Hey all, time to put down in writing my experiences. I will probably plop something down in the other place but given the nature of some of the creatures that dwell in that deep dank dark scary place it will be in a reduced form. This has been proof read but given the time that I did so, it is likely that typos and other little errors have been missed. Should this be a problem just point them out in a pm and I will correct them. EDIT - Changed my mind about the reduced version in the dark damp dungeon and just copied and pasted as it saved me some time.
Suzhou Sunflower English Education Centre (苏州太阳花英语教育培训中心) is a training centre located around the Suzhou area where it has several centres to its name. It teaches children from around three years old to seventeen years old in class sizes up to fifteen students. I shall try and break this review into separate sections due to a larger volume of content. This may result in some repetition but it has been avoided as much as reasonably possible. While this review is largely written by one hand it does represent the experiences of more than one teacher where permission to do so has been given.
It should be of note that Sunflower will bring new teachers in on a tourist visa, this is becoming an increasingly risky option and the loopholes that sunflower (herein referenced to as SF) exploits to do this are being closed. SF will eventually provide a work visa however some people are issued with incorrect details and this is illegal and the police have paid random visits to several homes. The visa is generally done when you have a matter of days left on your tourist visa after being made to work all the way up to that point. A new arrival will eventually be sent to Hong Kong once that point has been reached. You will often be given less than 24 hours’ notice and very little information in the ways of details and getting around is given. There is no room for error because you only get to stay there the minimum time possible (1 night) and should problems arise it will be coming out of your pocket.
The contract signing is done with several blanks in the contract (such as salary) when questioned management will insist it is not to be worried about and the author was not given a copy of the contract (illegal) and all requests to acquire a copy went unanswered. In some instances, you are required to do things that are not specified in your contract.
Almost as soon as you arrive you will be pressured into the purchase of an e-bike (the reasons for this will become apparent later)
Getting settled in would be difficult were it not for the helpfulness of colleagues as the management will provide none. On the first day several teachers remarked that they were hungry and wanted some help on finding and getting some food only for the staff member to reply that they had already eaten and they will have to get something by themselves, and that one incident pretty much sums up the help the newbie can expect from management while trying to get settled in. This even extends to the e-bike purchase where you are told “home is that way” and left to try and find your own way back.
This section will be rather short as the teachers’ contract is only useful as expensive toilet paper. Any protection given will be ignored and anything enforceable against the teacher will be enforced. SF also has also changed the contract several times without permission, interestingly the teachers signature goes on a final page without much else on it though what is implied is pure guess work on the authors side and not based upon fact.
There have been several “improved” contracts over a very short space of time each contract essentially represents a pay cut as the hourly rate goes down each time. One such contract included some values in the benefits in the salary figure to make it appear more favourable (other offers usually list benefits separately and thus the SF figure was inflated) There was a rumour of having newer teachers on a sales based contract with those who do not meet a quota being fired (edit -this is now apparently a reality and no longer just a rumour). One employee was promised a contract that paid per hour and then was at last minute told he could not have it. Recently they introduced a contract that requires office hours. These hours are completely unnecessary as lessons are pre-planned and generic, so there’s nothing to actually do all day. In the school based in Kunshan you are asked to do even more than those in Suzhou.
Leaving SF is a simple process for those that are just leaving China, however for those that leave in order to start a new job in China you become labelled a “traitor”.
SF will (illegally?) refuse to do the things necessary to have your documents processed. The boss will stop speaking to you and the greetings will be replaced with scowls. SF claims it will just cancel the visa for every teacher and then provide them with a tourist visa, then tells another teacher they will not cancel the visa because they do not need to and that they do it as a special favour. They will be quite happy to take money as "payment" for things that were never done. This policy changes from teacher to teacher depending upon what is the most difficult for that particular teacher and then the company is surprised to be asked questions about why things were different for other teachers, the answers for such a question range from denial, being ignored and right up to outright threats.
