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The Difficulties Recruiting Adventist Teachers to China

Challenges Recruiting Adventist Teachers in China

Because of the sensitivities involved in working in China, this Spectrum interview withholds names of individuals—including the interviewee—and specific, identifiable locations. -Spectrum Editors

Question: You recently returned from a trip to China, where you are working with three private schools. You say there is one big thing you are trying to find for these Chinese schools. Tell us about that, please.

Answer: Yes, we are looking for Adventist teachers. 

We are an education group owned by an Adventist man, ———, the son of a former missionary to China. He has been opening Adventist-staffed schools in Chinese-speaking Asia for more than 20 years. 

But we need teachers. And we want to hire Seventh-day Adventist teachers. We cannot evangelize in China and so the next best thing is to open schools and staff them with Adventist teachers. We are currently working with three schools, two in ———, and one in ———, but our model is to open the school and then let it self-manage. 

We have opened a number of schools previously that our education group no longer manages directly. 

We also have supported a network of underground Seventh-day Adventist schools in China. Two of these underground schools have been closed down by the government, and their Chinese principals are now in prison. These were not schools started or managed by our education group, but we did support them. These underground schools openly evangelize. They are entirely managed and staffed by Chinese. While we admire their efforts, our education group does not put foreign teachers in schools where they could be arrested, and neither do we evangelize. Instead, we focus on building relationships.

Is it hard to find teachers? And why do you prefer to hire Adventist teachers if possible?

It is difficult to find Adventist teachers, yes. Very difficult. Largely because we are not able to recruit teachers through official church channels. 

The North American Division Office of Education’s teacher recruiting webpage is the single most popular place for American-curriculum schools to find teachers. Unfortunately, because our education group is not in the Seventh-day Adventist yearbook, or part of any official Adventist organization, this channel is not open to us. We wish that it were, and we have tried to push that door open but it remains closed.

Here we are—our organization—operating inside the 10-40 window, the biggest mission field in the world, and attempting to push the Adventist message into China, and we have no mechanism to help us find Adventist teachers. 

No one else is in China doing what we are doing. But since we are unable to recruit teachers, we now are running an Adventist school where about half of the teachers are not Adventist—and even the principal is not a Seventh-day Adventist. 

Although difficult to find teachers, we still prefer Adventist teachers because we know the quality. Adventist teachers are committed to the mission, they are solid educators, and in my own experience working with them—and as one of them—we know there is no better group of teachers.

What is your criteria for hiring? What experience is needed?

Other than being an Adventist, we are looking for certified teachers. Ideally, teachers should have a state certification, but at the least a denominational certification. A graduate degree, teaching experience, and overseas experience are all desirable, but not a requirement.

And what kind of package are you offering? Why would this be an attractive job offer for someone?

It is attractive because of the mission. Because the work is meaningful. Seeing a new part of the world is also an attraction, and China is an exciting place with such a beautiful culture and language. Living in China is an adventure.

The salary is similar to what is offered in Western countries, and we will also provide an apartment, round-trip airfare, and health insurance. The big difference-maker is that the cost of living in China is very low. 

Are you only looking to hire native English speakers? Are you looking for American teachers, or from other countries as well?

Education law has changed in China in the last several years. We used to operate schools much more freely, hiring who we wanted to hire, regardless of their passport. 

Today in China, parents can be punished for taking their own children to church (although whether that is happening in practice is unclear). Parents certainly cannot give them a Christian education. And so our schools do not advertise that they are Christian schools. Instead, most of our schools are licensed as English language schools, although they are not traditional language schools. 

We offer an accredited American curriculum high school diploma, taught by certified teachers. But because the government views us as a language training school our teachers are generally required to be passport holders from one of only seven countries: the United States, Canada, the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. 

For how long would a teacher have to commit? One year?

Because of the learning curve for teachers moving to China, and the expenses involved, we generally ask teachers for two or three years. But we have certainly had teachers come for a year, dislike being in China, and leave after a single year. We don’t encourage that, of course, but we also want our teachers to be happy. In truth, the overwhelming majority of our teachers stay for much longer than two or three years. 

These new schools in China have state-of-the-art facilities—is that right? Can you describe the schools briefly?

Our school campuses are generally very nice, very new, and with a stable enrollment. Most are urban campuses and most of our students are not Adventists. They come to our schools so that they can attend a university outside of China. And in that experience they end up building relationships with great teachers in a safe environment. 

Unlike in the United States, where Adventist education is struggling, in China our schools are doing well. This is because education is a business in China and decisions are driven by the market rather than by institutional inertia. One of our new partner schools in China has just built a brand new campus. This will be a boarding school and will open in the fall semester. Another of our campuses is currently using a different national curriculum (not Chinese or American) and the investors have asked us to bring Adventist teachers and convert this into an American-curriculum school. 

We have chosen the American curriculum because many Chinese students, and their parents, want to move out of an exam-based system. In China the only thing that matters for your college admission is the Chinese version of the SAT. It is called the Gao Kao, and a student’s score on this exam is truly the sole factor in what university he or she will attend. High school grades don’t matter. Letters of recommendation don’t matter. Community service or school leadership do not matter. The only thing that matters is your Gao Kao score. Some other national curricula, for example the British system, are also exam-based. The British have a world-class educational system, actually, but many Chinese parents want to move away from the exam-based format. The American system is not exam-based and this is what makes it so attractive to Chinese parents. So all of our schools follow an American curriculum. 

