Not so different – China and America's Treatment of Teachers

In the past, I have talked to different public school teachers here in China about how much money they make. The Chinese are always fascinated by how much more expat employees are paid than locals, and I am usually equally mystified by how little locals are paid. I truly do not know how some people survive. I have known full-time public school teachers in China who are paid as little as 2,000 RMB (about US$300) per month.

An opinion article in last week’s Shenzhen Daily shed a little bit of light on why some teachers are paid so little. Public school teachers in China are supposed to be mostly subsidized by the State, generously, I might add. But if a school needs more teachers than the government has allocated funds for, the school, usually an underfunded institution, must pay for the extra teachers out of pocket. The extra teachers in China are called “substitute” teachers, but unlike in US public schools, they aren’t substituting for anyone. They are doing the exact same job as every other teacher for a fraction of the pay and no benefits (but considering this is a “communist” country and all benefits are supposed to be provided by the state regardless of employment, that part leave me a bit confused, but I digress). This is probably why I have met so many poorly paid teachers; they are “substituting.”

The article brings out that in America, substitute teachers only fill in on a temporary basis when regular teachers are ill or on leave. This is true for public elementary schools. But what the writer of the article probably doesn’t know is that American high education institutions do have the exact same practice. It’s called adjuncting.

I have been adjuncting for almost 5 years, even during my years in China. It’s also one of the main reasons I moved to China. At one point, I was teaching 6 classes at 4 different universities to nearly 200 students. I teach essay writing. Can you imagine having 6 days (or less) to grade 200 final essays?

Even though I was teaching nearly twice the amount of classes as a full-time professor, my pay was a fraction of that of a full-time professor. I couldn’t pay my bills. Even though I graduated college debt free thanks to scholarships and grants, I was $10,000 in debt by the end of my first year out of college. My husband (boyfriend at the time) and I decided to book it out of the US to somewhere with a lower cost of living so we could get out of debt and start saving for our future. But we were lucky. Many people don’t have the freedom to just up and leave.

I still do adjunct for two universities online, but only one class each. I currently have less than 40 students. Thankfully, I don’t have to rely on that income to survive like many people do. Reading the experiences of other adjuncts who are still living the way I used to makes me nauseous. I didn’t even go into all the details about irregular pay, the fear of not knowing if you would even have any teaching jobs the next semester, and the constant job searching to fill in the gaps. Adjuncting used just to be a step toward a better job and a better life. Now, it is a trap for teachers and a system universities abuse to cut costs.

Just try to imagine if you child’s teacher was so undervalued she didn’t know if she would have a job the next month and couldn’t provide for her own family? How do you think that would affect the quality of your child’s education? It is so easy to look at countries like China and think “wow, that is so inhumane,” but it happens in developed nations as well. It wouldn’t be allowed at the public school level, so why is it allowed at universities? I know I’m going to start looking for a union to join.