I have been anticipating writing this review for the last 9 months. Now that I’m out of Changchun and out of China, I can post it! Let me tell you, every keystroke feels incredible. If you can’t be bothered reading the whole review and just want to know what the bottom line is: do not work for this company unless you are desperate or would like to experience a parallel to the life of a slave.
How did I end up at Jilin Province Tianshuo Education Exchange/Changchun Education Language/TS Education? Like so many others; an unfortunate turn of events with a former employer that left me at a fork in the road. My choices were to go home and leave the life I’d built here, or stay and work for a company that I already knew to stay away from.
The following are the major problems I encountered/observed/heard of while working for Tianshuo for 9 months, in no particular order: subpar living conditions, refusal to provide basic services, misleading information used to recruit teachers, low salary, high Chinese staff turnover rate, mistreatment of non-native English speakers, poor communication, and shady government deals. I will talk about all of the above in the order they were mentioned.
Subpar living conditions
Most of the apartments this agency provides are large and close to the agency’s office. Other than that, there are few positives. Each apartment has 3 bedrooms, which are usually all occupied by other foreign teachers. Many of them lack appliances that are listed in the contract (i.e. telephone, microwave, etc…), and the appliances that are provided are old and often in poor condition. The apartments are cold in winter and not well-maintained. Other foreign language schools or universities provide one whole apartment for each teacher, and they are usually much nicer than the ones provided by the agency.
Refusal to provide basic services
The agency’s teaching contracts are written in a way that allows the staff to use loopholes to get around doing things or paying for things that should be provided. For example, nowhere in the contract does it say that the agency will pay for your visa fees. However, nowhere in the contract does it say that the teacher must pay for visa fees, either. To an unsuspecting, inexperienced teacher looking for work, this doesn’t seem suspicious. Most of us ended up sucking it up and paying the 400 RMB for our visas; it didn’t seem worth it to argue. The agency justified this by highlighting that the contract did not specify that visa fees would be covered. Every other foreign language school in China will pay for your visa. Another example is transportation costs. As I will explain later, the agency is merely a liaison between schools and teachers; it is not a school, and most teachers end up working all over the city in any given week. Traveling all over the city to get from class to class, especially during rush hour, takes a long time and can cost a lot of money if you have to take a taxi. Tianshuo does not see this as a problem and will never reimburse you for costs incurred by traveling to and from different schools. Every other foreign language school that sends its teachers to other schools or branches to teach either provides transportation or reimburses its teachers for taxi fees. Don’t settle for anything less.
Full-time teaching contracts provided by Tianshuo list a basic salary of 4,500-5000 RMB per month for 22 teaching hours a week. However, the contract does not explain that, in order to receive 4,500-5,000 RMB a month, you must work 22 hours each week and not a minute less. Most teachers at Tianshuo are paid on an hourly basis (it works out to be just under 60 RMB an hour), and most teachers don’t have more than 16 or 17 hours of teaching a week. A quick calculation will tell you that these teachers make no more than 3,900 RMB a month (and often much less). The most I ever made in a month at Tianshuo was 3000 RMB, which was barely enough to cover my living expenses and to have a good time. Other foreign language schools will pay the full amount outlined in the contract, regardless of how many teaching hours the teacher actually has. It is the employer’s responsibility to line up enough work for the teachers, and if they’re not able to do that, then they need to suffer the consequences, not the teachers. Tianshuo doesn’t operate by this principle at all.
As previously mentioned, Tianshuo is not a school, but rather, an agency that rents out its teachers to various schools around the city. Most teachers end up working at several schools a week, often across the city from each other, and most of the schools are kindergartens. The staff at Tianshuo sometimes lie to prospective foreign teachers, saying they will get to teach high school or university, and that their apartment will be close to where they teach.
As described above, most teachers at Tianshuo don’t get enough hours to have a very high monthly salary. Besides that, the salary amount outlined in the contract for 22 hours of teaching a week is not very high anyway. Other than Tianshuo, the lowest salary I’ve heard of in Changchun is 6000 RMB a month (and those contracts include a furnished apartment and transportation costs). Better schools may offer more, based on experience and teaching hours. I’d also like to note that Tianshuo charges a hefty sum of money for its foreign teachers, and that we only get a fraction of it.
In addition, other foreign language schools give teachers paid holidays; that means that, for the 2 months that school is out over Spring Festival and the summer, as well as the many other holidays Chinese students have, those lucky teachers are still paid their usual salary. As you may have guessed, Tianshuo does no such thing. If the schools you teach at are shut over the holiday, then you don’t get paid.
Furthermore, the contract completion bonus is barely enough to cover a round-trip ticket to the States or Canada. At 5000-6000 RMB, the bonus is more like a supplement to low pay than anything else. And as you can guess, the contract completion bonus is much higher at other foreign language schools.
High Chinese staff turnover rate
The manager of the whole operation, named Maggie, is a cutthroat businesswoman. She knows how to get what she wants, and she has so many contacts in the government that pretty much anything goes at her company. Her mother, known as Mama Wang, hangs around the office and also cultivates relationships with government officials and school headmasters. I can only assume that these two pay their Chinese underlings next to nothing and scream at them behind closed doors, because we foreign teachers never learn the real reason as to why so many of them leave. As I said, I’ve worked at Tianshuo for the past 9 months. None of the Chinese staff that worked for the agency at the beginning of my contract work there now. They all supposedly quit, one by one, and when asked, provided vague reasons such as “I want to pursue my dream” as justification. Rumors have recently spread, saying that Maggie fired all of the previous employees and hired a batch of new ones. Whether or not that’s true, I think the high turnover rate of Chinese staff is a clear indication that they’re being mistreated and abused in the company. I know that I never want to support a company like this again.
