Expatriate Teacher Recruitment in a Language Teaching Organization in China


This article will investigate teacher recruitment in the Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) industry in China. It will review literature on the subject, consider survey responses from 1220 teachers who either accepted or rejected offers of a job at a language teaching organization (LTO) in China and will attempt to explain the results and consider the implications for language teaching institutions.


Recruitment & Retention

Gone are the days when employees worked for one company their entire lives. Last year LinkedIn measured the global average for employee tenure to be four years (Batty, Bowley, Cruz & Gager, 2015), with workers in the USA aged between 24 and 35 typically switching jobs once every three years (“Employee Tenure in 2014”, 2014). For language teachers in China turnover is even higher. A recent investigation found that only 32% of expatriate teachers stayed with the same organization for longer than one year (Thorburn, 2016a).

Replacing workers incurs significant costs - often around 20% of workers’ annual salaries, and these costs increase for positions which require higher levels of education and specialized training (Boushey & Glynn, 2012). With high educational standards being necessary to obtain a visa in several countries (China, Indonesia, etc.), specialized training often required (e.g. Cambridge CELTA and Trinity CertTESOL) and the complexity of recruiting staff from overseas, it seems likely that the cost of replacing teachers working abroad will be significantly higher than the cost of replacing domestic workers on similar salaries in other industries.

Sources for the number of expatriate teachers recruited to work in China vary. International TEFL Academy stated in 2012 that 1000 expatriate teachers were recruited to China every month that year (“How large is the job market for English teachers abroad?”, 2012). Swanson (2013) puts the number of foreign teachers and experts recruited each year to work in mainland China at 100,000, thirty percent of whom are employed in the education industry (“The World through Expat Eyes”, 2015). Adkins (2015, pp15) estimates that “there are over 50,000 English language schools in China and over 90% [of which] are private institutions.” These developments, along with the steady improvement in American economy starting in 2009 (“Recent U.S. Economic Growth”, 2012) point towards increasing competition of teacher recruitment in the ELT market in China.

While much is written about teacher training and development in journals such as this, relatively little is written on the subject of teacher recruitment. However, as Paul Russell, who helped design Google's first structured Talent Management process says, “Development can help great people be even better - but if I had a dollar to spend, I’d spend 70 cents getting the right person in the door.” To get great people working for you, you have to make working for you great. But what counts as “great”?

An analysis of six recent reports (“Global Recruiting Trends”, 2015; “Global Recruiting Trends”, 2016;   “2015 Talent Trends”, 2015; “What Workers Want in 2012”, 2012; “The Global Talent Index Report: The Outlook to 2015”, 2015; “Hays UK Salary & Recruiting Trends 2016”, 2016) detailing the most important factors for recruitment cited by both employers and employees (Table 1) gives an indication.

Table 1: Factors cited in recruitment white papers as important for attracting new recruits

Table 1: Factors cited in recruitment white papers as important for attracting new recruits



This research set out to discover the main drivers for and challenges to Language Teaching Organizations (LTOs) in China in recruiting teachers by analyzing the reasons teachers cited for accepting or declining job offers. These drivers and challenges will be compared with factors from other industries in Table 1 as well as factors which have been identified as important in teacher motivation. The reasons for similarities and differences as well as the implications of the results will subsequently be discussed.



Sampling and Procedures

Between October 2014 and June 2016, 971 completed survey responses were received from teachers who had accepted jobs in an LTO in China. Between April 2015 and June 2016, 249 further completed survey responses were received, this time from teachers who declined job offers from the same organization.

Teachers selected the ‘primary reason’ for making their decision to either accept or decline a job offer from a multiple choice list of thirteen options. Open-ended responses were also collected using a space for “additional comments”. Secondary factors important in their decision making process were also chosen by teachers from the same multiple choice list. Teachers who declined a job offer were also asked where they worked now. Respondents were also asked with which group of self-indicated expats (SIEs) they most closely identified with (McDonnell, Scullion, Vaiman, & Haslberger, 2013).

Answers from respondents who did not choose a category but instead commented “other” were categorized based on their comments whenever possible.


Data Analysis

For ease of analysis and comparison the factors used in this survey were adapted from those used by Herzberg (1987) as this theory is still considered to be valid more than 50 years after it was originally proposed (Jones & Lloyd, 2005). These factors were also similar to those used by Thorburn (2016b) to analyze teacher turnover and renewal in China. This allowed reasons given by teachers for accepting or declining job offers to be compared with the reasons cited by teachers for renewing their contracts or resigning from their positions.

From the results it is possible to suggest those factors most important in attracting teachers to ESL positions as well as identify the biggest challenges faced in teacher recruitment in China.



