A surging demand for learning the English language in China has turned the export-intensive country into an importer of American teachers, creating thousands of potential jobs for recent graduates.
As many as 300 million Chinese people are learning English, said Katie Wagnon, the recruitment manager at English First, a division of the Lucerne, Switerland-based EF Education First, which has offices and schools in more than 50 countries. The need for educators in the world's most populous country has left schools scrambling to fill positions, and recruiters eager to capitalize on the market.
"Basically if you speak English and have a degree, you can get a job over here because English teachers are in such high demand," said Lindsey Henrikson, a 22-year-old graduate of Northwestern University who teaches at the Pass College of Chongqing Technology and Business University. The downside is "there's pretty much a 50-50 chance that you're either going to have a horrible recruiter or a horrible school, and a lot of people end up breaking contracts early because of that."
Schools in smaller towns will take a chance on teachers like Henrikson, who has no formal teaching experience and plans to work for a year before returning to the U.S. for law school. Her college-level students already know English grammar and how to read and write, so she is responsible for stimulating conversation through games and activities.
In major cities like Beijing and Shanghai, however, the Chinese government is upping its standards, said Carrie Kellenberger, the global director of recruiting for Reach To Teach Recruiting who previously taught in China from 2003 to 2006. Teachers must be at least 24 years old, have one or two years of formal teaching experience after graduation and obtain a certificate to teach English as a foreign language, or TEFL.
"In the past, you could be a college graduate and have no teaching experience and have no problem getting a position in China," Kellenberger said. "The demand for English teachers is rising every day in China, but the Chinese government has made the whole job application process a lot more difficult."
English teachers make between 6,000 and 16,000 yuan a month, or between $938 and $2,500, with the highest salaries going to those with prior teaching experience who work in major cities, Kellenberger said.
Local teachers in China earn about 1,000 yuan a month, said Lea Walker, who worked as a professor at Wuhan University in the 1980s. That means recent college graduates teaching English earn the equivalent of a tenured Chinese professor.
Walker emigrated to the U.S. in 1992 and is now president of the Chinese Culture Center, a nonprofit she founded in 2002. She said the Columbia, S.C.-based center placed about 500 teachers last year out of more than 5,000 applicants, and interest has continued to rise since the Beijing Olympics.
"Before 2008, China was considered a third-world country and not many young people had intentions to go there," Walker said. "It seems like more and more young people realize that China is a big market and also a place to go for jobs."
Still, the new teachers struggle with China's lack of English speakers, making ordering food, taking public transportation and other day-to-day tasks a challenge. Familiarity with Mandarin is not necessary to get a position anywhere in the country, which often leaves teachers unable to communicate.
"The first couple of days after we arrived at the university, I thought 'Oh my God, what the hell did I do to myself?'" said Leslie Eberdt, a 24-year-old from Brussels, Belgium who teaches graduate students at Nanchang University. "I've lived a lot of places, but it's really difficult here. It was like being dropped onto Mars."
Eberdt said she grew frustrated with needing to take a Chinese speaker wherever she went, and would have considering leaving if not for support from fellow teachers. To combat the language barrier, Henrikson goes out with her undergraduate sophomores several times a week, both to improve their English and so they can translate for her. A group of them helped her purchase a new cell phone.
Both Henrikson and Eberdt used the Council on International Educational Exchange, or CIEE, to match them with a Chinese school. The written application took Eberdt a few days to complete. CIEE first chooses to accept or reject the applicant, and then a partnering school must accept the person.
CIEE places the majority of teachers at locations directly without an interview, though in certain situations the applicant will speak with the school based on CIEE's past relationship with the institution, said Steve Amendo, the strategic marketing manager at CIEE. English First also puts teachers in contact with schools only after they assign placements.
"My school has not been super helpful in getting me adjusted," Henrikson said. "There's not much communication, and that's something that, from talking to other people, happens in a lot of Chinese universities between foreign teachers and the rest of the staff," since few other educators speak English.
Reach to Teach requires an interview between the school and teacher, ranging from five minutes to two hours depending on the institution. If the student feels uncomfortable with the school, the recruiting directors, including Kellenberger, work on another placement.
For young job seekers, it's hard to argue with the numbers. A population roughly the size of the entire U.S. is eager to master the English language in China, while 14.8% of Americans between ages 20 and 24 remain unemployed, according data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in August. English First expects placements to jump by as much as 45% next year, Wagnon said.
Even as the Chinese government sets the bar higher, the number of people applying may grow as they seek to flee the stagnant Western job market. No one knows exactly how many foreign English teachers are in China, yet everyone agrees the demand is skyrocketing. Walker said her center could place every qualified applicant, even if there are thousands.
"No matter how many teachers we recruit, there will always be more positions available," Walker said.
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