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Before you teach in China


So many websites and bloggers extol the virtues of teaching overseas. Reach to Teach is one example. The writer of this blog post tries to convince you with six reasons to teach abroad.

Teaching can be rewarding, but my experiences in China have been polarizing.

When I first arrived, I taught at Jiangnan University, the largest university in Wuxi. The students were enthusiastic, serious and hard working.  Jiangnan management treated the teachers fairly well. I was wined and dined at special occasions and was even taken on a weekend excursion to Yangzhou. My colleagues were kind enough, kept to themselves. It was fine.

Then things switched at North American College (NAC), formerly Lambton College. NAC is a private college on the same campus as Jiangnan, so I didn’t have to change cities or residences. Here’s the reality about some private colleges, many students that attend have failed or scored low in the Gaokao, so this affects their attitude. My students cared less about the course. They would play on their smartphones constantly, not show up, speak to their classmates when I would speak. One had a tantrum because of something his friend said and stormed out. Oh, and sleeping. They loved to sleep in class, rather than outside of class. The sleep thing happens in Chinese classrooms, but it exacerbated me — I was already on edge. Management was ineffectual and at the same time confusing. They’d assert one rule, only to break it later, because wealthy parents are paying and that’s all that matters. Now, my colleagues? That was another story.

I’d like you to meet Lynn. I won’t use her real name, though it’s tempting. This was June, about two months ago. I sat in front of my computer in shock, mouthing the words from her email. “It’s clear you don’t know anything about writing an exam.” I could quote more from that poison pen letter, but let’s zoom to earlier that same day when she stopped me outside our apartment complex and started berating me, her tone laced with condescension. Oh, always the sarcasm. Some other teachers were also outside at the same time and heard every word.

It was awful. Embarrassing. For her to speak to me like I was an idiot savant, a mewling 5 year old in front of our colleagues. This was probably the umpteenth incident with Lynn, there had been several. Always approaching me with disdain and hostility. From the day I started the semester.

Who is Lynn? A retired teacher of 30 plus years, a woman who’d walk around with a bent back and smelled of Bengay, she’d come into the teacher’s lounge and in her booming voice, utter something inappropriate. Usually offensive. Not always at me, but at someone.


Lynn was the coordinator of the program I taught, but more a figurehead rather than someone with a decent pay cheque behind her. Lynn imagined herself as someone in an elevated position above me. Even though I’m older than her eldest son. Even though I have years of experience in the corporate world and know discipline. She berated me for infractions that other teachers committed (letting students out five to ten minutes early), yet I never heard of them being taken aside by her. By the way, she committed this infraction herself. She even began to invent things that I supposedly did. One hilarious accusation was that I texted in class. I use my iPhone for a clock because I don’t have a watch. And dude, this is China. A Chinese person will literally spend hours sitting at a mall on their phones. Just on their phones. Not walking around or exploring. 90% of the time I was the one telling my students to get off their phones.

The saddest part? Lynn is Canadian. She had a personal wish to exert her 30 plus years of teaching over my one plus year of teaching. How could I possibly win? Management at NAC hadn’t even bothered to hear my side of the story, even though I tried to broach it with the Vice-Dean.

It sounds like I’m whining and maybe I am. I certainly made mistakes as a teacher. Nobody is perfect. But the universal truth is it’s a basic human right to be treated with respect. I’d call it an inalienable right. I got neither respect or courtesy from that woman.

So before you charge into China thinking it’s the land of milk and honey for teaching, you should be aware of a few things. Ask yourself some honest questions.

1.  The Reputation of the School

The truth of NAC is I pretty much walked into it. I was already living on the same campus when I heard some negative stories. Many teachers will get jobs through recruiters and teaching websites like Those are fine to find a job, but then what are you walking into? You know I’m all for adventure, but when you’ve signed a contract and have to live there for a year, things get sticky.

My tip: Once you’ve been offered a contract from a school, try to search forums from that city to find out what outsiders or former insiders say about the school. Chances are, a foreigner or two has worked there or is currently working there. A very good place to start is an expat website, they usually have forums. I found a fairly negative comment about NAC on Wuxi Life. Oh shame, why didn’t I listen to my inner voice?

2.  The Location of the School

Chinese cities are broken into three tiers. First tier cities are the most populous and have the highest GDP — Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou. Second tier cities are like Dalian, Wuhan or Chongqing. I was offered a job in Jiangmen city in the province of Guangdong. Sounds great because it’s so near Hong Kong, but when I spoke to Becky, one of the current teachers there, the truth came out. “Well, I’m 55 (crackling phone line) and there isn’t really a direct railway from here (more crackling), you gotta take a bus to Guangzhou. It’s a quiet place, not much to do, if you like that sort of thing (mind numbing deafening white noise)….” Definitely three tier.

My tip: There’s nothing wrong with a third tier city, you can have enriching experiences, but it’s not my cup of tea. For a place I intend to live for a year, I prefer a mix of stimulation and quiet. My suggestion is research deeper on wikipedia, travel websites and again, forums, to read up on the location of your school. Make sure it suits your personality.