In this study the most commonly cited reasons teachers chose for declining a job were (in order of importance):

  1.  Salary
  2.  The Recruiter
  3.  Location
  4. Work-Life Balance


 The most frequently cited reasons for teachers accepting a job were (in order of importance):

  1. Growth, Training & Development
  2. Location
  3.  Career Opportunities
  4.  Interest in Teaching


These are shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Reasons teachers cited for accepting or declining a job offer (declines, n=249; acceptances, n= 971)

Figure 1: Reasons teachers cited for accepting or declining a job offer (declines, n=249; acceptances, n= 971)

The majority of teachers who declined a job were either still working in their previous job or still in their home country (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Where are they now? (n=177)

Figure 2: Where are they now? (n=177)

Discussion and Implications


Salary was the single biggest challenge to expatriate teacher recruitment in this study, it being the most commonly chosen primary factor identified by teachers as the reason for declining a job offer. In other industries salary is also the most common reason applicants accept jobs as well as being the most frequently stated obstacle to hiring by businesses (Table 1). 45% of companies cite salary as one of their biggest hiring challenges (Batty, Bowley, Cruz & Gager, 2015). In this research respondents commented on the need for salary to cover university debts. This should not come as a surprise - median student debt upon graduating in the US is $60,000 (Szeltner & Zukin, 2011), more than double the annual salary of the position the teachers surveyed here applied for.

As well as university debt, teachers also commented that they did not want to accept a lower salary than they received in their current place of work. This implies that when setting salaries LTOs should consider the global market for teachers, especially in those countries the LTO is aiming to recruit from. Almost half of the teachers in this study who declined a job offer were still working in the same job that they had when they first applied and fewer than one in five went on to work for a competitor (Figure 2).

Teacher comments:

“For me it's a question of being able to meet Western financial commitments whilst continuing to save too.”
“In America we make decent money as educators so it has to be worthwhile relocating.”

Other research has found salary to be relatively unimportant in expatriate teacher retention (Thorburn, 2016b), which contrasts with the findings here. It is possible that teachers who are primarily motivated by salary do not join LTOs (such as the one in this study) and therefore are not inclined to renew their contracts or leave due to this factor. Furthermore, while motivational aspects of pay are well-documented there is almost no published research which supports a correlation between level of pay and job satisfaction (Judge, Piccolo, Podsakoff, Shaw & Rich, 2010). This may explain why prospective employees may be encouraged to accept or a decline a job based on salary, but much less likely to renew their contract for the same reason.



Outside the TEFL industry, location has been identified as a challenge to recruitment, being one of the top factors for employees to take into account when considering a job offer (Batty, Gager & Sittig, 2015). In this study location was both a challenge and a driver for recruitment and was therefore the most frequently cited factor by respondents. Previous studies in the TEFL industry have identified the importance of location to teachers (Hockley, 2006; Thorburn, 2016b). Here, 95% of those surveyed who accepted a job in China were based outside of the country at the time, thus necessitating a change of location for the applicants.

As a driver for recruitment many teachers commented on the excitement of moving to a new location – one of the main reasons SIEs move abroad (McDonnell, Scullion, Vaiman, & Haslberger, 2013). More than half of teachers surveyed here categorized themselves as “exploring SIEs”. Many SIEs are young people in their early career phase and move abroad to look for a new adventure with social and recreational motives (Inkson, Arthur, Pringle, & Barry, 1997).

As a challenge to recruitment, teachers commented on (a lack of) choice of city, health issues and adaptation. China was recently ranked as one of the most difficult countries in the world for expats to settle into (“The World Through Expat Eyes”, 2015). While there is little that LTOs can do to affect health issues for their teachers, recruiters and hiring managers may need to do more to address this issue in interviews with prospective employees. Giving teachers some choice in their work location as well as arranging accommodation for them should also help to increase acceptance rates.

Teacher comments:

“I would prefer to have the option to choose rather than just be offered one location.”
“I was concerned about the effects that China's issues with pollution may have on my health”
“It is an exciting opportunity to experience working and living in a different culture”


The Recruiter

One in five teachers who declined a job offer did so because of their relationship with their recruiter (with whom candidates communicate through Skype and email). Other studies have shown that applicants prefer to speak to managers in preference to recruiters. 53% of prospective employees want to speak to their prospective manager on interview day (compared with only 8% who prefer to speak to a recruiter) (Batty, Gager & Sittig, 2015).

In this study applicants’ comments focused on two issues: being given short deadlines which they did not feel comfortable with and being unhappy with their recruiter’s communication style. The need for transparency in dealing with complicated visa regulations and policies was also a feature of comments made by teachers, who often attributed these policies to their recruiter or the LTO.

 Teacher comments:

“I would have liked to have been given more time to think things through. Moving to China is a big step, and I was given just one weekend to make a decision, which I thought was unreasonable.”
“I felt as though my experience and qualifications were of no interest to her [my recruiter] or the company.”
“The policy to make new teachers start in second tier cities seems ridiculous when I went to Shanghai and the people there said they were understaffed and looking for more teachers”

Such comments highlight the importance of a positive interview experience for potential candidates. Other research found that found 83% of interviewees say that a negative interview experience can cause them to alter their opinion about a role or company they used to like while 87% indicated that a positive interview experience can change their mind about a role or company they once had reservations about (Batty, Gager & Sittig, 2015).

Trainers in LTOs mostly have several years of teaching and management experience, hold professional qualifications (e.g. Cambridge DELTA, Trinity DipTESOL) and have undergone hundreds of hours of professional development in the field of ESL before becoming full-time teacher trainers. Giving recruiters to opportunities for training and holding them to equivalent standards in terms relevant professional qualifications and management experience should result in better experiences for applicants. LTOs should also consider giving applicants access to their future manager during the interview process as research has shown managers most important in determining whether candidates have a positive interview experience or not (Batty, Gager & Sittig, 2015).


