Doctor X’s guide to teaching ESL/TEFL in China? Part 2 – The redundant, the alienated and the dysfunctional

Part 2 of 4
While the graduate gap year teachers are having a ball, drinking, partying, hopping from job to job, seducing Chinese girls, over in the corner of the bar I hang out in are that group of ESL teachers I am calling the redundant, the alienated and the dysfunctional (RAD from here on in) grumping away into their ten yuan Carlsberg or Tiger beers during ‘Happy Hour.’

Happy Hour

Most of these teachers are older and believe themselves to be wiser than the young itinerant teachers they pour scorn upon whilst yelling for the fú wù yuán for more beer. However, the two groups have more in common with each other than they might like to admit.

Many of these ESL teachers may have little or no teaching experience or ‘teaching’ qualifications over and above the TEFL course they did back in the day or just before they came here.  That they might have a degree from a not so kosher university could also be open to some question, especially if they have spent some time in Thailand before coming to China.

At least one ‘teacher’ to my knowledge probably purchased his degree on the Khao San Road in Bangkok, as the ‘UK degree’ he produced to a British colleague of mine when applying for a job at his school, was for a ‘university’ that did not exist.  He didn’t get the job of course, he was however, already in a job at a Chinese school for a Chinese agency where it was muttered quietly by the Chinese staff that the Chinese owners PhD was purchased in the US, as was his business partner/wife’s MA from Harvard, despite the fact that she can barely speak English.

Consequently, this group of teachers will be in the sort of teaching job that pays the usual 6000/7000yuan a month plus the standard extras as listed for the gap year graduate.  They often, like the gap year graduates, have a number irons in the fire of education and move from job to job as and when it suits them. Most of them will have jockeyed for position from some of the more disreputable training agencies, schools, colleges and universities that first got them their Z visas to much better places, often with an increased salary because, now, they are ‘experienced’ teachers.  That they started at these lower grade institutions is more to do with their own ignorance of the teaching market in China when they were applying for work, and the need to get here on a Z visa with the airline ticket paid for.

Calling the fu wu yuan

This suggests that the RADicles are slightly less transient than the gap year graduates.  Most of them have been here for a good few years. Some of them will be settled here with Chinese wives and families. None that I know of have a western wife and family here in China with them.  So the thrill of actually being here with cheap beer, a twelve hour working week, travel to exciting destinations on the doorstep, beautiful Chinese girls to look at, and screw soon palls. They become weary of the disinterested, unprepared, sometimes arrogant – because their daddy is rich, sleepy, video game addicted, students with the English ability of a 5 year old British kid (that’s being generous in regard to the 17 yr old college students at a college I worked at, who expected, as a rite of passage, to be accepted in a Canadian University without the hassle of really trying).

So when better work at better schools with better money turns up they jump at it so that their place can be filled with a gap year graduate or a new and unsuspecting RADicle.  Such is the teaching caste system maintained in China and equilibrium is once again achieved.  An important part of being a foreign teacher is to know when your bread is being buttered, and by whom, and when to jump ship before the rest of the rats do.

However, where the disgruntled RADicles differ from the gap year graduates is that despite of, or regardless of, where they got their degrees, or for that matter how long ago they graduated from their alma maters these teachers have learnt the lessons of the University of Hard Knocks.  This influences their teaching and their approach to the jobs they take.

The teachers in these RADicle groups that I have met profess, in the main, a real zeal for teaching. Not for them simply babysitting sleepy students, or showing them You Tube Videos/Movies day after day just to keep them awake as per the graduate gap year teachers who spend their lessons counting the minutes until they can get back to the office to have a nap or play video games on their iPad before the next lesson.

In the spirit of openness and honesty I guess I, your good Doctor X, have to admit that to a certain extent I too belong, to this RADicle group. Yes, I sit with these fellow teachers, drinking beers swopping tales of what happened in our classrooms this week. Grumping about the gap year graduates and their sloppy Tee shirts and attitudes (but really for having a better time than we are).

