Working and Teaching in China, experiences of a long-time expat

Working and Teaching in China

My name is Jack Wallace; I have been an expatriate teacher in China for the last eight years. For the most part I have enjoyed the experience, although the last two year have been sheer hell on earth.

I write this to serve as a lesson to other expatriate teachers, in China and perhaps other countries. At first it was to warn other foreign teachers about the actions of my old school, in the hope that might serve as a warning buoy to avoid this school.  Perhaps it may still serve this purpose. However in looking at the experience in the rear view mirror I have come to realize the callous actions of my old school were not atypical and probably should have been expected from almost any Chinese university. Indeed I have come to realize that the fault was with myself, and that I received the treatment that I should have expected.

My warning has now become a plea for new expatriate teachers, whether they are young or old, to not make the misjudgments that I made in the last six years. I realize that my errors went far beyond those made by most foreign teachers.

First off my circumstance is much different than the typical expatriate teachers. Most foreign teachers in China are very young, recent college graduates and have probably not started a career. It is often seen as the very last step of the educational process before entering adulthood. It is a  life experience to be garnered before starting a career. (And if there is the opportunity to make love to a few pretty Chinese girls during that time, so much the better.)

There is nothing wrong with this, although Chinese schools should recognize they are not getting dedicated teachers. Also young teachers should recognize that although it is a valuable learning experience and that although they may be having a lot of fun, there is little value in staying more than two years in China. The actual job of teaching in China qualifies you to do nothing in a Western Country. It is an empty gap in your work experience, other than being able to clean having worked in a foreign culture.

My circumstance is very different. I am not a young man. I have a master’s degree and had been working as a computer programmer for several decades. Indeed I have taught computer science and mathematics in a college setting, a true oddity among foreign English teacher at Chinese universities.

In the computer crash of late 1998, like many computer professionals I lost my employment. It was difficult to find new work; the hiring for Y2K was set into place, yet the immigration of STEM professionals under the H2K work visa program was still in full force, as it has remained to this day. Indeed there was a stereotype that foreign computer programmer were smarter, more hard working, more dedicated and less greedy than English speaking computer professionals. Finally there was still a lingering perception that technical fields were still a worker’s market, and that if a computer programmer could not find work, there must be something wrong with that person.

After several years of unemployment or spotty work, considering the changes that occur in technology and my large gap in employment, I came to realize I was no longer a viable candidate for employment in the STEM fields. Furthermore I was really too old to take up a new profession.
Meanwhile as my career as a computer programmer was disintegrating, I was maintaining a relationship over the internet with a woman from Shanghai, China. As the relationship grew we planned to build a life together, originally the plan was for her to come to America. However as it became apparent that I was no longer employable in America, the idea of my moving to China where I could become an English teacher became obvious. In addition she was nearing twenty-five years with her company, the period necessary to max out her pension and become eligible for retirement. It seemed a shame to not let her finish out her career. So I decided to come to China and become an English speech teacher.

My first two years in China were standard fare for a foreign teacher. There were some good experiences, but you really don’t know what you are doing. You learn by trial by fire. You are almost always lied to and taken advantage of by your Chinese employees. About the time you figure out how to teach and how to protect yourself, it is time to return to your homeland and start an adult life.

However my circumstance was very different. I had started my new life in China and was in for the long haul.  Also after two years I had developed a clear idea of what and how I should teach.

At the start of my third year in China, I took a teaching position at Shanghai Ocean University. I felt the plan I had developed for teaching was a success. Although there have been some minor tweaks and modifications over the years, it is the system that I use to this day.

The school seemed happy with me. There were a few of the typical student complaints, but not many. The administration and the Chinese English teachers would always express the opinion that I was doing an outstanding job.

I was given some non-Oral English classes to teach, such as Pronunciation, English Language Literature and Public Speaking. Though not qualified to teach those classes, I took them on as a challenge, eventually learning to teach them in a competent manner. Eventually I came to look upon the Pronunciation and English Language Literature classes as my “pet” classes and felt they had become something special.

Non-Oral English classes for which I was not so successful were the writing classes. However these are classes for which all foreign teachers struggle. They are a lot of work and the classes tend to be much too large. Plus there is a sad misconception by many Chinese students that their writing is already very good and that writing classes serve no real purpose for them. Last but certainly not least is the extensive plagiarism and cheating in writing classes, that does not seem to be considered that big of a deal by the Chinese.

Finally in my third year at Shanghai Ocean University there was a disastrous experiment where an unfortunate foreign teacher (not me, thank god!) was given six full-sized writing classes. After that fiasco I was told by several administrators and Chinese teachers that a new policy had been established to not have foreign teaches teach writing classes. I felt is it was a good consequence to a terrible concept, and felt satisfied that Shanghai Ocean University had learned a painful but valuable lesson.

