Teaching English in China: The Frustrations of a Foreign Teacher

Teaching English in China: The Frustrations of a Foreign Teacher
May 15, 2013 By eChinacities.com

Editor’s note: this article was translated and edited from Ifeng.com, and looks at the story of James, an American teacher who has spent the last five years teaching English in China. James explains the hardships and frustrations he has had to face regarding the Chinese style of English teaching, and the issues he has had in getting his students motivated. The article then reveals similar experiences by a veteran Chinese English teacher, who explains that the parents and the school pressure teachers in adjusting their English teaching styles to be more “conventional”.

Many are aware of the emphasis China has placed on the studying of English in its schools; a phenomenon that has also branched out to kindergartens, with children as young as two or three beginning their journeys in English studying. However,  for foreign teachers like James, an American who has worked as an English teacher in China for five years, the exam-focused education processes can make teaching English in China tough. “Do Chinese people really value the study of English?” asks a frustrated James. Previously, James worked at a middle school in a city in southwest China, and last year made the move to work at a private international school elsewhere as a volunteer.

James’s current school has almost 2,000 students of all ages from first grade elementary kids to final year high school students, and also employs over 20 English teachers. James is one of two foreign teachers at the school, and prior to joining the school, was very excited about the job. James stated that the middle school he previously taught English in was purely geared towards passing exams, and he hoped his new school would be different. However, James soon discovered that despite it calling itself an “international school”, the exam-focused, rote teaching methods were still prevalent.

James previously asked the principal whether the school should employ more foreign education methods and arrange English-related activities such as an English corner; however the principal showed little interest. James was also surprised to find that despite there being over 20 English teachers in the school, there was almost zero communication between him and them during his time in the office. In a similar fashion to the teachers, James also found that his students barely ever engaged in conversation with him after class, despite the fact that many of these students were planning to go abroad to study at university.

Teaching English in China
Photo: mzlxx.com

You had me at “hello” and nothing more

James explained that he found it difficult to understand why so many Chinese people spend vast sums of money on attending English classes but weren’t willing to make the steps to improve their oral English. He also believes that many foreigners who teach English in China aren’t qualified enough for the job, and are simply teaching because they can speak the language. “If someone speaks Chinese does that mean they automatically have the credentials to be a Chinese teacher?” he complains.

James once asked newly arrived teacher Miss Zhang what she thought of fellow teacher Mrs Liu’s English. Mrs Liu is apparently known as one of the top teachers in the area, and taught English to middle school students. Miss Zhang replied “of course her English is great, she’s my idol.” James then told Miss Zhang “don’t learn from her. Her English isn’t good.” The reason for which being that during an end-of-year party to welcome the foreign teachers to the school, Mrs Liu delivered a speech in English which to James sounded very sloppy and was littered with simple mistakes. 

Miss Zhang then told James of another “top” teacher Miss Li, whose class’s English marks were repeatedly the highest in the school, and asked James what he thought of her English. James simply shook his head however, and told Miss Zhang that Miss Li had only ever said two words to him, “hello” and “bye bye”. James stated that not long ago, he bumped into Miss Li and remembered that he had something he wanted to talk to her about. After asking his question (which he said was rather long), Miss Li offered no answer, and simply stammered “I have something to do” and walked away as James stood there shrugging helplessly.     

Face once again the main issue

Often, English lessons taught to students in Chinese schools are recorded for educational or research purposes. Upon hearing this, James actively volunteered to have his lessons recorded in the same way some of the native Chinese English teachers were. However, he was flat-out refused by the school’s authorities as they were worried that many of the students wouldn’t understand his English, and the recording would sound bad. 

One experienced native Chinese English teacher believes that the problems James described lie with the Chinese concept of face and generally being afraid to make such “shameful” mistakes in front of others. The teacher explained that on the surface, studying English appears to be very popular in China, though this is often because students require high English levels to pass their university entrance exams. Moreover, even higher levels of English are required to be accepted onto various graduate schemes, and of course, similarly high levels are required should students wish to study abroad. Once students don’t have a purpose to study English (i.e. to pass exams), then naturally the motivation for studying disappears.

The teacher explained that in his early days as a teacher, he attempted to teach the entire class in English (English is often taught using mostly Chinese in public schools), though this soon proved to be unsuccessful with his students. One of the main reasons was that his students couldn’t understand him, while another was that they didn’t feel they gained any knowledge of English from the class.         