Or how dispiriting it is to have to do, and say the same thing day after day with little evident success. And yet, and yet, we still prepare our lesson plans, we generate classroom materials, we pass on tips to each other about content and things that have worked in the classroom, albeit over a beer, so it’s probably forgotten by the next day.

Nevertheless, we still wake up with the expectation that we might make a difference to these kids, make a difference to China; we take pride in our work. We believe that we can, in some way, help our students achieve their dream of going to a foreign university, pass the IELTS/TOFEL exam, get their A Levels, or simply become more proficient in English. This is why I came to China. This is why I’m still at the same school as I was last year and why I will be at the same school again next year (OK, the money helps, more of which later, in another section).

Doctor X
Doctor X for it is I in full flow

What sets the older group apart is, I believe, a responsibility to the job, to teaching and to a certain extent the need for self-preservation.  Some of the teachers I have met, and here I include myself, have been made redundant from jobs in the west.  I took voluntary redundancy when it became clear to me that my post at the university I was working at was no longer tenable.  It was clear to me even then, when I was in work, that at my age, with my qualifications (a PhD) I was going to find it difficult to find work in the UK.  Plus I’d basically had enough of work. I’d worked since I was 16, I’d had enough and it was time to make a change. (Find out more on my soon to be published memoir on Kindle)

However, I couldn’t sit back and enjoy the fruits of my redundancy settlement because it was not that large, I still needed to earn money to pay bills of which the mortgage on my house in the UK was my largest money pit and I knew that I was not going to end up stacking shelves in my local supermarket.  Coming to China, teaching English had been in the back of my mind for a while and as redundancy does focus ones mind it became clear that it was time to make that change in my life.

If you feel you need a change and the opportunity arises, do what I did, use the time when you are working out your notice to do the online TEFL course (on your computer at work, like I did, let the bastards pay for your time) and to get your life in order.  I have to say, and I am aware it is a cliché, but redundancy was the best thing that ever happened to me. You will find online TEFL courses on on offer for around £49

Other ESL teacher colleagues faced similar challenges at home. One was a senior manager for a large retailer in the UK but for her enough was enough; she’s been teaching in China for five years too and has never looked back and now is working for the British Council as an IELTS examiner. The great American financial crash was the motivation for other friends to teach in China. Having lived the American Dream and been very successful the rug was pulled out from under them, their business collapsed and effectively the system made them redundant. They changed their lives and came to China, a husband and wife team who have made a great success of ESL teaching and who get to travel around SE Asia as a bonus during the long holidays.

Other teachers, friends, and colleagues I have met seem alienated from their own countries. Rootless, homeless, forever wandering the world, looking for what, I don’t know, maybe the travel is enough.  China might be just another stop on their quests itinerary who knows where they will go next? They certainly don’t. What they are searching for in their travels is unknown. They are jobbing English teachers who go where the vagaries of the language takes them. Japan for a year – fantastic sushi, Korea as the head of a language school for two years, Former Eastern Europe for the craic and the top wages, South America for the beaches and the cocaine, the African grasslands for the students who want to be lawyers and doctors to help their own country if only they had a pencil, and finally to end up washed up and beached in China, propping up a bar sinking another chilly 10 kuai beer.

Some of these semi-itinerant teachers, the alienated RADicle, seem to have families, wives and children back in their home countries. They talk wistfully of them and show pictures around the bar.  But for all the talk these families could be figments of a fevered imagination. Trips back home are never taken, wives and children never seem to appear on the scene and if they do its only for a week or two and then they are shipped back to whence they came to once again become out of sight and out of mind.  A regular moan from the alienated RADicle in his cups, late at night, is that the bitch back home is bleeding him dry and that he needs to go to the bank again to send money, which means ramping up the teaching, finding another part time job to add to the hours already being taught.

Back-stories and personal histories are edited, fictionalised, re-written, boasted about, not mentioned much, spewed out after too many bottles of Bombay Blue. We create a whole web of lies we weave about ourselves, which make us who we are, or who we want to be.  In China you can damn well be who you damn well want to be and who knows or cares a damn anyway?