Regardless of my shortcoming as a writing teacher, everyone seemed pleased with my work. Even with the writing classes, the consensus seemed to be that I was doing a relatively good job. I was told by many administrators and teachers that I would have a job at Shanghai Ocean University for as long as I wanted it, or at least until I reached the age of mandatory retirement for foreign workers in China, whatever that was.

For the first four years my life at Shanghai Ocean University was happy and comfortable. There were problems, I was absurdly underpaid. However I really didn’t need the money. There were occasional bureaucratic complications, but this has to be dealt with at any school in a Communist country. Then there was the risk of being assigned a writing class or a senior elective, where a teacher had to deal with unmotivated forth year students. However all in all I was a very happy teacher.

That summer after my forth year at Shanghai Ocean University I went back to America. I have a fairly large estate in America, which includes a five to six million dollar farm of prime Iowa farmland. That summer my lawyer and I discussed what to do with my estate. This was something that needed to be done as I have no children, no brothers or sisters, and my parents are deceased.

I hatched a plan where I would donate the farm to either Iowa State University or the University of Nebraska at Lincoln with the farm being used as an agricultural research center. This would occur after the passing of my wife. My plan was that either the University of Nebraska or Iowa State University would operate the research farm in cooperation with Shanghai Ocean University. My farm was located almost exactly halfway between the University of Nebraska and Iowa State University.

This seemed a logical union; Shanghai Ocean University is an Agricultural, Aquaculture and Engineering University very much in the mold of American land grant universities like Iowa State University and the University of Nebraska at Nebraska.

I thought I had a secure job at Shanghai Ocean University. I thought I would never have to look for work again. I thought Shanghai Ocean University was my home. I had been told this by many people at Shanghai Ocean University. This was very important to me. I had had a very spotty work record in my life. I feel I work very hard, and I truly believe I am not a difficult person to work with. However I have always had a knack for angering and alienating the wrong person. Many times I have had to go on long and frustrating searches for new jobs. However I felt I had finally found a home where my work and my results were appreciated. As corny as it may sound, the endowment was my way of saying thank you to Shanghai Ocean University.

I contacted Iowa State University, the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and Shanghai Ocean University regarding the establishment of an agricultural research center to be administered between one of the two American universities and ShOU. (Of course I omitted the fact that I was in contact with the two American universities when I met with them.)

Iowa State expressed no interest in the farm as a research center; they already had a similar facility roughly fifteen kilometers from my farm. They were only interested in the farm if they could sell the farm for whatever revenue they could generate. The University of Nebraska toured the farm. Though they seemed impressed with the facility, they had little interest in operating it as a research farm, let alone share the operation with a foreign school. They were only interested in the farm under the same conditions as Iowa State University. I heard nothing from Shanghai Ocean University, so I assumed the whole idea was a non-starter.

A couple of months later when I was back in China, I was contacted by the interpreter for the president of Shanghai Ocean University, and several other administrators at the school. They expressed an interest in the endowment. I explained to them that the two American universities were not interested in developing the research farm. The officials from Shanghai Ocean University said they were still interested in the endowment and were willing to take on the project of establishing a research farm themselves.

I was very dubious of this plan. I did not think they realized how isolated the far was, nor did they comprehend the difficulties of administering a research farm from such a long distance.

They stated they had a plan to establish a new university in America with a similar curriculum as Shanghai Ocean University. It would be based in the Omaha area with my farm as a research center for the Agricultural Department. However most new universities that have been established in America over the last hundred years have been in areas of large population growth, the Omaha area would hardly fit that description. Plus the idea of establishing a new land grant style university in the shadows of two of the premier land grant universities in the country seemed a rather perilous endeavor. With all this I was also reminded of the disastrous Parsons University plan of the 1960s and 1970s, a pipedream to establish about a half-dozen universities in Iowa and Nebraska.

However with those warnings in place, the plan continued. The university held two dinners for me and the university sent two separate delegations to America to tour my farm.

The lawyer for Shanghai Ocean University and my personnel lawyer entered into deliberations for establishing a trust to arrange for my estate to pass to my wife, and then eventually to Shanghai Ocean University. A primary stipulation from my lawyer was that Shanghai Ocean University would establish a detailed plan for their intentions with the farm. Neither he nor I were convinced that the University had really thought through their intentions with the farm.

This was important to me as I wanted to make sure the university had serious intentions with the farm and did not intend to sell it for revenue after a couple of years. Also my wife had experienced mental health issues over the years, I wanted to make sure that the university would not just have my wife declared incompetent in order to take early control of the farm.
Shanghai Ocean University did state that they wished to rent a parcel of land on the farm, roughly a quarter of an acre or a half acre, for which they would construct a building. This would be presumably be used for agricultural research. However the details of how that building would be used and how many people would be in the building was part of what my lawyer wanted to discern from Shanghai Ocean University’s detailed plan for my estate. However no such plan was ever presented or given to me or my lawyer.

