Tag Archives: university

Reflections on a Decade of Teaching in China

 

OK, it’s actually been 11 years, but a decade sounds more impressive. I want to get my thoughts down on paper, during my last couple of months in China, and before my impending move back to the USA. Along the way, I’ll combine my experiences with some advice to would-be teachers of English abroad.

I left the USA in July 2006, but my exit had begun two years earlier, for three reasons: my dissatisfaction with the Bush administration; my inability to find a teaching job in Los Angeles after two years of searching; and the need to pay down my debts in the U.S.

The internet was the key to my entering the world of teaching. Not only could I learn about the process of becoming a teacher, but searching for a job in another country was now accessible through dedicated websites such as Dave’s ESL Cafe, Abroadchina.org, and many others. I furiously searched for information on China, eventually settling on Sichuan, and its provincial capital Chengdu, as my destination. Why? Chengdu was the jumping-off point for travel to Tibet, which I intended to visit, and I loved Sichuan food. There are worse reasons for choosing a place to live.

I arrived in China in July 2006. The demand for English teachers was high, as the country geared up for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. People were urged to learn at least basic phrases in English, and I lost count of how many times a day I heard “Hello!” shouted at my back. I stuck out like a sore thumb: a 50-year-old foreigner with grayish-white hair and a goatee sailing through a sea of black-haired people who all seemed shorter than I was. I got used to being stared at.

My starting salary at the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China, Chengdu, was 4,000 RMB a month, at that time worth about US $650 a month. If you teach at a university, however, you are provided with a free furnished apartment; mine also included a computer, internet, fully-equipped kitchen with dishware, and a private laundry room. I stayed in this job three years, eventually getting tired of teaching one lesson plan a week, but repeating it 7 times for all my different classes.

As a newbie teacher in China, you will have to make several decisions, which will affect what kind of job you accept. First, how serious are you about teaching as a career? In 2006 the country was still full of “casual” or “backpacker” teachers, the kind who are passing through for a year or two for a holiday or a chance to party. There were also older, mature teachers like me, some making midlife changes as I had. Whatever your motivations for coming to China, whether for evangelical religious purposes, to learn a new culture or language, or to make a life’s work of teaching abroad, you must be clear in your own mind about these, and then make at least a rudimentary plan for your teaching career. This is because, over time, your motivations will become clear to your students.

Second, what kinds of teaching jobs do you want? The typical Chinese university hires foreign teachers as Oral English instructors, to impart knowledge of conversational or general language skills. You will be treated professionally, but expectations of you are not likely to be high. You may be there to lend the school prestige, or even to help it charge more money for its classes. In my experience, I was often expected to create my own curriculum, teaching materials, and assessment methods, with no assistance from the administration. After my first couple of years, I started supplementing my salary with part-time jobs with chain schools (for-profit, intensely competitive businesses) and private lessons. By my third year in China I had paid off the balance of my credit card debt in the U.S.

Chain schools offer many teaching jobs, often for children or teenage students; I won’t mention any names since you only have to glance at the jobs listings on ESL Cafe or other sites to know what the major ones are. These schools may promise high salaries, but often demand long work hours and up to 30 or more “contact” hours per week. By contrast, a full-time university contract requires 14-16 class period per week, in my experience.

During my fourth year in China I began to move up the ladder, into more demanding teaching positions. At Sichuan University I coordinated Going Abroad classes for government-sponsored Chinese Visiting Scholars who prepared to go to the UK or USA; these were my favorite classes, since the teachers were adults with Ph.D.s, and extremely active and personable in class. I also began to move into a different branch of English teaching, English for Academic Purposes (EAP), largely at the prompting of one of my colleagues. Teaching EAP is quite demanding, with a steep learning curve, leading me to enroll in a specialized M.A. program by distance learning through the University of Nottingham. I began to teach academic writing, study skills, research skills, and presentation skills, all of which require specialized knowledge.

For a couple of years I greatly enhanced my income by becoming an IELTS (International English Language Testing System) Examiner for the British Council in China. The money was good while it lasted, and China is the world’s largest market for IELTS and IELTS-related materials and preparation classes.

The top step in my career was to enter the world of foreign or joint-venture university campuses in China. These are where good salaries are paid, amounting to U.S or U.K.-level wages. There are also international school or IB (International Baccalaureate) schools, which can combine elementary and high school grades, with comparable salries. Today there are many American, British, and Australian universities with cooperative programs, or their own campuses, in China. In general, you will need an M.A. and teaching experience to land these jobs.

The last step in my China teaching career was to turn 60, which is the country’s mandatory retirement age. You can still find jobs after 60, but it becomes much more difficult. This was when I had to leave my highly-paid job at Xian Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou, and accept a less-prestigious job at one-fourth the salary. If you’re a “mature” teacher in your 50s or 60s, and this is aconcern, there are online sources giving advice on age limits for foreign workers in different countries.

The English teaching landscape is changing in China. In the last couple of years, visa rules have become stricter. More cities now require a certificate of no criminal conduct, either from your home country’s government or from the police in a Chinese city you have worked in. Many teaching positions now require at least a B.A.; upper-tier jobs require an M.A. Age limits are changing; provinces that granted work visas to age 65 have now lowered the age to 60. You will also see job advertisements that include age limits such as 50 or 55. Salaries and working hours are changing; I was recently offered a teaching job at 8,000 RMB a month, but it required 24 class periods a week, an exhausting schedule when you have never taught more than 16 periods.

As I mentioned above, apart from top-tier school salaries, teacher salaries in China are notoriously low. See Low salaries leave expat teachers bottom of class (China Daily, July 23, 2015) for reference at http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2015-07/23/content_21384900.htm.