Mistreatment of non-native English speakers
Through the company’s various government connections, it is able to secure working visas for teachers who come from countries that aren’t recognized as English-speaking countries. Many of them are from the Philippines or the Middle East. Whether due to desperation or ignorance, these teachers willingly work terrible schedules (mostly at kindergartens) or end up covering for the more “desirable” teachers (i.e. those with white faces or flawless accents) when they’re sick. As you can imagine, the company doesn’t provide stable work for them. Also, many of these teachers end up getting shipped out to tiny towns hours away from Changchun to work in isolation at a crappy government school. Being that far away from the agency, it’s even harder to hold them accountable for any sort of wrongdoing, and is next to impossible to get a hold of them when you need something.
There was an incident earlier this year that accurately reflects the treatment of Filipino teachers at Tianshuo. For some reason, the agency insisted on keeping all of the out-of-town teachers’ (mostly Filipinos) passports at the office. I’m not sure if these teachers refused to allow this and were unsuccessful, or if they just didn’t know any better. Anyway, the large fish tank in the office leaked and drenched all of their passports. None of the agency employees bothered to tell any of the passport owners; one teacher found out by accident and immediately reported it to the rest of the teachers whose passports had gotten soaked. The agency was bombarded with anxious phone calls the next day, asking to know about the state of their passport. The attitude toward these phone calls was irritation; the agency had the audacity to be annoyed at this group of foreigners who wanted to know if their passports were okay. There was no apology, no efforts made to inform all of the teachers that their passports were intact and usable. When I overheard the agency employees talking about the incident in the office, I was so relieved that I had insisted on taking my passport home with me.
Though the agency calls itself “Tianshuo Education Exchange”, it actually has no interest in educating Chinese students at all. Because so many foreign teachers quit without notice or decide they don’t want to teach at a certain school, schedules change several times throughout the school year and the current foreign teacher at any given school is always changing. The agency gives no consideration to the fact that changing teachers is difficult for the students, and can result in an inconsistent curriculum for quite some time. When asked to go to a school for the first time, the agency could hardly give me any information about the class size and age of the students, much less information about what they are learning and where the previous teacher left off. This lack of communication can be incredibly frustrating to deal with, and also provides students with a poor standard of education.
Moreover, the agency has next to no teaching materials to use in class. If the school in question did not provide a textbook or teaching materials, I had to bring my own in. Again, this creates an inconsistency in students’ curriculum as teachers constantly change.
What’s more, few members of the ever-changing Chinese staff at Tianshuo speak fluent English. They make frequent grammatical and spelling errors (most noticeable in text messages) that make any sort of communication with them an absolute chore. They also use Skype numbers from their computers to call teachers, which results in low sound quality phone calls that are even more muddled with the lack of language skills the Chinese employees possess. Due to the constant changing of Chinese staff at Tianshuo, no one ever seems to know what’s going on with you or your schools. You may tell one staff member something, and they will leave shortly after without passing any information on to their replacement. The only person that stays there is Maggie, and she’s too busy to know about every detail of your life.
Shady government deals
As you may have read in other reviews of this company, there was a scandal a few years back involving a junior member of staff, Maggie, and her mother. The three parties were allegedly importing cars using foreign teachers’ passports (there is little to no tax on purchasing vehicles if you’re a foreigner, but an absurdly high tax rate if you’re Chinese), and the said junior member of staff is supposedly still doing time for it.
Besides this, Maggie and her mother deal with the government on what’s likely a daily basis; bribing them, making deals allowing their teachers to teach in government schools, etc… They also own a wine-trading company, and I often saw Maggie bring bottles of wine with her to new schools. I imagine the practice is the same for government officials and the like. There are so many things that the company is able to do outside of the law that I’m there are dozens of officials being bribed. For example, Maggie is somehow able to magically extend business and tourist visas without the passport holder leaving the country, and she is able to acquire working visas for citizens of countries that no other schools in the city can (i.e. Filipinos and Egyptians). The knowledge that these sorts of connections exist makes working for the company a scary thing. You may have read in other reviews that the company has the ability to have you beat up or killed; I wouldn’t say that this is an exaggeration. I truly and honestly believe that Maggie is the closest thing you can get to a gangster in Changchun, and that she probably has the number of a guy who could do horrible things to you.
These are just my experiences and observations from the 9 months I worked there. Other teachers have had it worse, apparently having to fight mysterious “fees” every month when picking up their salary, waiting months to have something in their apartment fixed, and having subtle death threats thrown at them. I’ve never had an argument with any of the staff that worked there, including Maggie; I saw too many teachers have problems with the company after a harsh word that I thought it would be best to keep my head down. Maggie always treated me well, and I’m, in a way, sorry that I’m publicly criticizing her company. However, I just have to think of the atrocities that the agency has committed and the way I was taken advantage of when I had no other choice to become angry enough to post this again. Basically, just don’t work for this agency. I’d say that working for almost any other school or company in Changchun would be better. I only survived so long because I had a loving partner and an incredible support system to get me through; most teachers don’t make it past 6 months.