Travel Blogger. ESL Teacher. Optimistic Millennial Adventurer!
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As an ESL teacher in China, sometimes I can't help but feel like a dancing monkey in a zoo, hurled under the blinding stage lights to sing, dance, and "wow" the masses for a hefty batch of fresh bananas each month. And frankly, I'm getting tired of this s**t.
First off, no, I'm not referring to any racial epithet; rather, I'm referencing the fact that as a foreign ESL teacher in China—working at English training centers specifically—you're constantly being put on display.
Whether demonstration classes, parents viewing your entire class from a window, parents sitting in your class, handing out flyers to advertise your school, or having to show up to an event just to be a "foreign face", after awhile, you realize that you've morphed from respectable teacher to prized entertainer—the exotic marketing tool used to lure in the influx of well-off middle class Chinese parents with cash to spend on their children, especially on such a fiery hot topic like learning English.
And while the almighty powers-at-large rake in the dough for your great "performance", you're often left feeling disdained, humiliated, and overly annoyed, and there's just nothing you can do about it.
"I JUST WANT TO TEACH. I DON'T WANT TO DO THIS DUMB S**T!"
As the saying goes, there are "two sides to every coin". But in this case, there are three.
"I just want to teach. I don't want to do this dumb s**t!" That's right. As an ESL teacher, the s**ttiest part about working at English training centers in China is that sometimes you can't just be a teacher; you'll also need to be a performer.
Like any business, ESL training centers are profit driven, which means that employers, herein referred as the POWERS-AT-LARGE, will not only generate a number of events and often times ridiculous marketing strategies that teachers are required to participate in, but may also be unwilling to enforce certain rules on campus in regards to Chinese parents and grandparents that like to overly pamper their children to the point that it affects your class. Let's breakdown a few scenarios:
DEMO CLASSES / "CIRCUS SHOW"
A demo class is a brief class taught to potential recruits and serves as an example of the center's English content strategies and classroom settings. It's done in front of children and their parents, and instructors must teach and play a few games with the kids. No biggie, right? Wrong!
For one, the powers-at-large will tell you that demo classes must be entertaining, which is code for: "Use more energy, put on more smiles, keep the students active, and involve the parents. Oh yeah, sing, dance, do back flips, and pull a rabbit out of you’re a** if you must to let them sign up".
Ok, hey, it's cool. You knew beforehand what demo classes required when signing the contract. But did you know that you may need to perform demo classes 2-4x a week? Or how about the fact that some parents will whip out their phone to record your demo, and even though you've told your colleagues to politely tell parents that recording isn't allowed, they're too afraid to confront them due to the fear of losing a potential client? And what about English training centers in shopping centers, for instance, that may force you to do your demo classes in a room decked out with a large see-through window so that everybody walking pass can sneak a peek?
Yep, these are actual situations that I and thousands of other ESL teachers in China have had, and still have, to face. It was all fun and games at 25, but after 5+ years in the ESL game, "I'm too old for this s**t"!
MARKETING ACTIVITIES / "YOU WANT ME TO DO WHAT!?"
Imagine sitting in your weekly staff meeting and suddenly the powers-at-large blurt out:
"By the way, we're going to starting holding birthday parties on our campus during the last weekend of every month (which is also your day off). The children can invite their friends (potential recruits) and we'll provide the cake and entertainment. So, [Your Name Here], you'll be the host. Just sing, dance, and play some games with them for 1 hour".
"Are you f**king kidding? I didn't sign up for this s**t", is what you'd probably think, and well, my thoughts exactly. Sometimes, English training centers in China will require you to undergo the most preposterous marketing activities in order to promote their brand. And the worst part is that it may have nothing to do with teaching at all—you're just needed as the "foreign face". Here's another:
"We've just partnered with a local elementary school. They want an instructor from our program to teach a P.E. class once every week. So, [Your Name Here], you'll go there on Wednesday afternoons. Just do some simple exercises, play some games, and make sure the children are happy."
Heard enough? How about one more:
"Our summer camp is fast approaching, so we'll need ALL teachers to head over to the nearby mall and hand out flyers in front of the doorway".
Dance puppet, dance!
"PARENTS JUST DON'T UNDERSTAND"
Chinese parents—including grandparents and ayis (babysitters)—love to pamper their children, especially when they're young. And hey, there's nothing wrong with that. But, that pampering is often done at your expense as a teacher.