You have to be self-reliant in China, you cannot be too needy or lack self-confidence or you will be lost. If you really don’t like yourself or your life, well then, just damn well be who you want to be. Who cares anyway, we damn well don’t.  We are too busy managing our own lives to care too much about yours. In a transient population of English teachers many are here today and gone tomorrow to pastures and schools anew and there are always new friends to be made as they turn up at school or in the bar, fresh faced, eager to make friends, and needy for the inside line in respect of teaching here in China so don’t kid yourself you are the special one.

But they know their stuff these RAD teachers. They can teach a class at the drop of a hat. They have a lifetimes experience; they are raconteurs, fonts of ESL teaching knowledge. They have a practiced ease with new situations that makes them perfect bar flies however, in this case, it’s the shit that circles the fly as the shit tries to learn a thing or two or pick up a swift hint for tomorrows lesson that’s not been planned yet and it’s already 11pm and they’re six pints in, and the jagerbombs are starting to happen.

Thus the bar is a microcosm of life amongst the English Teacher fraternity, and over in the corner, face in his or her beer/laptop/tablet/phone/food not interacting with anyone at all is the dysfunctional RADicle. How they ever got this far, and actually organized a job in China, and the flights, and the visa’s, and actually teach is a mystery because they don’t seem to be able to organize their own existence.

These teachers have little or no social graces. They seem to be friendless in a society where friendships are solidly forged, and are maintained with almost religious zeal.  A meeting in the bar after a week or so apart stuck on campus teaching is a love fest of manly hugs, jovial backslapping, inquisitions about ones health, and job status, round buying, food sharing, whispered sweet nothings between friends of similar, and opposite gender, shared experiences in the classroom, tips about good restaurants visited, queries about the family back home. and when and where will you be travelling this summer/spring break, jagerbombing, and the general chit chat of the kind one has heard a thousand times but are too polite to mention.

The dysfunctional RAD stands to one side watching uncomfortably as the bonhomie threatens to engulf him or her. Should someone notice him off to one side, and offer him or her welcoming hug or a handshake it’s a pretty stiff affair as if the very nature of the human contact is something to be avoided.

I have often walked into a bar and over in the corner is Johnny no-mates (we called him Dikipedia because he always new better than anyone – you can meet him in my memoir on kindle) staring resolutely into his, (I have to say this it is mainly a male disorder, maybe the females just stay in their apartment doing cross stitch, or marking or something that I cannot fathom) beer/laptop/tablet/phone/food.  If, god forbid, the bar is empty, and you go over to their table for the company, because any company is better than no company, right?  The dysfunctional teacher will share a few words, but in the main what’s on the laptop/table/phone is usually much more interesting that whatever it is you might have to say.  So you spend your time looking at the door praying to Dionysus that someone, anyone, will step through entrance to give you a reason to leave the loser on his own.


When the dysfunctional teacher does join in with the band of happy fellows in the bar, often after being encouraged to do so, because if nothing else RADical English teachers are a generally a friendly, and welcoming bunch, then tend to go over the top and get thoroughly pissed.  There is nothing wrong with getting pissed; I’ve been there myself after one or two too many pints, and Jagerbombs and/or Mr Jim Beams whiskey.

The dysfunctional teacher often gets the wrong end of the stick, and cannot endure the normal banter of inebriated teachers recoiling from, and diluting the stress of a heavy 10-hour working week.  They seem to end up wanting to hit someone, or getting hit or coming on inappropriately to any female members of the group, and the whole evening goes tits up, again, such is their dysfunctional rage.

When one does get to have a real conversation with the dysfunctional teacher it seems that even at home they were just as uncomfortable as they are here in China.  Like the alienated RADical they do seem to be looking for something, maybe its personal change maybe just something intangible like getting a personality. They didn’t seem to fit in at home. They seem to be introverted, the type of kid that never got the girl, so they retreated into the world of video games and study.

Maybe they feel that coming to China will challenge them, and eventually change them, and they will become different people. So we can give them kudos for actually getting off their arses and getting here. But it seems that once they are here they find it too difficult to give up those comforting OCD routines that makes us who we are, to throw off the mantle of introversion, for better or worse.

