10 Red Flags to Watch Out for in Asia’s ESL Industry

When we’re new to the teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) industry and searching for a job for the very first time, there are lots of pitfalls that await us as uninformed and unsuspecting newbs. Not all employers are trustworthy and have their employees’ best interests at heart. Many employers actually want to milk all they can out of their teachers, while giving them as little as they can in return. With every passing year, the ESL job market gets more and more flooded with qualified applicants. As a result of supply and demand leveling out, employer contracts now range from acceptable to just downright mean. If there’s always a sucker who’ll accept their pitiful contracts, then why not offer such contracts, right?

My goal in this article is to educate you on which landmines to look out for in the Asia ESL industry, so you can avoid having a work year from hell. I’ve spent nearly seven years in the industry working in three different countries – China, Thailand, and Japan. I’ve seen plemty of bad employers during these years, and I’ve picked up on which patterns tend to make these bad employers a nightmare to work for. Here are my top ten red flags to look out for when choosing an ESL employer, in no particular order:

1. Your Livelihood Is Based on Student/Parent Evaluations

Think back to when you were still in grade school. Did you honestly know what was best for you and your future during that time? If you’re being honest with yourself, then you would surely agree that you didn’t have a clue. You needed guidance from your elders. You probably weren’t exactly the best at judging your teachers’ performance, either. Nowadays it’s quite normal for grade school students to evaluate their teacher at the end of each school year. A good school will view these evaluations as a rough guide to gauge how its students are vibing with its teachers. A bad school will use these evaluations to determine whether or not they’ll hire a teacher for another subsequent school year and whether or not its teachers deserve a salary raise, a salary deduction, or disciplinary action.

If your potential school is the latter, chances are you’ve got a rough work year waiting around the corner. Since students are spoiled beyond belief these days, they’ll dock you for just about any offense imaginable. You’re too “boring.” You don’t play enough games. Your lessons are too “serious.” Unless you plan on acting like a performing clown for every lesson, you risk students giving you bad marks. There’s nothing worse than for a teacher to have to fear his or her students. Actually there is one thing worse than that – having to fear the students’ parents.

A very bad school will use the parents’ evaluations to determine your livelihood. Yet what do the parents know about their children’s’ teachers and lessons? Very little, if anything at all, so they have no business doing evaluations. This is even truer of parents who can’t speak a foreign language. They themselves obviously know nothing about learning a second language, and as a result can’t properly judge what’s best for their children to do so.

2. You’re Not Allowed to Leave the School during Work Hours

I once worked for a school where we were absolutely not allowed to leave the school campus during school hours, with the exception of lunch. As long as a teacher is present for all their classes and performs all of their other required duties, then I see no reason why they shouldn’t be allowed to leave the campus, assuming they’re a responsible adult. You at the school to earn an income, not to do a prison sentence. If you encounter a school who thinks otherwise, then watch out, as this is often the sign of a school that tries to micro-manage and browbeat its teachers.

3. You Teach in “Open” Classrooms

What is an “open” classroom you ask? It’s simply a classroom that’s visible to outside viewers. This often means there’s a large window right on the side of the classroom, but it can also mean it has walls that are not fully closed-off, or even an “open-door” policy which requires teachers to leave their classroom door open at all times. I understand that it’s normal for a classroom to have a window or two, but if the whole point of the windows is to allow outsiders to freely look into your classroom while you’re teaching, then that’s a big no-no. Private language schools are usually the worst offenders. Having that perpetual feeling that you’re being watched or eavesdropped on is a terrible feeling when teaching a lesson. Teachers deserve some privacy.

I once worked for a school that had open classroom walls that weren’t fully closed-off, which meant every single word I was saying could be overheard by anyone in the school. There was also a big window on the door, and parents were allowed to look in through the window whenever they felt the urge. They were even allowed to sit in on my lessons unannounced. And also be wary of schools that have CCTV surveillance cameras in their classrooms. Some schools may claim the cameras are there to keep an eye on the students, but chances are they’re really there to keep an eye on you. Sometimes these cameras relay what you’re doing to monitors outside for everyone to see. Is this reality or the Truman Show?

4. You Teach More than 20 Hours Per Week

20 contact hours per week is the absolute maximum I think a teacher can reasonably teach, but even that much is pushing it. If you have more than 20 per week, I wouldn’t accept the contract unless the package on offer is very attractive in every other way. Teaching is energy-draining and exhausting. You have to be “on” and in a positive mood at all times. You have to manage rowdy students who often don’t give a damn about your lessons. You have to make lesson plans, and you have to physically stand up and teach and try to get your students to interact. It’s not like a typical office job where you work 40 hours per week, but only do maybe 10 hours of actual work. You have to actually do something to be a teacher. Sitting back on the sidelines is not an option.

