The reality of teaching English as a study abroad student in Beijing
I just want to start by saying this isn’t a cliché post about the negative impact teaching English can have on learning Chinese. In fact, after struggling a bit to complete the final task on my list of major things I needed to get done in order to stay/survive in Beijing (i.e. make some sort of income), I actually decided to seek out an English teaching job. Long story short (although you should continue reading the long story below), after 2 months, I had “taught” a total of 2 students English, and had earned a total of $63.29 USD – oh, and I no longer teach English.
How Teaching English Works In Beijing
I should put it out there that I didn’t work for a school that was accredited specifically to teach English (which I’ll talk more about later), and that my experiences are specific to Beijing. What I’m talking about are fancy “companies” located either in an expensive skyscraper or a first floor apartment, with relatively attractive (yet unsurprisingly immature) female Chinese receptionists, separate glass-walled teaching stalls, yes stalls, and every marker, colored pencil, and textbook you could ask for.
These “companies” are essentially middle men. It’s somewhat difficult to find individual students to teach, so families who want their one and only child to learn English will contact one of these companies, who will then match up the student and a teacher for a demo class. If both the student and parent like you, then they sign a contract with the company, and you start getting paid. How much can you earn per hour? $30 USD and up (although it’s usually closer to $20 – $25).
What qualifications do you need to teach through one of these companies? A college diploma (although you can lie), a clear Northeastern United States accent, and a white face. That’s the truth, sad as it may be. What about TEFL certificates, SAT prep classes, and all of those training courses people are supposed to go through before teaching English? Although you may earn more if you have them or have gone through them, totally not necessary at these types of companies. Plain and simple, if you meet the above 3 requirements, can impress Chinese parents, and are capable of searching for and printing out lessons from about.com, you can make enough money to live a pretty generous lifestyle in 10 -15 hours a week.
My English Teaching Journey
I started my English teaching career at a school literally across the street from where I live. I wore a shirt and tie to the interview, had my newly updated resume in a folder, and some grammar notes I had pulled offline in case I needed to actually teach in the interview, which I did. By the end, the guy interviewing me said he wasn’t going to just give me a job because I was a Westerner (which meant he was giving me a job just because I was a Westerner), and that I would have to take a few prep classes. I agreed, we signed a “contract”, and I never heard from them ever again. This was partially due to the fact that at the time, I didn’t know my Beijing University schedule.
The second school I interviewed at was more for one-on-one tutoring services as opposed to the small classes I would’ve been teaching at the place above. It was in a nice new office building, catered to students with more money, and was only 3 bus stops from my apartment. I again wore a shirt and tie to the interview, had my newly updated resume in a folder, and brought some grammar notes for the demo class (which I realized is standard) you have to teach in the interview. Again, we signed a “contract”, and again I never heard from them, even after trying to contact them a few times.
I had a bit more success at my third school. I had learned that dressing up is a dead giveaway that you’ve never done this kind of teaching before, and that preparing a demo for the interview isn’t worth the time because they just want to make sure you can speak, read, and write as if you did have actual English teaching experience. After I signed a contract with this company, I was even given a few students to demo. Of course, just like the real estate agents here who haven’t seen the apartments that they’re selling, these companies had never actually met and/or evaluated the students they were trying to match up. Here’s the info I was given before the demo, and what the situation actually looked like during the demos.
1. 5 year-old boy: I prepared some easy color, number, and vocab games (which I thought were going to be too hard) to evaluate his level. Turns out he speaks English better than his parents, finishes the worksheets/games in 5 minutes, and I’m not sure what to do next.
2. 23 year-old female, failed TOEFL, looking to go to school in the U.S. in August: The person who walks in to the demo is in fact a 24 year-old male who actually wants to prep for a different English language level evaluation test, and who seemed so uncomfortable in the glass cubicle that he was sweating onto the paper he was writing on.
3. A 13 year-old girl who was thrown at me right after I failed with the guy above: Her mother wanted her to practice her English through simple conversations. She was a 13 year-old girl…the only thing we had in common was that we both liked travel, but her English wasn’t good enough at the time to talk about it and her mother didn’t exactly approve of me.
I’ll keep the summary of my fourth school short and sweet. A week after one unsuccessful demo, the guy who owned the company wanted me to teach business English to a SINOPEC employee on the weekends (and I had to be on call), Medical English to doctors at a hospital on Thursdays, and basic English to a class of 20 high school students on Wednesday nights. After telling the owner I had no clue about Medical English, he told me to look up some terminology on the internet, and also to update my resume to say I had worked at his school for 2 years (even though my resume says I graduated from college last year). Because of what you’ll read next, I called him at the beginning of that week and told him I was done.
And last but not least was Apollo, who one of my good friends found for me to teach (and for which I’m extremely thankful). Apollo was not the son of Zeus, not unless that Apollo wore tighty whitey’s with no pants during tutoring sessions, had a bowl cut, and found extra afternoon snacks by foraging through his nose with his index finger.
Apollo was a 7 year-old boy I was supposed to teach in his home almost every day, and I was going to be paid enough money that I wouldn’t have to teach anywhere else. Two days after I started teaching Apollo (obviously whoever chose his English name had a thing for the Classics or speed skaters), I came home to an envelope under my door which had a note thanking me for trying and some cash for the time I had “taught”. And that was the end of that.
So Why Did I Stop/Fail?
1. My Own Fault
Anyone white American can learn how to teach English at one of these “companies”. The problem wasn’t so much that I was a bad teacher as much as it was that I didn’t like teaching English, and I didn’t want to learn how. In the end, I take the bulk of the burden for my teaching failures. However, I’m still a student, and running around the city of Beijing was taking up most of my time, causing my studies to suffer. Not to mention I want to stay around here for a while, and I’m looking for something with a little more stability.
2. These “Companies” Are A Scam
These companies are run, for the most part, by rich guys who invest a bit of money into a “school”, demo (pimp out) “teachers” to prospective students, and when they get lucky and sign a contract, rake in the money. I mean, although I would’ve genuinely put the effort into teaching these kids/students because they really do want to learn, no legitimate English school should hire me – the Asian Studies major with no English teaching experience to speak of.
But This Isn’t The Whole Story!
No, my experience (while not necessarily rare) doesn’t reflect every aspect of the phenomenon that is teaching English in Asia. First, if you’re willing to do a bit of running around, teaching through one of these companies can be very lucrative, like I said, possibly making a full-time income working less than 20 hours a week. I have a few friends that are not only good at it, but they actually enjoy it, and successfully balance both school and work. It’s a matter of taking the time to learn the ropes, getting in with the right company, and putting in the effort to actually help your students improve.
There’s also the other option – teaching through a legitimate English school, not one of the above mentioned “companies”. More often than not, you’ll work full-time, earn a nice salary that can be upwards of $30,000 USD, get help with housing and a visa, and you’ll probably have a decent amount of time to travel and explore the region of the world you’re in. If you are genuinely looking to go this route, you should check out the great section on teaching English abroad on the Go Overseas website. You’ll find helpful tips for teaching, as well as info and reviews of the different program providers.
Teaching English didn’t work for me, but I’m only one person, and there are plenty of others who have had positive experiences and earned a nice paycheck while they were at it.
If you have any questions, comments, or interesting English teaching stories please feel free to leave them below and I’ll get back to you!