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5 Challenges You'll Face as an English Teacher in China

China Travel
by Seth Barham Mar 17, 2014

I SEE A NEW FACE at the expat bar every weekend, undoubtably drawn to this frozen corner of Heilongjiang Province by the promise of a lifestyle change, adventure, and a unique cultural experience — along with a free apartment, money, and a 15-hour workweek.

I don’t want to be the one to burst their bubble while they’re holding their drink, still high off jetlag and excitement, but these are five of the headaches that await them on their TEFL journey.

1. Workplace inequality

China is indeed a communist country, but you’d better believe your private language center is a purely capitalist venture. And you — the unmistakable, foreign-looking face — are their flagship product. You will be pampered with an amazingly modern apartment, a hefty salary, and light hours. It’s pretty awesome, if I’m honest.

This begs the question, though: Can you deal with the fact that your Chinese counterpart is making pennies for working twice as many hours as you? Can you stomach the wine you’re drinking over Christmas dinner, knowing your assistant is stuck at work, covering your half of the lesson? Many schools have the attitude that their Chinese employees are disposable. You’ll have more luck shooting baijiu without cringing than fighting the glaring inequality at your school.

2. Terrible textbooks

Part of running a business is making costs as low as possible in an effort to maximize profit. Your school is no different, which means some of your textbooks will be riddled with horrific errors and probably will have not even been written by a native speaker.

Not only must you convince your Chinese assistant that “May I play your ball?” is, in fact, not correct, but you will also constantly struggle with the uselessness of some sentences you’re required to teach. These can range from the creepy “You want it, you say it, you get it,” to the whoever-wrote-this-textbook-was-high level of ridiculousness: “He must be in the lemon house.” Just bring ibuprofen and you’ll be okay.

3. The parents

One of the most irritating things that plague the majority of language centers is the ridiculous amount of influence parents have. For one, you can’t fail the kids. We actually have to give the children an 8/10 or higher on the oral exams, even if they clearly don’t belong in that class. Their child is flawless; so the reason they’re not doing well must be the school’s fault. The solution? Give an arbitrary score that makes it impossible to fail. The parents are happy being lied to, and the school doesn’t lose any money. The only downside is feeling like your last three months of teaching were pointless.

You’ll also receive some questionable criticism from parents who shouldn’t even be given the time of day, but the school is on their hands and knees in front of them so you’ll hear it anyway. My favorite is when a mother told me I was teaching the book incorrectly. Her English consisted of “hello” and “thank you.” I’ve recently changed my strategy from protesting and reminding my boss that the parents don’t speak English to just nodding, saying “okay,” and continuing to do things my way.

4. Little emperors

China’s one-child policy has created a phenomenon so prevalent that it now has capital letters and its own Wikipedia article: Little Emperor Syndrome. Children of urban families, who now have exponentially more purchasing power than even just a few years ago, are showered with affection and material goods from parents, grandparents, and pretty much everyone around them. Parents will even take their jackets off for them and hand them their water during break time, from kindergarten to my oldest class of 13-year-olds. They get used to it.

While I’ve found children in China to be far more respectful to teachers than their American counterparts, you will definitely still have a few that expect their every whim to be fulfilled. They’ll demand to play a game when you’re in the middle of explaining the past perfect tense, and they’ll demand a different game if that game is boring. Some seem a bit shocked when they finally discover they’re not going to be getting the same amount of attention their parents give them. Treat every child equally early on, set strict rules in class, and hopefully you won’t have too many tantrums.

5. Chinese office culture

The primary source of frustration will almost certainly come from the management of your school, and the office politics that ripple out from their decisions. Something future teachers must understand is that business runs on a different clock in China. Rid yourself of the Western idea of having your calendar a month in advance, or even being given 24-hour notice (even if it’s in your contract) for some activity your school has pulled out of thin air for you to do. Throw “organization” out the window.

Not too long ago, our headmaster had the bright idea to allow renovations in the middle of the autumn term, making several parents furious, some even withdrawing their children from the school. Our boss told us we would be moving into a public school for two weeks (technically illegal, but the headmaster has connections). One of the other foreign teachers laughed and said, “Oh, so you mean two months?” Sure enough, we were there with chalkboards and no teaching materials for a bit longer than 60 days.

You really just have to take a deep breath, roll with the punches, and accept that this is how things work here, or it’ll be very difficult for you to thrive in this country.

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