American Teachers in China

I’m guest-blogging this week about education in China.  Yesterday I described the fast growth of Chinese private schools.

That surge has only worsened the shortage in American and British teachers over there, for which there is high demand.

One headmaster told me he’d attended a particular international recruiting conference in 2017, where 2 Chinese schools were in the mix.  There he made 8 offers and hired 3 teachers.  In 2018, at the same conference, 20 Chinese schools were there.  There he made 0 offers.  Increased demand, lower quality of supply.

Add in teacher visa issues.

Add in competitive alternative employment: that American and British teachers can stay home on their sofas and teach online if they wish.  VIP Kid is just one of the unicorns rapidly adding teachers.

Add in the short stay at these schools.  Often expat teachers stay just 2 years.  Eduwonk readers: what does that remind you of?

You may have said: urban charter and district schools.   After Match’s first year back in 2000, we lost 3 of 6 teachers.  I did a lot wrong.

Rapid turnover makes it hard to build a positive professional culture.  Which in turn drives even faster turnover.

One substitute in China is more Filipino teachers.  Down the road, Chinese parents will probably become more comfortable with Chinese-born English teachers, as another substitute for expat teachers.

What about the core issue?  How could these Chinese schools keep these expat teachers for an average stay of 4 years, instead of 2?  This would halve their hiring, and improve culture.

I asked that in my travels.  Most common answer?

“More training.”  And by that they mean traditional “sit in the room, hear a presentation” type training.  Hey Dan: I suggest TNTP translates The Mirage into Mandarin.

I suggested that America’s top charter schools focus more on improving professional culture.  Alex Hernandez describes this as rowing in the same direction in his excellent June article on The74.

Indeed, in China, I saw bilingual schools where the Chinese teachers were in fact doing that, but the expat teachers were all individuals…”let me close my classroom door and do what I wish.”

To my suggestion, recruiters in China pushed back: “Sounds nice but idealistic. The reality is I’m already coming up short.  If I add another box to check, I’ll be even further behind.”  Again, reminds me of urban district recruiters.

I had to concede that point.  Short term.  My argument was that the “winning” happens in the medium term.  That’s why outlier, high performing schools follow Jim Collins, and absorb 2 types of pain.

  1. Define in plainspoken language what it means to truly row in the same direction – what teachers all need to do, emphasizing not the “cool stuff” (perks) but the hard, more controversial stuff that candidates might like the least (therefore giving them a really easy path to opt out).  Writing that out can be painful.
  2. Get the right people on the bus.  “Right” means aligned with your school’s specific details, not inherently “better.”  If it’s a close call, say “no” – even more pain that can only be overcome with sheer recruiting hustle.

If you get that right, I said, recruiting within a couple years will be WAY easier.

If I manage to help start a school in China, I’ll try that approach, and report back to you on whether it worked.

– Guestblogger Mike Goldstein, cross-posted at