Two dinners were held for my wife and myself by Shanghai Ocean University. Attending the dinners were the Vice President of the university, his translator, the lawyer for Shanghai Ocean University, Dr. Li who I believe was in charge of the university’s international affairs program and some other officials from the school. The meetings were very cordial; very few substantial issues were discussed other than that we would proceed. Our two lawyers would enter into discussions on the trust and the endowment of my estate.

On the second dinner my wife and I were driven to the dinner from my wife’s flat with some ShOU administrators. During the drive I was told that Shanghai Ocean University had a rule or policy that foreign teachers could only remain at the school for five years.

This was devastating information for me. I had been told that I had a job at Shanghai Ocean University until age sixty-five, and that I would never have to look for work again. Suddenly there was an asterisk to this promise.

The ShOU lawyer and the other school officials in the limousine with us were telling us to not worry; there were ways around the rule. However the evening was very subdued for me. I thought I was done with worrying about employment security, and here I was worried sick over my future.

This started several months of total confusion and bewilderment. One official would tell me the five year policy had to be enforced. Another official would tell me there was nothing to worry about. The next official would tell me that Shanghai Ocean University would place me in another university for a year and then I would come back the following year. I was told I would be moved to a new department which would reset the five year clock. I was told I would be hired at Aien College, a college operated by Shanghai Ocean University and the University of Tasmania which operates on the ShOU campus. I was told I should just accept the five year policy and just move on. I was told I would have to teach at a middle school for one year. I was told the five year rule would be repealed.

The rule itself was mysterious in and of itself. During this period it was called a law, a statute, a rule, a policy and an informal policy. I was told it originated from Shanghai Ocean University, the Shanghai University system, the city of Shanghai and the government of China. I was also told that the whole rule was just made-up. It was an urban legend, a Catch-22 used when a school wanted to remove a foreign teacher.

The one thing I was never told was why such as silly and preposterous rule even existed. Chinese universities are always complaining about the turnover of foreign teacher with the difficulty of locating new teachers and the frustration of having to retrain new foreign teachers. Foreign teachers seldom stay at a school for more than one or two years anyway, why would they want go through the frustration of forcing turnover when competent teachers were willing to stay?

The mixed messages continued, and I thought it was in my best interest to move onto a new job. I applied for teaching positions at various universities in the Shanghai area. It was a painful and disappointing move for me; I had never been good at job interviews. So much of my life had been wasted in inane and fruitless drivel trying to convince people to hire me. I thought I was done with such torment, but I was wrong.

I was able to secure a teaching position at a new school. Indeed the process was relatively smooth and painless. A date was set for me to sign a contract with the new school.

I contacted my faculty liaison and asked for my release letter from Shanghai Ocean University so I could move onto the new position. I copied almost all the pertinent officials at Shanghai Ocean University to let them know I was moving onto a new school.

Then something very surprising and confusing happened. The interpreter for the president of Shanghai Ocean University contacted me and said I should not worry, that Shanghai Ocean University would offer me a contract for the next year. I repeated that I had another job, but she just repeated that it would be taken care of, that I should just be patient.

This gave me severe misgivings. I had been offered a contract at a new school. It was a school that apparently wanted me. More specifically they wanted me for my teaching ability as they had no way of knowing about my American estate. At this point I really wanted to move on with my life, with a school who felt I was an asset.

However for some reason for which I have never understood, my wife wished for me to re-sign with Shanghai Ocean University. The school had always treated her terribly, gossiping about her and never really being cooperative when she would ask for assistance from the school. Yet she still wished for me to return to ShOU.

However my wife can be very stubborn and persistent. She seemed convinced that Shanghai Ocean University would be loyal to me and give me job security until I retired. She felt the school would give me a new contract every year. As is usually the case, my wife won this argument and I agreed to sign a new contract with Shanghai Ocean University.

There were several delays in signing the contract. I was told there was still a lot of resistance from some faculty and school administrators towards hiring me due to the five-year rule. When I was told of the delays, the interpreter to the school president would tell me that I should just remain patient.

However this did not re-assure me. Some people at the school obviously resented me. I had been offered a position at a school where I was wanted, and I did not want to be where I was not wanted.

I asked the interpreter for the university president and other officials at the school if there was going to be resentment towards me; I would just be told to not worry about it and that I should just ignore the gossip. I also asked if I would still have to deal with the five year rule in the future, I did not want to have to deal with the five year rule again. I was told that the five-year no longer a factor. She was very vague on how this was done, but I was lead to believe that I was moved to a different department, which essentially reset the clock. Without this assurance that the five-year rule had become moot, I would never have signed the new contract, regardless of my wife’s desire that I stay at Shanghai Ocean University.