Growth, Training & Development

This factor was the single biggest draw for teachers to the LTO in this study – one third of teachers cited this as their primary reason for accepting a job offer. Employees crave training because they recognize they need it to survive and prosper in a world where increasing numbers possess the skills to compete in a knowledge economy” (Kalman, Narayan, Oehler, Schuler & Walker, 2015, pp13). Training and development is the most common benefit that companies offer to attract and retain management/specialized workers (Kalman, Narayan, Oehler, Schuler & Walker, 2015). The teachers in this study were similar to workers in other industries in their desire for professional and personal growth.

Teacher comments:

“[The company has a] good training certification program and growth for career opportunities within [the] organization”
“It's a company in which you can gain valuable training and qualifications while you work.”

Learning and development was recently cited as the third biggest human capital challenge facing human resource departments, with a tripling between 2013 and 2105 of the number of companies rating learning and development as very important (Eighteen, Haimes, Stemple & Vyver, 2015). LTOs must prioritize investment in development opportunities as these are important both for retaining teachers (Thorburn, 2016b) and attracting new teachers.


Career Opportunities

Career opportunities is one of the most important factors applicants consider when making a decision about a new job (Table 1). LinkedIn found a “strong career path” to be the second most important factor in recruitment behind “excellent compensation and benefits” (Abbot, Batty & Bevegni, 2015). Another study found that 45% of Generation Y workers (born between 1980 and 1994) indicate that a prestigious career is either “essential” or “very important” for them. The same study found that over half of respondents felt that “rapid promotion” was “very important” or “essential” for them (Szeltner & Zukin, 2011). This is in contrast with previous studies in the TEFL industry, where Hockley stated, “Most teachers I have talked to have no great interest in becoming managers” (Hockley, 2006, p. 3).

Here, career opportunities were the fourth most common reason teachers accepted a position with the LTO in question. Almost one third of teachers surveyed identified themselves as “career-focused SIEs”, the second most common category behind exploring SIEs (McDonnell, Scullion, Vaiman, & Haslberger, 2013).

Teacher comments:

“I have been very impressed [with] and am optimistic about the opportunities that will be available with [this company].”
“[The company] opens the door to adventures and careers in various places around the world.”
“There are many possibilities to enhance your resumé, become a senior teacher and DOS and do well in an overseas teaching position.”


interest in Teaching

A 2011 survey of 431 current junior, senior or graduate students and 807 generation Y workers found that 72% of college students and 59% of generation Y respondents agreed that “having a job where I can make an impact on causes or issues that are important to me” is either “very important” or “essential” (Szeltner & Zukin, 2011). Helping the world to communicate through teaching English as a foreign language seems like an appropriate profession for those interested in helping society. The promise of teaching was the primary reason given by one in six teachers for joining the organization.

“Companies sense that modern-day employees are increasingly looking for variety and challenge.” (Kalman, Narayan, Oehler, Schuler & Walker, 2015, pp13). With this in mind, it would seem important for LTOs to effectively communicate through their marketing to prospective teachers that variety, challenge and purpose are inherent in teaching.

Teacher Comments:

“[I] love to help spread literacy and education.”
 “[I am] excited to start working in China and start this new teaching journey!”


Work-life Balance

Szeltner & Zukin found that “finding a comfortable balance between work-life and non-work-life is now a societal, consensual value.” In this regard “there is substantial agreement among workers, regardless of generation” (2011, pp21). The same report also found that almost three-quarters of university graduates would be willing to sacrifice 15 percent of their salary in order to have a better balance between work and other areas of life and that almost half of the other workers surveyed would do the same (Szeltner & Zukin, 2011).This is supported by LinkedIn, who found that work-life balance was the third most important factor in attracting talent, cited by 29% of respondents and the most frequently identified factor by British staff for accepting a new position (Batty, Gager & Sittig, 2015).

In this study, 9% of respondents selected this factor as their primary reason for declining a job. Teacher comments focused on hours, workload and time-off.


Teacher comments:   

“[I would have liked the] opportunity to take a trip home mid-contract. A calendar year is quite a big commitment, and [a] long time to go without seeing friends and family.”
“I would prefer a Monday to Friday, daytime position (compared to the 12pm - 8pm Wednesday to Sunday schedule at [this company]).”

With this in mind LTOs should consider allocating more annual leave for teachers to allow them time to travel and explore (the reason more than half of the SIEs chose to move abroad). While unsociable working hours may be a necessary evil of the TEFL industry, this factor is a considerable barrier to recruitment.



While American author Henry David Thoreau’s adage “Do not hire a man who does your work for money, but him who does it for love of it” may be true in some contexts, men and women need to be offered sufficient salary to lure them away from their current jobs as well as to pay off their university debts. This research reinforces the finding that “compensation matters most when making a final job decision” (Batty, Gager & Sittig, 2015, pp5). Love of the job is still important however. The third most commonly cited reason for accepting a job was the attraction of teaching.