Visas can be cancelled same day but only with the companies help which of course sunflower will refuse to provide denying that it can be done which is the opposite of what the leaving teacher will be told should they inquire with the visa office. SF will always demand the leaving teacher surrender them the passport for processing, this is an unnecessary move and some teachers have had their passports returned with no processing done at all given that SF has in the past withheld teachers passports one would be forgiven for thinking this behaviour at leaving time is a deliberate attempt to entrap the leaving teacher right up until the end. In some cases, you are threatened with being blacklisted for not doing as you are told.
It should also be of note that after leaving some teachers have not been given their final salary, others got some money (after pestering) but not the full amount and for some the contract completion bonus was not paid.
As previously mentioned the management was found to be particularity unhelpful at arrival. This extended right through the authors term. Teachers that have had serious administration issues that need to be urgently dealt with have been refused help despite it being managements responsibility and told to go find a “Chinese friend” to help them. This does include visa matters.
Ideas are best kept to oneself while in SF's employment. As the management will constantly press you for your thoughts and ideas and then (on occasion) ridicule you for presenting them after the initial rejection, to quote another review by Canada Dream “they have an answer for everything”. Naturally much later on management will have a “great” idea that is shockingly similar to what you previously proposed
Teachers are subject to unpaid monthly meeting in which very little of any import is accomplished and usually only amounts to having things dictated to you, or to be shouted out by senior management about how lucky you are to be in SF and that you are being lazy while everyone works so hard to support you and give you a good life.
In short the management is happy to shout at teachers, issue threats and resort to bullying tactics. A warning must also be given that management has thrown several temper tantrums that are physical in nature, several chairs have suffered as a result.
The company environment is one of fear and oppression with fines and punishments hiding around every corner. The only staff members that display any sort of contentment are the company owners. It really does seem like there is a fine for everything, a TA (Chinese) suddenly gets ill and has to run to the toilet? There's a fine for that.
Some of the Chinese staff have also been made to inform some of the foreign teachers that they have to do more (unpaid) hours or the Chinese staff will not be paid any salary for that month, this is has been done while management looks on, some members of the management have even been observed laughing while this occurs.
All classes are observed and monitored by CCTV that even records sound, this footage can and will be used against you. Should you follow the company's instructions to the letter they will still have an answer on why you are not a good teacher. This footage is also broadcast into a public area for people to sit and watch at their leisure. Classes are rated by parents who themselves do not want to be there but are shoved in by Chinese staff trying to meet the parent in classes quota. Any small complaint a parent has made will be used against the staff (SF will even lie about complaints should they feel the need to create some complaints against you) no matter how small or unreasonable a comment. Just one remark from a parent can and has been used against all the teaching staff.
The offices for the teachers to reside in that have been moved now and of course all been outfitted with glass walls, one has even been moved to place right on a corridor, most likely to get more views of its zoo exhibit.
You find yourself having to travel from centre to centre usually during the very precious lunch break some teachers just buy light snacks rather than a full lunch as a matter of necessity. This is where the e-bikes come in. You can resist buying an e-bike and use public transport however you will receive no help in figuring out how to do so and despite some unrealistic tight timings the teacher will be held responsible for any lateness.
There is a very large feeling of sales pressure also that even the teachers are subject too. There was even once a league of sales for the teachers where those at the bottom first had to be “re-trained” and then there was a number of escalating punishments for repeat offenders. Rewards were given to those at the top but that is of little consolation to those that are on the firing line.
SF claims to provide professional development, this did not materialise to any significant extent during the authors term. There has since been a one time visit from the publisher of the textbooks in use but this is being mentioned on the understanding that what the publisher wanted to do was altered to fit “how we do things here” and it did not amount to much more than what would be covered on a basic non 'scammy' TEFL course. Whether that is the text book authors fault or not is unknown.
SF has also committed several price hikes in quick succession each time costing SF a number of students. SF will place blame for this on the teaching staff and consequently increase pressure and increase work demands on the teaching staff while still proclaiming “you have never had it so good!”
The holiday policy is one of the working arrangements that have been changed against staff wishes, as to whether it represents one of the un-agreed to contract changes, it is hard for the author to say given that no copy of a contract was provided.
