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Published: February 4th 2011
Benxi Future English School (http://www.benxifutureenglishcentre.com) is a private language school in the industrial city of Benxi in north-east China. Benxi offers an unrivalled chance to immerse yourself in Chinese culture, in a real working-class city, away from foreigner orientated larger cities, where Western amenities and English speaking locals are close at hand.
Alongside my wife, I taught here for fourteen months between 2009-2011. It’s easy to say my time teaching here wasn’t one of unadulterated passion. It was sometimes a long, hard slog. An experience though that has enabled some of my most rewarding and satisfying moments. I doubt I’ll ever get use to feeling like an expendable commodity, where qualifications and experience count for very little. I’ll also never understand how respect can be measured in wealth rather than personal attributes. On the other hand, the majority of Benxi’s population have offered nothing but warmth and hospitality and have been some of the friendliest people I have ever met. My students and their parents have proven this. If I had the chance to make my decision again, I would still choose to teach at Benxi Future English School.
During my time at Benxi Future English School I worked
with fourteen foreign teachers. Of these, three were sacked, three were ‘night-runners’ (teachers who run away without telling their employer) and another two left at their own request.
One teacher was reportedly sacked for being black, his dreadlocks and colour scaring the students. Another teacher was sacked for having alcohol related issues. All three sacked teachers went on to find better paid teaching jobs within China. Other teachers left for a variety of reasons, from their treatment by the school to personal issues.
These statistics show that teaching here isn’t for everyone. Those with low confidence and no teaching experience, or who are expecting a party lifestyle for the duration of their contract should really consider looking elsewhere. Potential teachers who are dedicated to their work and who like to throw themselves in to the deep-end of a culture, will find that Benxi offers an excellent opportunity. Management
The school is owned and managed by David Hao and his wife Ellen, both of whom speak English to a competent level. For most teachers, myself included, their approach to management left feelings of exasperation and annoyance.
You will always be the last to know anything
regarding the school, even if it directly relates to you. This was infuriating. Whether it be new classes, cancelled classes, extra students, a change in schedule, changed class times, or a change of study book, I was always the last person to find out, sometimes finding out in the class from the students themselves. Once I was even stopped in the street by a stranger who knew something about my classes that I had yet to be told. To me, this shows a complete lack of respect. But it‘s important to remember that withholding information is deeply rooted in Chinese culture. Information is power, and by disseminating the information you are allowing the possibility of being undermined.
Benxi Future English School is solely a money making venture. I often had disagreements with my boss over school principles based upon greed rather than a child’s access to a good education. I came here to teach to the best of my abilities, not to lower my standards in order to make my employer wealthier. If I was prepared to lose sight of my principles and have my dignity trampled all over, then there wouldn’t have been any problems. I’d rather leave
though with my head held high knowing I did the best job I could.
Your position as a teacher will be undermined if your actions affect potential income. After disciplining a girl in class for constant interruptions one teacher was left with no alternative than to send the girl out of the classroom until she listened. This infuriated the girl’s mother, who complained ferociously to David and threatened to take her out of his school. Instead of backing his teacher, he bought gifts for the girl and tried to make the teacher apologise to her in class.
David made no secret that he prefers male teachers to female teachers, whom he feels are more independent and less likely to complain. This attitude didn’t go down well with my wife. At first he wouldn’t even speak to her directly, always going through me. With an influx of female teachers towards the end of my contract, his ability to interact with teachers of the opposite sex did improve.
When it comes to hiring teachers, the application process has always baffled me. Instead of a dedicated effort into finding a perfect match for his school, David seems to take the,
“I’ll hire anybody and if they aren’t any good I’ll just sack them,” approach. While this might work and helps explain the high percentage of teachers leaving or getting fired, it’s very unfair on those who are on the receiving end, especially if they have travelled halfway across the world for this opportunity.
In recent months David attempted to bring six teachers to Benxi for only three teaching positions, with those arriving unaware that they were taking part in a ‘teach-off’ and their job wasn’t guaranteed. Luckily he was only able to hire the three teachers he needed. For a first time experience abroad, to come in to such a situation and be sacked in a matter of weeks could easily deter you from travelling ever again.
Another new trick is to bring teachers in on a tourist visa. Considering the illegality of such a move, I’d seriously reconsider accepting such an offer. If you are offered a job on a tourist visa, there are two reasons why this may be so. One, David needs teachers urgently and is losing money by cancelling classes. Two, he isn’t quite sure if you will be a success, so if you
are sacked, he doesn’t lose any money on paying for a work visa.
