Long-time China Teacher Passed over by Passport

The crackdown on defining who can teach English in china continues, and the qualifications are now tied to the passport. Just because someone is a native speaker does not mean they are qualified to teach the language.

This month’s column is more personal than most for a reason: after 18 years of my life teaching English in Dongguan, this will be my last academic year teaching here.

I extended my work permit for another 12 months in mid-June, and I found it hard to believe non-native English speakers will no longer be allowed to teach English in Dongguan. No exceptions, not even if you hold a degree in education from a native speaking country—the narrow intersection where I used to sit.

The current local implementation of a larger national directive kicked off in 2017 in most first-tier cities and puts an end to the debate over who can teach English. The gavel struck the block on the seemingly eternal disagreement over English being lingua franca or teaching not being an innate skill. The reign over impartation of the English language has been effectively attached to an individual’s passport. Despite education, experience, passion, effectiveness and vocation, I hold a passport that will make it illegal for me to continue to practice my profession after my current work permit expires in June 2020.

I hold a passport that will make it illegal for me to continue to practice my profession after my current work permit expires in June 2020.

How will I fare? I will be financially unscathed since I can hire teachers to do the job that I was doing and change my title to Director of Studies when the time to renew my permit comes. However, I will not be the same. “What you do does not define you,” is only true when vocation plays no role in what you do, when a job is part of a plan to move along to something better. Yet, I have been an English teacher for 25 years. I deliberately chose to become an English teacher because I wanted to empower people’s lives through language, just as it had empowered mine. I am living proof that a non-native can speak and write English as well as a native. What I do unequivocally defines who I am.

That’s my personal predicament, so I will not linger on the topic. I accept my new reality. I will not risk my family, business or livelihood by breaking the law. What I am concerned about, though, is the policing of this new rule. I’m prepared to abide by this rule and give up my professional life as is, but I fear feeling like a righteous driver stuck in a highway traffic jam, furiously watching other cars overtaking on the emergency lane. It is human nature to be angry as you helplessly witness impunity whilst you stick to difficult choices. While we are on the topic of righteousness, will there finally be enforcement of native speakers teaching English without degrees? The city’s calm EFL industry is only so for a reason: glass houses everywhere.

Conversely, to bridge the chasm between language ability and teaching ability, the School of Education at Zhengzhou University in Henan province is apparently running a pilot program using a test known as TOTA (Test of Teaching Ability) for non-native foreigners wishing to teach there. At the time of writing this column, the reach of the test is unclear. I do not know if passing the test will allow non-native English teachers to work only at the university, the city or perhaps the whole province. I can report that the search for information about TOTA, both on Baidu and Google, produced a single related link. Upon clicking it, you are led to a registration page with several English mistakes and inconsistencies. Unfortunately, I cannot report further since registration requires information from the employer itself. Suffice to say, I won’t be moving to Zhengzhou on behalf of TOTA.

I would like to leave you with a series of questions, all of them pointless this late in the game. Should Chinese English teachers be considered non-native teachers? Are native English speakers required to take a test to prove their teaching ability? Is there no acceptable way for non-natives to certify their English ability?

To all my students in Dongguan, I would like to tell you that it has been an honor being part of your journey for 18 years. I will miss being in the classroom with you.