Teachers pressured into constraining their lessons

“I never thought that even after 20 years, after I experienced similar problems during my time as a junior high school teacher, the situation would be the same. If there aren’t many new words, phrases, or grammar points taught in a class, then the students think that the teacher is conducting the lesson poorly. Over time, parents and the school authorities will apply more pressure on you.” The teacher stated that all he could do was to adjust his teaching methods to be more “constrained”, and that after doing so, found his classes were much better received. However, he feels upset about this, and compares his situation – where he is unable to communicate with his students using English – to one similar to James’s. “What if one day I find myself being one of those teachers who can’t even communicate with their students using basic everyday English, despite having foreign teacher friends and being considered a good teacher?”

Source: edu.ifeng.com

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Keywords: teaching English in China teach English in China English teacher in China


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OK it's good idea to comment on any joke or ldea

Jun 16, 2018 15:22 Report Abuse



WOW!!!! I must work at one of the best schools in China compared to all of these comments and the article. Sure, we have our issues at the school, but nothing like what is portrayed here. Then again, perhaps it is the western mentality that many foreign teachers bring with them and fail to try to adapt to their new home country. This is more times the case than not, in my experience. Yes, ALL English programs in China are business based. Yes, it is about money. But, one must learn to work within the system for change and improvements. Being the bull in a China shop is not the answer. Before you go barging into the administrator's office and making demands, those administrators must come to trust your judgment and respect you as a professional. In Chinese culture, this takes a much longer time period than most westerners have patience for. A westerner must prove themselves worthy of this trust and respect. Only then can you have meaningful dialog to promote change. If you go about things like the article portrays, you lose face and seen as a troublemaker. It took me at least a year to demonstrate that I am an ally to the school I work at. I am now in my fourth year with them and change is now possible. It is still an uphill battle for change to happen and not all the changes are going to be accepted. Choosing which battles to fight is how the war will be won. Speaking poorly of your co-workers and making others lose face is not the way to win the battles. Constant complaining about why you think Chinese and their ways are wrong is a sure fired way to lose battles. Placing yourself above everyone else will keep you far from the discussions that matter. The term TIC (This is China) comes into play quite often with my frustrations in China. Once I accept that, things become easier and I get much more accomplished. Stop being the bull in the China shop. You just might find that your administrators are the bullfighters and you will be defeated time and again.

Apr 19, 2018 14:03 Report Abuse



i want job

Jan 23, 2017 15:30 Report Abuse



This is an interesting article. I am frequently asked if I am a teacher. I am not, but my office is very close to an english "learning centre". I have wondered what life as an english teacher is like! I need wonder no more!

Sep 25, 2016 16:57 Report Abuse



the teachers must hiar on his or her abilities not the base of skin and caste

Aug 30, 2016 16:15 Report Abuse



This article contains very good insights. I highly appreciate them.

Aug 27, 2016 17:33 Report Abuse



I wonder if that article can be updated. Maybe something changed for these guys in three years?

Aug 23, 2016 21:14 Report Abuse



What I found rather "shocking" was this "James" fellow badmouthing a Chinese fellow teacher to another Chinese teacher. Disgusting lack of professionalism especially since he is also complaining about unqualified teachers. He also complains about the lack of interaction between him and the Chinese English teachers. Well Mr "James" no one likes to talk to someone who very well might sneer at their mistakes as you did in at least one instance by your own account. Whether it is warranted or not, you just don't do that.

Jun 06, 2016 12:52 Report Abuse



Article is very interesting. Actually James is native English teacher. So he wanted to apply some modern methodology for learning English in Chinese schools. His approach was very good. But for this purpose, he should be cooperate with Chinese English teachers. gradually, he made them understand and share his idea with them. May be, any time, his idea could be attract to them. Chinese are second language learner, they are not first. So they can mistakes or may be do not understand you quickly. Even a native can not expert in his native language. Because many things are involved in a language like grammar, vocabulary, sentence making, using of accurate word etc. So many time a native can also do mistake in speaking.

Jun 16, 2015 13:35 Report Abuse



disinforming China's youth, and teaching english at the same time. it;s a lot harder than it looks

Oct 24, 2014 19:27 Report Abuse



Continuity is essential to curriculum...Otherwise it is more like workshops, not coursework or formal education.

