So you are ready to teach ESL/TEFL in China? Part 3 – The untouchables

Part 3 of 4  – The untouchables

As we move up through the rarefied caste system of ESL teachers in China we must consider the ‘untouchables’. These are the ESL teachers that have a CELTA qualification and may or may not have a PGCE; nevertheless they are a step up from the RADicles (of course each group is not mutually exclusive and a teacher may belong to one or all of these groups).

This step up is in terms of the types of schools can they teach at and the salary they get paid. In the main this type of teacher might be working for what in China are generally called ‘International Schools or Foreign Language Schools’. Most, if not all of the untouchables that I know (apart from any newbie’s), have been in China for a while and many have Chinese or Asian/Filipino wives and children. To be in this type of a school is very beneficial because the children of said teacher can attend the school at very competitive and discounted rates plus wages are significantly higher than those of the gap year graduate or the RADicle.

As mentioned in Part 1 once you have achieved a CELTA qualification more options for better quality work opens up for you at these better quality schools.  At these schools you might be teaching CIE courses aiming towards iGCSE’s or AS/A levels if they follow the English curriculum or you might be teaching the IB or the American ACT or SAT exams.

The most likely place to find an untouchable is in a Chinese High School where the students are being groomed for foreign universities such as in the International and Foreign language schools. This is where having a specialist degree like Math’s or the Sciences comes to the fore as not only can you teach ESL English you can also teach a specialist subject. Similarly at some of the better Universities teaching English and/or teaching a specialist subject is also a possibility.

The thing about a lot of the untouchables I know is that they really think that they are untouchable in the sense that they believe that the terms of their contract do not actually apply to them.  Some of these good schools pay excellent  wages, if you have a CELTA you can expect to start on around 10,000RMB (approx £1000) a month as a new, barely experienced, teacher rising, with experience and length of service in the school to 20 – 25,000 RMB per month.

Most of these schools have a dress code for the teachers – shirt, trousers, and good shoes. Some might even stipulate white shirt, black trousers – a uniform if you will.  Yet some of these untouchables are so conceited that they still want to act like a gap year graduate and turn up in jeans, tee shirts, or shorts in the summer and then they complain when the school fines them as much as 500rmb (£50 approx) for breaking the dress code as per stipulated in the contract.

Yes, these highfliers are so self assured (read arrogant or stupid) that they sign a contract without reading it or at the least without having any cognitive understanding of what the contact they are signing insists over and above the salary and conditions such as the free apartment and health care.

‘But in my last school’ is a popular whine of the untouchable. ‘Im my last school I didn’t have to……………………..’  Please complete the gap fill:

  1. Wear a white shirt
  2. Not wear jeans and tee shirt to lessons
  3. Come to staff meetings
  4. Pay attention in staff meetings
  5. Provide complete lesson plans before the lessons
  6. Be on time
  7. Do extra curricular activities with the students
  8. Sit at my desk and do my office hours
  9. Not leave before 5PM
  10. Fulfil the terms of my contract, which I signed of my own free will, to the satisfaction of my managers

You will notice that generally, in the better schools, the ones paying the higher wages, the teachers are expected to put in a full day. That often means being at ones desk at 8am or earlier and leaving at 5pm.  That you might only have two or three 45/60-minute lessons during that day is irrelevant, as you will be expected to stay at your desk, despite being ‘finished’.  That’s why you get the big bucks.

What you do at your desk in China stays at your desk. So after you have done your usual school admin, marking, writing your lesson plans, then basically you can do what you want.  If you are with Chinese teachers you will notice that they do not need a prompt to get their head down for a nap or two at their desk whatever time of day.  Of course the two-hour lunch break is also naptime.  In the offices I have worked in the camp beds are stacked up against the wall and come lunchtime they are put to good use by the snoozing teachers.  The lunchtime nap is a cultural norm in China and a jolly good idea it is too.