Let's say that you're teaching a new class of 2-4 year olds at an English training center in China. It's very common for kids to cry or, upon meeting a foreigner for the first time, to feel afraid of you. With that, parents will request to stay in the classroom during your lesson, and before you know it, you've looked up and there are six parents sitting in the back of the room watching you "perform" the entire class. And what's worse, chaos ensues as your students keep crying, running back and forth to their parents, and distracting the rest of the class.
Not only are you put on display, but your entire teaching is thrown off course. The first time is enough, after that, parents need to stay out or choose another program. Right?
Most English training centers in China have waiting areas and/or security doors near the main entrance to prevent children from roaming outside AND to block parents from going inside, but that definitely doesn't keep pampering parents from making their way in.
Thus, it's not unusual to look up and find some parent(s) watching your ENTIRE class from your door window. And I mean the ENTIRE CLASS. It’s as though they must make sure that their baby is taking care of at all times, even if there are three adults in the class presiding over him or her.
What's more, I've even had parents get past the security doors to meet us at the restroom during breaks. I guess helping their child use the toilet and wash his or her hands was just something they absolutely couldn't live without.
Do the powers-at-large help to enforce the rules so that you're not constantly bombarded by parents and put on display? They'll try if you ask, but it almost never works because accommodating parents is far more important that your sanity.
"IT'S YOUR JOB"
Ah, the second side of the coin: "It's your job, you must do it". That’s a phrase that I've heard time and time again as an ESL teacher in China, mostly from my Chinese counterparts and, you guessed it, the powers-at-large. Take this example:
"A nearby Taekwondo academy won a local competition and asked us to host one of their upcoming celebrations for 1 hour at their dojo. So, [Your Name Here], you'll host the event on Saturday afternoon since you're finished with your classes in the morning".
For God's sake, is this really apart of your job? Does showing up as the tap-dancing foreign face to host an event for another organization truly cover your duties as a teacher per your contract? My guess is that you'd probably say no. A HELL NO as a matter of fact.
On the other hand, the powers-at-large will surely argue that it is; after all, they already planned it without even consulting you. They'll claim that it's a marketing activity and is within your working hours, so "it's your job and you must do it".
What are you to do in this situation? How could you protect yourself?
"IF YOU DON'T LIKE IT, WHY DON'T YOU JUST QUIT?"
And finally, the 3rd side of the coin: "If you don't like it, why don't you just quit?" We all know that's something easier said than done. Visa issues, finances, finding a new job; there are just so many reasons as to why that wouldn't be a great idea, right?
Nevertheless, after 6 years of teaching abroad at English training centers in China, I've come up with a few examples of ways you can steer these issues towards your favor:
1. Be Realistic
It's true. EVERY English training center is the same. You'll need to do demos, help with marketing activities, face parents staring you down from door windows, and do other "dumb s**t" that'll make you question whether or not you've chosen the right ESL school.
Anyone can tell you that one of the key ingredients to a healthy, long-term relationship is communication. Whether you're doing demos and parents keep recording, having parents sit in your class, or feel uncomfortable handing out flyers in a popular plaza, notify your Chinese counterparts. Make sure to bring up your concerns both privately and publicly, if necessary. It's a starting point for fixing any issues and deterring any potential future problems.
3. Negotiate / Consensus
If the problems persist, come to the negotiating table with practical solutions. If you disapprove of the extraneous marketing activities but wouldn't mind doing them, for example, let the powers-at-large know. Heck, you could even try it out once just for good favor before you have a sit-down. During the negotiations, require that they only book times during your working hours AND that you receive extra pay for your services, especially if it’s something like hosting an event for another organization. Is it practical? Well, that's up for you to decide.
Let's say that the powers-at-large just can't seem to keep the security doors shut and prevent parents from grabbing a spot at your door window to view your class. At this point, you either DEMAND that they make a valuable effort to notify the parents and monitor the doors, or you're going to take it upon yourself to completely cover your window up—with artwork—so that no one can peek inside. Hey, something's gotta' give.
If all else fails and you're still unhappy with all the "dumb s**t", then quit. Again, make sure your finances are in order, you're visa is stable, and that you have another job lined up.
Well, there you have it folks; just a small notion of the frustrations you may one day face at English training centers in China, and each scenario examined is the whole truth and nothing but it.
And lastly, despite the rage, I do want you to know that I've worked in China as an ESL teacher at English training centers for nearly six long years and counting. I've been a teacher, trainer, foreign department manager, and even worked at multiple centers across different cities. At the end of the day, I've had the time of my life teaching English abroad in China and wouldn't change my experience for anything. I just had to get some s**t off my chest!
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