Private Schools vs. Training Centers
by Brody W.
There are two main types of schools with which you might get a position in Shenzhen. The first is a government-run public school, while the second is a privately-owned training school. For those familiar with the system in Korea, public schools are like getting a position through EPIK, while training schools approximate hagwons. This article will take a quick look at the differences between these types of schools in China.
At a public school, you will have regular hours. You will be expected at work between 7:30-9:00am, you will leave work around 5:00-5:30pm, and you will have a two hour lunch break. Whether you actually need to be at school during that time varies depending on the school, district, and other factors—for instance, I am required to stay at school between 8:00am-5:00pm for office hours, regardless of whether I have class. Other teachers I know can leave school whenever they aren’t teaching a class. Yet, these are the standard hours for public schools. You work Monday through Friday, with Saturday and Sunday off. Training schools, as private enterprises, have a wider variation in hours. Most have you working afternoons and evenings, for example from 1:00-9:00pm. You may also not have a traditional working weekend. One of my friends at a training center has Sunday and Monday off work; another person I know has Mondays and Tuesdays.
At least in Shenzhen, it seems most training centers are close to downtown. The three central districts—Nanshan, Futian, and Luohu—comprise the Special Economic Zone. This area is much more modern, international, and frankly, a bit wealthier (but more expensive). These areas are where parents can afford to send students to training schools more regularly, so more schools locate themselves here. I am in Bao’an, which is still highly urbanized but a bit less international; there are not as many training centers around in Bao’an. Therefore, a training center will likely be in a more international area with more things to do, but it will also cost more to live in that area.
Again, training centers are private, for-profit enterprises with generally wealthier clientele (although this does not always hold true—some public schools have many wealthy students). As a result, they generally have more modernized facilities. I love my public school, but it has more limited resources due to its less-developed infrastructure and resulting operation costs. We must watch our usage of A/C and electricity; there are no western-style toilets; and I provide my own soap and tissues. My school consistently undergoes construction and improvements as the district rapidly develops, but it is still admittedly behind a training center. Other public schools in Bao’an reach closer to what a training center would feel like, but a training center would have more reliably high-quality facilities.
Public schools must to follow government schedules. This means that we get all public holidays off work. We have several three-day weekends each semester, and we also get time off for the Dragon Boat Festival, the National Holiday, and for summer and winter breaks. All-in-all, I get about three months of vacation time each year, most of which is paid. While my friends in training centers did get vacation time, it’s a bit less consistent, and certainly less frequent. My friends were still wrapping up their semesters’ classes in their training centers several weeks after my summer vacation started. If your goal is to travel, the vacation time provided by a public school, combined with the potential for living in a cheaper area, can be a huge draw.
Quality of Students
One thing I love about my specific public school is that the students tend to have made less progress in English than their peers in training centers. Yes, you heard that right. For me, it’s a welcome challenge and an invitation to have a real impact on my students. I can see visible progress in some of my students due to the speaking practice and lessons they get with me, even though I only teach them once a week. Without me here, these students might not be advancing nearly as quickly in English ability, and I love seeing them learn and grow. My students are often the children of former farmers, factory workers, and so on. I have not confirmed, but I suspect that many of them could be the first in their families to finish high school, let alone attend college. My presence feels like it has more of an impact, and that makes me feel great about my work. That said, it can be frustrating at times when my 12-14 year old students can’t understand basic sentences. If you want to cover complex topics with students who already have a solid foundation in English, you will have better luck finding this in a training center. Student quality can still vary widely, but the odds are better there.
Quality of Coworkers
Honestly, from what I have gleaned, the quality of coworkers does not have a tendency either direction for either type of school. My co-teachers are amazing and go above and beyond to help me out and make sure I get the assistance I need—be it for life at school, disciplining students, explaining topics, or whatever I may need. I have coworkers at both public schools and training centers who have told similar stories, but also who have said their co-teachers were either useless or uninterested in providing actual support. I don’t think you can expect one type of school to surpass the other in this regard.
This is another area that will have great variation. Some school placements seem to mostly just want a Western face; some expect a glorified babysitter; some treat you as a full functioning member of the teaching team and even expect you to give oral exams. For example, while I don’t give grades as a course, I do give two exams each semester with my class, and grade each student for their teachers to consider. I also have the power to assign homework as a disciplinary measure or if I think a student needs extra help in a topic, although I am not expected to give or grade homework. Sometimes, I will tell a teacher about a student they had who acted up, and even though I told them I handled it, they will assign the student extra homework for their class. At my school, I am valued as a teacher and that I am also expected to be a teacher. I am expected to provide feedback on other teachers’ lessons, participate in short meetings, and work on lesson plans to allow students the most speaking practice possible. However, my school permits me much freedom in my lesson plans. I coordinate my lessons with my co-teachers’ needs, covering topics they want me to stress and covering each unit in the book. Yet I have complete control over the specific activities and methods I choose to use. I plan the lesson, the activities, and the topics to cover—introducing new words or concepts as I see fit, to build off their existing learning—and send my materials to the head teachers of each grade for a quick review. I have plenty of autonomy, but also work closely with my department to plan and execute the strongest possible lessons. Training centers tend to have more rigid and structured curriculums. When parents pay to send their students to a training center, they have expectations the center must meet, so it usually has a structured curriculum to follow. You will still have to lesson plan, but you will likely have less freedom and stricter guidance as you go. There might also be more stringent deadlines and requirements. I turn in my lesson plans the week before the lesson, but some training centers may want you to plan several weeks ahead, or even turn in a semester plan. This can prove valuable for new teachers who feel they need guidance and training, but it can also feel constricting for a creative person or someone with a distinctive teaching style who wants to do things their own way.
These are just some of my thoughts on the differences between public schools and training centers in Shenzhen. I have not worked at a training center, so some of my information may depend upon the circumstances. The thing about China is that there’s a lot of room for variation, for better or worse. Experiences may differ based on who you talk to. These observations come from my own experience, as well as the experiences of numerous friends who have worked in both public schools and training centers throughout Shenzhen.