Beyond healthcare, entertainment, nourishment and more, education is the bedrock of any developed society. An incredible amount of consequences come from having effective or ineffective societal knowledge. Minute details from knowing how to cook a basic meal to being able to tie a pair of shoes begins starts in early education and eventually creates affluent, stable societies.
As Dongguan began scaling up manufacturing decades ago, some foreigners helped design and operate the factories. Others opened bars or restaurants. One guy started a magazine. The rest of the bunch taught the city how to speak the world’s third most spoken language.
By now, that was all many years ago. Now, talking to teachers around town, it’s a good time for an update on these tireless heroes. Day in, day out these men and women deal with spoiled children, lazy adults and demanding parents. Is it all bad? We talked to Waz (foreign manager at a bilingual school), Eric (foreign manager at a training center), Tim (self-employed ESL teacher), Peter (university English teacher) and Tash (new ESL teacher in Dongguan) to find out.
1. HOW HAS THE ESL ENVIRONMENT CHANGED SINCE YOU FIRST STARTED TEACHING?
ERIC: I started in 2004, and I feel there have been a few drastic changes, beginning with methodology. It used to be that teachers would get students to memorize grammar rules and vocabulary, but I think now it has changed into a more natural way of teaching English. An environment is created for kids, so that they can do the thinking themselves.
Hiring has changed, as well. It used to be anybody’s game, but now you need to have a TESOL certificate, a Bachelor’s degree and you should be a Native English speaker.
There has also been such a proliferation of training centers; they’re all over the place, and it is amazing to see how big the market has become. The main target had been adults, but now the students are getting younger. I would say 70 percent of the market is now kids.
Finally, there’s technology. When I started, there was nothing. Now, there are smartboards, and you can get information from the internet. It’s just awesome!
PETER: On the technology point, I noticed that, too. There are a lot more apps now, such as to correct pronunciation and help you build your vocabulary. There wasn’t that stuff before in 2008.
Waz: I first came to Guangzhou in 2001, the school’s main focus was adults, but the boss saw the gap in the market regarding kids and shifted their focus. They also noted that there was more money in kids, and they were less fickle, too. Adult students get busy, or lazy, and stop coming. Whereas with kids, the parents or the grandparents will force them to go.
The amount of resources has changed, as well. When I first started, we didn’t even have any flashcards, and I don’t remember Google being around in any meaningful way. So, what we did was get A4 paper and draw the best stick figures we could.
There were also very few books on the market to teach English. I don’t remember seeing any books that focused on kids.
TASH: I think the addition of technology in the classroom is important because that’s how kids learn outside of the classroom, as well. If you have a song or video, kids can go home and listen, watch and learn outside the classroom.
TIM: And visual learners can learn by seeing.
W: Even something like WeChat has really made things easier. You put the material on WeChat and the kids can review at home together with their parents.
P: At the university, WeChat helps connect better with the students. I have all my English majors in a WeChat group and I make them do recordings every week. I listen to the recordings and I find pronunciation and grammar mistakes. Then, I tell the group “fix it,” and they do.
2. WHAT DO AND DON’T YOU LIKE ABOUT YOUR CURRENT SETUP?
P: I like the free time. I work about 12 hours a week, which works out to about 18 periods. I prep for class, talk to them over WeChat and check homework, but most of the time, I do side projects or whatever I want.
TA: Yes, I can agree with that. We work until half past 11 every day. The free time is definitely a bonus.
T: I like training centers now because you can work your own hours. I work 10 to 15 hours a week, on average, at the moment.
E: I like my training center because it is clean and the environment is just awesome. It is really conducive to learning. It is safe physically and emotionally. I do not see any bullying. I am father and these are things I check for at a workplace. I also like the class sizes. They’re small, around six to eight.
P: At the university, non-English major classes have around seventy people. You meet with them around once every 2 weeks for 80 minutes.
E: How does it go?
P: It doesn’t. It’s a puppet show. It’s just so that they can say “we teach English here; we have white people!” and that’s it. But with the English majors, stuff does happen there.
W: For me, it’s like what Tash said: the free time. I also like that working here is a lot more informal than what it is working back home. I do not have to wear a shirt and tie for work, although some training centers teachers do require it.
E: I would like to add one thing about my training center. It has a recreational area with an area for golf and it’s written on their schedule when they can go there and play.
We have this thing called “function class,” where the kids can cook, do artwork and stuff like that. I love it because it is relaxing.
W: Okay, now, let’s discuss some of the things we don’t like. For me, it is a lot of aspects of local management. In a lot of cases, they still seem to be behind the times when it comes to management and customer relations—how they talk to parents and students. I don’t think it is a cultural thing—like foreigners don’t understand local management because I have seen a lot of local teachers clashing with local managers. I also think that it’s natural because a lot of managers are older people with old ways of doing things. You just need to wait until the younger, more open generation takes over.
T: A lot of bosses here have the attitude that they’re in charge and things will be done their way, and there’s no other way.
W: Well, that’s what the work culture here is, isn’t? I’m the boss and you respect my title. Whether I’m right or wrong, just do whatever I tell you to do.
E: One thing I don’t like about local management is they’re late telling me things. Communication is a problem. A lot of times I have to change things on the same day.
TA: Just from what I’ve observed, it’s very different to a kindergarten back in South Africa. What I don’t like about it is the fact that it’s a very structured class, even though they are really small kids. They don’t really have the chance to play or just be kids.
