children speaking English, Samuel concedes that these informal classes are of use, but they require years of participation to take effect, not months. And he dishes some sound advice for those shopping for a reputable school: “I would get someone who already speaks very good English to go to the demo class with you, and if you have any questions about the teacher, ask the teacher themselves – not the school. Also, if you don’t believe someone’s qualification, ask for proof. If they say that they have a certificate, ask to see a copy.” TC mark

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This is for the women who are first to get naked, howl at the moon and jump into the sea. This is for the women who seek relentless joy; the ones who know how to laugh with their whole souls. The women who speak to strangers because they have no fear in their hearts. This is for the women who drink coffee at midnight and wine in the morning, and dare you to question it. This is for the women who throw down what they love, and don’t waste time following society’s pressures to exist behind a white picket fence. The women who create wildly, unbalanced, ferociously and in a blur at times. This — is for you.

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You’ve never read poetry like this before

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  • Anonymous

    This was an interesting article. Thanks

  • Maeby Funke

    I really like this article. 

  • Mmsupermario

    Based on Michael, I can’t tell if this is an article from the Onion.

    • Anonymous

      “hey read this you bastard” LOL

  • Rishtopher

    Very interesting to read. More articles like this on TC in general would be really nice.

  • ryan chang

    @monica, i still can’t pronounce my chinese name correctly either. good read. woop

    • http://www.facebook.com/t.jason.ham Jason Ham

      MY PARENTS DIDN’T EVEN HAVE THE DECENCY TO GIVE ME A CHINESE NAME. :(

      They’re both pretty damn terrible at written Chinese but they coulda just stolen a name form a famous general or poet or some shit, Christttt.

  • Kfrasca

    This story is COMPLETELY one-sided. Not all Westerners teaching English abroad have this experience. Reading this was a huge dissapoint.

    • Anonymous

      yeah but shes simply sharing the fact that some of them do. 

    • Guesty

      whine whine whine

    • idk

      son, i am dissapoint.

  • Michael Lynch

    I found this interesting as well, even if it was only describing one of many experiences.

  • http://www.anjanieblog.com/2011/01/anjanie-in-china.html Anjanie

    They will fire teachers for inappropriate behaviour and westerners do come to China to teach for a career cop-out/ gap year, but standards depend on each school. When I taught I had already completed a four week TEFL in Beijing, without which there was no easy way of getting a job at a school.

    PS: Will Chinese parents in China really be reading this?

  • http://likethehours.wordpress.com/ devin howard

    Interesting and very, very accurate. I live in Beijing and just went through the process of finding a teaching position. The spectrum of quality runs all the way from nearly illegitimate factory schools to elite private high schools to universities. 

    The education boom here is real, at an industrial scale, and I’d say at least 60% of schools are of the kind that hire Michael Weilers. 

    Cool article.

  • Kgustafson Swu

    As a former English teacher at a university in China, I strongly related to this and had a very similar experience. Thanks for writing!

  • Sophia

    I want this job ASAP

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=707272007 Alex Thayer

    great read

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=707272007 Alex Thayer

    great read

  • http://ungrateful.tumblr.com Stephanie

    I studied in China a few years ago and found this to be very true.

    It really fucking sucks because my parents are Chinese but I was born in New Zealand and English is actually my first language. But you have cases where people probably wouldn’t pay me as much as a European person with English as a second language, or hire them over me just based on the way I look.

    I find it disgusting that people can lie to their students like this. I knew a Brazilian with an okay grasp of English who was touting himself (proudly) as an American in order to get a higher pay. I hope that people eventually learn to wisen up.

  • http://eccentricerrant.wordpress.com/ Alexandrea

    It’s like reading a Reader’s Digest article, which is a compliment. (=

    ~~~

    It’s the same situation in Japan and Korea. I just don’t know to what degree they have it bad over there.

  • Anonymous

    Almost could be something from one of the WSJ or NYT blogs. Cool. Do more like it.

  • Anonymous

    Almost could be something from one of the WSJ or NYT blogs. Cool. Do more like it.

  • Niki

    You know what you should do if you want money? Invest in a Latin textbook, memorise it, then go to Hong Kong and charge students HK$1000 an hour for private tuition. I know a teacher who charges that much, makes it an actual requirement that students have lessons no less than 2 hours long, and the only thing she does is set her students some exercises while she paces back and forth across a room.

  • George Michael

    Nice change of pace for TC. I’d love to see more diverse subject matter like this.

  • http://www.anjanieblog.com Anjanie

    Westerners do come to China for gap year/career cop out,but standards vary with each school. I completed a four- week TEFL in Beijing, without which it would have been very difficult to find a teaching placement.  And schools will fire foreign teachers for inappropriate behaviour. 

    Will Chinese parents in China really be reading this?

    • http://kapookababy.com/ kapookababy

      I’m planning to have this translated and distributed through Chinese social networks.

  • http://twitter.com/FeHaciente Fernanda Cortes

    I really liked your article. I’m a nonnative English speaking teacher from Chile, when I was almost finishing I went to college in NYC as an exchange and I had the opportunity to work  with nonnative students as an ESL tutor, which can be very hard if you don’t have any idea or knowledge about english teaching methodolies or learning strategies. On the other hand, while working as a private tutor you must know how to apply the material so your students can develop their four skills. I realize that people need to do something for a living but your students, even if they are small, will appreciate if you take your teaching more seriously and with more responsibility. It doesn’t matter if parents are doing it because of status, just do it for your students.    

  • Eager

    Sounds like I just found my career path! Yes… I’m american thru & thru but of african descent… does that mean I get paid less???

    • http://kapookababy.com/ kapookababy

      Hate to say it, but that might be a case.

  • Jenhowell77

    It seems like you just found the worst English teachers possible and interviewed them. I’m an English teacher in Korea and know tons of other teachers here who hold themselves to a very high standard, are incredibly well-educated and do volunteer work like entertaining orphans and raising money for a battered women’s shelter in their free time. I have also met teachers who have taught in China with the same high standards. You can meet jack-offs in any job. This just makes it more difficult for those of us who are working our asses off teaching English in foreign countries to get respect and decent jobs once we go home. Thanks.

    • http://kapookababy.com/ kapookababy

      Guess my point was that there are a vast number of non-serious teachers in China, and that the standards set by the schools themselves are seriously lax. I don’t think the above case studies are by any means out of the ordinary in China.

  • laowai

    other thing is a lot of ppl that go to China/Korea/wherever to teach are escaping their old lives because they failed at it, so not surprising that a lot of them are dumb asses and don’t really care.

    • Thecharli

      I am about to move to China do teach English. Not to escape my old life, because I have failed. More to learn more about different cultures. Also, not a dumb ass. 

  • Andrei

    I have a friend who left for Korea for a job at teaching english. She was failing at finding a job here in the states. She doesn’t know a lick of Korean, nor does she have any teaching abilities, but she was hired relatively quick. Though she’s not 100% content, this is the most success she had with finances — and she’s picking up their language.

    People are quick to judge here, but I can really see the appeal of it.

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