Sunday, August 06, 2006

"Teach in China- handcuffs supplied"

This report from the AP is a very interesting story about dodgy English schools in China.

I have heard these and many other horror stories about teaching in China before. Up until now I have only taught at very good schools. However when I decided to leave my full-time teaching position at one school in January, the school kept most of my last month's salary. Even though I did everything by the book according to my contract, I had to resign myself to losing RMB10,000 (US$1,250, AU$1,650), in return for my employers losing face over my departure. As much as I needed that money, the loss of money sure is better than the loss of my life.

I'm not saying that all English schools in China are bad, but they are certainly getting a (not unfounded) reputation as being as dodgy as a greasy used-car salesman.

The following report is long, but well worth reading in it's entirety

A twist on sweatshops: Foreign English teachers
complain of abuse at Chinese language schools

Associated Press, Aug. 2, 2006, 12:06AM

BEIJING — Tanya Davis fled Jizhou No. 1 Middle School
one winter morning in March before the sun rose over
the surrounding cotton fields covered with stubble
from last fall's crop.

In the nine months Davis and her boyfriend had taught
English at the school in rural north China, they had
endured extra work hours, unpaid salaries and frigid
temperatures without heating and, on many days,

Hearts pounding and worried their employer would find
a pretext to stop them leaving, the couple lugged
their backpacks, suitcase, books and guitar past a
sleeping guard and into a taxi.

As they drove away, "the sense of relief was immense,"
said Davis, a petite, soft-spoken 23-year-old from
Wales. "I felt like we had crossed our last hurdle and
everything was going to be OK."

It's a new twist on globalization: For decades,
Chinese made their way to the West, often illegally,
to end up doing dangerous, low-paying jobs in
sweatshop conditions. Now some foreigners drawn by
China's growth and hunger for English lessons are
landing in the schoolhouse version of the sweatshop.

In one case, an American ended up dead. Darren
Russell, 35, from Calabasas, Calif., died under
mysterious circumstances days after a dispute caused
him to quit his teaching job in the southern city of
Guangzhou. "I'm so scared. I need to get out of here,"
Russell said in a message left on his father's cell
phone hours before his death in what Chinese
authorities said was a traffic accident.

As China opens up to the world, public and private
English-language schools are proliferating. While most
treat their foreign teachers decently, and wages can
run to $1,000 plus board, lodging and even airfare
home, complaints about bad experiences in fly-by-night
operations are on the rise. The British Embassy in
Beijing warns on its Web site about breaches of
contracts, unpaid wages and broken promises. The U.S.
Embassy says complaints have increased eightfold since
2004 to two a week on average.

Though foreign teachers in South Korea, Japan and
other countries have run into similar problems, the
number of allegations in China is much higher because
"the rule of law is still not firmly in place," said a
U.S. Embassy official who spoke on condition of

"A number of substandard English language teaching
mills have sprung up, seeking to maximize profits
while minimizing services," the U.S. House of
Representatives International Relations Committee said
in a recent report on Russell's case. These institutes
have become virtual "'sweatshops' where young, often
naive Americans are held as virtual indentured

Davis said officials at her school in Hebei province
piled on classes without compensation, dragged their
feet on repairing leaks in her apartment and would
deduct sums from her $625 monthly salary for random
taxes and phone calls that were never made. These
ranged from $30 to $85, she said.

Wages offered range from $250 to $1,000 a month for an
average of 20 hours per week, with overtime that
varies. Housing is usually provided, and many schools
promise about $1,000 in airfare home upon completion
of a one-year contract.

Jobs offers teem on the Internet. On Dave's ESL Cafe,
one of the most popular sites, more than 340 were
posted in three months, ranging from positions in
prosperous Zhejiang province in the east to the
poverty-stricken grasslands of Inner Mongolia in the

But also on Dave's ESL Cafe is an anonymous warning
from a teacher about a school in China's south.

"They will use you, abuse you, cheat you, and
disrespect you," it says. "You will hear it all when
they want you to sign the contract. Then after it's oh
sorry that isn't in your contract or a bunch of
excuses that go on and on."

There is no standard rule on contracts — some are in
English, some in Chinese.