We generally also strive to adhere to the Adventist curriculum as much as we can, but ultimately we know that it is our people—our teachers—that matter. Not the textbooks. In China we cannot teach United States history, U.S. government, or religion. In place of that we have modified our curriculum so that we can offer an approximation of these subjects and still be on the right side of Chinese law. We don’t want the government to shut us down, after all. 

And we fall back on our belief that our people matter more than the books they teach from. This is why it’s so important that we have an avenue through which we can find Adventist teachers. 

Is this for-profit model of private education common in China now? Are there many other similar private schools, educating students in English?

Yes. The nonprofit in China does not thrive, unfortunately. And Christian education is against the law. Also, any school that serves Chinese passport holders must have a Chinese citizen as the chief investor or owners. The only way to operate private schools in China, therefore, is through a for-profit model with Chinese partners. This is the standard in China, not the exception. So we find Chinese investors who buy into our Adventist educational philosophy and they fund the schools, while we manage them.

How and where are you trying to recruit teachers, and what struggles have you faced?

Social media, mostly. Also by word of mouth. But ultimately, we aren’t always successful. We have tried to go through the North American Division, but since 2009 they have not allowed us to recruit through official NAD channels. 

We have also tried to recruit Christian teachers (non-Adventist) through other Christian international school organizations. But these organizations either are not accepting new partners in China or, in one case, because our Chinese investors were not Christian, they would not work with us. 

The irony, of course, is that our investors in China are working with us specifically because we are Christian, but religious organizations here refuse to work with those investors because they are not Christian, or, in the case of the NAD, because we aren’t in the institutional Seventh-day Adventist yearbook. We wonder, have mission organizations forgotten their mission?  

What else does your role for the schools include, besides hiring teachers?

My official role is as the chief academic officer. In that role I do professional development training sessions with our teachers, both onsite and virtually. My role includes modifying the curriculum to meet Chinese legal requirements, hiring principals, ensuring our teachers’ certifications are up-to-date, working with our local Chinese investors to help them understand both the American educational system and also our philosophy of education as Adventist educators and how that philosophy will manifest itself in our schools. 

I liaise with a partner Adventist-owned organization in Asia for Cognia accreditation, and generally do any academic management that needs to be done. Being chief academic officer of a small education group like ours is similar to working as the superintendent of a small school district, or in Adventist terms, one of our smaller conferences. 

Can you tell us a little more about Adventist education in China? Church congregations in China are required by law to be self-governing, without official ties to a church outside the country. There is no official Seventh-day Adventist church organizational structure in mainland China, and thus no official Adventist schools. Before World War II, China was a major focus for Seventh-day Adventist missionaries, and the church there was flourishing, but when all the missionaries were expelled after the war and all Christian churches were closed in Communist China, Adventist education also ceased. Are you telling us this is now changing?

Constitutionally, there is freedom of religion in China. And until about 2012 China seemed to be opening up. But in 2012 Xi Jinping became president. In many respects, President Xi has taken China back to the days of Mao. Particularly he has attempted to forcibly stop the spread of foreign influence and culture in China and to exert far more control over the Chinese people than was in place before he came to power. 

It has been widely reported by many outlets that since February 2018 parents are not permitted to take their own children to church. The application of this law seems to have been spotty, and perhaps applied differently in different provinces. The Chinese Constitution guarantees freedom of religion in China, so we aren’t sure how this will ultimately play out. But these efforts are the Chinese government’s attempt to basically end Christianity. By preventing children from being exposed to religion the eventual result will be that younger generations of Chinese just have no knowledge of Christianity. Eventually the older folks will die out and with it Christianity in China dies as well.

Many Christians have resorted to house churches, but these are illegal if you have more than a small handful of worshipers. And if you do register a group of worshippers, you can be monitored by the government. You know, this is a big change from pre-1949 China, when, as you note, Christianity and mission work was flourishing in China. But when the Communists took over in 1949, they kicked the missionaries out after what the Chinese call the “100 years of humiliation” by foreigners, and now the government requires that any religious group adhere to the “three-self” policy. That is, all religion in China has to be self-managed, self-funded, and self-propagating. This means that the Adventist union that should include China—the Chinese Union Mission—cannot operate in mainland China. That mission territory only officially includes oversight of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau. In the Chinese Union Mission, China is referred to as the “China Field.”

The first Adventist presence in China after 1949 was, ———, a school in ——— Province that I was director of more than a decade ago. We partnered with an existing private school who bought into the idea that we could bring in great Adventist teachers. We were given an entire building on that campus and opened a school-within-a-school. We started with first grade, then the next year we brought in another group of first graders. When I left that program, after around the third year, every year we were taking in three first-grade classes of about 25 students in each class. Today that school operates a grade 1-12 program. Pushing Adventist education into China with this program, and for the first time since 1949, remains one of our proudest achievements. 

How did you first get interested in China? 

I was teaching at ——— Academy here in the United States, and my wife and I decided to move our family to Taiwan. After a year in Taiwan we spent several years in ——— where we opened a brand new school, ——— Academy, and then moved back to the United States where I taught at one of our universities for several years. But I continued to be involved with this education group. 

I have worked for the Adventist Church for more than 20 years, as a teacher, professor, and school administrator, ranging from grade 1 to 16. Now I am urging our church to find a path forward, and to support those of us who are underground and pushing forward the Adventist message in spite of the obstacles.

About the author

Alita Byrd is the interviews editor for Spectrum. More from Alita Byrd.
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