The End of the ESL Teacher?

In a place where the demand for foreign teachers is so high, and the demands of foreign teachers are ever-increasing, will schools begin to look for alternatives?

serious businesswoman with direction arrow sign

Are we nearing the end of the foreign ESL teacher in China? It may not happen in a year or two, but if what I am hearing and observing is a growing trend in the industry then it will eventually come to pass that the demand for foreign ESL teachers will fall. Let’s look at why.

Why could this be happening?
Think about it, school and training center owners are always looking at reducing costs, and perhaps their biggest fixed cost every month remains as the salaries of foreign ESL teachers. These can range from 10,000 RMB to 20,000 RMB so it is not an insignificant cost. One can also imagine that if you were a local businessperson looking to open an English training center or a school, the foreign teachers’ salaries considerably increase the break-even point of the business.

You can call it cultural misunderstandings, but from the local owner perspective, there are a lot of unreliable foreign teachers who do not turn up for work on time, do not turn up for work at all without any notice, show up to work smelling like Beijing bar, make unreasonable and unrealistic demands, require professionalism from their bosses when they do not exhibit any professionalism themselves; and the list goes on. Of course, not all foreign staff members are unprofessional and inflexible, but it is prevalent enough for local owners getting fed up with staking their business and money on these kinds of people.

Visa rules and conditions are constantly changing and evolving, and the costs and hoop-jumping that business owners have to undergo is driving them to look at alternatives.

Parents and students are becoming more sophisticated. Whereas previously they were happy to just have the ‘white face’ in the classroom, they are now rightfully expecting and demanding results for the hefty tuition fees. A lot of parents and students are realizing that they are not getting bang for their buck and when you factor in that a lot of foreign ESL teachers, while experienced, are not formally trained and when you add in the issues I listed above, what can we expect.

Moreover, visa rules and conditions are constantly changing and evolving, and the cost and hoop-jumping that business owners have to undergo is driving them to look at alternatives. Also, small center owners may not have the resources available to be able to negotiate through all the red tape and bureaucracy to legally employ foreign teachers. This is also part of the reason why certain owners are happy to employ teachers illegally.

So what are they doing instead?
Local school and training center owners are looking at local alternatives, especially centers that cater to younger learners and kindergartens. I know one huge education company that is paying its Chinese English Teachers anything from 7,000 RMB – 10,000 RMB, around half cost of a Foreign English Teacher, but a very good salary for a Chinese English Teacher. They can also legally hire Chinese English Teachers on a piecemeal basis legally, as opposed to hiring Foreign English Teachers illegally on an hourly basis.

There is no chance of there being any “cultural misunderstandings” with Chinese

English Teachers. Given the high salary offered, they are also less likely to refuse or complain about doing the extras. Also, based on my experience, local management– rightly or wrongly–consider Chinese Teachers to be more professional than a lot of their foreign counterparts.

What’s more, Chinese English Teachers also have the benefit of being able to communicate with parents and students a lot easier than most Foreign English Teachers and vice versa. There will always be the parents and students who want to practice their English outside of class hours, and so they like having a Foreign English Teacher “on call” or to socialize with, but nothing can beat the ease of communication with someone who shares your language.

Similarly, a Chinese English Teacher will not have the visa/legality issues that a foreign teacher may have. Also, a center or school owner can hire and fire local teachers as the need arises, a lot easier than he/she could with a Foreign English Teacher.

To be able to cater to students, I know of a large local education company employing just the one Accredited Foreign Teacher (that is, a teacher accredited to teach in his own country) to train, supervise and manage over 200 Chinese English Teachers in teaching pedagogy, assessment methods and certain professional standards.

So will this mean the end of Foreign ESL Teachers? Unlikely. I think there will always be a need for skilled foreign teachers for older students with more complex language demands. I believe however, that this rising trend will severely impact illegal foreign teachers and teachers of young learners.

Something for all teachers to ponder.