Paul and Mhairi Anne are both from just outside Glasgow, Scotland. They started teaching at separate schools in the same city in China for one year before sharing a school in Moscow for another year. They are now based in Hanoi, Vietnam teaching in the state school system. Read on to learn about their experiences teaching in both centres and schools. It might just help you choose your next job.
In searching for jobs, most ESL teachers will be presented with a choice between taking a job at a “centre” or a public school. For new teachers, it can often be difficult to ascertain what the differences are, if any, between the two job descriptions. Generally, in life, people are fond of saying that itâ€™s not where you are, but the people you are with that defines the experience. This can also be said to be true, in my experience, in your ESL job choice.
Upon moving from a centre environment to a public school, I personally noticed a difference in the children I teach and my relationship with them. In a centre, broadly speaking, the children I taught had parents who paid a reasonably high amount of money for their children to be in the class. This had a varying impact on the students’ attitude to English class. Some of them were highly academic and their enthusiasm was only ever tempered by the amount of other extra-curricular classes they had to attend and focus on. For others though, their relatively privileged position (in their particular society) sometimes made them appear somewhat pampered and very aware that their parents paid money for the class. Therefore, they would sometimes try to call the shots in terms of how much the school disciplined them or enforced homework etc.
No matter how much a centre professes to be focused on education, it is unlikely that any would risk crossing the parents and missing out on the fees they pay. On the plus side, it is likely that in a centre environment you will see the students twice a week for relatively long classes. This helps you to establish real relationships with your classes, and build lasting connections which help in anything from the enthusiasm levels in the class, to helping with discipline and classroom management. In a public school, in my personal experience, I have many more students and much less time with them. This can make it hard to achieve the same kind of personal relationship with them. At the same time, however, some teachers may share my feeling that you are able to reach slightly less privileged children who may otherwise not have the chance to learn English at a centre. Teachers may find that the children in schools show more enthusiasm for communicating than their somewhat jaded ‘extra-curricular veterans’ in the centres.
Another type of relationship, which can be defined by whether you work in a centre or a school, is the one you have with co-workers. When working in a centre, you are generally thrown together with a group of other teachers with whom you will inevitably form close bonds due to sheer proximity, and the amount of time you spend together. This can, of course, be a great or terrible experience depending on the individuals concerned. In my time in Russia, I found that, due to there being a mix of ‘native speakers’ and local teachers, it was invaluable in forming friendships outside the expat circle. These relationships also allowed me to see places in Moscow that I would never otherwise have come across. In Hanoi, I now have fewer local friends, but working for a company with many teachers and social events means that my circle is certainly wider.
For me, the biggest and best difference between being in a centre and a public school is the schedule. During my time working in centres, I worked from around 2 pm until 9 pm on weekdays and from 9 am until 7 pm at weekends. This made for a very unhealthy lifestyle, eating dinner at 10 pm most nights, waking up late and generally just not having a very good quality of life. I ended up spending most of my time at work. After waking up at 11 am on a Friday, it is very difficult to wake up at 6.30am on a Saturday. For this reason, I’m not sure I could ever go back to centre teaching and think long-term centre work can be very demanding. The danger of burn-out is quite real.
As far as developing myself as an ESL teacher, I think I’m missing out, to a certain extent, by working in a public school. I currently teach four different levels at my public school, whereas at a centre, I taught ten. This included students ranging from 3 years old up to adults, and everyone in between. This was very useful in my first year, as it gave me a chance to work with different groups and decide which I most enjoyed. By teaching several different levels, the focus of classes and the interaction patterns were constantly changing, and while this could be challenging, it was also very stimulating.
I believe that as an experienced teacher, working in a public school allows me to develop my own ideas and to be creative. However, when I first started, I think this could have been very difficult. In the centre environment, there are many more teachers who are available to brainstorm ideas with and help with new activities in your classroom. This also goes for any issues that you may have in your classroom. It can be good to speak with a co-worker about a problem and, with them, be able to immediately solve it. It’s nice to be surrounded by people who understand, and are in the same situation. In a public school, more self-reliance is required, and it can take much longer to contact someone to ask for advice. On the negative side, however, it is also very common to have management in centres who have little to no teaching experience. This can be difficult as you will likely have different aims for the students’ learning process. Their focus tends to be predominantly on making money rather than the quality of the teaching in the classroom.
A note from Nathan: If you’re still undecided, take the quiz below and find out (in a Cosmo fashion) whether teaching in the school system is right for you.
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