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English Teachers Wanted: Who Is Teaching China's Youth?
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A quick scan of the countless online ESL (English as a Second Language) job boards reveals some startling facts. At a glance, it would seem that China is truly opening itself up to the world. What better way to learn and cooperate with other countries than by asking their best and brightest to come and teach here? Schools up and down the country, from rural coal-mining communities to the bright lights of the big cities, are able to profit from China's ever-growing reputation around the world to attract foreigners and allow their children to be taught English by native speakers. At least, that is the theory. 

In hindsight, the amount of teaching jobs across China, their constant availability and their seemingly accommodating work conditions could be said to spell trouble. Since so many schools are competing for a limited supply of incoming teachers, an increasing number of educational institutions are lowering their standards in order to hire their own token wai jiao lao shi. This attitude is understandable. Possessing a foreigner can raise a school's reputation, doff it in the eyes of the public with a sense of quality and of high academic standards and serve as a strong drawing point for students, especially in remoter areas where a foreign face is rarely seen. However, this can pose a severe problem. As more and more schools are allowed to hire foreign teachers, inevitably an increasing number of under-qualified, untrained individuals will be hired. This trend is felt ever-harder as numerous stories are surfacing telling of teachers breaking their contracts and disappearing (called a "midnight runner"). A further concern related to teachers exhibiting in-classroom behavior considered shocking or offensive to Chinese educators or parents, used to decorum from teachers. By far the most common complaint is that foreign teachers have a strong accent or speak too quickly, making them difficult to understand.

Jacques Peeters, recruiter for New Times International, one of China's biggest ESL agencies, said on Thursday that the challenge lies in "getting the good teachers here and not the ones looking to travel and who do not realize that it is a job they are committing themselves to."

For the present and with the world's eye fixed on China, many people are drawn to a country still full of mystery for the West. Despite the fact that salaries in Chinese schools are below those on offer in its Far-East neighbors, Korea and Japan, its attraction never ceases. "I like some aspects of Chinese life and I am mightily intrigued by them," said Bec, a teacher from Wales, working in Beijing. Comparing the capital with her former job in Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province, she added: "They are different in so many ways, yet both are 'Chinese'. People say that Beijing is not 'real China', but I disagree. Beijing affords the anonymity that I desperately missed at times in Shijiazhuang."

As varied as the schools on offer are, the age and background of incoming teachers is just as diverse. It is essentially young people, often freshly graduated from university, who come to China. While the majority of these are forward-thinking and intelligent people who take their responsibilities in China seriously, a lack of knowledge does prevail among newer teachers about the seriousness of the commitment they undertake when signing a contract with a school here. 

A message needs to be sent to incoming teachers that China is a developing country and that its students need well-trained and reliable people to teach them English as the nation moves forward. It is lamentable that some foreigners coming to China are only looking out for a quick travel opportunity. Consequently, their rash actions let down not only their students but also have a negative impact on the reputations of other teachers who come to make a real difference.

From the schools' side, a re-thinking must be undergone to halt the quick hiring of foreign teachers without taking time to fully check out their credentials or to ensure their personality will fit into the school's work ethic. It is also the responsibility of the school to provide adequate job training and preparation for their teachers. Nevertheless, problems also exist from the perspective of the teachers.

In the race to attract foreigners' attention, schools often make outlandish promises, ensuring comfortable apartments, high salaries (for China), pleasant and easy working conditions only for the teachers, once hired, to be confronted with a harsh reality. Extra classes are scheduled on at a moment's notice, timetables changed, additional fees charged without consulting the teacher which causes understandable anger and confusion. To allow teachers to gain a sense of trust and security, schools from Beijing to Benxi should see their woefully outdated regulations on dealing with foreign employees updated, allowing Chinese staff to gain a better understanding of how to meld often conflicting work ethics.

Popular websites such as Dave's ESL Cafe are rife with such unpleasant accounts. This is a shame as, like in so many cases, success stories of teaching in China far outnumber the negative ones. However, the tide does seem to be turning for the better as both prospective teachers and schools awaken to the realities of their positions.

"New Times started in 2003. At the time, incoming teachers would receive positions within a day. From the second year on, a positive change occurred with both New Times and its contact schools demanding more professional applications and backgrounds from teachers," said Dou Songlin, president of New Times International.

"In 2006, we implemented a new vetting procedure for both schools and teachers to ensure that both sides were provided with quality working environments," added Dou.

( by Chris Dalby, October 20, 2006)

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