Hong Kong: The Expat Life – Part 2 (Life as a NET)

A couple of months ago I wrote a post outlining my initial return to Hong Kong last year and my training with educational NGO Chatteris Education Foundation. In this post, I’ll go into detail about my day to day working life as a Native English Teacher (NET) here in Hong Kong: the highs and the lows; the good the bad and ugly.

The first thing to say is that I’ve already misled you. I’m not a NET. I’m not even close to being a NET. NETs in Hong Kong drive round in Teslas, splash out on ludicrously expensive dim sum and are actually qualified to teach English. I’m a CNET and boy does that ‘C’ make a big difference. The Chatteris salary is HK$14000 a month (around £1400) as opposed to HK$20000+ meaning there are no Teslas or swanky flats for us. The majority of people who work for our company live on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong – the more ‘local’ areas, which is a nice way of saying ‘above a brothel’.

But whilst the pay gap is very apparent, the most striking difference between CNETs and NETs is the job itself. NETs are English teachers. We most certainly aren’t.

Of course I can only speak from my personal experience. As detailed in the previous post, Chatteris splits the CNETs into three streams: primary school, secondary school and post-secondary. It was the latter stream which I (and the majority of my colleagues) was placed in. Chatteris has managed to strike an agreement with VTC who run an assortment of vocational colleges across Hong Kong. As part of the students’ vocational training, they must complete a Chinese and English module, which is where the CNETs (or Project Coordinators – PCs – because there aren’t enough acronyms as it is) come in.

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Our ‘English Corner’ which doubles as a place for students to nap.

There’s a whole array of jobs for PCs in the schools, but this makes it sound as if we’re busier than we actually are. The truth is that there’s a hell of a lot of downtime. I’m typing this post after a day at school whereby all the students were sent home because of a severe thunderstorm… but we still had to remain in an empty school with no work to do. As a result, I got paid for watching Star Wars all morning, the only tonic to an otherwise bleak day.

Most PCs are equipped with a CILL (I can’t even remember what that one stands for) which is a relaxed space which encourages the students to come and chat, watch films, play games or just chill out. At my school in Kwai Chung, I got pretty lucky with a nice big CILL filled with a lot of handy resources and games. As I mentioned in the previous post though, it’s very much a lottery. I know people who don’t have a CILL at all, completely limiting their ability to interact with students more personally. Just having that room makes the world of difference. I strongly believe Chatteris shouldn’t be placing people in schools without a room in which to operate. If VTC isn’t willing to make that commitment to English teaching/learning, they shouldn’t get a PC. The spectrum of schools in terms of quality is one of the most frustrating things about the entire program and it really does just come down to dumb luck. I was one of the lucky ones.

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The CILL

It’s not just the CILL that makes my school better than pretty much any of the other Chatteris campuses I’ve visited. My colleagues are great too. Not only am I with two other CNETs (not always a given, particularly at the schools which are further out) but the local teachers couldn’t have been more welcoming. My boss (or CCC – don’t ask) is lovely and whilst there’s often a clash of cultures in terms of how we work with one another, we’ve both adapted and become more flexible over the course of the year. Again, I know that’s not the case everywhere. The other teaching staff are great too. There’s rarely a week when we’re not going out for lunch with some of them. It’s fascinating to get an insight into their personal and professional lives. Working with them has really been one of the highlights of my year.

In terms of the job itself, as I say, it’s a real mixed bag. At the start of the year, the never-ending string of acronyms, schemes and programs makes it sound as if you’ll be working non-stop when the reality is quite different. Again, your timetable varies depending on your campus. At Kwai Chung, our first semester was much busier than the second with about 20 teaching hours a week split between the three of us. In addition to this, we would assist the local teachers with classes and hold our ‘ELEEP’ time (I don’t think the person who came up with that one even knows what it stands for) which is where we interact with students outside of the CILL, usually through workshops, events, games or just casual chat. ELEEP takes up most of our time but is obviously completely dependent on students actually being around which isn’t always the case.

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Archery was our go-to ELEEP activity.

For the lessons, there’s no curriculum or structure of any kind. Chatteris provides lessons on its planet-sized Google Drive and PCs can pick and choose the lessons they want to teach. When I was there the available lessons ranged from the dull to the downright unteachable. The quality of most of them was seriously appalling. A group of us spent the year adapting and updating the lessons to make them more engaging but I seriously think they need someone looking at the lessons full-time as they need a complete overhaul. It’s currently just a random mix of vague, unrelated topics which exist to tick boxes rather than stimulate learning.

Speaking of ticking boxes, you’ll be doing it. A lot. ‘Administrative duties’ is supposed to take up 33% of your time as a PC. Whilst this includes more creative stuff such as making posters and adapting workshops/lessons, it also includes feeding into the frustratingly bureaucratic nature of Chatteris/VTC by filling in enormous spreadsheets, documenting every single thing you’ve done ever and typing up meeting minutes to send to people who weren’t there and won’t ever read them. The stats are apparently important to the Chatteris/VTC relationship but they’re incredibly uninspiring to do. At least when you adapt a lesson or make a new activity, you see the results through the students’ engagement and enjoyment. There’s no end result to the statistics, at least not from a PC’s point of view.

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Introducing students to the delights of Marmite

There’s much, much more I could say about working for Chatteris but I notice I’ve surpassed 1000 words already and I’m hovering on the fringes of a rant rather than a blog post. I think the main thing to take away is that it really is a lottery. I don’t think the frustrations and bureaucracy related to Chatteris and VTC is going to disappear any time soon but they’re much easier to ignore if, like me, you’re on a good campus with friendly colleagues, a schedule you can delegate between yourselves and a CILL. If you’ve not got that, the year is going to be much more of a challenge. All things considered, I have enjoyed this year but it could have been very different. Chatteris is big on feedback so they’re aware of all these problems and more. All they have to do is to solidify their direction and start to rectify the consistent concerns that are being presented to them and they could well be onto a good thing.

In the third and final post of this series I’ll write about how I’m finding living in Hong Kong more generally, including food, accommodation, budgeting and other such riveting things.

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