The Deep Joy of English Training Centres

Over the years, I have worked in many English Training centres.

My first experiences were in Hong Kong and Taiwan, back to Hong Kong for a while then in Shanghai where I worked for a lot more.

The first training centre I worked for was in Hong Kong. I did a couple of morning classes in the actual centre building itself before running around town like a mad fool doing classes in students’ homes and in offices.

During this time I got a clear view of the cross-section of Hong Kong life — the massive divide in lifestyles and where people live. One woman in a tiny room in Sheung Wan spending any spare money she might have had on English classes for her kids a couple of hours a week. While another living in Parkview in an apartment seven or eight times the size of the tiny room in Sheung Wan.

I had classes with public school kids, private school kids, office workers, young women in their twenties, salesmen in their thirties, Korean businessmen, a Japanese journalist, a Thai export manager and two fading TV stars.

It was a real trip for a while.

But in the middle of the sweltering summer, I came to realise one thing — the training centre owner gave no consideration or care about what was happening with the students.

All she cared about was that I attended every class and I could stand up.

I should have taken heed of this but I dived deeper into the abyss…


What is a Training Centre?



A training centre is a private company that teaches students a variety of subjects, the biggest pull being to study English.

These schools — and we have to remember that they are not really schools — operate on a massive scale throughout Asia and can be found in any commercial hub of any city.

In the last twenty years in China, there has been an explosion in the English training school industry. The revenue being somewhere around $4.5 billion a year.

Not chump change.

This is why there is such a drive to join the fun.

Training centres can be found in a reconditioned office space or in a shopping mall. The classrooms partitioned throughout the space in small, glass-walled rooms. There is often a teacher’s room and a couple of rooms for the salesgirls to get the customers to part with their cash.

There may also be a large room filled with old computers where the students have to complete a slew of exercises before having the privilege of a one-hour class with one of the foreign teachers.

There is a general feeling of despair and of all hope being lost in the air.


The Two Types — Test Centres and General English


Essentially, there are two types of training centre in China.

There are the places that teach English tests. IELTS, TOEFL, SAT, GMAT and all the variations thereof. Usually just the first two though. IELTS is to this day, a huge margin of the test training centres.

Then there are the General English centres. These places cater mainly to students hoping to improve their spoken English. They may also teach classes like IELTS should a student wander in lost and asking for help.

It is easy to find one of these places in any town in China as the demand for their services is so high.


The Test Centres



Since the turn into the new millennium, there has been a huge demand to help students who wish to take the IELTS test.  Closely followed by TOEFL.

As demand rose, the number of IELTS training centres grew. Soon they could be found within spitting distance of every subway station in Shanghai, Beijing and Shenzhen. The schools were filled to capacity, every room crammed with at least twenty students.

For the listening, writing and reading parts of the IELTS test the schools usually use Chinese teachers. But for the speaking classes, the teachers are usually foreign. Native-English speakers — or looking like native-English speakers.

There are huge chains of IELTS training centres — these can be found all over the country. Then there are all the middle-ground and smaller joints that offer the exact same service.

Let’s take a look at the people that study and work in these places.


The Students


The main bulk of students in the test centres are teenagers. Mostly middle-school and high-school age.

You can bet they are not there through any choice of their own. They are most likely there under duress and under the strict supervision of helicopter mom telling them they must go.

The students can fall into two very neat categories — those that failed the college entrance exam (the gao kao) and those whose parents can easily afford to send them abroad to study.

When I worked at one IELTS training centre the large majority of students there seemed to have all failed the gao kao. So, their parents sent them packing to the school to have IELTS classes and then maybe — maybe — go to Canada or Australia and continue their education there.

Most of the students were nowhere near ready to take the IELTS test but they came to class for the free air-conditioning.

That said, I did meet some highly exceptional students in different test centres. They often stand out way above the other students.

One student, a young girl of fifteen, was an avid reader. She had no interest in the stuff the other girls liked, such as Korean boy bands and girly fashion. All she wanted to do was read books about history and modern novels such as The Night Circus. She was very different.

Of course, she did brilliantly in the test because she was a few leagues above any of her peers in the class.

I met a few others like her. But for the most part, the students had very poor English skills.


The Teachers



This is a real mixed bag. I have worked with some really dedicated, fantastic teachers in test centres. I have also worked with some of the worst teachers.

In these kinds of schools you are likely to bump into the typical ESL teacher in Asia — the guy that is slurring his words at ten in the morning, unshaven and wearing a shirt with food stains on the front.