The importance of the relationship between recruiter and their hires seemed to be more important in this research than elsewhere (Table 1). This may be due to the level of trust required to make the difficult and sometimes stressful transition to another country (Mezias & Scandura, 2005). Given the results here it is hard to overstate the importance of hiring and training the best recruitment staff. As the author and social scientist Leo Rosten says, “First-rate people hire first-rate people; second-rate people hire third-rate people.”

Location also proved to be more important to potential employees than research outside of the TEFL industry would indicate. As with other research on Generation Y employees’ professional growth, training, development and career advancement were all of great importance. In other industries, “companies often use the training they offer as a carrot to entice prospective new employees” (Kalman, Narayan, Oehler, Schuler & Walker, 2015, pp13). LTOs need to coherently articulate their professional development and growth opportunities to prospective employees.

As English educationalist Sir Ken Robinson says, “There is no school in the world that is better than its teachers.” If you want your school to be better, recruit better teachers.



Abbot, L., Batty, R., Bevegni., S. (2016) Global Recruiting Trends 2016. LinkedIn. Retrieved from https://business.linkedin.com/content/dam/business/talent-solutions/global/en_us/c/pdfs/GRT16_GlobalRecruiting_100815.pdf


Adkins, S. (2015). 2015-2020 China Digital English Language Learning Market, Ambient Insight, LLC. Ambient Insight Retrieved from http://www.ambientinsight.com/Resources/Documents/AmbientInsight_2015-2020_China_Digital_English_Market_Abstract.pdf  


Barrett, R., Dai, D., Dexter, P., Galea, J., Tauber, T., Titus, A., & Vahdat., H. (2015) Global Human Capital Trends 2015: Leading in the new world of work. Deloltte University Press. Retrieved from http://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/at/Documents/human-capital/hc-trends-2015.pdf


Batty, R., Gager, S., Sittig. A. (2015) LinkedIn Tallent Trends, 2015. LinkedIn Talent Solutions. Retrieved from https://business.linkedin.com/content/dam/business/talent-solutions/global/en_us/c/pdfs/global-talent-trends-report.pdf


Batty, R., Bowley, R., Cruz, E., Gager, S. (2015) Global Recruiting Trends, 2015. LinkedIn Talent Solutions. Retrieved from https://business.linkedin.com/content/dam/business/talent-solutions/global/en_US/c/pdfs/recruiting-trends-global-linkedin-2015.pdf


Bennett, C., Collins, L. (2015) HR and people analytics: Stuck in neutral from Global Human Capital Trends 2015, Leading in the new world of work, Deloitte University Press. Retrieved from http://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/at/Documents/human-capital/hc-trends-2015.pdf


Boushey, H. and Glynn, S. J. (2012) There Are Significant Business Costs to Replacing Employees. Center for American Progress. November 16. Retrieved from https://www.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/CostofTurnover.pdf


CIPD megatrends, 2013 https://www.cipd.co.uk/binaries/megatrends_2013-job-turnover-slowed-down.pdf


Eighteen, J., Haimes, J., Stemple, J., Vyver, B. (2015) Learning & Development: Into the Spotlight from Global Human Capital Trends 2015, Leading in the new world of work, Deloitte University Press. Retrieved from http://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/at/Documents/human-capital/hc-trends-2015.pdf


Employee Tenure in 2014. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, News Release, Thursday, September 18, 2014, Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/tenure.pdf


Hays UK Salary & Recruiting Trends 2016. Retrieved from http://salaryguide.hays.co.uk/web/pdf/Hays_UK_Salary_&_Recruiting_Trends_2016.pdf 


Hockley, A. (2006, March). What makes teachers tick? IATEFL Leadership & Management SIG – Newsletter, 37, 10-13.


How large is the job market for English teachers abroad? International TEFL Academy Blog. Retrieved from http://www.internationalteflacademy.com/faq/bid/102201/How-large-is-the-job-market-for-English-teachers-abroad


Inkson, K., Arthur, M., Pringle, J., & Barry, S. (1997). Expatriate assignment versus overseas experience: Contrasting models of international human resource development. Journal of World Business, 32(4), 351-368.


Kalman, D., Narayan, K. A., Oehler, K. H., Schuler, R., Walker, M. (2015) The Global Talent Index Report: The Outlook to 2015 Heidrick & Struggles. Economist Intelligence Unit. Retrieved from http://graphics.eiu.com/upload/eb/HeidrickGTI.pdf


Judge, T. A., Piccolo, R., Podsakoff, N.,Shaw, J. & Rich, B. (2010). The relationship between pay and job satisfaction: A meta-analysis of the literature. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 77(2), 157-167.


McDonnell, A., Scullion, H., Vaiman, V., & Haslberger, A. (2013). Self-Initiated Expatriate's Adjustment: A Neglected Terrain. Palgrave Macmillan Limited.


Mezias, J. M. &. Scandura, T.A. (2005) A Needs-Driven Approach to Expatriate Adjustment and Career Development: A Multiple Mentoring Perspective Journal of International Business Studies 36: 519-538.


Recent U.S. Economic Growth. (2012) US Department of the Treasury In Charts. Retrieved from https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/data-chart-center/Documents/20120502_EconomicGrowth.pdf


Swanson, T. (2013). Great Wall of Numbers: Business Opportunities & Challenges in China [Kindle version]. Retrieved from www.amazon.com.