Eventually after some cancelations and rescheduled appointments they were ready for me to sign my contract, and at my wife’s assistance I signed the contract. I politely as possible told the other college that I would not be working for them.

Almost the second I signed the contract I regretted it. In leaving the meeting I was met by the chairman of the English Department. He told me that I would be teaching four writing classes and other assorted senior electives. He also told me I would be stripped of teaching the Pronunciation classes and the English Language Literature class. I had been given the class load from Hell. It became apparent that those who felt I should leave Shanghai Ocean University had lost their war, but they were going to take out their frustration over this defeat out on me. I wish I had known that this war was going on; Shanghai Ocean University was not worth this kind of bloodshed or vindictiveness.

There can be little doubt that the schedule was designed to punish me. In previous years I had never been told my schedule before August. Even then it would require a lot of persistence and pushing on my part to get the schedule. However this year the schedule was establish and was ready to be made available to me in early May, it was prepared even before my contract was signed.

It was just the beginning of what would be a truly miserable year. The classes I had been given were terrible.

I did complain that I had been given too many writing classes. I actually was not opposed to foreign teachers having writing classes; I felt that English majors having some exposure to the writing styles of native English writers would be a good thing. However the workload of teaching all the writing classes should be spread out among all the foreign teachers. This is reasonable in that almost no foreign teachers are trained in how to teach a writing class, so there would be very little difference in the quality of any one foreign teacher in conducting a writing class. I really felt the load of teaching writing classes should be spread out among all the foreign teachers.

Admittedly a couple of years earlier when the English Department established the policy of not having the foreign teacher teach any writing classes, I was admittedly silent and made no complaint. This was hypocritical on my part. However I couldn’t help notice that the English Department could change their policy on having foreign instructors teach writing classes twice, once to not have foreign teachers teach any writing classes and then to have them teach a lot of writing classes, when they really wanted to change a policy.

Surprisingly my schedule was modified, although there seemed to be a lot of resentment that I had dared to make such a request. Still the schedule that I wound up teaching remained difficult, and still had writing classes.

Sometime in late February or March, I learned that the president of Shanghai Ocean University had left the university several months earlier, and had been replaced by a new president. As implausible as it may sounds to someone living in America, but major changes can happen on Chinese university campuses without the foreign teachers having any idea of what had happened.

Nothing further had been done with the endowment of my farm to the University. No plan had been presented to my lawyer regarding the university’s intention for the farm, which was necessary for the drafting of the trust for my estate. When I asked the lawyer for Shanghai Ocean University about the plan, he said he would ask the new president and his staff. Later he told me the new administration wanted to research the farm and it’s potential before making a legal proposal on the intentions with the farm. He added that my employment status would not be jeopardized while the university was researching the uses of my farm.

When the spring session came, I was shocked to see that my schedule had been made even more difficult. The schedule was filled with writing classes, senior electives and other undesirable classes. This was interesting because usually there are fewer Oral English classes offered in the Spring and the class loads are significantly lighter.

I continued to hear nothing about the plan for the endowment of my farm. I was in no real hurry to proceed with the endowment. The reason why I had wanted to make the endowment had dematerialized. They had not lived up to what I thought were reasonable expectations on my part, but I still seemed bound to my original offer of the farm endowment. However if they felt no need or hurry to provide the legal documentation to be included in my trust, I was certainly in no hurry to have them do it.

I was worried and busy with my very busy schedule, which the university had placed upon me. However two or three weeks into the session I was told that in addition to my existing schedule, I was to teach some middle school children at a different school. I was told I would have to do this even though my contract only says that I may only be assigned to teach university level English classes. In addition, I was given less than three days of notice and preparation time.

This was explained to me in a two-line e-mail. It only said that I was to teach some middle school students in three days and that I should be waiting for a bus (or something) to give me a ride to the middle school wherever it was.
I was not told:

1.    How many classes I would be teaching.
2.    What subject I would be teaching.
3.    The size of the class. (That would be important if the class or classes I were to be teaching were Oral English classes.)
4.    Information on the background and English skills of the class or classes.
5.    How long the class periods would be.
6.    The textbooks I would be using, if any.
7.    If I was going to be paid for teaching these extra classes.
8.    The exact age of the students I would teach.
9.    Why I was being assigned to teach little children’s classes.
10.    Why was given so little notice that I would teach the classes, and so little time to prepare for the class.
11.    Would I have an assistant for the class, which can be important for a class of little children with little minimal English skills?  However I have found that in a little children’s class that not knowing you assistant can be disastrous.
12.    Related to previous question I did not know who to ask if I could use my wife as an assistant. (My wife is very good at working with little children.) 
13.    Why was Shanghai Ocean University even staffing little children’s classes?
14.    The location of the place where I was supposed to meet the bus (or whatever) which was supposed to take me to the little children’s school.
15.    The location of the school where I would be teaching.
16.    Where was I supposed to find the time to teach these new classes?