The problem is that the schools really get what they pay for. So they end up hiring all the strays that can’t find gainful employment in a real school.

That said, I have also met many very dedicated and professional teachers. I think this is because the teachers have to have experience in teaching IELTS and so quite often the teachers are IELTS examiners.


The Managers


I feel very sorry for the managers of the IELTS training centres.

They have to tread this weird tightrope walking a fine line between the foreign teachers, the students’ parents and their litany of complaints and the owners who just want to see the money tap open every day.

It’s the managers that have to deal with the wayward alcoholic teacher who has turned up late for class again. That have to engage with the angry parents whose son has failed his third attempt at the IELTS test.

The managers of these joints are kind of like the circus act of the man spinning plates on the end of sticks. It’s unsustainable, and it is only a matter of time before the plates come crashing down to the ground.

I have worked in a number of these places where there is a sudden change of management overnight and no one asks why.


Is there a curriculum?



I have only seen a curriculum in one training centre.

And that was because the school had an arrangement with an Australian organisation and demanded it. The people in Australia had written a full course with lesson plans and tests and the school had to use it whenever there was a class.

This made things much easier for everyone as we were all on the same page in terms of where the student was in terms of their preparation towards the test. Some of the lesson plans I did not agree with but at least there was a structure we could all follow.

Every other IELTS training centre I worked at had nothing at all.

At most they might have some of the Cambridge IELTS books but that is not a curriculum. The books have no lesson plans anyway but that is what the teachers used.

Essentially, the teachers are expected to just get on with it and stop asking for things. The usual excuse is well, you’re the teacher, why don’t you write your own lesson plans?

This is a fair point except that there is little to no communication between the teachers so the left hand has no idea what the right hand is doing.

A student could have ten classes with one teacher and then move into another class and have ten more classes. No one knows what the student has studied in preparation of the IELTS test and no one knows what concerns or problems the student may have.

It’s all very chaotic and the general theme is that if we throw enough mud against the wall, some of it will stick.


Do they provide a good service?


Largely I would say they do not.


What is good about them?


Many of the teachers in the IELTS test centres are good at their job.

I have worked with teachers who are qualified IELTS examiners. So they would be perfect at teaching students how to prepare for the test.

Other teachers who really took time to prepare lessons where the students gained something of value from the class.

And many of the students can be great in these places.

If you encounter a student that wants to make massive efforts to do well in the test, that can be half the battle.

Unfortunately, they can be rare.


What is bad about them?



The thing is the schools have the potential to reach a lot of students. And they could really provide something of tremendous value.

But they don’t.

There is little to no support from the management and they provide no resources and there is no curriculum.

There is the tendency to create short-cuts for the students. So instead of trying to raise their General English level the school often makes the students learn scripted answers.

This is all well and good if they happen to be asked this question in the test but if not then they are in some trouble.

I have encountered students who reel off a rote-learned answer that sounds robotic and with no emotion attached to it at all. The IELTS examiner will see through this immediately.

This doesn’t seem to occur to the school or the students who just want to get a half-decent score in the test.

If more effort was put into helping the students improve their General English long-term, the school might have a better track record.

But that is not the case.


The General English Centres


As with the IELTS training centres, the General English centres in China went through a boom period of growth in the first ten years of the millennium.

Quite literally, every man, woman and child had great need to learn English.

The training centres provided a resource for anxious parents, who wanted their exhausted son or daughter to have extra English classes after school and throughout the entire weekend. And for the young professionals in their twenties and thirties who needed to improve their English in order to get that promotion.

Go to any city in China now and you will be spoilt for choice for General English training centres. From the large national chains to the smaller local brands, they pretty much all offer the same thing.

Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of these places.


The Students



Like I said, the students can range from teenage kids whose parents have told them to have extra English classes after school, to the stressed-out office workers who need to speak fluent English to get up the corporate ladder.

As with any training centre, it’s generally the students that make the place.

I have met some great students in these training centres. Mostly they just want to see an improvement in their English skills.

Unfortunately, they made the wrong choice by joining a low-end training centre.

The students usually only have one or two classes a week. And that will only be a one hour class each time. To earn that one hour class the student has to complete several hours of computer-based exercises on the crappy computers in the school. A common complaint is that the computers are not working properly so the students cannot get the work done to earn a class with a real live teacher.

I saw many students working really hard and trying their best to make an improvement in their English against the odds of the low-end facilities of the training centre.

Many become disgruntled and feel that they have been ripped off.