Dec 23, 2013 15:53 Report Abuse



i agree with him, the schools hire teachers just based on their skin color and fool parents and students

Sep 16, 2013 09:31 Report Abuse



Teaching isn't my full time gig from time to time when my finances are depleted...the problems i see 1st pronunciation(and i don't mean words i mean alphabets) 2nd spellings they can not spell 3rd basic conversation(not one liners) 4th the chinese teachers(mostly in public schools) even after securing a college degree in english are unable to break the threshold of what they have already learnt 5th parents want their children to start speaking fluent english overnight even though neither they nor anyone else in the child's surrounding can speak!

May 27, 2013 10:27 Report Abuse



Hi, Sorry if this is not hte correct place to post - I'm sure hoping it is and that somebody can help! A long story, but basically I'm wanting to either ensure that my current school does not attempt to take money or other from me (my contract is ending). What I can say is that I am 1000% certain that I would win as there is no doubt, no doubt I can assure you, and no argument they can use as to what they are trying to make me me do (and i have said no). Also they have breached in other ways which i have never bought up as until no things have been great. (NOw = the lst 3 months since hte issue started). See, I am aware moderately aware of the difficulties in China - the law system etc and them holding onto my release statement (which I assume Ineed if I leave the position early (even if they have breached the lease?). Here lies the problem. With only a couple of months (if that even) to go until it ends, and from reading the contract I'm unsure as to what to do. It suggests that I can write a letter terminating the contract if they are in breach (or have breached in the past? I think?) but does that mean that I can leave asap after writing it? But then how do I collect payment and return flight costs etc? Because I really couldnt care about getting anything from them for what they have done but i just dont want them to get away with trying to do what they are wanting, AND dont want them taking anything of mine! (e.g. last months pays etc or anything they attempt to say that I have breached I want ot fight back given I wont even know and they havent / wont tell me - but I dont want to get to my last day and then them give me no pay for example!). Also the contract says that during a disagreement parties are to find mutual agreement and if this cant be done (which has been tried ona few occassions and still zero agreement even thought they know perfectly well how serious what they have done/are trying to do is) an it says that it also says if a mutual agreement cannot be sought then parties are ableto apply to the arbitrary commmission. Thats it! So I've tried contacting peole liek the teachers union and them but nobody seems to want to answer me! How do I apply and does anybody know who can / will represent me? Seriously,any information will be a huge help. All in all, I refuse to let them get away with it. I honestly think that just a firststep (i.e. a solicitor writing a letter to them) will scare them off and assure that nothing will need to be taken any further (but if it is then I have someoone to represent me whom Ive already contacted). hank you so much. Leila

May 24, 2013 17:00 Report Abuse



I will say sth here, with the little hope that so will read and think about it. the learning attitude in China, between the majority of "educated" people is a joke. The historically bureaucratic culture of this country and dictatorial ruling over people shaped a mentality and an attitude that matches. It is all about survival - getting the certificate, passing the exam, getting the job. As soon as this is achieved learning stops.People hate school, although they will rarely admit. And frankly, in reality I do not think the government really encourages learning English. After all the language comes with the culture and associated free thinking. In this culture free thought is a sin. And there is a "perverted" logic behind this. To the question of how many professors they will fire on the spot, if given the option, students in UIBE Beijing answered - 80%. And I mean Chinese professors. I do not meant to favour any western educational system, because they are all full of flows. But comparatively speaking, the name I would put on the "learning system " here is enculturation brain surgery.

May 24, 2013 13:25 Report Abuse



"After all the language comes with the culture and associated free thinking." Absolutely right!

Dec 11, 2014 01:12 Report Abuse



First of all, the ones paying the money are not sitting in the classroom. So, just because the students parents fork out big bucks, doesn't mean the student is motivated to learn. Teachers who are "fresh off the boat" always think they're contributing great value to their students. News flash, the students know the gig before you do. It is absolutely, 100% face here. Everything is face here. I've worked schools and in Chinese companies. It's the same shit! Cheating is the name of the game. It's all about looking like you're actually doing something. I walked into the teacher's office one day and found that my boss, the director of studies, had 5 students retaking a test with the help of an already completed exam to look at! I think it's so funny when someone rambles on about Chinese students being better students because their test scores are higher than other countries. Ha! It's because they're not real test scores. One of the high school students just got in to the university in my hometown. It makes my blood boil when I know that that student cheated his entire way through high school. I didn't pass him, but somehow (hong bao) he managed to receive a passing grade. Why is there so much cheating? Because there is so much stupidity and bureaucratic red tape here that cheating becomes mandatory. No one even knows when the school year ends. How do you think that contributes to a teacher who legitimately makes lesson plans? Just throw any kind of planning out the window. I drive, but trying to get my car registered was a nightmare until my wife convinced me to just pay somebody.

