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LAST WORD: The Pitfalls of Recruiting Teachers in China
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altBeing an English teacher in China is about as cliché as being an actor if you live in LA or New York. And although teachers here are a jiao a dozen, unfortunately good teachers are sometimes more difficult to find.  
Anyone that has spent a reasonable amount of time in China can attest to the fact that teachers here are a colourful bunch – for various reasons China attracts a lot of people who I wouldn’t trust to water my plants if I left town for a week, let alone look after my child for two hours every Saturday morning.  
It’s unfortunate that many of the foreigners here actually have no interest in teaching at all – they’re merely using the job to pass time until a better opportunity emerges at home or as something to do in between trips to the pub. That’s not to imply that all are bad! In two years working as a TEFL teacher I met some wonderful people, I learned a lot from observing their classes and it was a delight to see how they captivated their student’s attention.
These special teachers seem to be in the minority however, which is disheartening because those here for a free ride often fail to consider how much time, effort and money Chinese people spend trying to learn English. English is the world’s lingua franca, the international language of business, and for some Chinese it’s seen as a path to a better quality of life. Many native speakers take this for granted.
There are several reasons why so many weak candidates choose China– the most notable are because China pays more than Europe and South America and because it tends to be more lenient in regards to its minimum qualifications than other Asian countries.   
Additionally, Chinese parents are incredibly competitive. A high premium has been put on English training and the idea of early introduction to language has been gaining traction for several years. Children as young as one and two years old are getting English instruction. This means that training centres continue to open at a torrid pace all over China and the demand to fill teaching positions is rising.  
Out of desperation, schools are willing to hire virtually any native speaker.  References are rarely called, criminal background checks aren’t required and interviewees aren’t met in person; interviews are typically conducted via telephone or video call on Skype.  This last item puts recruiters at a formidable disadvantage. 
Finally, the difference between teaching mathematics at a university or an international school for example and teaching TEFL is this: a mathematics teacher is usually required to have a related degree and experience teaching the subject in their home country- speaking English is merely a minimum qualification for employment.   
Conversely, TEFL teachers don’t need to have a degree in English Literature or a PhD in Linguistics.  They simply need to be a native speaker, have a college degree in any subject and relevant work experience. The first qualification is a must, the second two, frankly, are not always necessary.  
The result is that typically the most qualified teachers go to the universities and international schools and the training centres are left to pick from the rest.  This in turn causes recruiters to make a critical mistake: they jump at the opportunity to hire any candidate that has teaching experience in their home country or previous TEFL experience in China or elsewhere. They often overlook past obvious flaws because they fall in love with the resume, not the person.   
It never ceases to amaze me, however, that the people with the most teaching experience were often the worst teachers. And yet, in spite of this trend it seems these candidates have the easiest time finding work.   
I’m of the opinion that many of these low character people could be avoided if recruiting practices were modified to focus on intangible qualities rather than previous teaching experience.   It’s much easier to train someone with high character and good values how to become a good teacher than it is to train a teacher to develop good values and character; often a candidate that looks like a “can’t miss” ends up being completely different in person than they appeared to be on their CV.  
The problem that occurs is that often the wrong types of questions are asked in the interview process. Is it really very important that a candidate can explain the difference between the past simple and the present perfect in an interview?  The answer is “no”, particularly if they’re only going to be teaching young learners where the focus is on communicative skills and grammar is taught in a somewhat indirect manner. Thus, it’s more important that the candidate is reliable, genuinely enjoys spending time with children, is eager to learn and is able to positively contribute to a culturally diverse team.  
It’s a useful exercise to think of the top five employees in your organization and write down the qualities that differentiate them, revisit their resumes and interview answers to look for trends. Likewise, it’s useful to do the same with the bottom five employees. This process may reveal clues which will prevent you from making bad hires in the future and ensure you can spot the type of candidate you want to hire.
Because the candidates can’t be met in person, the phrasing of the questions is even more critical. Questions like, “Tell me three adjectives to describe yourself,” or “What’s your biggest weakness?” rarely yield useful information because people usually prep for these types of questions prior to an interview and can easily give generic answers. Therefore, it’s important for the interviewee to consider the qualities they find most desirable and then write questions that will generate authentic answers.   
If you feel that a “good work ethic” is a desirable quality, what type of question can tell you if a candidate really is a hard worker? “Do you consider yourself as a hard-worker and if yes, tell me why” isn’t going to get a very revealing answer.  Perhaps, “Tell me about your earliest work experience” would work better. I often find that people who started working at an earlier age or had to work their way through college had better work ethic than those that started working after graduation. Ultimately, you want to avoid any question that can elicit a “canned” response. Typical questions yield typical answers!  
The focus of an interview should be to learn the candidate’s beliefs and core values. If a candidate is hired, a tremendous amount of time, money and resources are spent on sending their invitation letter, arranging their visa, flight, housing, training and so on. It’s difficult to get rid of them.  You’re essentially “married” to them until their contract has expired – thus the screening process is that much more important.  
As the competition among TEFL schools increases, hiring and retaining the best teachers is the most critical element to build a successful brand and to ensure that the students are getting the most out of their classroom time.  The insatiable demand for English instruction continues to rise which means more teaching vacancies and potentially more candidates coming into to China looking for a opportunities. With this in mind, it’s critical that English centers refine their interview practices to be able to identify as many top-flight candidates as possible.

by Christopher Ribeiro

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