Szeltner, M., Zukin, S. (2012) Talent Report: What Workers Want in 2012. Net Impact.  Retrieved from https://netimpact.org/sites/default/files/documents/what-workers-want-2012.pdf


Thorburn, R. (2016a) Training & Turnover: An Investigation into the Effects of Training on Staff Turnover. IATEFL Leadership and Management SIG Newsletter, 47, 27-31.


Thorburn, R. (2016b) English Language Teacher Motivation and Turnover in a Private Language Institution in China. English Teaching in China. May 22-27.


The World Through Expat Eyes. (2015) www.internations.Survey Report 2015 Retrieved www.internations.org/expat-insider

Creating a Successful Induction Program for EFL Teachers Abroad


As managers and trainers, we are usually well aware of the organizational need for training new teachers when they arrive in our schools. New teachers need to learn about the curriculum, need to understand the methodology of their school, need to be trained on how to manage the classroom. But what about the needs of the new teachers themselves? This workshop aimed to make participants more aware of the needs of teachers who move abroad to teach English as a foreign language, demonstrate a low-cost way to meet teachers’ needs and show the results of meeting these needs.


Surprisingly little has been written about the needs of expats who chose to move to another country to live and work on their own arrangement (termed “self-initiated expats” or “SIEs”) (Mezias & Scandura 2005). However, the benefits of providing assistance to ensure SIEs successfully transition to the host country are well established. An effective induction program for staff moving abroad can reduce the time it takes for new employees to reach their performance potential as well as helping organizations to attract talent (Howe-Walsh & Schyns 2010). The stress caused by the uncertainty associated with moving abroad can be minimized by providing SIEs with information about the host country (Mezias & Scandura 2005). For language teaching organizations (LTOs) recruiting teachers from abroad, providing support and information face to face for teachers before they move abroad is often either highly expensive or logistically impossible. It therefore logically follows that LTOs should attempt to help teachers with their transition abroad using online resources.


Research Method

Over a period of 6 months, surveys were sent to SIE teachers who recently accepted a job offer to work for Education First (EF) in China, a privately owned LTO with 102 schools in 16 cities in China which teaches both adults and young learners. 265 useable responses were received. 58% of the respondents reported they had less than one year’s TEFL experience and 85% were scheduled to start work within two months of completing the survey. The survey asked two open questions:

  • “What more information would you like to receive before you arrive in China/start working for EF?”

  • “What are your main concerns about living in China and/or working for EF?”


A low-cost social media website was created which offered a networking space for teachers and provided information about life in China and working at EF. Teachers were invited online to join “arrival groups” with peers who would arrive in China at the same time as them to facilitate building connections with other teachers. Teachers could also “friend” other teachers on the website and add a profile photo to their profile page.


Activity on the website was recorded for 300 SIE teachers who accepted job offers. 192 of these teachers joined the company. 108 dropped out of the recruitment process. The online activity of these teachers was compared to determine the effect of pre-departure information on attrition.



Teachers’ most common requests for information and main concerns pre-departure centered around issues such as finding somewhere to live, overcoming the language barrier, knowing what to bring, managing their finances, overcoming culture shock and making connections with other teachers. Teachers tended to be less concerned and inquisitive about understanding the curriculum, receiving training or learning the teaching methodology of the LTO. This was true both for teachers with and without prior TEFL experience.


It was also established that the more teachers used the website, accessed information and interacted with other teachers online, the less likely they were to drop out of the recruitment process (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Effect of pre-departure social medial activity on attrition

Figure 1: Effect of pre-departure social medial activity on attrition


Conclusions & Recommendations

The majority of teachers’ concerns and requests for information were ‘basic needs’ (i.e. physiological, safety and belonging needs) (Maslow, 1943) which contrast with information and training often given to new teachers on methodologies, classroom management, etc. While LTOs’ goals for teacher inductions cannot be ignored, taking into account the needs of teachers can help them to reach their performance potential faster (Howe-Walsh & Schyns 2010).  


Accessing information and networking with other teachers pre-departure appeared to help facilitate the successful transition of teachers to the host country (in this case, China). Providing information and networking opportunities for teachers pre-departure and encouraging teachers to take advantage of these resources can increase teachers’ chances of effectively transitioning to living and working in a new country.



Howe-Walsh, L. and Schyns, B. 2010 ‘Self-initiated expatriation: implications for HRM’. International Journal of Human Resource Management. 21: 260-273.

Maslow, A. 1943. A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review 50: 370-396.    

John M. Mezias and Terri A. Scandura. 2005. ‘A Needs-Driven Approach to Expatriate Adjustment and Career Development: A Multiple Mentoring Perspective’ Journal of International Business Studies 36: 519-538.

Training & Turnover: An Investigation into the Effects of Training on Staff Turnover


Have you heard the old joke about training?

The Chief Financial Officer asked: What if we invest in training our people and they leave?

To which the Human Resources manager replied: What if we don’t and they stay?

Many of us have heard similar arguments against training made by those who hold the purse strings in our organizations. We know training makes sense. But what truth is there to the Chief Financial Officer’s (CFO) argument? It is becoming increasingly common for trainers to be asked to prove their training programs deliver return on investment (ROI) (Virtual Asherage, 2013). As the CFO hints in the joke, if employees leave after receiving training, any ROI will be all but impossible. Furthermore, many companies worry that training may encourage employee turnover (Allen, 2008). So, what is the reality of training and turnover? And how does this relate to the language teaching industry?

