Friday, February 5: Last night I received the first email through my blog from someone who has been recruited to work at Sino-Canadian International College (SCIC) for the fall semester of 2016. I figured rather than respond to each potential teacher who writes to me individually, I should write my long-overdue list of pros and cons. As ESL teachers, we often don’t have a clue about what we are getting into, so I write this list, trying to be as fair and honest as possible, simply to inform potential teachers.
I worked as an English teacher at SCIC from September 2014 – July 2015. Listed below are the pros and cons of working at the college during my tenure there.
- The students. They were generally hard-working, respectful, and friendly. Though it was hard to get them to practice speaking freely, with the right activities, they opened up and became some of the best students I’ve ever had. They were often thrilled to have a native speaker in their midst; many of them had only been taught English by Chinese teachers. They welcomed the opportunity to interact with me and often tried to befriend me, take me to dinner, invite me to KTV, dinner or other outings. Of course, there were individual differences, but as a whole, they were a pleasure to teach. I’ve taught ESL to a variety of students from all nationalities: 1) at Northern Virginia Community College to a good cross-section of students from Europe (Czech Republic, Poland, Turkey), Africa (Egypt, Morocco), Asia (China, Vietnam, Thailand, Korea, Japan), and the Middle East (Oman, Saudi Arabia, Jordan); 2) for two years at the University of Nizwa in the Sultanate of Oman; and 3) one year in South Korea (elementary-aged students).
- The administration: Generally speaking, the Chinese administration was helpful and tried to make sure teachers were well-taken care of. They were generally responsive to housing and visa concerns. They often left most of day-to-day administration to the coordinators, who held monthly meetings with teachers. I also felt appreciated by the administration, something that one doesn’t always feel when teaching abroad.
- Hands-off approach: We had a textbook for each level and we agreed to cover certain chapters in the textbook before midterms and finals. We were required to have two tests and two assignments each quarter (four and four for the whole semester, besides the midterm and final exams). Other than that, it was left to the teacher to decide what kinds of tests and assignments to give, how to grade them, and how to present the material to the students. After having worked in Oman for two years, where everything was micro-managed to the nth degree, this was a welcome change.
- Technology. This could be on both the pro and con list. Technology was available, but it was quite old and sometimes didn’t work properly. When it was working properly, it was great. I had a computer, a projector, and an overhead projector in the classroom. The tech person charged with fixing problems sometimes wasn’t readily available, which could throw your lesson into a tailspin. He also couldn’t speak English; however, I could often get one of my students to translate. Sometimes he had a bit of an attitude about having to come and fix problems. I found this annoying as it was, after all, his job to fix problems.
- Classroom facilities. I was in the Experimental Building, a fairly modern building, on the 10th floor. The desks were long tables lined up and packed into the room, which made it a challenge to do group work. I was always doing group work, and we managed, but it wasn’t an optimal situation. The older SCIC buildings were not as modern and were actually quite shabby.
- Location of college in relation to residence. I was one of the lucky teachers who lived in a staff residence on the west campus only five minutes away by bicycle or 10 minutes away on foot. Some teachers were located on the east campus, still not too far by bicycle, but I wouldn’t have wanted to walk from there.
- No required office hours. After my stint in Oman, where I was required to be on campus from 8:00-4:00 every day whether I had classes or not, it was nice to have no required office hours. My schedule was not too hard in the first semester; I was finished almost every day by noon. In the spring semester, I had two split days (morning and afternoon (usually afternoon started after the lunch/nap hours of 12-2) and the other days, I was finished by noon.
- Private college motivated by money. Students take the Gaokao in China (similar to the SATs in the USA) to get into college. From Wikipedia: The National Higher Education Entrance Examination (also translated as National Matriculation Examination or National College Entrance Examination or “NCEE”), commonly known as Gaokao (高考, “Higher Education Exam”, Pinyin gāo kǎo, lit. “High test”), is an academic examination held annually in People’s Republic of China. This examination is a prerequisite for entrance into almost all higher education institutions at the undergraduate level. The students at SCIC got Gaokao scores too low to get into Guangxi University. They can attend SCIC (a two-year private institution which focuses on English-language learning) and when they finish at SCIC, they automatically gain entrance into Guangxi University, despite their Gaokao scores being low. SCIC was basically their conduit to the university. Thus, I was told all students would pass, even if a teacher failed them. I don’t care for this system, as it means students don’t really have to apply themselves if they don’t want to. Of course many students were self-motivated, but as some knew they would pass and get into Guangxi University no matter what, those didn’t feel like bothering with learning English. After all, in a country of 1.4 billion people, not much English is spoken and there is no real need for it unless they plan to get into international business or study or travel abroad.
- No office hours. This is both a pro and a con. Though it was nice to be finished by noon most days, the lack of office hours meant there wasn’t time for teachers to congregate, share ideas, or simply socialize and get to know each other. I found this to be quite isolating. When I worked in Oman, the forced office hours also led to some wonderful friendships.
- No usable offices, and later, tiny cubbyhole offices. We were given offices in a building where IELTS testing was often done on weekends, so we were told to never leave anything important in our offices because we weren’t allowed in the building on those weekends. No one I know ever used those offices. Later, the administration put tiny cubicles on the 10th floor of the Experimental Building. The cubicles were the smallest and tightest workspaces I’ve ever seen. There was never any incentive to work in an office, so I did all my work from home. I hate working from home, as I like a clear line between my work and private life, so I didn’t care for this arrangement at all.
