Working at a language school

As an EFL teacher in China you can teach in the public sector (i.e. schools, colleges and universities) or in the private sector (i.e. training schools and international schools).  The public sector offers more job security and possibly more insurance.  But the private sector offers higher salaries.  If you’re only planning to stay in China for one year, it’s a good idea to work for a training school.  That way, you can enjoy a good level of spending power as well as a manageable workload.  Before you sign a contract with a training school, though, read the four points below.  There are a few things you should be wary of.

NB: The large companies with schools all over China have a foothold in the West.  This means they are legally entitled to employ foreigners and to issue work visas.  This is not the case for the smaller, fly-by-night schools.  Work there at your own risk.

1. Hierarchy

I worked at a large, USA-based company whose Chinese headquarters is in Dalian.  All the other schools are franchise schools.  A franchise school buys the company books and adheres to company policy.  The building owner is responsible for all major decisions, but he or she appoints a location manager who deals with the day-to-day running of the school.  There is also an assistant foreign manager who acts as the first point of contact for the foreign teachers working at the school.

Your experience at the language school will depend entirely on the owner-manager team.  Expect the owner to be a businessperson with no interest in education.  He or she will put a lot of pressure on the location manager to increase re-sign rates.  In fact, the management in general may not even care about teaching and learning.  The foreign manager has very little responsibility.

2. Re-sign rates

EFL positions in China are de-professionalized.  This means that EFL teaching is not treated as a trained profession.  A lot of people refuse to believe that native speakers need training to teach their own language.  But EFL has university courses, research programs and academic journals.  In short, it’s a true profession.

I came to China to teach English.  I tried my best to stay professional as well as to care about the teaching and learning of my students.  I took my job seriously because, for me, education is a serious thing.  My company could not understand that I could like children and take my job seriously at the same time.  I taught there for a year and not once did they accept that I could do my job to a satisfactory standard.  Re-sign rates and games are all that matter.

3. Workload

If you work for a private language school you will be busy in the evenings and on the weekends.  I signed a 23-hour contract, which amounted to 20 teaching hours plus 3 office hours over a 4-day week.  The office hours were for meetings, workshops and lesson planning.  The foreign manager may be responsible for checking the standard of your lesson plans, but in my case that never happened.  There are two things to bear in mind here.  First, your language school may have contracts with local public schools (and/or kindergartens).  This will mean working at other locations.  Second, your location manager may think you are paid for your teaching hours, although you are actually paid for your time.  Don’t forget that teaching hours do not include travelling time.

4. Contract

The Chinese tend to have a relaxed view of contracts and in some cases a contract is little more than a vague statement of intent.  That said, a well-established language school should give you a detailed employment contract that covers grievance procedures, exit clauses and restrictions concerning outside work.  It is common for a language school to bar you from taking any other jobs for the duration of the contract.  I suggest that you try to make the contract even more explicit by including a clause dealing with notice periods.  It is not right, for instance, for your location manager to make changes to your schedule without first giving you 24-hours’ notice.  In addition, you need to know if your days off are fixed and whether or not they should be consecutive.

You may find you have to fight for your rights.  Make sure you know the contract inside-out because, if you don’t, you will be exploited.


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