This paper will review relevant literature on the subject of training and turnover and attempt to establish the relationship between the two by examining teacher turnover in a language teaching organization in China and discuss the results and the implications of these. 

Turnover & Training

A decade ago, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) researched the effectiveness of 36 different initiatives aimed at decreasing staff turnover. They found that the most effective of these involved salaries, health care, schedules and time off. Next most effective (the ninth most effective out of 36 initiatives) was “training and development opportunities” (Heneman & Judge, 2006). Other research has shown that employees tend to consider both opportunities for their future development (Allen, Shore & Griffeth, 2003) and the training they have received in the past (Aguenza & Som, 2012) when making decisions about whether to remain with their current employer or to look elsewhere for work.

The workplace has changed a lot in the last decade, with an influx of Generation Y employees (born between 1980 and 1994) into the workplace. Generation Y employees are usually believed to be more motivated by advancement and less motivated by responsibility and compensation compared with their Generation X counterparts (born between 1965 and 1979) (Barford & Hester, 2011). Recent research involving over 240,000 participants conducted by Universum, a Swedish consultancy which specializes in brand building and talent acquisition, revealed that 40% of Generation Y respondents “list their biggest fear as becoming trapped in a job with no chance for development” (Dill, 2014, p. 2). Training and development in the workplace look to be more important than ever before. 

The language teaching industry would appear to be no different. In a survey of 105 language teachers working in 91 language teaching organizations, Hockley (2006) found that “opportunity for self-development and improvement” was among six factors most frequently cited by teachers as motivators at work. More recently, “growth, training & development” were among the four most common reasons English teachers in China cited for renewing their annual contracts (Thorburn, 2016).

In spite of the evidence above, there is a commonly held conviction that “training may make employees more marketable” and therefore make it easier for them to find work with competitors (Allen, 2008, p. 23). Employees who receive more training are only slightly less likely to resign than those who receive little or no training (Griffeth, Hom, & Gaertner, 2000) and the relatively low impact of employees’ perceptions of growth opportunities on retention suggests this factor is merely a “distal determinant of turnover” (Allen, Shore & Griffeth, 2003, p. 102). In the language teaching industry, teacher turnover remains one of the biggest and most common challenges facing language teaching organizations (Hockley, 2006; Thorburn, 2016).


The aim of this research was to compare turnover of teachers who took part in training courses with turnover of teachers who did not, identify factors which influenced retention and compare these with the findings of researchers in other fields. This research was conducted at a privately owned for-profit language teaching organization with over one hundred schools in China which teaches both adults and young learners. 


Method: Sampling, Procedures & Data Analysis

To measure staff turnover, the entry and exit dates of 767 expatriate teachers who left the organization between May 2013 and August 2015 were compared. This established the percentage of teachers who stayed with the organization for more than one, two and three years and thus the percentages of teachers who signed second, third and fourth year contracts with the organization. From payroll and recruitment records the average and median ages of teachers in the organization was determined.

A list of 107 staff who studied and self-financed a level 7 (in the UK National Qualifications Framework) post graduate Diploma in TESOL, organized and run by the organization, was compared with data from payroll to establish the number of years each staff member spent as an employee of the organization after beginning the qualification. This was rounded down to the nearest year, determining the minimum percentage of these teachers that renewed their contract after starting the course.

The same process was carried out for 128 teachers who studied a distance learning course in one of a variety of topics related to either teaching or management. These courses are run entirely online, have up to sixteen participants, last 10 weeks, are not externally accredited, are recommended study pre-Diploma and are financed by the organization (i.e. there is no cost to the teachers). In August 2015, it was possible to determine the percentage of these teachers who signed a second (n=128) or third (n=34) contract, but not fourth year contract, as these courses began running in February 2013, less than four years previously.

In August 2015, 51 teachers (73% response rate) who studied the Diploma in TESOL and 38 teachers (52% response rate) who studied a distance learning course and still worked for the organization, responded to a survey about the courses and how these related to their decisions to renew their contracts. Respondents answered open ended questions regarding their motivations for taking the course and rated factors on a Likert-type scale (1 = strongly disagree to 6 = strongly agree) in response to the question “To what extent do you agree the following influenced your decision to renew your contract(s) after starting the Diploma in TESOL/the distance learning course?” They were also asked their job title when they started the course and their current job title. From payroll records, these teachers’ dates of birth were analyzed to calculate the ratio of Generation Y to Generation X teachers.


89% of teachers who studied the level 7 Diploma in TESOL and 87% of teachers who studied a ten week distance learning course signed a second contract with the organization. 32% of all expatriate teachers signed a second year contract (Figure 1).

