Supporting Article

“Foreign Teachers” in China

Chinese education is impacted by expatriate teachers who choose to teach English as well as other courses in China. The opportunity to be a “foreign teacher,” as expatriate teachers are often referred to in China, allows one to make a difference in the education of individuals in numerous ways. While teachers in general have the opportunity to impact students’ lives through enhancing their education, in China quite often expatriate teachers can offer strong education in disciplines that might otherwise have had weaker teachers. For example, native speaking English teachers are strong “English Listening and Speaking” teachers, often replacing Chinese teachers with weaker English speaking skills.

In teaching Chinese students, an expatriate teacher contributes to a well-rounded, valuable educational experience and may therefore gain respect and influence among the Chinese people. The personal influence of a respected expatriate teacher can have a considerable effect on the values and beliefs of students. Such teachers also influence the general education of school administrators, colleagues, merchants and others as they help the Chinese people increase their understanding of “Western ways.”  This is becoming more important to the Chinese as Western influences increase in their once closed society. This article presents a brief analysis of an expat-riate’s impact upon education while teaching in China and also gives insight into life as a foreign teacher.

The Role of the “Foreign Teacher”

The teacher-student relationship is very important in China. In Chinese culture, students have been taught to respect their teachers and work hard to please them; Chinese students look up to their teachers. At a young age, they learn that education itself is a privilege, and studies should be taken seriously. Therefore, if the expatriate teacher does not educate well, the students will lament and wish for a better instructor. This means that expatriate teachers need to continually strive to teach well. Since teaching is a job without much supervision, they must keep a check on themselves so that they do not become lazy. They should work hard to put forth their best efforts in educating their students so that they will not do a disservice to them.

The encouragement and enthusiasm of expatriate teachers is very important for their students. This is obvious to the foreign teachers because most of them are “students” of the Chinese language themselves—at least at some level. Whether expatriates are learning “survival Chinese” or adding to the foundation of their Chinese knowledge, they know that encouragement is important in their learning process. When the “foreign experts” offer encouragement to their Chinese students, the effects can be profound resulting in highly motivated students of English.

In my experience in China, I was amazed at the strength of the expatriate teaching force.  Even though many of them were not formally trained in education, I found that most did an excellent job. In order to ensure quality education, the experienced ones often shared materials as well as tips and techniques with their peers. They discussed what worked in their classrooms and the teaching methods that seemed best for the Chinese culture. They shared the best ways to teach specific concepts as well as outstanding assessment and testing methods. This information sharing between expatriate English teachers was often broadened to include Chinese English teachers.

Many expatriates work at “teacher colleges” where Chinese English teachers are trained for their public education system. The expatriate teachers have the opportunity to influence the Chinese public educators in how they can more effectively teach English in their classrooms. Since Western methods of teaching are more interactive and much less “rote” than Chinese methods, expatriate teachers are often perceived as charismatic in their style. The Chinese instructors become excited about being taught by native speakers and emulate their teaching methods and style. With encouragement from a foreign teacher, they become very motivated about teaching in their public school positions.

Personal Influence through Relationships

As stated earlier, Chinese students are generally very respectful, treat their teachers with honor and consider it a privilege to spend time with them. They have a welcoming spirit, are very generous in their hospitality and love to help their teachers go sightseeing, make purchases and settle into Chinese life. Chinese students are often quick to come to the aid of their foreign teachers when asked to be an interpreter.

Expatriate teachers often try to befriend their students and form relationships with them. Many teachers entertain students in their homes so that they can get to know them better. Students enjoy this and often respond in kind with invitations to their homes to meet their families. Many schools have “English Corner,” which is a gathering of Chinese people who want to practice English with each other. Foreign teachers are welcomed and encouraged to participate in these and frequently are the ones responsible for organizing “English Corner” at their university.

Clubs provide another opportunity for teachers to get to know their students. During my time as a foreign teacher in China, I sponsored a Future Business Leaders Club for students. A new and different experience for my Chinese students, the club periodically organized lectures by guest speakers from the business community. Some of these speakers were alumni who could share helpful advice about the business world. Others were important businessmen and women who shared information about various local industries and companies. In the spring, the club sponsored a special week of speakers during the long lunch/break time before afternoon classes. Throughout the year, the club members organized fundraisers gaining hands-on business experience while at the same time obtaining financial support for the club. While my students enjoyed this experience, meeting and working with them on committees within this “club atmosphere” allowed me the opportunity to really get to know them and form close relationships with them.