Camp bed in the office

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The rest of the time at your desk is yours.  You can surf the Internet, watch movies, shop on Taobao, and write that block-busting novel you have wanted to get down on paper/on to your hard drive for years. I am currently writing this blog during my own two-hour office session as per my contract. I have also used this time to write the book I mentioned in Part 1. To write newspaper articles for the Shanghai Students Post, to do the proofreading for a local university, so technically I’m being paid twice for the same time – kerching!

Plus as I’m not physically at another place of work as I would be if I were teaching I can kid myself that I’m not working illegally and in breach of my contact and my Z visa conditions. (Of course the school does know about my book and my writing for the student newspaper it would be difficult to hide them as they are in the public domain but they seem pleased as it adds to my reputation.)

So the school pays the untouchables big bucks and also expects the teachers to work for it, no surprise there you might say. This often includes extracurricular stuff such as going on school trips, meeting parents, being wheeled out to a dinner as the ‘performing white face tame monkey’ on the staff and a myriad of other tasks that often get foisted on you at very short notice.

If there is one thing about working in the Chinese education system that riles us Westerners the most it is the lastminuteism that infects the system from top to bottom.  So one might be in the apartment having done with teaching and office hours for the day, feet up, watching Game of Thrones with a beer, when the phone will ring.

‘Rob, where are you?’

‘Here in my apartment, why?’

‘You have a class!’

‘What?’ Frantically checks the diary on my iPhone. ‘ No I don’t’

‘Yes you do. 4th lesson in the afternoon. Didn’t anyone tell you?’

‘No. Nobody told me. What lesson?’

‘Senior B, we have changed the time table, come now they are waiting’

‘Oh Ok’.   Frantically pulls on trousers and shirt and leaves to give a class on the fly.

This type of thing happens with a depressing regularity.

Or its Thursday evening, you have made big plans for the weekend, starting with a big Friday night at the bar grumping over a 10rmb Carlsberg or three with all the other RADicles then Saturday downtown, more 10 kuai beer, maybe a curry and more bar stories that you’ve heard a hundred times or more, but are too polite to mention as you try to get your own favourite story listened to again – your phone beeps.

The Spring trip is a regular event in the school calendar – this year was to  proto-military place run by ex soldiers!

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Chinese teachers enjoying the break

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It’s a message on QQ, from the school administrator, ‘On Saturday afternoon the school is having a parents/sports/open day or something ‘ and they want you to be there/give a speech/talk to parents (despite in the two years I’ve been here there has only been one parent with English good enough to hold a conversation with me and she is an academic at a local university) /just be a white face smiling inanely as disinterested parents waltz past to talk to the Chinese staff.

Parents queuing to register their kids for next year

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Bang goes the big Friday night as you don’t want to get so pissed that you have a hangover and stink of booze when you are in front of the parents. Plus you now have a PPT to create from scratch or a speech to write that not only will inspire the parents to keep forking out around the 80,000rmb (£8000 approx) per year, (for my school anyway) in fees plus extras for boarding, books, uniforms, trips and so on but also enables you to promote yourself as the BEST teacher they have ever had there in the history of ESL teachers in China. But bang there goes most of your Saturday, although you hope you can leave sharpishly once you have shown your face and given your speech/presentation and best smile and get downtown to meet up with your best buddies for that well needed pint.

Parents event where I am joined by my co -teachers

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Parents arriving

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Personally, I think it is important, despite the late notice and the fact that they are messing up your weekend, to be there. It shows commitment to the school and I think it shows respect to the Chinese members of staff who work a darn sight harder than the ESL teachers.  In most schools the Chinese staff have to be there at around 7:00 am and most if not all do not leave until after 9pm at night, others work later because as my school is a boarding school staff are allocated roles to make sure kids are in bed and nicely tucked up before lights out – these staff tend to stay the night in the dormitories despite having families and young children of their own to go home to.

At my school, which has over 3000 pupils, school starts at around 7:10 when the students file in from breakfast for self-study they have a full day of lessons until 21:00 although formal lessons finish at 17:00. The evening lessons are more about self-study, clubs and hobbies.

