The Great Pretenders: China’s “Unfire-able” English Teachers

“I’m hungover every time,” said Michael Weiler with a grin. Michael is a 20-year-old English teacher in Beijing, and every Saturday at 10am he tutors a 14-year-old Chinese girl called Daisy. “Sometimes I’ll go straight from partying to teaching, and because I stink I spray on loads of cologne.” Although Michael is from Austria, the school that hires him tells his students that he’s American because they prefer a native speaker. Sometimes he forgets whether he told a student he was from Connecticut, or Chicago. Michael was hired without any previous teaching experience and given no training. Just thrown into a room with students and told, “go teach”.

If you’re in China and the kind of person with foreign friends under 30, chances are you know an English teacher. And chances are, they don’t take the job very seriously. While the rest of the world flails in the wake of recession-related disasters, the world’s second largest economy is only finding itself a larger and larger presence on the international stage. And with this comes the people’s thirst to master the only, true international language. Last year China Daily reported that 400 million Chinese people are studying English – one-third of the country’s population. (The majority of these would fall into the school age bracket.) And the value of the English-training market is estimated at 30 billion RMB ($4.5 billion US).

This insatiable demand for English teachers has led to a situation that Samuel Cowell, a 29-year-old (genuine) American teaching English in the south of China, has meant teachers like him are “unfire-able”. He says, “the school basically just works as a matchmaking service between teacher and student. So if I’m consistently late, or am not a very good teacher, they could fire me, but it just means they miss out on the commission. And there are just so many students here, and such a limited supply of teachers.”

When Sonia Ross, a 25-year-old Italian student came to Beijing to study Chinese she found herself wanting to stay on after her course finished. For many young foreigners such as herself, lacking the language skills or work experience to join the professional class of expats in China, teaching English is their only answer. And an attractive one at that: work conditions are usually flexible, while the pay, for Chinese standards, can be exceptionally high. For casual teaching in Beijing 120-180 RMB/hour ($18-27 US) is standard. A local tutoring Chinese with similar conditions will be lucky to make 50 RMB/hour ($7 US).

English schools in China run into the hundreds – with some schools each operating hundreds of branches across the country – so naturally the quality ranges. Universities and international schools offer the best working conditions for teachers who are serious about their work, including high salaries, accommodation benefits and visa sponsorship. And the expectation with these positions are that applicants come with qualifications, experience and signed contracts. However, the large proportion of China’s private ESL institutions are considerably less legitimate in nature.These schools will hire English teachers with one, basic requirement: “a white face”.

One look at Michael and you know you’re standing before a quintessential European. He’s tall, with pale blue eyes, white skin and sandy blonde hair. He landed his job at a private teaching school through a friend, and found it as easy as just turning up. “They wanted me straight away, no demo class, no interview. They just showed me a card that was red and asked me what colour is it. ‘Red,’ I answered. ‘Oh OK. You’re in’.”

Not only was Michael hired without experience, he has been teaching with no guidance or training. In his classroom he sits encircled by three tiny desks, and three tiny chairs, for his three tiny students: Danny, Rabbit and Wei Wei. They are just four-years-old. “Man, Danny is such a fucker,” sighs Michael. “He never listens to me and often gets really angry. Sometimes if there are no teachers or parents around, I’ll say to him ‘you’re such a bastard’ in English very fast, so he can’t really understand. Or, ‘hey read this you fatass’. I’ve only ever really told him off once. And never again, because he started to cry.” I asked him if it looked bad in front of the other parents to have one of your students cry. But Michael shakes his head, “Mama Rabbit is always there, but sheknows how much Danny’s a bastard.”

At least Michael stopped short of actually teaching his kids how to swear, unlike this foreign teacher who not only directed her students to recite a Russian swear word, but wrote the word on the board, as reported on The Shanghaiist earlier this year.

For both Michael and Sonia the fact that they’re not native English speakers means they can’t command a hiring price as high as that of an American or Brit. One private kindergarten in Beijing answers job applicants with an email outlining their different pay brackets based on nationality: “10K for native speakers, 8-9K for experienced European teachers and 6K for African or Asian teachers.” Which is why the intermediary company that hired Sonia – they take a cut of any jobs they land for her – told her to tell schools and students that she’s Irish. Unfortunately Sonia’s pronounced Italian accent is a far cry from the lilting tones of an Irishwoman. “Of all the English-speaking countries, why Ireland?” she complained to Roddy, her agent. “Do you know how hard their accent is?” Roddy had this stroke of inspiration after Sonia had told him she spent two months working as an au pair in Ireland. And, as he had correctly presumed, turned out none of the Chinese teachers who hired her, or the students she taught, could tell the difference.

While Sonia has become apt at faking her nationality (at one school where she was passing as an American she turned to Wikipedia in order to prepare for a presentation on Thanksgiving) sometimes it saddens her that she can’t be honest about her background. She has begun telling people that her father is Italian, as a way of introducing into the conversation some of her true heritage. Michael too finds ways to sneak in his Austrian background. “Once I asked Daisy to name the world’s most famous pianist. She started saying Beethoven, Bach, and so on, so finally I asked if she knows Mozart. She did, so I asked her where’s Mozart from? And she said Germany.”

While teaching pre-kindegarteners is often just a mixture of singing, playing games and running through flashcards, Michael’s sessions with Daisy, whose English is fairly advanced, can be a touch more demanding. Occasionally she queries him about words he isn’t familiar with. “In those cases I ask her to check it in the dictionary and write it down. I say it’s because she’ll remember it better, but actually it’s because I don’t know!” Other times he’s flubbed that it was because of her poor pronunciation.

While Samuel has never had to lie about his ethnic background, it seems most of the schools he’s worked at has had no qualms with lying about his professional background. Having taught in multiple locations across China, he says it’s commonplace for institutions to write fake bios or pump up teacher credentials to students. “There’s always an end of school rush with kids wanting to do a TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) test to enter Hong Kong University. So the school will say, ‘hey this guy’s students have all passed TOEFL, he’s our TOEFL expert!’ Meanwhile I’m like, ‘what’s TOEFL?’” In other instances they exaggerated the length of time he’s been at the school or in China.

If there’s any one reason why these young teachers seem to lack any guilt about their small deceits and lax teaching standards, it’s because they realise it’s the schools themselves, and to some degree the parents as well, who don’t really care.

“I’m not a real teacher, I’m an actress pretending to be something I’m not. These kids are so little, sometimes only three or four-years-old, so they’re not learning English seriously,” says Sonia. “I used to find it weird that the parents are always telling me how I’m beautiful. Then I realised these lessons are just about giving them status. In China, if your kids go to school and they have a foreign teacher – a beautiful Irish teacher – everybody in the neighbourhood knows and you gain face. So it doesn’t really matter what happens in class.

For Chinese parents who are serious about their child speaking English, Samuel concedes that these informal classes are of use, but they require years of participation to take effect, not months. And he dishes some sound advice for those shopping for a reputable school: “I would get someone who already speaks very good English to go to the demo class with you, and if you have any questions about the teacher ask the teacher themselves not the school. Also, if you don’t believe someone’s qualification, ask for proof. If they say that they have a certificate, ask to see a copy.”

Some names have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent.

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