Figure 1: % of teachers who renewed their contracts with the organization (Diploma in TESOL n=107, Distance Learning Course n=128, All Teachers n=767)

Figure 1: % of teachers who renewed their contracts with the organization (Diploma in TESOL n=107, Distance Learning Course n=128, All Teachers n=767)

Expatriate teachers in the organization had an average age of 32 and a median age of 28. 83% of these teachers were born post 1980 (Generation Y) and 17% born between 1965 and 1979 (Generation X). The Diploma in TESOL teachers were on average around five years older, although the teachers who studied distance learning courses were found to have the same average age as the expatriate teacher population in this organization (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Ages statistics of teachers (Diploma in TESOL n=70, Distance Learning Course n=296, All Teachers n=1247)

Figure 2: Ages statistics of teachers (Diploma in TESOL n=70, Distance Learning Course n=296, All Teachers n=1247)

The factors most commonly cited by teachers which encouraged them to renew their contracts with the organization were

  1. Future development
  2. Organizational commitment
  3. Contribution to career advancement
  4. Timing of the qualifications

The majority of respondents reported that reimbursement for the course did not encourage them to renew their contracts. 

Discussion & Implications

There is a strong correlation between teachers who studied training courses and teacher retention (Figure 1). The possible reasons for this will be discussed below along with the staff turnover rates at this organization. 

Future Development

Teachers’ future development was the most important factor in encouraging teachers to renew their contracts. 67% of the teachers who studied the Diploma in TESOL and 78% of the teachers who studied a distance learning course agreed or strongly agreed that they wanted to continue to work in a organization which provides training opportunities like the course they studied. One respondent commented,

“I chose to study the distance learning course primarily because I was interested in taking the Diploma in TESOL at a later stage in my career. I thought the distance learning course would be excellent preparation for the kind of tasks and research I would be expected to undertake on the Diploma in TESOL.”

This illustrates the importance of offering qualifications which progress in complexity as opposed to one-off training courses. Half of the teachers surveyed reported they had subsequently studied a second distance learning course. 

These results are consistent with Allen, Shore & Griffeth’s (2003) findings that employees’ future development plays an important role in their decisions about turnover and demonstrates the importance of organizations not only offering training and qualifications, but further qualifications that staff can study afterwards.

Organizational Commitment

In spite of having to pay for the qualification themselves, 43% of the Diploma in TESOL respondents agreed that they felt loyal to the organization for providing them with development opportunities like this course. This percentage was higher for teachers who studied distance learning courses (63%), suggesting that sponsorship for qualifications may increase employee loyalty. 

Researchers have found that investing and contributing to employees’ development should enhance retention (Huselid, 1995). Investment in employees’ development can create feelings of obligation to the organization and its goals which correlates with low turnover (Wayne, Shore & Liden, 1997). Just as people are more likely to do a favor for a friend who has helped them in the past, in a work context, employees are more likely to be loyal to an organization which has invested in them and helped them develop (Shore & Wayne, 1993).

Career Advancement

45% of the teachers who studied the Diploma in TESOL said that their primary motivation for taking the course was career advancement. 61% of these teachers received a promotion between one and five years from their course start date. However, only 49% of the Diploma in TESOL respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the course helped their career progression within the organization. Similarly, 51% of the distance learning course teachers agreed or strongly agreed that the course helped their career progression within the organization. This could be a result of the unrealistic career advancement expectations of Generation Y employees (Tyler, 2007), who formed the majority of the respondents. 

It is commonly believed that younger employees consider advancement opportunities to be more important than older employees (Schramm, 2004) and Generation Y employees place more importance on personal growth than the Generation X employees. This explains the importance of career advancement in these teachers’ decisions.


64% of teachers who studied the Diploma in TESOL agreed or strongly agreed that the timing of the qualification led to their renewing their contracts. It is logical that employees stayed with the organization while completing the nine month course, especially since their chances of finding a better job would be expected to improve upon finishing the qualification (Allen, 2008). Furthermore, it is common for teachers to defer part of the assessment for this course for up to three years after beginning the qualifications.

However, this does not explain the 87% of expatriate teachers who studied distance learning courses who also renewed their contracts. None of these teachers strongly agreed that timing influenced their decision to renew their contracts. Distance learning courses must be completed within a 10 week period (and are therefore are less likely to overlap teachers’ contract renewal periods). While the timing of the courses can be considered an important factor, it cannot be considered to be the only or main factor influencing renewal. 


In this study, over 50% of the teachers who studied the Diploma in TESOL were offered some form of reimbursement. The type of reimbursement offered varied from a monthly “qualification bonus” equal to roughly one third of the course cost per year to full reimbursement of the course costs around one year after course completion. Only 28% of the respondents agreed that reimbursement or potential reimbursement for all or part of the course cost encouraged them to renew their contracts. 

Allen (2008) suggests that reimbursement of tuition fees for employees who remain with the organization for a specified period of time can help to decrease turnover of qualified employees. Research by SHRM found that this practice was moderately successful in reducing turnover (Heneman & Judge, 2006). While it cannot be said that reimbursement is unimportant in encouraging retention in general, in this study it was not a major contributing factor in decreasing turnover. This may reflect the attitudes of Generation Y employees being more motivated by advancement less motivated and compensation compared with Generation X employees (Barford & Hester, 2011). 

Turnover Rates

The high proportion of Generation Y employees in the organization (Figure 2) may partially explain the high turnover of expatriate teachers who did not take courses; research shows that younger employees are more likely to leave their organizations compared with older employees (Allen, 2008) and Generation Y employees change jobs particularly frequently (Tyler, 2007).  