A good contract will have you teaching something like 10 to 16 contact hours per week, and an acceptable contract will have you teaching around 17 to 20 per week. If you’re really fortunate, you’ll have under 10 per week, but that’s rare. Anything over 20 is usually going to make you feel overworked and make you hate your job. Nowadays more and more schools, particularly language schools, are requiring anywhere from 22 to 30 teaching hours per week, which is absolutely insane. I wouldn’t touch those jobs with a 20-foot pole.

5. Required Desk-warming Duties

Thai Female High School Students

This is one of the worst sins a school can require of its teachers, and it seems to be the most common in South Korea. Whenever students finish their semester or school year, they all naturally have a long break from school. However, at some particularly crappy schools, this doesn’t mean that the teachers also get to have a break. Rather they have to still come to school every day, sit at their desk, and do mostly trivial “busy work” to fill their time.

It’s normal for teachers to stay a week or two extra to finish grading exams or to do other work that actually needs to get done. But if a teacher has to stay at school weeks or even months after the students have already left for their break, then that’s the sign of a school that doesn’t respect its teachers. Having extended vacation periods is one of the main perks that makes being a teacher worthwhile. If those breaks are taken away, it’s almost not even worth it. So if a school denies you that privilege for no other reason than spite, hatred, greed, or jealousy, then that’s a school that’s not worth working for.

6. A High Staff Turnover Rate

This one is tricky to gauge properly, as the very nature of teaching overseas causes people to come and go frequently. Also, people are naturally more vocal when they’ve got an axe to grind, so sometimes it can be hard to trust online reviews. Nonetheless, a school with a very high turnover rate is a red flag worth investigating. As they say, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. And when countless employees want to quit their job, there’s usually a reason.

There are a few ways to approach this, though some won’t be possible until you’re already working for the employer. First, take a very close look at a school’s reviews (if any) online. Are 80% or more of the reviews negative? And when the reviews are negative, do the reviews go into detail about why the school sucks, or do they just say a sentence or two and leave it at that? Are there any balanced reviews, where the reviewer actually tries to tell you both sides of the story and then let you decide for yourself who’s at fault? Those kind of reviews are usually the most trustworthy and worth considering.

Next, does the school have many teachers who have stayed beyond the first contract? And if the school does have any long-timers, are there any observable patterns among said teachers? For example, are they all middle-aged or older, socially retarded, and/or non-native speakers? If they’re any of the above, then these teachers might just be sticking around because nobody else will hire them. The keyword is might. Ideally, the school will have a notable amount of normal and professional teachers who are on their second contract or beyond. That’s often the sign that the school has something worth sticking around for.

7. A Large Foreign Staff

This might sound counter-intuitive, but hear me out. Of all the schools I’ve worked for in Asia, the worst ones were always the ones that hired large numbers of foreign teachers. When I say large, I usually mean around 10 or more. Franchises are naturally the worst offenders. On the other hand, my best teaching experiences were always at schools with a minimal amount of foreign teachers, i.e. 5 or less.

So why are the schools with many foreigners bad? Because these schools have usually mastered the art of giving their teachers the worst deal possible, while simultaneously projecting the image that they’re a great school to work for. Year after year, they make many small tweaks to the contract that are unnoticeable or seem harmless at first, but when they’re all added together, they make for one unsavory contract, and usually you don’t realize that until it’s too late and you’re already working for them. Their sales pitch was just too hard to resist.

Because these schools have so many foreigners, they’re usually really good at recruiting. That sounds positive at first, but what this actually means is that they’ll replace you at the drop of a hat, as they always have another unsuspecting foreigner waiting around the corner to replace you if something goes wrong. The schools with less foreign staff tend to value you more, and try a bit harder to hold on to you, as it’s usually a pain in the ass for them to replace you if you leave.  The students at said schools tend to be more appreciative of the opportunity to interact with a foreigner as well. If I had the choice of accepting one of two contracts where all things are equal, except that one has a small foreign staff while the other has a large foreign staff, I’d go with the one with a small foreign staff any day.

8. Unpaid “Extra” Activities

Whether it be a Halloween or Christmas party, or a weekend English camp, unpaid extracurricular activities have to be one of the most annoying requests schools can make of their teachers. We need to draw a line in the sand between what is acceptable and what is not.