Foreign teachers often sponsor dramatic productions and other types of activities. As teachers and Chinese students work together toward a common goal, camaraderie develops and these activities allow relationships to grow deeper than the normal student-teacher relationship. Many teachers find these opportunities to be the most rewarding part of their job.

“Celebrity” Status

Another part of teaching in China may involve somewhat of a “celebrity status.”  A foreign teacher may be one of only a handful of foreigners in a geographical locale. Teachers can use the attention that being a foreigner brings to further their opportunities for relationships with the Chinese people. Often they are invited to dinners, plays, and performances in places of honor because they are foreigners. Television cameras appear when they enter the performance hall or move their way when the audience is shown. Attention such as this allows the expatriate teacher to show good manners and respect to Chinese people of position and influence. The end result may be that the teacher can form influential relationships with people of power.

Some expatriates may feel uncomfortable about the attention they receive. Although it may be difficult for them to enjoy it, it is best if they can embrace their “celebrity status.”  By trying to hide foreign looks, they may remain frustrated and ruin their time in China by fighting the undeniable position as a “foreign face.”  They should remain humble and yet hospitable in addressing their status as a foreigner. This prevents alienation from society and allows the teacher greater impact among students. However, this “celebrity status” may begin to wane as China becomes more Western.

Providing “Western” Understanding

Today, China remains vastly different from the West in most areas, but it is quickly gaining Western influences in the large cities. As Western influences become more prevalent, the contribution of the expatriate teacher also expands. Since many English students will have opportunities to work with Western companies, students benefit from expatriate teachers because it allows them to have face-to-face contact with Westerners. An understanding of Western manners and culture is beneficial to them while strong English skills give them an advantage in the workforce. The skills and experience that expatriate teachers can provide their students makes the entire process of dealing with foreigners far less intimidating for them when they enter the marketplace.

Chinese people are also gaining more opportunities for travel into English speaking areas. Today, it is far easier for Chinese people to travel outside of China than it was only a few years ago. After students graduate, whether they travel for business purposes or for personal enjoyment, strong English skills enable them to take advantage of opportunities that come their way.

English skills also allow Chinese people to better understand and communicate with those outside of China. Solid English skills allow them to articulate their positions on issues without the hindrance of an interpreter. Via the Internet, they are able to communicate with other English speakers all over the world. They can read books written in English that will broaden their horizons. The contributions that the expatriate teacher brings are very valuable to the Chinese educational system.

The Survival of the Expatriate Teacher

Because of their appreciation of expatriate teachers, Chinese universities have an administrator assigned to take good care of them. Generally, these administrators are a very important part of the support system for the foreign teacher. When the foreign teacher first arrives, the administrator is the liaison between society and the expatriate in important matters such as work permits and travel documents.

The first days and weeks in China can be a very difficult time of adjustment for many expatriates. The Chinese understand that Westerners need extensive support and in many instances make special provisions for their needs. Foreign teachers may have air conditioning while Chinese teachers around them simply endure the heat. In addition, they are generous in understanding the adjustment of outsiders who are unaccustomed to their system of water supply, sewage disposal and transportation.

Maintaining a Christian Perspective

Difficulties in adjustment may catch the foreign teacher by surprise. Many expatriates have the misperception that because God led them in a special way to an unusual land they will be an exceptional Christian. In reality, people continue to struggle abroad just as they struggle in America. Satan is not on sabbatical. Expatriates must keep a perspective on reality and their humanness. The culture shock of living in a new land is challenging and it can be a “hostile environment” which can lend itself to discouragement and despair.

There is a great temptation for the expatriate teacher to blame China for all the woes of life. It is tempting to blame China for marriage and relationship difficulties and for health problems. It is tempting to forget that life in America has its very real hardships. It is tempting to forget that it is not China, but God who controls all that is allowed to enter one’s life.

Expatriates must keep their perspective and maintain their vision while guarding their spiritual health. Foreign teachers in China go through great gyrations in order to make sure that they maintain their physical health. They boil their water, they peel their fruit, and they avoid eating raw vegetables. Yet many Christians struggle to maintain their spiritual health, which is vital for them to thrive in China. Christians should be very careful to guard their quiet time of Bible study and prayer each day. They should be looking for ways they can be fed and edified spiritually with the same vigilance they use to maintain their physical health. In this way, Christian “foreign experts” in China can maintain their spiritual health that they might fulfill their desire of serving China and contributing to the country and its people. 

Image credit: A foreign teacher with two students at Anyang Normal by V.T. Polywoda via Flickr.
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Michelle Moore

Michelle Moore, M.B.A. lived and taught in China for four years and continues to be active in China service.View Full Bio