My relationship with David was professional. I worked hard and he appreciated that. He does have a darker side should you ever cross him. After teaching in Benxi for eighteen months (six months in to a second one-year contract) one teacher, upon getting tired of the constant undermining and sackings decided to seek employment elsewhere. Upon finding a new job, he followed his contract to a tee, paying the $500 break clause fee (this has since been increased to $1000 or $2000 to stop this happening again) that enabled him to move jobs and receive the appropriate paperwork.
Unfortunately David saw this as a personal insult and betrayal, refusing to cooperate by sending the necessary document to have his working visa switched to his new school. After ignoring email requests and constant phone calls, by both the teacher and his new employers, the Dean from his new job (a well known university) was forced to make a surprise visit to Benxi to enquire why David was being so difficult. Upon arriving at David’s school, David stubbornly tried to hide in his office. Such behaviour, after
following the contract so carefully, goes a fair way to showing somebody’s true colours.
While I might disagree with his principles and the way he has treated other teachers, I have few personal complaints. My problems were dealt with quickly and efficiently, including being taken to the hospital and having tests paid for during a hypochondriac moment. Other teachers went almost an entire winter without heat, three weeks without a working shower and an unfixed washing machine for months. If you show respect (even if you don’t think it’s deserved) you will always get a more positive response.
I was always paid on time and in full and David was happy to help with buying train and plane tickets. While he may prefer teachers who are independent, if you had any translation problems while out and about in Benxi, David would always help. There are certainly plenty of worse bosses in China than David. Working for a school with Western influences (both in ownership and management) would certainly help eradicate many of the negative issues I faced.
You will have little professional interaction with David’s wife, who manages the local assistant teachers who work alongside the foreign
teachers. Unfortunately their morale levels were always low during my time in Benxi, because of how they were treated. Instead of being encouraged to flourish, they were constantly reminded how poor they were and given unnecessary tasks to show who was in control. Upon finding out an assistant was studying in her spare time, she was immediately sacked, her aspirations her downfall. This management style often creates a sombre attitude around the school. The School
Benxi Future English School has been running for over ten years now. It has no relation or affiliation to the Dalian Future English School, where the name, logos and badges were plagiarised from.
Benxi Future English School has approximately 450 students ranging from 4 to 18 years old. Most students are under 12 years old, where they study a range of books, from absolute beginner (Super Kids series) to an advanced level (Side By Side series). Classes normally curtail at 20 students but if students can’t be accommodated elsewhere, this number will be breached. David normally has around six foreign teachers working for him, three of which teach at Benxi Future English School and the other three spend most of their
time in public schools (see’Public School’).
I had ten regular classes at Benxi Future English School, who I saw twice each week. Class time ranges from one hour for the younger students, to ninety minutes for the more advanced classes. Local teaching assistants are in each class to help with any translation. With public school closed during the weekend, these are the days when most classes at Benxi Future English School take place. During the week there are only classes in the evening.
A normal working week consists of around 22 hours, taught over six days. You only get one day off each week. At the start of my contract I would use my free day to explore the city and the surrounding area. Towards the end of the contract, I found myself using my free day to rest and recuperate. With so little holiday to be taken alongside the one free day each week, it was starting to wear me down, both physically and mentally.
Teaching for 22 hours doesn’t sound a lot. This is only lesson time. After each class you read with the students individually on what you covered in the lesson (around 10-30
minutes per class). Spelling tests (every class) and unit tests are given regularly, which are marked by the teacher (ten minutes for a spelling test, up to an hour for unit tests). There are no guidelines and little help on preparing classes, so all of this is done by each teacher. Sometimes there are gaps between classes ranging anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. You also have to arrive at the school twenty minutes before your first class. Taking all of this in to account, for me, a working week of 22 hours (these are the only hours you are paid for) actually translated to 35 hours spent at the school (Mon: Off, Tue: 15:00-19:30, Wed: 15:00-19:30, Thurs: 16:30-19:30, Fri: 16:30-19:30, Sat: 08:30-18:30, Sun: 08:30-18:30) and at least another extra hour each day preparing classes and marking tests. Working so much gave me a lot less chance of immersing myself in the local culture than I was expecting.
Parents are allowed to sit in on classes. For the younger ‘beginner’ students you normally have one parent for each child, doubling the numbers of watching eyes in class. With the north-east of China being especially aggressive when
it comes to education principles, parents come to class for three reasons. Firstly, they want to learn alongside their child in order to help them with their English away from class. Secondly they are there to make sure their child is paying attention. Thirdly, they have come to inspect the quality of your teaching and make sure they are getting good value for the high price (in local terms) they have paid.