T: I know some people that recently have had problems with getting paid properly. We are in China, what are our rights? Do we have any rights? Well, we actually do have rights, but a lot of us don’t know what they are. Even the local management doesn’t know what they are.
W: A lot of the time, the problem stems from contracts being in English and Chinese. If whoever translates the document doesn’t do it the right way, there will be a lot of ambiguity, so you might say, “well it says this in English.” And then they’ll say “it says this in Chinese.” A lot of contracts will state that if there is a dispute, Chinese takes precedence. It works both ways, as well. I’ve seen foreigners not follow their contracts by coming in late, or not at all, and then they complain that local management is not following the contract.
P: Also, a contract might say you’ll get observed and if you do not get a satisfactory score, there’ll be a deduction. There’s no explanation of what is the standard.
W: I don’t think that providing a good service and making money needs to be mutually exclusive. I’ve seen that schools buy the cheapest, nastiest toys, materials or equipment that just breaks down after a few months and it just looks crap. That also ties to how there is a lot of kowtowing to the parents’ demands all the time, at the expense of doing the right thing. For me, if they just focused on providing a good service, the money will take care of itself.
P: I think the whole concept of teaching English at an institution is flawed, anyway. You don’t need all that stuff. You need a teacher, a book and a student. The idea of it as a business has got to be geared towards making money because if they were willing to think about teaching and helping the student learn English they wouldn’t need to make a business.
E: There is so much competition right now [to find students] that they feel that whatever they need to do to keep their business, they will just do it.
3. WHAT IS ONE THING TEACHERS CAN DO TO IMPROVE THE LEARNING EXPERIENCE?
E: I think teachers can try to improve their teaching skills. If an approach does not work, then change your approach depending on the needs and level of your students.
TA: Yeah, I think it’s important to have variety in your class, as different kids learn in different ways, so a teacher needs to have a full set of different activities.
W: I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a foreign teacher write a lesson or unit plan. For me, it would be to just plan what they’re going to be doing in class, and preparing the materials beforehand so that it’s ready to go.
E: A lesson plan is also for the person that needs to cover your class if you’re not available.
W: I think reflection, as well. How many teachers leave class and think about how that class could have gone better or what they could have tweaked to make the lesson more effective? How could they have reached certain students more effectively?
E: Some teachers don’t prepare at all. There is something called the “lesson flow”—from A to B to C. A lot of teachers get stuck and don’t know what to do and they lose the students.
W: Another thing I haven’t seen is differentiation. Planning activities for students who are a little more advanced and others who are a little bit behind, to cover all within the same class.
P: You could even have it where they could do one task, but each member of a group has a different assignment. One member might have to answer a question, while another member makes a question.
4. HOW DO YOU VIEW THE EVER-CHANGING VISA REGULATIONS AND THEIR IMPACT ON ESL TEACHING IN CHINA?
W: When I first came here in 2001, foreigners would come in on tourist visas, and they were able to stay here indefinitely by just renewing them at the visa office in Guangzhou. It could be anybody. There’d be no checks, no requirements and no regulations, so you’d get many different kinds of people teaching English. Now, that they’ve tightened things up, it’s a lot more difficult for non-qualified people to teach in China, which is good, because it will up the standards. Pay has been stagnant over the last decade, but I have noticed increases in these last 6 months.
T: It’s supposed to go up, but it depends on your negotiating skills. I still see some very low offers and people getting paid very low.
E: Those with work visas have all the problems compared to those working illegally. The only problem illegal workers have is job security and crackdowns; they don’t have any protection. It is those with work visas that have the burden of meeting the new regulations.
P: It’s a lack of self-awareness. Some foreign teachers don’t think of themselves as illegal, foreign workers.
W: Right, but that’s exactly what they are.
5. DO YOU VIEW ESL TEACHING AS A CAREER IN CHINA?
T: Yes, I do see ESL teaching as a career. I enjoy teaching kids and adults and the lifestyle in Dongguan.
P: Yeah, I like my job and what I am doing here. I’ve no reason to leave.
E: At the beginning, I thought it was just going to be a job that I’d do for a very short time and then I’d leave. I’ve been doing it for ten years now and I still don’t see it as a career, yet. I can only see it as a career when I start moving into management.
W: I don’t see it as a career. In my experience, you can only go so far up. Even in management, where do you go from overseeing other foreign teachers? To me, it seems like a dead-end job, where you can pretty much just teach and maybe become a manager and then what? I don’t see it as a career, but I do see it as a great business.
E: I disagree with you when you say it is only a dead-end job because you can always go up. You can become an admission consultant or get into ESL publishing. You can do a lot. When I get into those areas, that’s when it becomes a career.
W: Well, if you’re publishing then that’s a business. I see it as a good business if you open up a training center or partner up with a local and open up a kindergarten. I think key for that would be finding a good local partner. But as a career, while working for somebody? No.
P: Some foreigners get embarrassed when they say they are teachers. They hang their heads and say “I’m a teacher.”
W: There’s a stigma attached to ESL teachers, where people think you’re an alcoholic or lazy, but at the end of the day, it’s what you make of it.
TA: I do see it as a career. That has to do with the fact that I am studying to be a teacher. I think a lot of foreigners come here to start something else and get into teaching because it’s easy and pays well. But you also don’t get into teaching thinking that you’re going to climb the corporate ladder.