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I’ve worked in the ESL field for a little while now and it has its ups and downs. Every position has its good points and bad. I have experience in working in both a language school environment and an international school. Currently, I have what most teachers in China and in other countries would refer to as their dream job in teaching. I work at an international high school in China and it is far superior in my opinion to teaching in a language school environment. Teaching English at an International School provides the unique combination of high pay and lots of time off to travel. Like I said, I’ve been in this industry for quite a few years and it doesn’t’ get much better than this.
I teach at an international boarding school. The campus itself has 8,000 students, three cafeterias, and several dorms. While Chinese teachers have to live on campus, I live in a luxury apartment building near the school. The students have their day scheduled from 600 AM until 1030PM. (If you do the math they literally are only given 7.5 hours to sleep at night.) The campus has several different schools that are all related. I work with 10 other foreign teachers in my school. We also have 15 Chinese teachers and then 7 advisors that work with the students. While our campus has 8,000 students our school only has 90 students. Our school’s tuition is high, 150,000 RMB a year to attend.
What are the advantages to Teaching English Abroad at an International School as opposed to a Language School?
The first advantage of an international school is the pay. My salary is triple what I made in a language school. While most schools in China claim they provide insurance, it is usually not of good quality. The Chinese schools have to provide simple insurance for all their employees in order to employ foreigners in China, but not all insurance policies are the same. In fact, most of the policies are accident insurance ones. They will only pay if you get hit by a bus. If you have a disease it does not cover it. My school provides Global Insurance, which is a division of AETNA insurance. I go to an English speaking doctor that was trained in the West. If I have a problem, it is 100% covered and I can go to a premium hospital in China and again it is 100% covered. Once I hurt my knee and I had an X-Ray done. They sent a Bi-Lingual nurse with me to the hospital to help and I was skipped to the front of the line like a VIP. I have a colleague that experienced a common issue that required surgery. After surgery, he was required to stay in the hospital, which was 100% covered. That also happened to be one of the nicest hospitals in China.
Another advantage is the organization, planning, and support that often doesn’t exist at language schools. In my school, I have to give a formal assessment at LEAST once a week. I’m required to turn in my grade book every Friday and I have to identify all students who have a below 75% average in my classes. If a student has a below 75% in my class I have to submit a plan of how they can get their grade above 75%. The Chinese principal expects you to tutor the students on your own time. However, the American principal (my supervisor) will only make you tutor up to your contracted rate of 25 teaching hours. I teach 23 hours and I am required to tutor for an additional two hours. The problem with tutoring is the school has so much of the student’s day planned, it is hard to find an opening in the student’s schedule.
I will admit that because international schools are so well-run, one drawback is the amount of grading I have to do on a daily and weekly basis. This is in glaring contrast with my language school environment. While we did assign homework and I graded it at my language school, it is nothing like the mountain of grading I currently have. It is not unusual for me to spend 25-30 hours a week grading. I teach an advanced English class where the students have to submit daily writing and grammar assignments. The amount of time it takes to read the essays and correctly give feedback is a major drawback compared to my language school experience where there were no consequences for not doing your homework.
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Class discipline and classroom management are also much better in an International school. The students have an advisor that you can report any problem the student has. The school does not allow cell phones in the class and If I see one, I take it. I turn the cell phone into the principal and he keeps it for 30 days. I saw one cell phone on the third day of class and took it. I’ve never seen another one in any of my classes again. This is contrary to my experience in a language school where they tend to want every student to go home happy and to keep paying the language school at all costs. My own classroom discipline techniques were limited in a language school because they are not going to kick a student out. My International school kicked out 3 students this last term for laziness, fighting, and academic dishonesty.
By far the greatest advantage of the International school over the Language school is the vacation. When I worked in the language school they only gave 10 days of vacation a year, and you agreed to work 6 days a week in the busy summer. I have off from July 12th to August 29th and it is fully paid. I had off from Jan 30th to February 25th fully paid. Every three day weekend in China has another perk. In addition to getting the three day weekend the day before the three day weekend, the school has a half-day. There is a regulation in China that requires boarding school students to be given a half-day to provide for travel time to their home. Holiday weekends literally start on Thursday at 1120 for me if I have my grade book and lesson plans submitted. In addition to the scheduled vacations, I enjoy 3 personal days a year and can have up to 10 paid sick days if I have a doctor’s note.
My international school also has one awesome perk compared to language schools. Most language schools offer bonuses for flights, but these often won’t cover the cost of roundtrip airfare especially if you’re flying in the summer. My school buys us a roundtrip ticket to our home country every year regardless of the cost. My flight ticket home this year was 18,500 RMB because I’m flying home in July. The school didn’t even bat an eye because it’s in my contract! I’ve literally seen contracts from language schools that only offer a 6,000 RMB flight bonus after a year, which won’t cover a round-trip ticket to anywhere in the West.
Communication in an International school is also far superior to that of a language school in my opinion. My office staff person that provides daily assistance lived and studied in New Zealand for 15 years. Our Chinese teachers are all fluent in English, which is in glaring contrast to the broken English most employees in a language school speak. My 15-year-old students are already fluent enough in most cases to get into lower-tiered Universities in English speaking countries. Their goal is to get into a top 100 university though which is why we work so hard.
I have experience teaching in many diverse environments. The international school clearly has the best students. The students are motivated. They do their work. They study. They want to learn. It is so much better to teach students that are motivated to succeed. If you’re tired of dancing around like a clown for 5-year-olds and singing songs, then you might want to consider an international school if you are qualified. I was given a big textbook for my English class and told I had to cover the whole thing in the semester. I was literally told that we don’t have time to play games with the students they need to study. This contrasts my language school teaching experience as well. Games were part of every class and it really gets annoying after a while when you are obliged to play a game every class.
How do I qualify to teach at an International School?
If you want to teach at an international school, then there are a few requirements that must be met. The teachers I work with all have a western teaching license and prior teaching experience. If you have a master’s degree and teaching experience, but not a teaching license, they may consider your application as well. Essentially though, you need to have some qualifications to even get an interview offer. Two of the instructors in my school have certifications to teach music in the United States but teach English as well as music. (They actually teach Band at our school) Every student has to learn to play an instrument at our school! Like I said before, these kids are motivated! Your passport has to be from America, New Zealand, Canada, U.K., South Africa or Australia. One interesting point is in the case of our Math teacher, he is from Canada, but not a native English speaker.