If students aren’t listening, it’s not unusual for parents to hit their children in class. At first this came as a shock, but as physical punishment is a cultural norm, it’s something I soon became accustomed to. The parents for the majority are friendly and accommodating. Some though are very particular about pronunciation and don’t understand the concept of accents. Because of this, every teacher at some point or another has had their pronunciation of a word questioned.
I found that watching parents had both a positive and negative influence on my classes. On the positive side, I felt I had to give 100% during every lesson, which meant planning each class meticulously. Negatively, I could never relax properly during class, adding unnecessary stresses. With watching
parents, classes need to be planned on two levels. Not only do you have to teach the students, but you need to humour the parents too, keeping everybody entertained. Each class was more like a theatrical performance than an English lesson.
To make matters worse, the only feedback you are ever likely to receive about your teaching is negative. David isn’t highly educated and doesn’t have an in-depth knowledge of teaching practices and principles (like many businessmen in China involved in language schools). Therefore any ‘words of wisdom’ he gives may not help you. After teaching for several weeks, David approached my wife and told her he wasn’t pleased with her teaching. My wife (who has years of teaching experience and qualifications) asked how she could improve. David offered vague ideas, all of which my wife was already doing in class. When my wife pointed out that everything David had just said, she was already doing, he couldn’t offer any further advice, or elaborate on what was just said. It seemed more of a personal attack (because she didn‘t dance around like a clown in class), rather than a classroom related problem. If this is a first position in
teaching, to get negative feedback and no real advice on how to improve can quickly effect confidence levels.
Students pay a set fee for each book they study. Some books take between six and seven months to complete. Others between ten and eleven months. Unless you enquire, you will only be told the date when the book should be completed after the deadline has passed. Once it has passed, you will be hounded by management to teach quicker (because they are now getting no money for each additional class taught). The quality of your classes and your teaching will be compromised. This only leads to complaints from parents. It’s a no-win situation. Either continue teaching at a pace conducive to the class’s learning and annoy David, or teach too quickly for the students to learn and annoy parents. For me, pleasing parents won every time. This is why my relationship with my boss was sometimes strained.
The length of time to study each book never changes. It is the same if you have five students in a class as it is with twenty. Some of my classes contained a high percentage of clever, obedient students, so completing a
book on time wasn’t a problem. Other classes contained, rowdy students who took longer to learn the English being taught. With these classes, it was impossible to finish on time and feel happy with your teaching performance.
There is no formal dress code at Benxi Future English School. You are not allowed to wear shorts or flip-flops, but everything else, as long as you look presentable is okay. Public School
Alongside Benxi Future English School, David also has a monopoly on supplying native speaking English teachers to public schools. These public schools are located in and around Benxi. Taxi money is always provided if these schools aren’t within walking distance.
I was only told about ‘maybe’ teaching at a public school after signing the contract and arranging my work visa. So it came as a shock to both my wife and I to arrive in Benxi and find my wife spending her whole time teaching in public schools. With the differing schedules this basically meant our only time together for the first six months (until our schedules were changed) was on our day off.
Unfortunately there is no knowing how much you will teach
in public school before arriving in Benxi. David has his best teachers working in his private school. Therefore there is the stigma that working in public school means your teaching performance isn’t appreciated or thought highly of. This can be demoralising, considering you are given only one or two classes to prove yourself before David decides where you will be teaching.
One thing you can be certain of is that you will teach at a public school at some point during your time in Benxi. Public school classes can range anywhere from 40 to 120 students. Depending on the school (and the laziness of their teachers) you should have a local teacher with you in every class. It’s hit and miss though whether they will be of any help. During my time in public school (which I did earlier in my contract when I didn’t have so many classes in the private school) I had some excellent assistants who helped diligently. I also had assistants who read newspapers and fell asleep at the back of class.
Public school classes start at 07:50 and finish in the mid afternoon. They last for 40 minutes (less if it is a
kindergarten). Because you aren’t paid for travel time, or time outside of teaching, you could leave for a public school at 06:30 and return home at 12:30 and only get paid for four classes (two hours and forty minutes). Remembering that you are contracted to teach up to 22 hours each week, like private school, you can end up working a significant amount more than this.