The Teachers


If you want to see classic examples of the typical ESL teacher in Asia then this is where you will find them.

This is where you will find all the alcoholics, losers, wasters and strays.

Yes, there are many foreign teachers working in these training centres who take what they do seriously and make great efforts to help the students. But mostly they are kind of rotten.

And why is this so?

Because the pay is bottom of the rung and has not improved for many years.

Pay peanuts and you will get monkeys.

I have worked with some real oddballs in these places. The guy who turned up drunk every day and went around the school accosting young women until he became incoherent at the end of the day.

The guy on serious meds and sometimes forgot to take them.

Another guy who was a compulsive liar and tried to convince anyone that paid attention to him that he had been a Wall Street trader, an aeroplane pilot, a private detective.

These teachers can be the real dregs of society. But they arrive in China waving their TEFL certificate and the training centres snap them up.

The training centres often insist that the teachers wear a shirt and tie to create an illusion of professionalism.


The Managers



And again, just like in the test centres, I have worked with some very committed, hardworking, professional managers in the General English training centres. And I have worked with complete clowns.

The good ones rarely last long.

Neither do the terrible ones to be honest.

Staff turnover in these places is very high. Do not worry about trying to remember everyone’s names as they will not be there that long.

I have worked in some of these places where the manager focuses entirely on the sales staff. These guys rarely talk to the foreign teachers, if ever at all. Their main intent is to drive sales via the use of the sales girls employed to help students and students’ parents’ part with their cash. None of the sales staff can speak English but they are there to advise students on their actual English ability. Go figure.

I have seen disgruntled students arriving and demanding their money back.

The sales staff and manager sneak out the back door for the rest of the day.


Is there a curriculum?


No. There isn’t.

There is a kind of student studying system. Levels graded from beginner to lower intermediate then on to upper intermediate and advanced.

From advanced, the students then go on to something called Business English.

This is where they enter the fast-paced area of the corporate world and do some reading and a few role plays.

The problem with this is that you might find some of the teenage students in a Business English class. They are a total fish out of water and express as much interest in the topics as can be expected.

Every single training centre follows this exact same system.

The training centres might have lesson plans but please use this term loosely. The lesson plans can often be just one side of A4 with a paragraph of reading followed by a few questions. Sometimes no questions at all.

There is also English Corner. This is a daily — sometimes twice daily — one-hour class that all students can attend where the teacher introduces a topic for a while and the students then ask questions.

This is the theory anyway. Quite often the teacher has nothing prepared, and it is just one hour of idle chit-chat.

The school provides no resources for English Corner at all which is kind of silly given that there are so many free English Corner exercises online.


Do they provide a good service?


Not really.


What is good about them?


They are convenient, they are everywhere, and they always need teachers.

As I said before, many of these places have some great teachers, fantastic students and very helpful managers.

But the fish stinks from the head down.


What is bad about them?



The pay is low and you will have to work every weekend. You will have to work three late evenings in the middle of the week too.

Often you will need to work until nine at night.

This has a serious impact on social life.

There is no curriculum and the lesson plans are shoddily thrown together. If you make any attempt to raise the bar in terms of standards, you will be alone and all your colleagues will think you are a fool.


Should you work in one of these places?



This depends.

If you just want a one- or two-year ‘China Experience’ then working at one of these training centres could be the perfect choice for you.

I would advise taking an offer in a smaller city — anywhere outside Shanghai, Beijing and Shenzhen — as you will be able to live reasonably comfortably on the low pay.

The company will probably be glad you are available to work in one of these smaller cities and that you are willing to relocate to another city once your contract is up for renewal.

If you are fresh out of college and looking for a little adventure and something that is not too taxing then working at one of these training centres could be ideal.

However, if you are a real teacher, or someone with a CELTA certificate, then you might want to look at other options.

I have seen many teachers working in training centres gradually becoming more and more disheartened and disillusioned and then having a really bad time.

Unfortunately, with many of these places, the phrase ‘it is what it is’ can be applied. And there is nothing you can do to improve things.




I know I am not presenting a very positive outlook in the above. But I feel it is only fair to show you a semblance of the truth.

If you have a thick skin or a very good sense of humour, then working at one of these places may be perfect for you.

If not, think otherwise.

Many of these places exist for one reason only — to turn the money tap on and keep the damn thing running.

As with all things, a little research and preparation are vital.

Check online and in the ESL forums and find out what the general consensus is and make your decisions accordingly.

Good luck!

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