I was livid. It appeared that the administration of Shanghai Ocean University was seeking further retribution upon me for offering the endowment of my farm and daring to staying beyond five years. I theorized that the school officials who were angry at me because they saw the farm endowment as an attempt to circumvent the five-year limitation rule upon foreigner and bribe my way into job security. Whereas, the truth is that if I had known about the five year rule/policy, I would never have made the offer of the endowment. I would have just quietly finished my fifth year and moved onto a new school. I was willing to do so the previous year, but I was offered a contract for another year. The idea that I would sacrifice a fifty million dollar farm and estate, for a 6900 rmb a month teaching position is just plain silly. The farm was meant as a gift because I thought my job was secure, not as a pay-off to make my job secure.

I did e-mail the authorities regarding this additional job assignment. I explained my anger and frustration over being given these additional classes, but I said that I would teach the classes. However someone had to answer the questions that I was not told in the two line e-mail where I was informed about the classes I had to teach.

Interestingly a couple of days later, the morning before the start of the class, I got a second e-mail saying it would not be necessary for me to teach the class. It was a very non-chalet and sterile response. It was very peculiar. It felt like they didn’t want me to teach the classes, but they were just trying to antagonize me to get me to complain about having to teach the class.  Once I complained it was no longer necessary for me to teach the class.

This was essentially the last straw for me and Shanghai Ocean University. I would finish the year and move onto a new school. If they were not interested in the endowment of my farm, I would be happy to comply with their disinterest. It was really a relief to be finished with the endowment, and I was ready to relocate to a school that appreciated my teaching skills.

However a week or two later, before I really even had a chance to start looking for new employment, I received a second e-mail from my faculty liaison saying I would not be brought back to Shanghai Ocean University. This time the e-mail was one and one-half lines long. No reasons were given for why I was essentially fired.

It was very disappointing and depressing the way the firing was handled. My six years of service and an original desire to continue were dismissed in one and one-half lines. However it was not real surprising, and I had made the decision to leave Shanghai Ocean University anyway. Most importantly the issue of the endowment was over without my having to pull the plug.

The rest of the session was mostly a haze. The class load the school had forced upon me remained very large and demanding, I did not want to punish the students for the treatment I received from Shanghai Ocean University. I also had to spend a lot of time looking for new work.

I was able to find employment to a new university. I will start a new phase in my life very soon.

However my wife was quite upset. Like myself, she had been told by many sources at the university that I had a job at Shanghai Ocean University until I retired. I believe that was a primary reason why she wanted me to remain at the university. She contacted many Shanghai Ocean University officials on why I was being let go and pleaded with them to retain me. The answer to the second question was always a resounding “NO”. However as to why I was not brought back, she was told a variety of answers. Of the answer that were told to my wife, the ones she shared with me included the five years limit of foreign teachers, that there was a mandatory retirement age of sixty, that I was too old, that I was too sick and feeble to teach, that I acted too crazy in class, that I was constantly blowing up in anger at my students (this is definitely not true, but I will explain all these allegations), that I graded too hard, that I graded too easy, that I could not speak Chinese, that I had used the endowment as an attempt to bribe ShOU into retaining me, that I had attempted to bribe my way into staying at Shanghai Ocean University, and that my method of teaching (what I call the speech teacher model) was no longer approved by the university. I was also told, without solicitation on my part, that my wife’s constant interjection on my behalf with other faculty and administrators was the primary reason for my being terminated.

That the university was now re-enforcing the five year policy/rule/law was interesting. I had been told ten months earlier that the five year clock had been reset to zero. I would never have come back if I had not been told that. Yet like a Phoenix the five year policy had re-emerged from the ashes and was back in full force.

It should be noted that some Japanese teachers had been at the university for longer than five year. Just to clarify, Japanese teachers would count as being foreigners in China, just as much as any English speaking foreigner.

It was never made clear on whether the five year stipulation was a policy, a law or just an urban legend. If it was a law I must concede that after many years of working for the government in America, there is a saying among government employees, “you can have a very stupid law on the books, but as long as that stupid law is a law, it must be enforced.” However that saying has a corollary, “Stupid laws can be repealed. In fact they should be repealed at the first legal opportunity.” In the case of this extremely stupid law, they had at least two years to change it since it was initially observed to be a problematic and very stupid law..

Most of the administrators at Shanghai Ocean University referred to the five year rule as a policy. If the five year maximum was a policy, that is even simpler yet. A policy can be changed whenever the person in charge wants to make a change, if he or she really wants to make a change. Again the policy on not having foreigners teach writing classes was changed twice in two years.