Even so some of the dysfunctional teachers I have met have managed to meet, and keep Chinese girlfriends, some of them have even married the poor unsuspecting girls. I suspect, however, this might be a good thing for the dysfunctional male foreigner who is probably missing his mum, and the easy life back home because Chinese women are generally the boss in any relationship. The epithet used for Chinese wives ‘Dragon lady’ is not a matter of whimsy; in China it is a reality.  Forget having to get yourself a lifestyle guru or a life coach a Chinese wife does all this, and more, and is probably prettier.

Of course being a foreign teacher is a good catch for a Chinese girl dysfunctional or not. Our wages are often double or more than what the average Chinese teacher earns so it means that he can keep her in a manner to which she will quickly become accustomed too.  One teacher I know had to hand over his monthly salary to his live in girlfriend, so she could manage the money by allowing him a monthly stipend (in his defence they were trying to run a business too).

However, all areas of ones life will soon be policed with a rigour that would bring a smile to the face of Mao Zedong and his Red Army cronies who infected this country with a military passion for order, and cleanliness that translates in the modern era into how things get done in the home. Take the washing up for example. Apparently it has to be washed three times. Once in hot soapy water, and then swilled off twice in running cold water. If these standards are not applied, then it’s the gulags for you comrade.

Doctor X’s guide to teaching ESL/TEFL in China. Part 1 – The gap year graduate

Part 1 of 4

Chinese High School

I’ve been teaching English in China for five years now so this post is aimed at those of you who might be thinking about coming to China to teach or you might have made the decision to come to teach and are right now agonising about what to put in your suitcases for the 10 months or so you will be away – which I will come to later.

Let’s begin at the beginning and ask the question ‘why do you actually want to come to China to teach English?’ After all it’s a long way away, the culture is pretty alien, if you’ve been looking at the jobs websites you’ll have noticed that the wages are not up to much when balanced against what you could earn at home and then there’s the smog.

Smog over the Lotus stalks

But then again I have been here for five years and probably will stay for another five. I’ve been having a blast, enjoying myself, travelling, meeting wonderful people, sleeping with them and saving enough money en-route to become debt free in the UK.

So what sort of people come out to China to teach English? Based on very little actual research, apart from living and working here five years carrying out much of the participant observation the following is based upon in the various pubs and bars I have frequented I have come to the conclusion that English (ESL) teachers in China can be classified into four distinct groups.  Which one do you belong to?

The Gap Year Graduate

The Redundant, the Alienated and the Dysfunctional

The Untouchables 

The Entitled

The Gap Year Graduate.

You have to have a degree to get most of the bona fide teaching jobs in China. In most cases it usually doesn’t matter what your degree subject is. In some cases you might not even need a degree at all but you need to be suspicious of these job offers because they might not come with a Z visa and will expect you to travel on a tourist visa and work illegally. Be warned as I write in 2017 the police are cracking down on phoney degree certificates. New rules that came out on April 1st insist on notarised degree certification and Applicant’s police clearance (issued by your home country local police department) and notarised. You can calculate your visa ranking here 

Crucially though you have to be a native English speaker, unless you are a tall blond beautiful Ukrainian female – then you will be a shoo in for the job.   Once you are in China you will find a glut of this type of ‘teacher’. Graduates that have had little or no experience of teaching other than some group work when doing their TEFL qualification who think that coming to China will look good on their CV when they go back home to find work or to continue their academic career by signing up to an MA programme.

The type of work they tend to find is in low grade schools, kindergartens and some low-grade colleges and universities.  In many cases they are simply filling the role of a ‘white face’ native English speaker so the said school or college can market their ‘credentials’ to gullible parents.  Remember, education is big business here, parent have to pay for their kid’s education. Interaction with students at these types of schools/training centres is often very basic, often restricted to ‘conversational’ English, working with a set book or working with young kids with audiovisual material provided by the school.

Often classes are monitored by CCTV, especially so in kindergartens and training schools, so that doting parents (and the managers) can watch their kids being taught. Some schools then demand a ‘performance’ from these teachers so that the parents believe they are getting their money’s worth.  This ‘performing monkey’ role is often more about keeping sleepy and unmotivated young students awake, having fun, than teaching English.

