Undercover investigation: Become a native English teacher in China, no questions asked

Schools take foreigners on mainland without interview or checks, undercover investigation shows

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 September, 2014, 4:20am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 September, 2014, 3:53pm

The market for foreign teachers on the mainland today is akin to a gold rush: opportunities abound, regulations are few and there is scope for big profits for anyone wishing to make a quick buck.

That could soon change. This week, the municipal government in Beijing moved to tighten requirements for foreigners working in the city, but it remains to be seen whether new regulations that start next month requiring expats to have five years' teaching experience or equivalent qualifications will prove effective.

The mainland is a huge market for English language teaching. According to the Ministry of Education, about 360 million students learned English in some capacity last year.

There are some 50,000 schools or institutes, ranging from night schools to private schools teaching the language, and the market is estimated to be worth about 30 billion yuan (HK$38 billion) a year, according to a China News Service report.

The insatiable demand for English language tuition had made finding a job for most native speakers, particularly those with white skin, little more than a formality.

Online expat forums are full of job advertisements from schools and language institutes to teach students of all ages, while international websites dedicated to English-language teachers, such as Dave's ESL Café, feature listings for hundreds of positions across the country. For the most part, applying for jobs is straightforward; often just submitting a résumé is enough. None of the schools approached by the Post required background checks, references or proof of qualifications.

Armed only with a basic résumé, a Post reporter walked in to a language school in a modern, high-rise building in Beijing's central business district. The reporter was immediately asked to register as a teacher at the school without an interview or further questioning.

Classes comprised either young children aged three to five, or young adults, the head of the school said. Asked whether a work visa or background checks were required, the school said they were not necessary.

Similar stories are common across the city, much to the chagrin of qualified teachers passionate about their profession.

"Many are teaching because it is good money and an easy job. It is the fault of the schools, as they employ people who shouldn't be teaching," said Briton Dan Taylor, a qualified teacher in Beijing.

Most teachers are not qualified - for example, they are not certified in an internationally recognised English teaching and testing programme - but still get jobs due to the sheer demand for native-English speakers, Taylor said.

Professional teachers such as Taylor lament the business-like nature of private schools and language institutes, which charge students up to 400 yuan per class, split evenly between the school and teacher.

Andrea Linhartova, an English teacher from the Czech Republic, said she was asked to invent an American persona to give her students a "real" experience. "I became Andrea, the country girl from Minnesota," she said, adding that at one point she had to bluff her way through questions posed by a student's friend who had coincidentally lived in the Midwestern US state.

In recent years, the mainland has been rocked by a number of high-profile scandals that occurred as a result of the lack of due diligence when hiring both local and foreign teachers. In some cases, people with shady backgrounds have landed teaching jobs.

In April last year, it emerged that Briton Neil Robinson had taught at the Beijing World Youth Academy, an international school, for almost four years without anyone being aware that he was wanted for questioning by British police in connection with child sex offences.

While researching this story, the Post successfully applied for a position at an international education centre in Shunyi, Beijing.

With no formal qualifications, the reporter was asked to teach a broad range of subjects at high-school level following a perfunctory interview.

The more shadowy corners of the market are dominated by middlemen, so-called consultancy groups that connect teachers with schools for a fee or sell unlicensed teaching certificates.

In an anonymous office tucked away in Beijing's Wangjing suburb, the Post found one such venture offering 12,000 yuan a month to teach kindergarten pupils in rural China.

"Your photo is enough," said the owner. Other documents were not necessary.

A whiteboard in the office listed the names and nationalities of prospective teachers, most of them from South Asia or Africa.

The meeting followed an email exchange, which the company conducted under an assumed name.

Horror stories abound of foreign teachers being tricked or left short-changed on the mainland. Juxtaposed alongside job adverts, online forums are filled with anecdotes of schools closing overnight or refusing to pay salaries - or both.

Another trick is to convince prospective teachers into buying expensive teaching certificates, which they say are required by Chinese law. Until the new rules were announced in Beijing earlier this week, such qualifications were not legally required.

However, vague regulations allow such scams to proliferate, particularly among foreign teachers applying for positions from abroad.

"Teachers should never send money to a school or agent during the recruitment process," said Jim Althans, founder of Gold Star TEFL Recruitment, which works with more than 100 schools across the country.

"Often the recruitment is done online … so extra care should be taken when researching schools and committing to a job offer."

Wang Jian, a professor at the School of Foreign Languages at Northwestern Polytechnical University, said most foreign teachers on the mainland were not qualified to teach and did not even have a teaching certificate.

"Many who come for job interviews are young graduates who came to China to travel and then decided to stay," said Wang. The co-author of a 2005 research paper on foreign teachers, Wang has been hiring and supervising them for years.

"Overall, being a foreign teacher in China means he or she may get competitive salary and comfortable environment. That's why foreigners keep coming to apply for these jobs."

Salaries for foreign teachers are competitive, with most full-time positions at secondary schools paying between 120,000 yuan and 200,000 yuan a year. Beijing's top international schools pay experienced foreign teachers up to 500,000 yuan.

Local teachers typically earn between 60,000 yuan and 120,000 yuan a year.

"It should not be the case that you can teach only if you are blond," Wang said. "Besides being a native speaker, teachers must know proper teaching methods, the ethics of education and even some psychology.

"It's best for teachers to learn about Chinese culture if they plan to teach for the long term.

"In general, there's a lack of supervision of foreign teachers in China because they are in such high demand. Chinese families are getting rich and they want the best education for their children. They make common mistakes by thinking foreigners teaching English must be better."

Cynthia MacLean, head of external relations at Dulwich College Beijing, told the Post that international schools set rigorous hiring standards and required teaching certificates, criminal checks and references.

"We're not little companies here to make a quick buck and run," MacLean said. "We are absolutely strict. We have to be. Otherwise it's bad for us and the children."

Many teachers believe regulation is key to improving the lot of both students and teachers in what is an unfettered free market.

"There are definitely ways to improve the current set-up, like stricter requirements, more rigorous interviews, more thorough background and reference checks and authentication of qualifications," said Althans, of Gold Star Recruitment.

Despite this, he believes things are improving, as seen in the new regulations announced by the Beijing city government.

For others, the problem runs deeper and comes down to educational values.

"The problem is the emphasis placed on English," said Joe Jones, a former English teacher in Beijing.

"Parents feel pressured to have their kids learn English. Everyone goes [to English-language schools]. If their kids don't go, the parents will feel bad. There is no chance to be a kid."