TEFLChina Teahouse: Job issues: Schools:


In defense of universities -- Susan L. Schwartz, 19 Jun 1998

Dear everyone, some recent posts to this list seem to imply, to me at least, that foreign teachers should not seek teaching positions at universities in China. I disagree and would like to present a different viewpoint.

In case some members don't already know, I should first state that I worked at a university in Wuhan for two years (1990-92) and at a university in Nanjing for a year and a half (1996-97). I have not taught English in any other kind of school in China.

It is true that universities (and I include colleges in this category, too; I will use the words interchangeably and mean no distinction between them) pay lower salaries and may not have as up-to-date facilities as companies, joint ventures or language schools. However, there are many intangible benefits that I do not think other teaching contexts can offer foreign teachers and I believe they make up for whatever might be lacking at a university.

First, you are surrounded by other teachers and students. The atmosphere is undeniably academic. As a teacher, I enjoy being in that kind of environment. I am not saying that other teaching contexts are not academic as well but that universities, ipso facto, are. True, not all students will be interested in learning English, but that happens everywhere, even in places where students pay for their classes. And probably you will not be required to teach as many hours at a university as you would elsewhere (from the ads I've seen for jobs in China, this is the case).

Also, foreign teachers who work at universities live on campus. This makes it easier to get to know local people because it is easy to see each other outside of class. In many cases, Chinese teachers often live on campus, too, in addition to the students. It is easy to visit other people when they are within walking distance of each other. And visiting students' dormitories gives a foreigner a great deal of insight into the Chinese way of life. I felt part of the whole university community when I lived on campus, especially in Wuhan because the university I worked at was a town in and of itself: There was a bank, a post office, restaurants, free market, shops and department store, several tailors and other small businessmen. Most of the things I needed I could obtain there, and that was extremely helpful because going off-campus for things meant expending a great deal of time and energy.

Another reason for working at a university is because there is a Foreign Affairs Office there. As many of you know, one of the responsibilities of the FAO is to look out for the foreigners working at the university. Of course some FAOs do their job better than others; some don't care at all about the foreign teachers, but others do and they make a real effort to help the foreign teachers if the need arises. Also, they will often organize cultural excursions for the foreign teachers. I have heard many complaints from foreign teachers about FAO staff but I have found that being courteous, polite, and understanding of the constraints they operate under prevents misunderstandings and problems. All that needs to be remembered is that foreigners are guests in the country and are not entitled to privileges merely because they are foreigners. (It surprises me how many people seem to forget that, but I have encountered that mindset in other developing countries also, not just in China.)

As far as living conditions go, I personally liked living in a Foreign Guest House with other foreigners. Conditions were adequate and I appreciated the convenience of having a quick walk or bike ride to my classes. Unlike others, I had no problem with guests having to sign in at the entrance. Remember -- at many apartment buildings in large cities in the US, you have to sign in, too. This is not just a Chinese thing. Of course, I wasn't best friends with everyone but it was very nice to have other foreigners nearby with whom I could commiserate or share good news whenever I wanted. And whenever there was a problem in my apartment -- with plumbing, heat, whatever -- there was someone from the Guest House who was on call to make repairs.

If you want to earn a high salary then, no, don't work at a university because odds are you won't. (There are some Western organizations who have projects at universities and pay expatriate salaries but teachers working on them must be experienced and academically qualified.) But if you want to make a difference in the lives of "ordinary" Chinese, who are not part of the rising middle class/business elite, then teaching at a university may be the right place for you. I believe the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages.

Susan L. Schwartz
Editor and publisher, "Nexus"
Formerly Wuhan and Nanjing
Currently Newton, MA, USA

State, private, and corporate schools -- Chris Winnan, May 19, 1998

There seems to be a number of different categories of work here in China. Briefly I would describe them as state jobs, private institute jobs and corporate jobs. The first is mainly university positions, and although recent postings over at the Sperling site indicate that the situation is showing vague signs of starting to improve, this is still not the field in which to expect a salary that rewards either experience or qualifications. Second is private institutes. The problem here is that many of them have their hands tied in what they can charge students and therefore what they can pay teachers. If students only pay 1000 kwai for six months tuition, then it is difficult to pay a teacher a good salary. My own opinion (and this is just an opinion) is that it is this kind of bureaucracy that is holding the market back. If you look around there are plenty of youngsters with enough disposable income for discos and mobile phones. There should be some higher priced quality courses aimed at them. Of course whether the average Chinese consumer wants or is willing to pay for quality is another discussion completely. Still, quality courses will attract quality teachers...which is what we all want. 

Thirdly, there is work in companies; hotels, JVs [joint ventures] and foreign owned ventures. While the money is often much better, these can be 100 times more frustrating than the former two types. You often get there to find that the company is foreign owned but run by Chinese management. Students are unmotivated, absence is high and senior level back up is non-existent. What's worse is that some of the HR managers running the schemes are simply either over promoted secretaries or good party members with great guanxi. 

Anyway, I am rambling again. What I wanted to say is that I have heard positive reports from students about the Hong Xin language school in Guangzhou, I was very impressed by their set up during my last visit their, and was impressed by the the boss, Peter who seemed to have a very positive attitude. 

Chris Winnan 

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