My schools winter timetable – the summer timetable advances 15 minutes but still finished at 21:00

Time Self study 710-735
Morning 1 7:45-8:30
2 8:40-9:25
3 9:55-10:40
4 10:50-11:40
Lunch time 11:40-13:25
Afternoon 1 13:25-14:10
2 14:20-15:10
3 15:20-16:05
4 16:15-17:00
Self study 1 18:30-19:15
2 19:25-20:00
3 20:10-21:00

On top of being here for so long everyday, the Chinese staff are not allowed off campus without a pass out signed by one of the bosses. For this full week the Chinese members of staff get paid significantly less than the Western Teachers –approximately 6-7000RMB per month, they also have significantly shorter holidays during the summer when they have to work.

As you would expect the untouchable ESL teacher would think that getting involved in this sort of extra curricular activity, especially at short notice, is beneath them. The exhibit a sort of colonial arrogance which exhibits itself as lazy racism whereby they think that they are better than the Chinese who can’t seem to be able to organize things in a logical and timely fashion.  They expect things to be done in the way they expect them to be done in the west before they even considering doing something.  They want the Chinese to respect their situation and defer to their bewilderment and hurt feelings when they are asked to do something, at the last minute, that is out of their comfort zone. You can hear it in their raised voices as they squeal out their outrage that their bosses actually had the discourtesy to ask them to do something that they feel is beneath their elevated status.

Any change is also seen as a threat.  As noted above a common refrain from this type of teacher is ‘Well in my last school, we never….’.  Shake their comfort zone and vindictive, insolent, backstabbing bullies drop out of the tree.  It is as if they have found their niche, their comfort zone and its just too much hassle to think about doing anything new, or challenging, or even things that might benefit the students and enhance the reputation of the school.  Indeed, so self destructive and arrogant are these teachers that just this last week at another school I know an ESL teacher was challenged by both the Chinese boss and the English ‘manager’ about his standard of dress. As I have already outlined many schools, and this is one of them, have a dress code. It’s outlined in the contract that he signed but this teacher constantly turned up dressed in shorts, polo shirt and trainers. His argument, when challenged, was that his dress had no bearing on his teaching ability so it didn’t matter.

His arrogance was such that he had no conception that first and foremost he is a role model for his students, secondly the school wanted to protect its reputation as a good school with parents and visitors who might come across him, and thirdly the school expected certain standards of professional behaviour from someone who was professing to be a professional. As he didn’t get his way in the meeting he had a hissy fit and left his job.  This man has a Chinese wife and a child and because he could not put on a shirt in the morning he gave up a very well paid job.  No doubt he could get another position relatively easily due to the very buoyant job market in Nanjing but it does tell you something of the mentality of this group. This guy is not an isolated case, believe me.

Just this week I hear more stories about untouchable teachers.  First, one who was requested to meet his Chinese boss at, say 2pm.  The teacher waltzes into the Chinese bosses office at 2:15, fifteen minutes late.  The boss says, ‘You’re late, the meeting was at 2pm’.  Teacher shrugs and says ‘What’s the problem?  You were sat in your office doing nothing anyway!’  Here’s a thought – Try doing that at home with your boss – see what happens!’ Second the teacher was at a good school, earning good money, 20K plus, his Chinese girlfriend is just pregnant so he has to get married, he was teaching his students English four letter (swear) words.  He got sacked (told his contract would not be renewed) although he has to work out his contract – four more weeks.  He found a new job the same day, via contacts, but on the other side of the country from where his girlfriend lives and from where his future in-laws/grandparents live.  Grandparents, in China play a very large role in the upbringing of their grandchildren.  But he responds to this with a shrug of the shoulders, ‘it’s a fair cop’ he says and moves on to the next school.

