The trouble with English teachers

AP ran an interesting article (via Peking Duck and Paper Tiger) on the perils of being an English teacher in China. I found it a fascinating read both because it strengthened my own reservations about the seedy Chinese black market for English teachers, and because it made me think about some of my prejudices as an expatriate in China. The article is worth a read in its entirety. An excerpt:

For decades, Chinese made their way to the West, often illegally, to end up doing dangerous, low-paying jobs in sweatshop conditions. Now some foreigners drawn by China’s growth and hunger for English lessons are landing in the schoolhouse version of the sweatshop.

In one case, an American ended up dead. Darren Russell, 35, from Calabasas, Calif., died under mysterious circumstances days after a dispute caused him to quit his teaching job in the southern city of Guangzhou. “I’m so scared. I need to get out of here,” Russell said in a message left on his father’s cell phone hours before his death in what Chinese authorities said was a traffic accident.

As China opens up to the world, public and private English-language schools are proliferating. While most treat their foreign teachers decently, and wages can run to $1,000 plus board, lodging and even airfare home, complaints about bad experiences in fly-by-night operations are on the rise. The British Embassy in Beijing warns on its Web site about breaches of contracts, unpaid wages and broken promises. The U.S. Embassy says complaints have increased eightfold since 2004 to two a week on average.

Though foreign teachers in South Korea, Japan and other countries have run into similar problems, the number of allegations in China is much higher because “the rule of law is still not firmly in place,” said a U.S. Embassy official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“A number of substandard English language teaching mills have sprung up, seeking to maximize profits while minimizing services,” the U.S. House of Representatives International Relations Committee said in a recent report on Russell’s case. These institutes have become virtual “‘sweatshops’ where young, often naive Americans are held as virtual indentured servants.”

Well, indentured servitude might be laying it on a bit thick. I’d wager your average young American in a crappy English teaching job in China has rather more options open to them than, say, the undocumented Guatemalan picking Strawberries in Aptos for hour after backbreaking hour. Still, I don’t doubt that you could end up in a situation that was scary at best and dangerous at worst. Indeed, the article discusses the death of one foreign English teacher in murky circumstances.

I’ve always been a bit contemptuous of the English teaching scene in China. Not because there is anything wrong in teaching English; it is good and noble work and many smart people dedicate their lives to it. Rather, my contempt has arisen because of the distinct atmosphere of sleaze that surrounds the industry here in China. Now I know that many English teachers read this blog (and some of you do fine blogs of your own), so bear with me before you start leaving angry comments or deleting me from your RSS reader. After you’ve finished you can still delete me if you want. Or leave the flame.

It has always seemed to me that teaching in English was the job of last resort for people who wanted to spend an extended period of time here. Obviously, there are organizations here willing to take advantage of that situation. While I know people who have taught English here for many years and enjoyed it, I also know some that have had bad experiences and came away feeling exploited and angry. Not surprisingly, the rate of exploitation seems to be higher for those who enter into situations willing to play fast and loose with things like employment documentation. Really, that ought to be a warning. Remember kids: if someone asks you to surrender your passport or tells you not to worry about the paperwork, be extremely suspicious.

The funny thing is that when I tell Chinese people I work in China, many of them ask if I am an English teacher. After reading the article above it occurred to me that I often react to that question badly. “No,” I’ll huff. “I’m not an English teacher.” Subtext: I have a realjob, you clown. I had, without meaning to, constructed in my mind a pecking order of resident foreigners in China, which went something like this:

  • Grizzled China hands who know everybody and senior diplomats
  • Business professionals (including myself), journalists, NGO people etc.
  • English teachers
  • Underage foreign students getting drunk at Babyface or Kai

Note that English teachers were not at the bottom of this heap, although it was a thin layer between them and the cellar. Of course, being a professional spin-doctor is liable to attract scorn in its own right, so I probably have no business putting on airs. It’s not like ahyi on the train asked me if I was a professional man-bitch at a state prison (that always flatters me) or an arms smuggler or some such. I was even in the dreaded foreign student category briefly, although I was thirty-six when I arrived and had a hard time keeping up with the teenagers. But my mild insult at being asked if I am an English teacher is rooted in my prejudice toward the industry here in China rather than toward the act of teaching English itself. That makes it different from the mild insult I’d feel at being asked if I was a drunk, underage foreign student (although in that situation I might also be secretly pleased by my apparently youthful looks).

Of course many of the people in the top two spaces on my little list above started their China careers as English teachers. A few even started them as drunk, underage foreign students, although most of them are old enough so that international hotel bars were the only places they could drink when they were students. So this is my confession that I have been too hard on China’s English teachers (that this blog is, after all, the confessions of an American spin doctor in China), scorning you for no fault of your own even as you labor in intolerable circumstances for meager coppers. I hereby apologize.

Now quit fooling around and go get a real job.

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