Sunday, August 06, 2006

Teaching English as a Risky Business...

I taught English in Beijing when I was twenty years old, in 1979. At the time, being an American in China was such a novelty that my nationality was pretty much all that was required. Luckily for my students (all of whom were older than I was), I had this weird latent Protestant work/guilt ethic streak, and I felt obligated to do a good job, as much as I was totally in over my head. I went to the parents of my best friend with whom I'd traveled to China, professional teachers, and begged them to help me, to tell me what I needed to do to be a good teacher and help my students. I ended up being dragooned into making language tapes for no money at my school, a branch school of a more famous university. And though I knew I was being taken advantage of, to some extent, I didn't really mind too much. I liked the idea that I was leaving some sort of legacy behind, at the age of 20, that students would be listening to my voice reading these lame essays — lame, but read with decent pronunciation.

In recent years when I've traveled to China, I've had all kinds of job offers to teach English, just by virtue of my showing up and being able to speak some Chinese. I have no formal training in teaching, and I would have thought that by now, there would be enough qualified folks teaching English that someone like me would not be offered a job as I was more or less walking down the street.

Well, not so much.

Here's a cautionary tale that compares teaching English in China to the worst sort of sweatshop labor that immigrants to America have traditionally endured:
Tanya Davis fled Jizhou No. 1 Middle School one winter morning in March before the sun rose over the surrounding cotton fields covered with stubble from last fall's crop.

In the nine months Davis and her boyfriend had taught English at the school in rural north China, they had endured extra work hours, unpaid salaries and frigid temperatures without heating and, on many days, electricity.

Hearts pounding and worried their employer would find a pretext to stop them leaving, the couple lugged their backpacks, suitcase, books and guitar past a sleeping guard and into a taxi.

As they drove away, "the sense of relief was immense," said Davis, a petite, soft-spoken 23-year-old from Wales. "I felt like we had crossed our last hurdle and everything was going to be OK."

It's a new twist on globalization: For decades, Chinese made their way to the West, often illegally, to end up doing dangerous, low-paying jobs in sweatshop conditions. Now some foreigners drawn by China's growth and hunger for English lessons are landing in the schoolhouse version of the sweatshop.

In one case, an American ended up dead. Darren Russell, 35, from Calabasas, Calif., died under mysterious circumstances days after a dispute caused him to quit his teaching job in the southern city of Guangzhou. "I'm so scared. I need to get out of here," Russell said in a message left on his father's cell phone hours before his death in what Chinese authorities said was a traffic accident.

As China opens up to the world, public and private English-language schools are proliferating. While most treat their foreign teachers decently, and wages can run to $1,000 plus board, lodging and even airfare home, complaints about bad experiences in fly-by-night operations are on the rise. The British Embassy in Beijing warns on its Web site about breaches of contracts, unpaid wages and broken promises. The U.S. Embassy says complaints have increased eightfold since 2004 to two a week on average.

Though foreign teachers in South Korea, Japan and other countries have run into similar problems, the number of allegations in China is much higher because "the rule of law is still not firmly in place," said a U.S. Embassy official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"A number of substandard English language teaching mills have sprung up, seeking to maximize profits while minimizing services," the U.S. House of Representatives International Relations Committee said in a recent report on Russell's case. These institutes have become virtual "'sweatshops' where young, often naive Americans are held as virtual indentured servants."

Davis said officials at her school in Hebei province piled on classes without compensation, dragged their feet on repairing leaks in her apartment and would deduct sums from her $625 monthly salary for random taxes and phone calls that were never made. These ranged from $30 to $85, she said.

She recalled nights without electricity when there was nothing to do but sit in candlelight.

The more "we let them get away with, the more they tried to get away with," said Davis, who now teaches piano in Beijing...

...John Shaff, a graduate from Florida State University, said everything went according to his English-language contract at Joy Language School in the northeastern city of Harbin — until a disagreement over his office hours erupted into a shouting match on the telephone with a school official.

A few hours later, several men led by Joy's handyman showed up at his school-provided apartment, physically threatening him and cursing him in Chinese, said Shaff, 25. About 10 minutes later, they left, and soon, so did Shaff.

"They were all men who would have been formidable to fight," Shaff said in a telephone interview from San Francisco, where he now lives. The manager of the Joy chain did not respond to interview requests.

Like Shaff, Darren Russell had a disagreement with the manager of Decai language school in Guangzhou, where he had been promised 20 hours of classes a week. Instead, Decai had him teaching at two schools, where he put in up to 14 hours a day and oversaw 1,200 students, Russell's mother, Maxine Russell, said in a telephone interview from Calabasas.

The school had troubles with foreign teachers. Two had quit by the time Russell showed up, and a former Decai employee, a Chinese woman who spoke on condition of anonymity, said she left because she was asked to recruit foreign teachers by offering attractive contracts that went unfulfilled.

In April 2005, sick from bronchitis and exhausted from the work hours, Russell told manager Luo Deyi he wanted her to lighten his work load. An argument ensued, Russell resigned and threatened to tell police Luo was operating illegally, the former employee said.

The school then moved him into a low-budget hotel. A week later he was dead. Police told Decai and Russell's mother that Darren had been killed in a hit-and-run traffic accident. The body was shipped to California.

Maxine Russell, however, said Chinese authorities could not provide consistent witnesses and a time of death. According to the congressional report, which was the outcome of a family request to look into the Russell case, a California mortician who handled Russell's body said he had suffered a blow to his head and his body did not have bruises and fractures consistent with a car accident. The mortician, Jerry Marek, is a former coroner.

While Maxine Russell and the former Decai employee say Russell was a beloved teacher, Luo, the manager, insists he was often absent from class and his "teaching methods failed to meet the requirement of the school and fit the students." She said he had been hired on probation, which he failed partly because of a drinking problem.

"It was very strange and irresponsible for them to blame us for their son's death," Luo said in a telephone interview.
So, those of you currently teaching English in China — what are your experiences? Rewarding, life-threatening, or somewhere in-between?

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