In regards to the five year limit being an urban legend, a fabricated rule designed to back-up a meritless decision, I will never know. No one but the administrators at the school will ever know. It really does sound like an excuse that was just made up when someone did not have the time to think of a logical and plausible excuse. However it is China, silly laws are not uncommon.

It would have been nice, and would have been a legitimate courtesy for someone being fired without cause and without stated malice, to provide the citation of the law or policy be enforced. 

It should be made clear that Shanghai Ocean University has the right to not renew my contract and fire me if wanted. However after six years of service I deserved more than a two-line e-mail. I deserved a coherent and consistent explanation of why I was being let go, evan if that explanation would be painful to give and painful to hear.

However the really annoying things about the use of the five year rule/policy/law as an excuse for firing me was that those invoking this excuse acted as if the university had shown me a great kindness in letting me come back for one more year. This was astonishing. I was ready to leave the year before. I had asked for my release letter. I had found a new school where I was wanted. Why had they brought me back? They made my last year at the university a total misery-fest, plus they were put me through the job searching process a second time, and I was now a year older.

The mandatory age of retirement being sixty years seems to be another one of those rules/laws that seems to come and go depending on if the university wants to hire you or not. Indeed the university that had given me a job offer the year before at age sixty-one the year before was saying that the mandatory age of retirement was sixty this year. There may have been confusion that the mandatory age of retirement for Chinese men is age sixty, but I do not believe this applies to foreign teachers. I have been also told that the mandatory age for retirement for foreign teachers was age sixty-five. However once again I have known one foreign teacher who was age sixty-eight when hired and another foreign teacher who was age seventy-four.

In a similar vein my wife was told that I was too old. School officials and other teachers told my wife that the students wanted teachers who were younger. However my experience and conversations with students is that they want teachers who grade very easily, and at Shanghai Ocean University the younger teachers are currently the ones who grade easily. However that is something that will always be in flux. Indeed the sixty-eight year old teacher mentioned in the previous paragraph was a very easy grader.

If this is another new policy by Shanghai Ocean University, I would warn the school and any other school following this policy that they are cutting themselves off from one of their best sources of foreign teachers. People who have finished their careers bring a wealth of experience and approach teaching with a dedication and thoughtfulness that younger teachers cannot approach. Otherwise why else would they seek out a new life halfway across the world when they could be living a life of leisure.

It was also said I was too sick and feeble to teach. This was utter nonsense. Though I am admittedly overweight, I never missed one class in my entire tenure at Shanghai Ocean University due to sickness or infirmity. In the summers before my fourth and fifth years at Shanghai Ocean University I had knee replacement surgery done on both my knees, but I was recovered from both surgeries when I returned to China. Once I returned to China I used my cane when I was walking long distances, but only for the purpose of walking fasters, the cane was not necessary to walk. Primarily on campus I used a bicycle for transporting myself around campus.

My wife was told that I acted too crazy in class. To this I plead guilty. My teaching style is that of acting crazy, prancing around the classroom and drawing everyone’s attention.  I do this for three reasons.

1.    It does get the attention of the students, and directs the students away from texting on their mobile phones or talking to each other. Incorporating entertainment is a common teaching techniques.
2.    I am trying to demonstrate to the students that there is no need to be shy or to worry about making mistakes in speaking English. There is nothing wrong with looking the fool, especially if it makes taking risk in speaking English easier. If their teacher acts that way, they can certainly act that way.
3.    In this crazy man mode, it makes it easier to discipline students when a student refuses to speak, comes late or fails to follow class rules. I can ridicule and embarrass the students without having to angrily scold the student. It seems the lesser of the two evils to me.

What strikes me about this excuse is how it totally conflicts with the arguments that I was too old and sick to be teaching. People who are sick and old, or at least who act sick and old, tend to not charge around the classroom like Robin Williams, or Jim Carey and act like a crazy idiot to make teaching points.

It is a calculated teaching method, which through year of trial and error seems to be the most effective way to teach oral English in my view. It is not my normal personality, and is an act I put on for the class. I consider it a definite positive to my teaching abilities.

It should be pointed out that in oral English classes, after the first week or two the crazy man routine becomes much more subdued. At that point the students are doing most of the work and talking. Writing classes are different in that to get anything done in the class, routines and schedules must be followed. In the writing classes it always seemed necessary to bring out the crazy man to make sure those routines and schedules were understood and to motivate students into following the routines and schedules.

That I was always angry and out of control seems totally beyond belief. Yes I do the crazy man routine, but I find it very hard to believe that anyone who has been in my class would believe it is anything other than an act. When I use this technique the offending student usually seem embarrassed, but the rest of the class seem to find it entertaining and funny. Those who believe that I have lost my temper and am totally out of control must be trying very hard to reach that conclusion.

