Non-native English teachers face visa policy changes

When Noli Castillano Apachicha, 38, a Filipino English teacher in Beijing, heard the new policy that non-native English speakers may not work as an English teacher in Beijing, he was upset.

Since October 2016, a new work permit policy has been enforced by the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs (SAFEA), which classifies foreign workers into three categories, ranking them as an A, B, or C expat, based on their profession, level of education, work experience, and so forth.

In the new policy, foreign English teachers should be native English speakers with a bachelor’s degree from their home country, in addition to having two years of teaching experience or a qualified teaching certificate. Before this new policy, non-native English speakers could work as an English teacher if they have a bachelor’s degree. Yet under the new policy, the bar has been raised. Non-native speakers cannot be an English teacher, even if they obtain an education or English degree from a non English-speaking country.

“I expect that later on, I will not be qualified for my job because of this new regulation,” said Apachicha, who works at RISE English language training school. “It will also shun many qualified non-native speakers like me who hope to come to teach English in China.”

An official with the SAFEA, who asked to remain anonymous, told us that they did so to attract qualified native English speakers, and to improve the overall quality of foreign language teachers. Although there are good intentions, foreign English teachers and a manager of a recruiting agency for foreign teachers interviewed by us think that it would further increase the shortage of foreign language teachers, and advise for more nuanced requirements over the qualifications.

Being shut out

Apachicha came to Beijing to start his career as an English teacher back in 2007 because he thought there was a huge demand for English teachers in China.

Filipinos often speak English in the Philippines in business and even with their peers when they communicate, he said.

“Most of us sound like Americans. Young Filipinos have strong American backgrounds, and they can easily speak in an American accent without many difficulties. They are born to be good speakers,” he said.

Despite his skills, he admitted that during the past eight years, there were cases where he was not considered for a job because of his background and skin color.

“Parents are very particular for wanting native English speakers, and we were not given a chance to showcase our teaching capabilities. We are judged according to our background,” said Apachicha.

Non-native speakers also needed to fulfill requirements such as a degree from a native English-speaking country. This new policy will worsen the situation, he said.

“Even with a bachelor’s degree gained in the Philippines, a TESL (Teaching English as Second Language) certificate, and eight years of teaching experience in China, it still does not guarantee that I can teach English,” he said.

Rebecca Rosenblum (pseudonym), an American math teacher at an international school, has taught in Beijing for more than seven years.

She does not agree with the new policy. She believes it will force many good teachers to find work in other cities that do not have such restrictive policies.

“Being a native English speaker is good for a teacher, but there will be many people affected who have near perfect pronunciation and education/experience but are from other countries. Some non-native English speakers actually have better teaching skills than natives,” she said.

Shortage aggravated

Grant Dou, owner of Panda Guides, a Beijing-based expat service provider that includes foreign teacher recruiting, is recently busy helping schools recruit foreign language teachers for the new semester starting in February, which is usually the recruiting season.

This year, Dou found the teacher shortage is more serious due to the tighter restrictions on teacher policies, and it will make it harder to get good foreign teachers.

The need for foreign language teachers, which is estimated to be over 1 million, is far from satisfaction in the country. Last year, he heard that SAFEA issued over 250,000 foreign expert certificates, but according to the new policy, many will be unqualified and only over 40,000 people will be able to get the work permits, said Dou.

Preston Thomas, who hails from the US and now works as an English teacher at a Chinese public school in Beijing, thinks that it is good news for native English-speaking teachers, because they are going to be able to command a higher salary and more benefits due to increased demand.

However, he does not think that this new policy is accurate because it passes judgment solely on a person’s passport and fails to justify on quality. “Even as a native speaker and English teacher, I think the level of quality education is going to decrease,” said Thomas, who has been teaching in China for over six years.

Native English speaking teachers are going to want more money, meaning that first-tier cities, private schools and other institutions who can afford them will hire them first. However, the students in second- and third-tier cities or schools outside the city center are going to suffer because it will be harder for schools in these places to entice them, he said.

“I can only imagine that schools will then start putting more students in one class, making it harder for the teacher and the students. Bigger classes do not help students master a language, because students will not have enough time to practice speaking.”

“Under current situations, some schools or recruiting agencies will have to walk in the grey area to use illegal teachers,” said Dou.

A plea for change

In recent years, driven by China’s great need for the English language, local media has reported that some English learning centers or language institutions hire unqualified English teachers, even foreign students from non-native countries such as the Philippines, India, Africa and Russia to work as teachers or to pretend to be native speakers.

Michael (pseudonym), head of the foreign teachers department in an international school in Beijing, has heard about this policy change and thinks there are some good points.

“I believe this new policy is directed at the so-called ‘learning centers’ here where many ‘teachers’ are not qualified to teach ESL,” said Michael. “I do not believe that it will impact our hiring practices since we hire foreigners where English is their native tongue.”

However, Thomas thinks that if the policy was meant to curb some learning centers, they will just find another way to get around the law, either by issuing tourist visas or by hiring the non-native teachers for other jobs and then putting them in the classroom.

He said raising the bar might be good, but the focus should not be a person’s passport.

“I have seen countless times where non-white teachers (native and non-native) are tossed aside for a white face. Give them a chance and stop ‘white washing’ teachers. It is 2017, and it is time to let prejudice go and let the most qualified teacher get the job regardless of where they come from or their skin color,” said Thomas.

Rosenblum also suggests that Chinese government look more at actual teaching qualifications and experience than if they are native speakers.

“I think education, experience and pronunciation should be considered together when looking for English teachers. The longer you speak a language, the better your pronunciation gets,” she said.

“The new rule is going to keep out people who are adequately qualified to teach English. What if someone is from the Philippines but has been living in an English-speaking environment for 15 years and has fluent English? They are going to be kept from getting a job because of the new policy. That’s why someone’s spoken English level needs to be considered.”

Dou recently wrote a letter of advice on this issue, and he plans to present it to SAFEA.

In the letter, he suggested that the administration could set a united grading test system directed at foreign language teachers. One part is on language to test whether their pronunciation is standard, and the other is the demo class to test their teaching skills.

“In addition, according to the grading system, they can also decide which groups of people (children and adults) the foreign teachers are more suited to teach. Then recruiting agencies and schools can make a better decision on their qualifications and decide on their pay level based on their performance in the system,” said Dou.

Apachicha shares the same opinion as Dou. He is still employed at his school, but is anxiously awaiting impact from the policy and hopes that the new rule might change.

“Why not give teachers a licensing examination to ensure the quality of education being received from Chinese students? It doesn’t matter if you are native or non-native; credit should be given to all great teachers no matter their nationality,” he said.

“There should be one government organization that will handle and assess the qualifications before someone can apply for a teaching post. In this way, we can have the trust and confidence in English teachers.”

(Credit: Global Times)


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