Kids at a training school I worked at

These types of teachers are very transient. Some might be travelling and stopping off to work illegally, on tourist visas to make some money before moving on to the next place.  Some might be here for the adventure, the nightlife, the cheap beer and the party atmosphere, which you can find easily enough amongst the young ex-pat ‘teachers’.  Some might even be here to teach as they have the notion that it will be good practice for back home when they get around to that pesky Education MA. Regardless, it’s easy to hop from low paying job to low paying job if you are prepared to prostitute yourself for a few hundred RMB an hour.

Many of these types of teachers, and I have to say the majority of them are from the UK, Australia and North America, may have two or three jobs on the go to make ends meet and to keep the party and the travelling going. Over the course of their tenure in China these types of ‘teacher’ might have many jobs from many different employers, often in different cities, as they move around from place to place after losing jobs, getting fired, or just not turning up at all. Most of this extra work being carried out by graduate gap year ‘teachers’ is probably illegal if the strict letter of the Chinese employment law was applied.

I have heard (and have personal knowledge) of this type of teacher turning up drunk after a hard night not quite finishing in time to get some sleep, or just reeking of alcohol and cigarettes when they turn up to teach blurry eyed and still buzzed. Teachers getting arrested for being drunk, teachers falling asleep in taxis because they are drunk, teachers having no money left to pay the taxi so the taxi driver calls the school or college liaison officer to come and pay the bill. Most schools/colleges will provide a card with an emergency contact number on. Teachers falling off their scooters and motorbikes getting injured because they drink and drive – therefore also risking a three week jail sentence and possible deportation. It is not surprising that teacher turn over in some training schools and colleges is quite rapid.

Gap Year Graduate – US version – the eyes have it.

As far as employment law for foreigners is concerned to work as a teacher, legally, in China, you must have a Z visa in your passport then you have to have a foreign experts certificate and a residency visa which your school/agency will get for you. (As I write these are still in flux with the April 1st changes) Once you have a Z visa you should only work for that single employer. If you have multiple jobs with different employers you are breaking the law. Okay, everyone does it. But as some ex-pat teachers have found out to their cost, should you be found out by the police, who do occasionally visit schools to check the status of the foreign employees, not having the correct visa will see you being deported from China with three days notice of your removal. The employer also faces significant fines.

Does this type of work enhance your CV? The answer is probably a resounding No. Employers in the West are not stupid. They probably are aware that a young graduate spending a year in China is not there to develop skills that will translate easily to the work place back home.  I know, personally, young graduates who have spent two or three years in China having, to be honest, a great life.  Travel, parties, lifelong friends, Chinese girlfriends, boyfriends from their own part of the world and earning more than enough money to indulge themselves.  But back in the real world, back home, in the job market, even after returning home to take an MA, the jobs are just not there. One young woman I knew returned home (to the US) took her Masters, then waited 12 months, one full year, to get a face to face interview for a suitable job.

If you are this type of graduate traveller then you might need to consider how you can develop yourself professionally whilst you are here, to spend your time wisely so that your time in China actually does benefit you in the future over and above meeting new people, finding out about new cultures and travelling.  If you actually do wish to develop your ESL teaching skills there are courses available in China where you can qualify for the CELTA (University of Cambridge Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of other Languages) qualification. The CELTA courses can be taken in Beijing and Shanghai, or if you want to travel and learn you can spend a month in Thailand getting the qualification.

Once you have this qualification you can not only move on to better jobs with higher salaries within China but the qualification will also be respected in your home country once it is on your CV which means you could find work in schools and colleges at home teaching ESL.  Also in China 12 months after CELTA qualification you can also become an examiner for the IELTS (International English Language Testing System) examinations, which pays extremely well.

You might also consider doing courses at your local university. Some Chinese universities run MA courses that are in taught English or you might spend your time learning Chinese – there are many accredited courses available. It is likely that if you are a gap year graduate then the teaching job you take will only take up a few hours of your time per day leaving you with plenty of time for professional development of this sort, unless of course you are chasing money by taking as many part-time jobs as possible or partying all the time.