John Shaff, a graduate from Florida State University,
said everything went according to his English-language
contract at Joy Language School in the northeastern
city of Harbin — until a disagreement over his office
hours erupted into a shouting match on the telephone
with a school official.

A few hours later, several men led by Joy's handyman
showed up at his school-provided apartment, physically
threatening him and cursing him in Chinese, said
Shaff, 25. About 10 minutes later, they left, and
soon, so did Shaff.

Like Shaff, Darren Russell had a disagreement with the
manager of Decai language school in Guangzhou, where
he had been promised 20 hours of classes a week.
Instead, Decai had him teaching at two schools, where
he put in up to 14 hours a day and oversaw 1,200
students, Russell's mother, Maxine Russell, said in a
telephone interview from Calabasas.

The school had troubles with foreign teachers. Two had
quit by the time Russell showed up, and a former Decai
employee, a Chinese woman who spoke on condition of
anonymity, said she left because she was asked to
recruit foreign teachers by offering attractive
contracts that went unfulfilled.

In April 2005, sick from bronchitis and exhausted from
the work hours, Russell told manager Luo Deyi he
wanted her to lighten his work load. An argument
ensued, Russell resigned and threatened to tell police
Luo was operating illegally, the former employee said.

The school then moved him into a low-budget hotel. A
week later he was dead. Police told Decai and
Russell's mother that Darren had been killed in a
hit-and-run traffic accident. The body was shipped to

Maxine Russell, however, said Chinese authorities
could not provide consistent witnesses and a time of
death. According to the congressional report, which
was the outcome of a family request to look into the
Russell case, a California mortician who handled
Russell's body said he had suffered a blow to his head
and his body did not have bruises and fractures
consistent with a car accident. The mortician, Jerry
Marek, is a former coroner.

While Maxine Russell and the former Decai employee say
Russell was a beloved teacher, Luo, the manager,
insists he was often absent from class and his
"teaching methods failed to meet the requirement of
the school and fit the students." She said he had been
hired on probation, which he failed partly because of
a drinking problem.

"It was very strange and irresponsible for them to
blame us for their son's death," Luo said in a
telephone interview.

Maxine Russell denies Darren drank while teaching at

Thanks to Phil for the passing on this article


Mia said...

Thanks for posting this. I've just been offered a couple of jobs teaching English in China and Taiwan so you can imagine how seriously I am taking this.

Louise said...

Mia, please don't make you mind up on this alone, but do be carefull. Reasearch any offers very well, trying to find out more about the school. Ask for the contact details of a couple of the foreign teachers in the schools, and ask them about if their salary is paid on time, if the hours they work are as outlined in their contract, and if they get paid for overtime. Ask the school if it will supply accomodation, and if they will increase your salary if you chose accomodation for your self.

The main cities are better at keeping things legit, and most of the horror stories I've heard have been from smaller cities (still a few million people but thats small for china).

Universities are better than private schools, although some "private" schools are a branch of a university, and so they are ok.

If you are unsure of the salary, the standard (at least in shanghai) is RMB120/hr for full-time (including preparation time) and full-time is usually 40hrs/week, but only 25 teaching in the classroom. The standard for part-time is RMB150/hour, and you do not get paid for preparation. Usually you would do no more than 10-15hrs teaching a week on a part time job. (good currency converter at

If you have any questions you can ask me, now or in the future.

It's not all bad, and generally it's a great experience, but you do need to be careful.

verniciousknids said...

Caveat Emptor!

Louise said...

Indeed! Or rather, "May the teacher beware"

Gabby Girl said...

I am leaving for Fuyang, Zhejiang, China in 16 days to teach English with my best friend. I know that I should be careful where ever I go, but I feel a little better knowing that a reputible company found the school for me and negotiated a pretty good contract as well. It is pretty basic, but it works. I don't think I would feel as good as I do about this if I had done all of this on my own. But if anyone is thinking about going - research, research, research. Research is your best friend.

Louise said...

Hi Gabby Girl,

Congrats on finding a good school- you're right: research is the key.

What an exciting time for you! If you have any questions or are ever in Shanghai, drop me a line.


Mia said...

Thank you! You will be hearing from me. I'm trying to convince a my best heffa to go into the teaching gig with me. I'd feel better if there were 2 of us risking our