Acceptable: irregular activities that take place during your regular teaching hours, i.e. a ceremony that’s held during the time you’d normally be teaching. Acceptable: a regular or semi-regular “English corner” or “English club “ that takes place at a specific time that doesn’t fall too far outside of your typical teaching hours. Also acceptable: one  holiday party per year that takes place after school or on the weekend and only lasts a few hours.

Unacceptable: an unpaid English camp that takes place during your typical weekend, i.e. Saturday and Sunday. If they’re paying you for it, that’s fine. If they’re not, then that’s not fine. Also unacceptable: requiring you to pass out promotional flyers or to attend promotional company events during off hours. Once again, will you be compensated for doing this?

I’ll let one unpaid party or activity per year slide by without much protest, but if I’m asked to do multiple activities during the span of one year, particularly those that take up multiple days, then there’s gonna be a problem. My non-work hours are precious, so if an employer is going to constantly take those away from me, then there had better be some form of compensation. If there’s no compensation, then that’s a huge red flag. Check your contract closely for what you’ll be expected to do. Employers sometimes use sneaky language on the contract to mask these requirements.

9. You’re Not Allowed to Speak to a Current Employee before Signing Your Contract

The title says it all. If you’re not allowed to get in touch with someone, preferably a fellow foreign teacher, before signing your contract, that’s a massive red flag that likely means the school has something to hide. What they’re hiding, who knows, but chances are they aren’t going to be pleasant to work for.

If you do get in touch with someone, typically through email or Skype, try your best to make sure it’s an unbiased employee. Generally the best person to get in touch with is a fellow foreign teacher whose only been working at the school for a year or two. Quite often schools will get you in touch with one of their veteran teachers, but the problem is these guys are usually blindly loyal to their school for reasons unknown, and they’ll often paint a very rosy, but unrealistic picture of their school. They tend to amplify their school’s positive features, while glossing over its dark side. For this reason, the one or two-year teacher is usually the better bet, because they’ve been at the school long enough to figure everything out, but not so long as to become attached to their school.

Ask said employee about everything mentioned in this article and then some, but try to do so from a neutral standpoint. For example, you could ask:

“Outside of our regular classes, are there any extra activities required of teachers? If so, when do they normally take place, and are they paid or unpaid?”

“How many foreigners are working on the staff?”

“How does the school evaluate its teachers?”

The idea is to get as much information as possible without sounding like you’re assuming the worst.

10. You’re Not Allowed to See the Final Contract before You Sign It

This is the biggest red flag of them all, but fortunately it doesn’t happen too often. I’ve heard stories from aspiring teachers whose prospective school wouldn’t allow them to view their contract before signing it, citing privacy issues or some other nonsense. If this isn’t a massive red flag, then I don’t know what is. Knowing what you’re getting yourself into for the next year or two, in writing, is the single most important thing to know before working somewhere. So if you’re not even allowed to know that, then you can rest assured that doom is waiting for you as soon as you step on-board.

Also be wary of employers who say something like:

“This is just a sample contract. You will sign a different one upon your arrival.”

The contract sent to you and the one you sign need to be 100% the same. And don’t sign a contract if it hasn’t been translated into English, unless you can actually read the language it’s originally written in. And finally, be wary of employers who keep changing little things on the contract before you actually sign it. Be very suspicious if they say something like:

“That’s actually supposed to be 22 teaching hours per week, not 20.”

Or: “Actually you’ll be docked 3,000 for your apartment each month, not 2,500. That’s just a typo.”

More than likely they’re doing this on purpose, and it wasn’t just a typo or an innocent mistake. It’s the ol’ bait-and-switch, which is sadly still quite common in Asia these days.

Conclusion

Rarely are you ever going to find an ESL employer who doesn’t have at least one of the red flags mentioned above. After all, no contract is perfect. However, I believe if an employers has three or more of these red flags, then you should tread very carefully before you sign the contract, as murky waters likely await. And if an employer has five or more, then run like the wind, as the job from hell is surely right around the corner.

Stand your ground, do your research, be patient, and don’t reek of desperation, and you’ll like come out of it all with a decent ESL job. Also remember that the best ESL jobs are rarely the ones that advertise frequently online, rather they’re usually the ones that you can only find from being on the ground and with a little networking or inside knowledge. To any potential ESL teachers who may be reading out there, I wish you the best in your job hunt. I’ve been in your shoes many times!

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