My wife was told that I grade too hard. My average grade for Oral English classes, pronunciation classes and the English Language Literature are almost always between 88 and 91, usually just a little below 90. With some senior elections, especially the classes where I have no idea of what I am supposed to teach, my grades are usually a little higher.  For instance in an American Language and Culture class this spring my average grade was a 94. In a writing class that I taught last fall the average grade was an 82. When I calculated the grades for the class I was very surprised as I thought the grades would be lower. Last spring for a slightly better writing class my average grade was an 87. Ironically when I taught mathematics and computer science at an American community college I was considered a very easy grader. My own opinion is that I am not a difficult grader, but I do not hand out high grades as an entitlement.

However by the standards of Shanghai Ocean University where at least two of the foreign teachers gave out nothing but 99s and 100s, I suppose I am a difficult grader.

My wife was also told that I was a very easy grader. I explained my normal grade spread in the last section. To be honest in a normal class where most of the students do the required work, I shot for an average between 88 and 90. All I would point out that if I am getting some complaints that I grade too hard and I am getting some complaints that I grade too easy, I must be doing something right some of the time.

It is a difficult and scary proposition for teachers in China, as university administrators seem very dependent on student input on what teachers are good and what teachers are bad. Unfortunately most students’ idea of a perfect teacher is one who always gives very high grades. Period.

It was brought up that I could not speak Chinese. This is certainly true. However the overwhelming majority, I would say at least ninety percent, of the foreign teachers in China are not functional in Chinese. Regardless of this I do not consider the ability to speak Chinese to be an asset in teaching English at the university level. Chinese students can be very manipulative, if they realize that a teacher can speak Chinese, they will constantly ask the teacher to repeat his or herself until the teacher gives in and starts speaking in Chinese. I have constantly advised teachers who can speak in Chinese to pretend that they do not understand Chinese. I would also add that the last thing that most Chinese university students need is another teacher speaking to them in Chinese, if they want a teacher who teaches in Chinese, they can get that from a Chinese citizen.

I had been hearing rumors for a long time regarding the fact that I was offering the endowment of my farm as bribe to keep my job. I would just repeat that I had no idea of the five-year rule when I presented the endowment to Shanghai Ocean University. Had I of know about the five year rule, I would never have said anything about the endowment. I would have quietly finished my fifth year and moved onto a new school. It would have made the last two years a whole lot more pleasant for me and my wife. Finally (and I repeat) that the idea that I would sacrifice a fifty million rmb farm for a 6900 rmb a month teaching position is a total breakdown in logic. I really enjoy teaching Oral English at the university level, but my farm is an extremely valuable property..  However even more important than the value of the farm, it is a family legacy, it has been in my family for five generation, ever since my ancestors came from Scotland by way of Northern Ireland.

In regards to my teaching style in my experience there are three basic types of oral English teachers in Chinese universities:

1.    Team Builders. These teachers seem to model themselves after the teachers who conduct communication seminars for large businesses and government agencies. They will quickly divide the class into small groups and assign the groups various tasks. I have never liked this method for teaching English to Chinese, as I have discovered that the second the teacher is out of earshot the students will revert to Chinese. Even if there is an attempt to retain the discussion in English, if one of the students is struggling to keep up, the group will transition to Chinese to simplify matters. Also the best English speakers will usually dominate the group and do most of the talking, and the poorer English speakers almost always fade into the background and may speak no English. Finally I have never figured out how to effectively and fairly grade these group activities
2.    Law professors. This is sometimes called the Socratic Method. This is where the teacher calls upon individual students to perform English speaking activities. I do not like this method in that in a public setting with no preparation time, Chinese students will usually freeze when called upon. In calling upon students, this requires that the teacher must carefully track who is being called upon. I have found that if a teacher does not maintain a carefully ordered schedule of the students, that the teacher will start calling upon the students who will give a response and start ignoring the poorer English speakers. Finally I think this system of teaching only works when all student are extremely competent and highly motivated, there is a reason why this technique is primarily used in law schools.
3.    Speech teachers.  Like Public Speaking classes at American universities, everyone will be given a set time to do an English speaking activity. It does give students time to prepare their assignment so they are not surprised. This serves a double benefit in that when students are preparing for their assignment outside of class, they are also practicing their English. A problem with this method is that only one person can be talking at a time, however that it a problem with the law professor method also. However with the speech teacher methods it is possible to setup alternate activities for when they are watching other students, for instance requiring that students ask questions of students during presentations or having students judge role plays.

Admittedly I like the speech teacher method. I have tried all three techniques, this methods works the best for classes of ten or more students in my opinion. It does insure fairness in the way students are called upon, and allows for a systematic and fair way of grading. Having to perform the English speaking activities in front of the class is a very tense circumstance, but it is a trial by fire. If a student can perform an English speaking activity in front of an audience, it makes regular conversations seem significantly easier.

