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.