There are now huge restrictions in places on when you can take holiday this includes a “busy time” restriction that amounts to about six months, the school “encourages” teachers to take holidays in line with national holidays however these are included in the “busy time” restriction. There are also very large fines for taking a holiday such that you might even be able to afford to take the time off. One teacher, who took one weekend off work, lost 1/3 of his monthly wage in this way.
Firstly there are a large amounts of hidden hours that are all unpaid and SF has all sorts of answers and tricks to dodge paying you overtime. Such answers have included “ teaching outside of the classroom does not count as teaching”. It is not unheard of for these unpaid hours to sometimes be more than double the contracted hours. This typically comes from activities that can eat up 6-9 hours of a day or preparation for them but as it is “not teaching” or “not teaching in a classroom” it does not count as “work” and no overtime will be paid. There have also been several occasions where the calculation of hours have been changed to avoid what would have been overtime. Such as going from a weekly (the contracted calculation) to a monthly average..and then back to a weekly.
Salary is mostly paid on time, there have been a few occasions where it has been late however.
It should also be of note that what an “teaching hour” in SF is, it is an actual hour rather than a “teaching hour” as a “teaching hour” is usually 45 minutes a 20 hour contract with sunflower is actually 25 “teaching hours”. This is of import when comparing to other job offers. SF has since risen the hours to 25 thus making a new teacher do more than 30 “teaching hours” where 25 is the recommended limit to avoid stress and burnout.
Days can be as long as 09:00 to 20:30 with sitting down forbidden, this is of particular concern as classes are usually back to back. The boss will happily shout at you to tell you how lucky you are to get that five minute break between classes and how great SF is to include that time in your hours payment calculation. The reality is that in those five minutes you are expected to talk to parents, escort the children to the toilet, play with the children, prepare for the next class and get yourself some water, there are also restrictions on what you can do with the free time that do you get. The water is important as you are expected to sing and dance for the entire shift, and showing signs of tiredness is forbidden.
The classes themselves offer the teacher with no freedom, a strict procedure is prescribed and the teacher most follow it in a robot like fashion, any deviation will be punished. This results in every class just being the same thing just with different vocabulary and grammar. This results in eventual boredom for the children of which the teacher will be held responsible as well as burnout for the teacher. The learning follows the local custom of rote memorisation but SF will resist any such claims and the textbooks used are also raced through at double the publishers recommended speed.
SF does have a fantastic set of resources that could be used for its lessons this includes a good sized library of English books and CDs as well as interactive whiteboards. However the foreign teachers do not get to use those white boards in their classes and the other resources go to waste due to the fixed nature of how the teachers are forced to teach in the lessons that prevents those resources from being used.
Teachers will also be expected to dress up in costumes to perform classes, with parents watching. At the interview stage SF will claim that its foreign teachers will never be used for marketing as they feel this devalues the teachers. Several teachers have since been devalued by performing in shopping centres, KFC, Pizza Hut, McDonald’s and doing public costume performances to large crowds. The children themselves are also used for marketing, SF will deny this, but when teachers are made to do some classes outside in places of maximum visibility rather than the most suitable outside location for teaching and then they are followed by clip board wielding sales reps it seems absurd to deny that it is marketing. The author is of the opinion that SF feels the intelligence of its teachers is lacking and they will believe anything they are told.
The author is of the opinion that any prospective recruit could do a lot worse than SF, there is also much better out there even the low salaried universities offer an attractive package when compared to SFs low pay for actual hours and lack of benefits.
SF was not always the way as seen above and was much better, what it has become is the result of a series of “improvements” to the company and the company has promised many more “improvements” to come. The management has also clearly stated its aim to become the most expensive training centre around, unfortunately it does not seem intent on providing the elevated service and smaller class sizes of the more expensive training centres.
Part of the SF marketing slogan (if you can call it that) contains the words, truth, kind-heartedness and purity. It claims to want to instil these values into its children. It seems that this will never be truly achieved as SF is incapable of displaying these virtues to its own staff, and certainly will not inspire the staff to take those extra steps to make such a thing reality.