I have no idea of why Shanghai Ocean University no longer approves of this speech teacher method. My wife was given no reason for why the school does not approve of this method any more. I assume other foreign teachers at the school will use this style of teaching, it would be interesting to know the schools reaction if other teachers use that technique. I was never told to not use the speech teacher method.

With my wife, she can be an extremely persistent and is relentless, especially when it comes to taking care of and protecting me. I suspect it can be quite annoying. However if that was the problem, the school official and teachers have no one to blame but themselves. I constantly asked people at the university to speak to me when they needed to communicate with me. That is what they do with all other teachers. However in these situations people would almost always speak to me wife, presumably so they would not have to speak English to me. Unfortunately once my wife was involved she would response with endless and repeated questions, constant clarification and would often get very angry if she felt I was being treated unfairly. The sad thing about this strategy is that my wife is not a very good translator. Whatever was intended to be communicated to me, would almost never reach my ears.

However I really didn’t really care about the reason for my firing. The school obviously did not want me. I really did not want to be where I was not wanted. No manufactured excuses were needed to justify my firing

The one thing I do not know is what happened to the people at the school who had argued for my retention in the previous year. I don’t know why they were successfully in retaining me the previous year, but were unsuccessful this time around. I don’t know if they even tried this year. Also I have no idea why none of them could have warned me of what was going to happen.

My wife was told by several administrators at Shanghai Ocean University that the school would take care of me. However I was give one referral, and I was to a school and position for which I had already applied. The teacher who had made the suggestion to me did so in a very clandestine way, as if he did not want other school officials to know about it. Admittedly the referral did lead to a job offer. However no other assistance in finding a new job was given to me.

However all things considered matters have worked out well. I am now at a school where I am wanted. In addition I no longer have to deal with the endowment of my farm which had really turned into a curse for me.

In looking back at my time at Shanghai Ocean University it is hard to see myself as a victim. Yes the way the school treated me was callous and unfair. If another expatriate was to ask about working for the school, I would strongly advise to have nothing to do with the school.

Still I can’t really blame anyone but myself for what had happened. At the risk of sounding conceited, I feel I had some unprecedented success at the school. I had innovated several new techniques in teaching. I had helped out the university in several difficult situations, as well volunteered to help in numerous school activities and programs. I had come to think of myself as a part of the university and a part of the ShOU family. This was my real mistake.

To the Chinese universities the foreign teachers are no more than a tool or a piece of equipment. We are of no more importance than a piece of chalk or a Longman’s dictionary. I think most foreign recognize this, but I was deluded into thinking I was a real part of the university and it’s community.

That is just the way it is. I think most foreign teacher recognize this. I did not, although I probably should have known better. I urge all foreign teachers to understand this.

Foreign teachers are low priority issues for the university. Our needs get taken care of after all other priorities are addressed. I thought my hard work and long tenure of loyalty to the university made me a part of the university family.

I could not have been more wrong. I was fired with a one and one-half line e-mail. I was let go with almost no consideration, other than that I should have been grateful for the time I had with the university.

I urge all foreign teachers in China to understand this. The time in China as a teacher is a tremendous experience, but you should not forget that you are nothing more than a implement to these universities. No matter hard you might work at your teaching, don’t even expect a thank you for your efforts. I hope this will be a benefit to most foreign teachers.

A very interesting story. I think it could have been summaries to have more impact. However,   your advice is wrongly biased to your university experience. My wife runs a successful business supplying native English teachers for oral English at her own and outlying schools. To say her teachers are a concern to her, is an understatement. Just recently an ex-teacher (repeat 'ex') had an accident needing hospital treatment. They contacted my wife and, already after a busy day, she drove the 40 minutes to see them on face-to-face basis to see if she could help....
Say no more.
My wife is Chinese. I'm a UK expat in China since 2003 and do not speak Chinese. However, my work was as a mentor in LNG storage tank construction and my Chinese Colleagues were more keen to practice their oral English than teach me Chinese.  A chance I was very happy to oblige.
All in all. My advice to young expat teachers is to research the school / agency / university they intend to join. But then; that's no different advice for any career step they propose to take.
I hope your new work assignment will work out well and revise your outlook on teaching English in China.
All the best

Just to add, I would be very interested to work for your wife.  However I don't know how extensive research could prevented the experience I had six years into a position. Admittedly my experience is not typical, although I doubt that many foreigners have had the experiences like those of working for your wife.

Dear Jack,
There is an active forum that would be very interested in hearing your story.
Apart from hosting a great many other experienced teachers there is also a good chance that you could pick up some new opportunities from the other members.
Hope that this helps.

Hi Jack,
I feel your higher level of teaching at Uni' would not suit Kindergarten level.
And yes, my wife considers her Expat teachers as an asset, not a commodity.
Wishing you well in your search

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