3.  Where Will You Live?

Remember that nasty email I got from Lynn about my hapless skills at crafting a suitable exam? I owe it all to Pat, my co-teacher. Pat and I taught the same level of students and he became like me, more and more disgruntled at management and the lack of resources available to us until one day he screamed expletives in my face and all we were doing was discussing how to administer the final exam. I asked a question, he responded with fuck this, fuck that, fucken told you already and fucken not telling you again. He was so disruptive and angry that students in the hallway turned to us and stared. We were supposed to write the exam together, but I had to by myself and culled it from exams he’d written and from past teachers, so it’s interesting that Lynn thought it sucked. Anyway, my point is there we were, the three of us, coagulating with tension and the most uncomfortable part was we lived in the same apartment building and I couldn’t escape these crazy people.

My tip: If you teach at a college or university, 100% of the time you will live on campus with your colleagues or in some cases, where students also live (depends on the size of the institution). I HATED this. Violently. Because when there’s tension at work, there’s no physical distance from your colleagues. AT ALL. The free apartment sounds like a perfect score, but think about it. When you work at an office and you don’t get along with someone, you get to leave and not see that person for another 14 hours. I never had that luxury. The complex I lived at had no other entrances to enter unseen and there were these picnic tables out front where Lynn and Pat would sit and hover. This made my home life miserable. To have to deal with them outside of teaching too? I’d never do it again. I recommend you think carefully about the living situation and if it suits your mental and emotional needs, not just how much you will save. The benefit of teaching at a high school (besides higher pay) is that you usually won’t live in the same building as your coworkers, but in many cases far apart.

4.  Who Are Your Colleagues?

Besides the horrific Pat and Lynn situation, living at NAC was like living at an old folks home. Most of the teachers at the college were 50 years or older and there were endless complaints. “Oh, I know it’s minus 15, but your heater is so noisy, could you turn it down?”  “I hear you walking to the bathroom every night, could you be more quiet?”  “Yesss, it’s only 6 pm, but your music is a bit loud.”

My tip: Ask the Dean or your supervisor about the demographics before you take the job. This will give you an idea on whether you’ll get along with everyone. As for sussing out the crazy, I got lost in it for a while, really wondering if I was nuts and that it was normal to yell ‘fuck’ in people’s faces and make up bullshit accusations or watch other teachers like they are criminals through the window of their classroom. Nah, based on this, I’m perfectly sane.


5.  What Color is Your Skin?

I can’t really sugar coat this. China is a burgeoning nation with preconceived notions of race.

An excerpt from Presswood’s article:

“I overheard students speaking in Chinese about how they were paying so much money and wanted a white instructor. One student went so far as to say, “I don’t want to look at his black face all night.” There was nothing my supervisor could do. The market was demanding white teachers and the company was responding to that demand.”

My tip: If you are a person of color and want to work as a teacher in China, I can’t lie. You will be marginalized at times. For every recruiter or potential employer who has judged me, I’ve also received streams of compliments about my teaching skills, when those people were able to look beyond what the market is demanding. The times I’ve been unfairly scrutinized were very uncomfortable. That has to be the worst part of experiencing racism, this sinking feeling of being powerless. Come here with open eyes and try to forgive employers/recruiters a little. Racism exists in many developed countries, so China’s struggle is she’s only been open to the world for a tender 34 years. She has a lot of growing up to do.

6.  You Can’t be Fughly

Now that I teach pilots, it sounds like a glamorous job and truth is, it sort of is. Last weekend I attended a gourmet Chinese meal with my female supervisor, some Chinese colleagues and an American pilot. When I walked in wearing a little black number my female supervisor said emphatically, “You look beautiful tonight.” This rings like an innocent comment and I’m sure it is, but her compliment fired up a story in my mind. I was in Shanghai having cocktails with some teacher friends one weekend. A long time friend who is a director at a private school told us how frustrating her bosses were because she had to defend a hiring choice. When we asked why she had to defend the choice, I nearly spit out my margarita at her reply, “Well, because they told me that she is mousy and unattractive, that basically she’s ugly and the parents won’t like this.  I told them I didn’t care what she looks like because she’s a damn good teacher.”

My tip:  I’m not trying to say I’m hot and you’re not. This isn’t a one off thing either. It seems like it is, but I’ve heard these stories before. I don’t even know how to address this. My only take is the Chinese care about the appearance of perfection. I have a good job, enough money, dutiful wife/husband and an obliging child. So I suppose this ideal permeates the workplace. You know, based on one’s outward package. I think it’s downright weird to judge someone’s competence on their looks. Perhaps we all do it, but in China it’s more pronounced. As for a tip, um, ditch the hipster clothes and hit H&M maybe?


I’m sorry if this post has turned you off to the idea of teaching in China. I hope not. As much as these aspects exasperate me, it’s fairly easy to save money here and enjoy the opportunity to travel to some legendary sites. Like anywhere, China has it’s pluses and minuses. I’m just relaying what I’ve experienced.

The rest is up to you.

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