Teaching at public school shouldn’t be seen as a negative. Gone are the stresses of the watching parents and the demands of strict deadlines and interfering management. Replacing them are classes full of excited and easily impressed students. Normally you are only told what you will be teaching on your way to the classroom, so it’s impossible to plan for your classes. Teaching Schedule
All teachers during my time at Benxi Future English experienced teaching both in David’s private school and various public schools. Teachers find themselves either predominantly private school teachers or predominantly public school teachers.
I was one of the lucky few, who kept the same classes from the moment I arrived. This gave me fourteen months to bond with my students, creating a much better teaching
environment. Other teachers weren’t so lucky. They had their classes and schedule changed almost on a weekly basis. Just as they were getting to bond with their students, their classes were taken away and they were given new ones. This is especially true with classes in the public school.
When I left, it was an emotional goodbye. I’d known the students for so long and could relate to them on an individual basis. Because of this, I felt I had accomplished something and contributed to their learning successes. For the majority of teachers though, this experience was taken away from them because of the constantly changing schedule. Instead of the emotional goodbye, many teachers left feeling unappreciated, and resentment at being treated like an owned commodity.
My wife had been teaching a certain public school class for the majority of her time here. In her last week of teaching, this class was taken away from her, stopping her from having the chance of saying goodbye. Your own sentiments will be rarely listened to if it affects the possibility of making more money. Holidays/ Vacation
David likes his teachers to be workaholics. Which is a sharp
contrast to David himself, who spends his days playing badminton and watching his stocks and shares. It normally takes him several days to replace the printer and photocopying ink, which are often a necessity for teaching the classes.
He will only close his school if it is an absolute must. This is why for all teachers, the standard three weeks worth of ‘official’ public holidays is given for each year contract. You have to take this the same time as the rest of the Chinese population. For teachers who spent the majority of their time in public schools, far more than this was received, without losing any pay (another benefit of public school teaching).
When public holidays are only for a day, David does try and change classes around in his school so this becomes your normal day off. This way not only do you miss out on a days holiday, but no income is lost for David from cancelled classes.
After seeing this happen on a couple of occasions, and realising I was losing out on some of my holiday entitlement, I did take out my contract and enquire (in a forceful manner) when I would
be receiving my entitlement. This tactic worked perfectly. If I hadn’t done this, I would have finished my contract without having the holiday I was promised. One lesson I learnt from working here, is if you don’t stick up for yourself, you will be walked all over.
Like already mentioned, it is a six day working week, giving only one day off. Benxi Future English School is closed on Mondays, while public school is closed on Saturday and Sunday. Because of this teachers find themselves having different days off to each other. It was common for some teachers to have their day off when no one else had theirs. If you have come to Benxi alone, this can take away some of the socialising enjoyments of living here. Pay/ Salary
The salary you are offered, as I found out, has very little to do with your age, experience and qualifications. It has more to do with how little David can get away with paying you or how quickly he needs teachers. The average salary per month is 6,000RMB-7,000RMB. This is the same for those with experience and those without. Considering for every class David earns between
400RMB and 500RMB (with class size ranging from 16 to 20 students), from which you earn 70-80RMB, i think this adds extra weight to standing your ground if David does try and offer lower than this.
When I arrived I was getting paid (with 4 years teaching experience, TEFL certified and a Masters degree) less than somebody with only a Bachelors degree. Teaching in the bigger cities in China you can expect to earn around 10,000RMB-12,500RMB per month.
With Benxi offering such a cheap standard of living (1,500RMB is more than enough for food, drink and regularly eating out each month) I think this is fairly standard pay package. Saying that, taking in to account the extra time you spend reading with students after each class, I don’t think it would be unfair to either ask for 8,000RMB, or make sure this time is part of your standard 22 contracted hours.
For some contracts, you receive a significantly lower amount of money the first month (in my case it was only 4000RMB). I expected this deduction was for time spent away from school during the first week getting your visa validated, getting your medical and visiting the
police station. In fact you only start getting paid the day you teach your first ‘proper’ lesson. You will teach one or two trial classes (normal classes but with you as the teacher) before that, which you wont get paid for. It was a week between arriving in Benxi and teaching my first ‘proper’ class.
I believe David offers less pay the first month in order to recuperate money paid for obtaining the work visa. Knowing this now, I would have made sure I received the same amount for every month of my contract before signing it. Accommodation
Accommodation throughout my time in Benxi was provided for free. Electricity, heat, water and maintenance bills were also paid for. David owns several apartments located within walking distance of the school. They are all liveable and have a varying supply of appliances. The apartment where most teachers live is very homely, having seen many generations of foreigners living there. Some of the apartments in Benxi have issues with cockroaches and other bugs, but this is something that affects all housing, even new developments.