The more enterprising of this graduate group might find that they really don’t want to spend their time babysitting students who don’t want to be there.  If you look hard enough there are other work opportunities in China. Work in the media is always a possibility; the advertising industry uses western models to promote products. Voiceover work, TV work, film extras are all jobs I have seen advertised on the social media groups I belong to in China.  I have seen westerners doing bar/restaurant work, DJ’ing, another ex-pat I know is the singer for a jobbing band for weddings and corporate events, the guitarist on one of the biggest TV shows in China, The Voice of China, a Chinese version of the X Factor, is a British ex-pat who fell into the job by accident.  Some ex-pats start up businesses or enter into business with Chinese colleagues.  I, myself, have written an IELTS speaking test primer textbook with a Chinese colleague published in Beijing, written for a student newspaper in Shanghai and I do proofreading for my local university.

There is a lot of opportunity here if you look for it and sometimes it just falls in your lap because you are the foreigner in the right place at the right time.  The brother of a colleague of mine picked up a modelling contract simply because someone approached him when he was out on the town one night.

Of course, it is probable that the majority of these people are doing this work on Z visas they originally got for starting a teaching job which they are still doing or might have left hoping the school does not bother to contact the authorities to retract the visa – which is usually the case.  Or they might be on tourist visas; consequently a lot of ex-pat work is done illegally. You have to weight that risk up yourself but most of it is paid in cash and I would recommend that if you do extra work on the side, you do get paid in cash.

aaa cash
Cash in hand

As far as salaries go most teaching jobs that come with a Z visa for graduates start at around 6000 RMB (nearly £700 now that the pound is so weak) a month.  The contract will often include free accommodation, free utilities including WiFi or Internet access, free food in some school canteens (School dinners in China are much the same quality as at home), reimbursement of airline tickets, health insurance, some schools offer Chinese lessons for teachers and trips around the local countryside.  You need to check your contract carefully to see that it meets your requirements.

6000 RMB is more than sufficient to have a nice life and to actually save money to travel and so on. Of course, as I have noted, there is always the possibility of picking up extra part time work to boost your income.  Generally part-time teaching pays about 150 – 250 RMB (£17-£29 approx) an hour depending on how good your negotiating skills are. One to one lessons range from about 200 – 300 RMB (£23-£35 approx) per hour and most people I know do them in their local Starbucks or somewhere similar. One colleague was regularly chauffeured to his student’s house to do the lesson and was often given lunch or dinner with the family and was often invited on a family day out – which often translates as ‘free time with an English teacher for my kid’.  The plus side of this is he got to see and visit different places with someone else footing the bill so a win-win situation for both parties.

I worked at a training school with young kids every Saturday and was paid 800RMB a day which included two or three 90-minute lessons a day (depending on the week and/or the number of kids on any given day). I also had to be at ‘my desk’ for the rest of the time, on show for the parents. The day, for me, started at 8:30am and ended at 5:30pm with a two-hour lunch break.

I left this job when its owner suggested to me that he could Photoshop my Z visa and my passport ‘just in case the police came and visited the school’. Of course I was working illegally so that is always a risk, but a risk I didn’t want to take, especially with fake documents, so I left. But saying that in my five years of living and working in Nanjing I do not know of any teacher or any ex-pat that has been found to be working illegally by the police although I do know it has happened in other cities.

If you are a ‘gap year graduate’ who is thinking of coming to China do come. China is a fantastic place; you will meet great people who will become your best buddies. Everyday is an adventure. Even after being here for five years, every day I leave my apartment I see something new or something that blows my mind. If you find the right job you will find it rewarding and character building. Do not buy into the ‘China is shit’ mentality of people who have never stayed here long enough to really understand the place.

The first time I was in China I bailed out and went home with my tail between my legs. You can read about it in my forthcoming memoir on Kindle. But the reality of it was when I got home there was no work and I missed my friends and I needed to work, I needed to earn money and I knew I could do that in China if I found the right job.

So bite the bullet, do the TEFL course if you haven’t already, cut the apron strings, pack your bags and come to China.

My jet plane to China