Do I have any regrets? Perhaps only that I didn’t start younger. I have the feeling that there was a lot of territory left unexplored, now that I am considering leaving China to resume my career in the USA. However, there are many more unexplored worlds ahead of me. What will I do now? Become an online tutor; get paid to write lesson plans or study guides; become a teacher trainer, and pass on the gift of teaching abroad and learning about new cultures.

 

Some parting words of advice to new teachers going abroad:

Do your homework: research schools, cities, countries. Read message boards for comments from other teachers. Take these comments with a grain of salt; often it’s the disgruntled teachers who post; happy teachers stay quiet.

Get qualified: Earn a TESOL, TEFL, CELTA, or other teaching certificate, preferably one with 120 hours of study, through a reputable university or training organization. Quickie online certificates are often frowned upon.

Consider going for your M.A.: TESOL, Applied Linguistics, Teaching English for Academic Purposes; other fields if you plan to teach a subject other than English.

School ranking is very important in China; I was fortunate to work at three top-ranked, first-tier universities, which gave me a leg up when applying for other jobs in China.

When accepting a job abroad, be sure to ask for names and addresses of current or former teachers, as references. The school should also email you photos of the teacher apartments, and send you a sample contract, with all benefits spelled out.

 

Happy teaching!

 

My first class, Chengdu, 2006

Suzhou

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 北寺塔 North Temple Pagoda, Suzhou

 

I’ve now been living in Suzhou for two and a half weeks. At long last the trials and tribulations of the visa process have come to an end, the car drive across China from Chengdu to the east coast has been done, and I’ve settled into my new apartment. In the midst of all this, three wonderful weeks spent in Chicago passed like a dream. As of this moment, I’ve met all of my EAP (English for Academic Purposes) students, approximately 80 of them divided into four classes. I have each class for four hours a week, which comes to 16 hours of teaching, plus office hours. Between classes I’m in my private office in the Science Building, complete with brand-new large-screen computer and a printer. I keep wanting to pinch myself – did all this really happen, despite my misgivings and uncertainty about ever obtaining a work visa? I guess they did.

 

 

 

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 Location of Suzhou in China

 

 

A short recap: I was offered a two-year teaching contract as an English Tutor at Xian Jiaotong-Liverpool University, located in the section of Suzhou known as Higher Education Town, in the southern part of Suzhou Industrial Park. It’s a vast suburban sprawl, but with some stunningly beautiful landscaping; the whole area, so I’ve read, is a joint venture between Singapore and China. Fortunately, the apartment I found is three bus stops away from school. The dog and I have settled in nicely, after surviving the two-day drive scrunched together in the back seat of my hired driver’s car next to my luggage. I’d previously spent two and a half days in Suzhou before departing the country to renew my visa in the US. In between rain storms, I’d spent one afternoon looking at apartments with an agent, settling on the final one I saw, with two bedrooms. After my round-trip flight from Shanghai to Chicago, I returned to Chengdu for three days, made some quick goodbyes, and now here I am.

 

 

 

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 Art gallery and teahouse in Suzhou

 

 

I’ll write more about my first week of teaching after I have a chance to sit down and think about all I’ve experienced so far, but for now my feet are so sore from standing in a classroom for up to four hours at a time that I just need a rest. In the meantime, Here are some pictures of Suzhou and of the XJTLU campus.

 

 

 

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  留园  Liú Yuán  Lingering Garden, one of Suzhou’s famous classical gardens

 

 

 

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Xian Jiaotong-Liverpool University, Suzhou

Central Building

 

 

 

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Central Building – geometries

 

 

 

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 Science Buildings, XJTLU

 

 

 

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Science Buildings, XJTLU – with waterfall

distance learning

Once I have internet connected in my apartment, and I don’t have to depend on coffee house wifi, I will share my thoughts about starting my M.A. program by distance learning.

My current plan is to stay in Chengdu for one more year, until I’ve completed the three core modules for the M.A. in Teaching English for Academic Purposes. At that point I’ll be halfway through the degree program. At the same time, I plan to complete the DELTA certificate online, which will give me qualifications to pursue higher-level teaching jobs beginning in 2014.

 

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Sunday antiques market, Rome Plaza, Chengdu

build a tower

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while; as usual, however, life got in the way and it was delayed. I’ve now done this team-building activity with two different classes, and it proved to be a lot of fun.

 

 

TED2010 Talk

 

 

The Marshmallow Challenge was created by Tom Wujec, and he describes the activity in a TED2010 Talk [click photo above to view video]. The object of the activity is to enhance group and cooperative learning skills through creativity, planning, trial & error, and problem-solving as a part of a team. It involves building a tower using dry spaghetti, tape, string, and marshmallows. As a bonus, the extra marshmallows provided snacks for instant energy.

 

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Here are some of the photos from my English for Academic Purposes class as they constructed their towers. As it turned out, the students fell in love with the red clothesline string I provided, and used way too much of it. Oh well, I’m not one for strictly following instructions anyway. A few of the students also chose to snack on the spaghetti (uncooked) afterwards, which I didn’t recommend.

 

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After the towers were completed, a committee of judges used a tape measure to determine which one was tallest. Prizes were awarded for height and creativity – one tower was shaped like the Burj Al Arab Hotel in Dubai. During the activity I played a mixture of pop, disco, and 70s R&B music for inspiration. If you try this activity with your class, I also recommend allowing about 10 minutes at the end for clean-up ( a lot of tape gets stuck to desks and spaghetti pieces litter the floor).

 

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 great group work, but a little too much string.

 

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 the crowning touch – marshmallow with a heart.

 

 Marshmallow Challenge title Slide

 Click here to open/download the PowerPoint 2010 instructions for the activity