- No convenient copy center or copy machines. There were no copy machines available for teachers. We had to go to a private supplier in a run-down shack of a building; this copy center catered to both students and teachers so often we had to compete to get service. This was so inconvenient! Also, the copy center was closed from 12-2, when we often needed our copying done. In Oman, we had a copy center designated for teachers only, and we had additional copiers near our offices.
- Air-conditioning, or lack thereof. Nanning is very hot and humid from about March to November. In the Experimental Building, the administration refused to turn the air conditioning on until a certain date, and turned it off after a certain date, no matter if it was hot before or after that date. This was not the case in the older SCIC buildings; the teachers in those buildings had air conditioning whenever they wanted it. As we were on the 10th floor, it could get quite hot and miserable in the classrooms. Even when the air conditioning was on, it often was still stifling, especially on the side of the building where the sun was shining in.
- Unfairness in teaching assignments and workloads. When I arrived at SCIC, I was informed I was assigned to be a Writing teacher. I did not ask for this, nor was I asked what I would prefer. ALL Level I and Level II teachers taught Speaking and Listening. However, half the teachers taught Writing and half taught Reading. The Reading teachers had a much lighter workload for the same amount of pay as the Writing teachers. I had 73 writing students each semester (divided up into several classes, all under 20 students), so that meant many hours of grueling marking. While the Reading teachers had multiple choice tests to mark, Writing teachers had hours and hours of badly written essays to mark. Some teachers suggested that the workloads would be fairer if, say, the teachers switched places in the two semesters. In other words, a teacher could teach Writing in the fall and Reading in the spring. However, many of the Reading teachers were firmly entrenched and argued vehemently again this proposal. One teacher I know who had worked in China for many years and who started at the same time as I did told the recruiter that she would come to SCIC only if she didn’t have to teach Writing. Surprisingly, the recruiter agreed to her demands. She was assigned to be a Reading teacher. The administration should find a more equitable way to distribute the workload among teachers, or they should pay Writing teachers more.
- Low pay. The pay at SCIC ranges from 6,000-8,500 RMB ($912 – $1,292 per month). Though I made at the upper end of this range, it was still nowhere close to what I made in Oman ($3,000) or even Korea ($2,600). Granted, it is very cheap to do almost everything in China, so it was enough money that I was able to travel quite extensively while there. Because my goal was to travel as much as possible, I did that, but I wasn’t able to save much. Luckily we were paid over our 6-week holiday in January-February, although they withheld the February pay until we returned to work March 1. For teachers who renewed their contracts and returned in fall of 2015, they were not paid at all over the 6-week summer break. As our contracts were for 10 1/2 months, if we did not renew, of course we didn’t get paid for those six weeks.
- Air fare reimbursement. We were reimbursed for our air fare to get to and from China at a set amount (8,000 RMB, or ~$1,200), but our air fare to get there wasn’t paid until after teachers completed the fall semester and turned in their grades. The air fare for our return flight home in the summer was given to us before we left the country, after spring semester was over, but in my case, the amount didn’t cover my air fare home because it was high season. In Oman, our total air fare was paid for (in fact they bought our tickets for us), and in addition, we got air fare for one round trip to our home country during our summer holiday. That mid-year return air fare is NOT offered at all by SCIC.
- No gratuity for completion of contract. I guess I was spoiled by working in Oman, and even Korea, because upon completion of our contracts there, we got a gratuity of one-month’s salary for completing our contract. We did not get this at SCIC.
- Apartments. Some teachers had decent apartments. I didn’t. The furniture was hard wood and I had no sofa or soft chairs, or even room for any. The apartment was old and run down. Cockroaches often came to visit, especially in the middle of the night. I heard some teachers had encounters with rats, but I never did, thank goodness. Having no place comfortable to sit was a real problem for me. Luckily, we were provided with nice new flat-screen TVs about midway through our contracts, as well as new computers.
- Coordinators. I’m not sure how coordinators were chosen except by popularity or because no one else wanted to be coordinator, so some random person stepped up to the plate. Some of the people appointed coordinator had no qualifications to be such, and should not have been coordinators! Many of them were awfully nice people though!
- English Interest Classes. These are a joke. Every Tuesday afternoon, we were required to teach an English Interest Course. The students who attended were not our regular students. It was suggested that we do as little work as possible on these. Many people taught photography (which I did in fall semester) or yoga or exercise classes. They’re basically a way to encourage foreign teachers to interact with students on a more informal basis. Many of the teachers ended up showing English movies with Chinese subtitles during the class. A big waste of time for both teachers and students.
Overall, I did enjoy my experience teaching in China. As for Nanning itself, it’s a city of about 6 million people with not much of interest, except a couple of nice museums. If you like heat and humidity you will be happy with the weather. I hate heat and humidity, so I found the weather miserable.
As for travel, Guangxi province has a lot to offer, especially the Li River area, including Guilin and Yangshuo, Detian Waterfall on the border of Vietnam and China, and most of all the Longsheng Rice Terraces. Guangxi province is also not too inconvenient for visits to Hong Kong. I traveled extensively while in China. I especially enjoyed the rice terraces, Yangshuo, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Fenghuang, Zhangjiajie and all of Yunnan province. 🙂