I’ve seen many different levels of effort going in to preparing the accommodation in
which new teachers will live. Depending on what you are bringing with you in terms of expertise and money making potential is a good indicator to the effort that’ll be put in to preparing your accommodation.
One teacher who arrived was put in to an apartment that hadn’t been cleaned for months. Noodle encrusted plates filled the kitchen and love stained sheets covered the bed. At the opposite end of the spectrum, a mother who arrived with her young daughter was given a much more modern apartment that had been cleaned thoroughly. Of course, their needs are entirely different to young solo travellers, but by giving new arrivals such differing first impressions, it can only create notions of differing levels of respect from your new employer.
Internet and phone bills are paid by the teachers living in the apartment. This is usually around the $10 mark each month. During the World Cup in 2010, David was extremely kind and installed satellite TV, so I was able to follow the dismal efforts of England. This was a very kind gesture. Benxi City and its Amenities
Benxi is a small city by Chinese standards, with a population
of around 1.5 million inhabitants. It was once identified by the UN as one of the world’s top 10 polluted cities, unidentifiable from satellite. This grotesque past certainly isn’t evident today. Of course there is the smoggy haze that blights most Chinese cities, but for most days un-obscured blue skies can be seen.
Off the beaten tourist track, the number of permanent foreigners in Benxi usually numbers below ten. Alongside Benxi Future English School, there is only one public school that hires foreign teachers. Other foreigners you are likely to meet are the odd engineer coming to Benxi Steel, the largest employer in the city. With so few foreigners you are always seen as an oddity. You will be stared at everywhere you go. Strangers will want to talk to you. Students will follow you, giggling at everything you do. You will receive attention reserved normally for celebrities. This added a new dimension to living in a small Chinese city.
With few foreigners, communication can sometimes be an issue. Very few people speak English to a conversational level. Saying this, it often surprised me where and when you would meet somebody with impressive English skills. Not being able
to fall back on speaking English was one of the main draws of coming to Benxi and not once did I see the lack of English speakers as a negative. Such a situation was perfect for learning and practising Chinese.
If you crave Western amenities there are some western foods available in supermarkets (Vanguard being the best stocked) and restaurants (Europaer has several branches around the city and serves a selection of pizza and pasta). Benxi also has three KFC’s and a Pizza Hut but the lack of McDonalds shows it doesn’t feature prominently with foreigners. Chinese food is plentiful and cheap, especially dumplings, the local favourite. Expect to pay between 10RMB and 50RMB for a meal.
Apart from one nightclub and a handful of bars (with BJB’s and 37 Degrees being the best), nightlife in Benxi is very tame. If you are wanting a drinking and party culture, Benxi isn’t for you. Shenyang is close enough to satisfy these cravings, but with only the one day holiday each week it’s not always an option. Other highlights for an evening’s entertainment include a cinema, bowling and an endless supply of KTV karaoke joints on virtually every street.
Around Benxi, there are plenty of places to visit. Amongst the most famous are Benxi Water Caves, Guan Men Shan (Close Door Mountain) National Park, Ping Ding Mountain and further a field, the cities of Shenyang (which has a smaller version of the Forbidden City and all western luxuries), Anshan (the world’s largest jade Buddha) and Dandong (which straddles the border with North Korea and has a section of the Great Wall). All are worthy of at least day visits. Conclusion
While this review may sound negative, I’m only highlighting the truth and facts of teaching in Benxi. This isn’t an easy teaching position and if you aren’t committed or dedicated to your job, then the experience will be a rough one and most likely end in the termination of your contract.
If you are willing to put the effort in and realise in advance the possible problems of teaching here then the experience has the potential to be highly rewarding. After getting to know my students and their parents, it was they that gave me my best moments. Their generosity and friendship made my time in China unforgettable. If you don’t have this chance though (with the constantly changing schedules) I can imagine the experience could be hollow and anti-climatic.
I made the mistake sometimes of focusing too much on the negatives (as mentioned in this review) of teaching in Benxi. It’s hard not to sometimes. The conditions under which you teach often get you down. If you let them get you down, then it’ll be hard to take as much from the experience as you can. If you do stay positive and think you can cope with everything outlined above, then teaching in Benxi has the possibility of being a very rewarding experience.
Please feel free to contact me if you are interested in teaching in Benxi and have any questions. You can also read through my previous blogs written during my time teaching in Benxi.
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