I have never had the opportunity to ask one of these untouchable teachers, especially the ones with a PGCE just why is it they are in China and why are they so resistant to change in their schools. I have an inkling that these types of teacher would find teaching in schools back home too much like hard work. What with having to come up with lesson plans and doing the admin and filling out forms – “Well I never! Is that what its come too!  What? Stay after 15:15 to do a club? In my last school in China….”

If you thing that I am being a bit harsh on these ‘untouchables’ what you have to realize, especially if you do come to China to work, is that here it is every man and woman for themselves. When you join a school, which may have other foreign teachers working there, do not think, for one moment, that you are joining a team.  At best, what you will be joining is a loose alliance of individuals who happen to have similar qualifications as you and a range of different experiences either here or in other countries.  Some of them will know all the tricks of the trade, they will know everything they can and cannot get away with and push the boundaries of acceptable behaviour to the limit in order to make their life easier and to increase both their guanxi and their salary.

Wikipedia tells us that guanxi describes the basic dynamic in personalized networks of influence, and is a central idea in Chinese society. In Western media, the pinyin romanisation of this Chinese word is becoming more widely used instead of the two common translations—”connections” and “relationships”—as neither of those terms sufficiently reflects the wide cultural implications that guanxi describes. So the jockeying for position and the backstabbing and intrigue that’s more subtle than at the court of Elizabeth 1st is normalized amongst Western teachers in these well-paid jobs.  They are just looking out for themselves.  Trying to build relationships and connections with their Chinese managers and bosses, just building guanxi so that when the shit does hit the fan they will be well placed to ride out the storm – they hope.  We all have to do it.  You will have to play the game too, get used to it  and learn it quickly.

Of course this all is borne out of an immense sense of insecurity concerning our jobs and our place in China.  A lot of these teachers have invested time and money into staying and living in China with wives and children but that could all finish in the blink of an eye should the Chinese bosses decide that you haven’t been pulling your weight or you’re simply not the dish of the day anymore or you are just too expensive so you will be replaced by a cheaper bilingual Chinese teacher as is happening at a large school not a million miles from where I am now.   One teacher, I know, was told that he was under threat because he was constantly late for his class.  He knew, for a fact, that he had only been late, due to unforeseen circumstances, for one class during the whole semester and this is despite providing a lot of help and advice to the school gratis as it was setting up and opening.

I, myself, was telephoned by my administrator and told I was late for a class that had been re-arranged and nobody had told me about. Which is the example I gave above to all intents and purposes.  I had to remonstrate with the admin, quite loudly and forcefully when I saw her because she had started to get annoyed with me and use an officious tone of voice on the phone. I eventually got an apology and the woman immediately rang the admin assistant who had not passed on the change of class to me and tore her off a strip instead.  But it is incidents like these which do raise ones level of insecurity because one really never knows how much the Chinese bosses of the school are reading into your, in their eyes, transgressions.

This is why when I teach I dress the part, I look professional, and I act professionally. If I am asked to fulfil a role, such as meeting parents or giving a presentation, even a last minute request, I do it with a smile on my face, a willing attitude and good grace even if it is screwing up my day or my weekend. I mean this doesn’t happen every day or every week, in the main they are blue moon events. But I want to increase my guanxi with the school. I want to work here next year, so I want my contract and my visa renewed.  My point of view is that I work very few hours for a decent salary, I am pretty much left to get on with my teaching without managers or bosses looking over my shoulders.  So why rock the boat?

2 thoughts on “So you are ready to teach ESL/TEFL in China? Part 3 – The untouchables”

  1. Usually to teach in an international school one needs to be a licensed teacher in their home country. CELTA may be a favored by a few schools, but it nor any other TEFL certificate doesn’t replace a teaching license most of the time.

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    1. Hi Ian – Thanks for commenting and congratulations for being the first 🙂 – yes the PGCE is the British postgraduate qualification that one needs to teach in school – I do hear Americans taking about ‘teaching licenses’ but I’m not sure what they mean – and I’ve never really asked them. Good Luck.

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