May 16, 2013 16:40 Report Abuse



Again, totally correct. It is shameful and scary what parents and schools (read government) are doing to their offspring, the future leaders of the world. It is ridiculous !!! No shame, dignity, intelligence or any self awareness - total "face", if you know what that means.

May 24, 2013 13:31 Report Abuse



ive noticed this trend after 1978. know what im getting at

Oct 24, 2014 19:28 Report Abuse



James' problem is common among foreign English teachers in China - the belief they are hired to be Teachers. They are not. They are hired to be native English speakers, Caucasian and to help the school attract students. They are hired to be an interesting foreign face to the students. Lastly, James was hired to help the students slightly improve their listening and speaking skills. Speaking, in this case, means pronunciation more than conversing. James would do well to accept this and understand he is no more qualified than anyone else who can do these things. Then James will feel a whole lot less frustrated. He can move back to his homeland if he wants to start working as a proper English Teacher. A job he does not have yet.

May 16, 2013 06:06 Report Abuse



i Agree with you, i have been working in China 9 years and most of the time has been spent in university. lets face it, working with young kids can be a nightmare, that's why i work my way up to a better and better university, as the students are better and more active in class, but i do agree to the fact that Chinese students want to see a new face, not just a Chinese face most of my 1200 students this term say, they prefer me over the Chinese teacher, and they can learn some thing that most Chinese teachers have never faced in life, as most Chinese teachers are not much more then 5 years older than the students!!.

May 23, 2013 17:34 Report Abuse



english schools are a huge scam. i dont know who to blame, the white guys who profit off it, or the Chinese bourgeoisie who buy into this idea that the west is superior. China's problem is that it believes in this myth that the west is cool, and that if you learn from westerners, that somehow your life will advance. what they dont get is, you can learn all the english you want, but you wont be like the west. the west got where it's at through agresion, and deception. well, China has got the deception part, but it only deceives other Chinese, whereas the west goes around the world deceiving and invading. an example that i remember is how steven spielberg took on a job as an "artistic advisor", took his payment up front, and never showed up for the job. this is how the west does business, and thats why theyre number one. this is before they begin invading, overthrowing leaders, asasinate political enemies, smuggling dope, and the rest of it. unless youre willing to do all that, youre not going to be at the level of the west. you can learn english, play golf, eat hamburgers, get drunk, listen to rock n roll, and do all the other foolish things westerners do, but that wont really get you very far.

Oct 24, 2014 20:32 Report Abuse



Students in public schools are learning English there to pass exams. Period. In teaching at a private training center for 4 years, it's become obvious that the 2.5 hours I have weekly teaching English to students is no match for the remaining 100+ hours that they are immersed in the Chinese language. So I just spend most of the time working on basic grammar points and getting them comfortable with listening to and responding to a native speaker. I encourage their parents to have them go abroad for a period if they really want them to learn English. The system isn't one that we'll change anytime soon. Bitch about it, love it or leave it. Even in the 'advanced' countries, education is a real challenge. China is not an exception.

May 16, 2013 00:25 Report Abuse



I have taught oral English in China to English Majors for more than 4 years all of which is at the University level. I get these kids after they have spent years and thousands of RMB on English education at training schools and the results are pathetic. They cannot hold a conversation if their lives depended on it and every conversation is one question and an answer , end of story. I experience the same problems as the above writers only they are now 18-22 years old. There is not enough time or space for me to describe what it is like teaching at this level, that could be a separate article on this website. It is a battle every day and I can only hope that I get through to a few of my students.

May 15, 2013 21:38 Report Abuse



It's a reasonably balanced piece but I felt that it was a little too "foreigner problems" in some areas. Alot of the younger staff at schools and universities experience similar issues when they come to teach and are squeezed and shaped by a system which they don't like either. If the article was a little braver it might have addressed this issue across cultures.

May 15, 2013 19:26 Report Abuse