It could be argued that the teachers who took part in training did so because they were more serious about their careers as teachers and that these teachers would therefore be less likely to leave the organization to seek employment in other industries. Thus, these teachers “probably would have stayed anyway”, regardless of whether training was available to them or not. 

However, 88% of the Diploma in TESOL survey respondents and 89% of the distance learning course respondents either agreed or strongly agreed with at least one of the statements relating to the course having an effect on them renewing their contracts. While it could be argued that some of the trainees may have renewed their contracts regardless of whether these courses were available or not, this cannot be considered true for the majority of respondents.


In this study, there was a strong negative correlation negative between training and turnover. Teachers who invested their time (and sometimes money) in taking a qualification were more likely to sign a second contract when compared with the teachers who did not study such a course (Figure 1). It would appear that there is a cause and effect relationship between providing training courses and reduced turnover. Almost all of the teachers who studied a course agreed or strongly agreed with at least one statement relating to the course encouraging them to renew their contracts.

The variety of factors which respondents agreed to suggests that a combination of factors caused teachers to renew as opposed to a single factor such as career advancement or reimbursement. One respondent commented, “I renewed my contract a few months before starting the Diploma [in TESOL] and the prospect of taking the course was the main reason to stay. During the course, my contract renewal was largely due to wanting the finish the course. Since completing the course I have decided to stay because of promotion and further study opportunities (especially management training courses).” This example reveals the importance of a combination of career advancement, timing and future development in encouraging teachers to renew their contracts. 

In this study, reimbursement was found to be considerably less important than future training opportunities, organizational commitment and career growth in the organization. Given the relative unimportance of this factor, organizations may wish to avoid the costly burden of reimbursing employees for courses and instead invest in either providing more qualifications or helping employees to advance within the organization. Both of these factors correlate with staff retention (Barford & Hester, 2011; Allen, Shore & Griffeth, 2003). 

While the effects of training in this study strongly correlate to decreased turnover, almost half of the employees who studied a Diploma left the organization within four years of starting the course. Managers (and CFOs) should be concerned that their most highly trained and skilled workers may leave. When it comes to training and turnover, there remains no better advice than that of Richard Branson: “Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don’t want to.” Following this approach should keep both CFOs and HR managers happy. 


Aguenza, B. B., & Som A. P. (2012, November/December). Motivational Factors of Employee Retention and Engagement in Organizations. International Journal of Advances in Management and Economics, 88-95.

Allen, D. G. (2008). Retaining Talent: A Guide to Analyzing and Managing Employee Turnover. SHRM Foundation.

Allen, D. G., Shore, L. M., and Griffeth, R.W. (2003).  The role of perceived organizational support and supportive human resource practices in the turnover process. Journal of Management, 29, 99-118.

Dill, K. (2014). 7 Things You (Probably) Don't Realize About Your Millennial Employees. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/kathryndill/2014/11/13/7-things-you-probably-dont-realize-about-your-millennial-employees/

Griffeth, R.W., Hom, P.W., & Gaertner, S. 2000.

A meta-analysis of antecedents and correlates of employee turnover: Update, moderator tests, and research implications for the next millennium. Journal of Management, 26, 463-488.

Heneman, H.G. & Judge, T.A. (2006). Staffing Organizations, 5th edition. McGraw Hill Irwin.

Hockley, A. (2006, March). What makes teachers tick? IATEFL Leadership & Management SIG – Newsletter, 37: 10-13

Huselid, M. A. (1995). The Impact of Human Resource Management Practices on Turnover, Productivity, and Corporate Financial Performance. Academy of Management Journal, 38: 635–672.

Schramm, J. (2004, September). Age Groups Mostly in Accord. HR Magazine.

Shore, L. M., & Wayne, S. J. (1993). Commitment and Employee Behavior: Comparison of Affective Commitment and Continuance Commitment with Perceived Organizational Support. Journal of Applied Psychology, 78: 774–780.

Thorburn, R. C., (2016). English Language Teacher Motivation and Turnover in a Private Language Institution in China. English Teaching in China, July 2016.

Tyler, K. (2007, May). The Tethered Generation. HR Magazine, 41-46.

Virtual Asherage White Paper (2013). Measuring the Value and ROI of Elearning.

Wayne, S. J., Shore, L. M., & Liden, R. C. (1997). Perceived Organizational Support and Leader-Member Exchange: A social exchange perspective. Academy of Management Journal, 40: 82–111.


A Performance Review for Performance Reviews

Introduction: Performance Reviews

The ultimate goal of a performance management system should be to improve performance. “Performance management can make a vital contribution to enhancing individual and organizational performance in a highly competitive business environment” (Atkinson & Shaw 2006: 191) and is a vital factor in business competition (Mayo, 2001).

In order to achieve this, an effective performance management system should set clear expectations for employees. When employees know and understand what is expected of them they can and will perform to meet these expectations (Armstrong, 1994). Performance review systems should have a “future-oriented strategic focus [that] is applied to all employees in a workforce in order to maximize their current performance and future potential” (Atkinson & Shaw 2006: 174). A performance management system needs to facilitate effective feedback (ibid). Finally, for a performance review system to be effective performance reviews must be carried out regularly. “You can't measure the effectiveness of the program if the company isn't executing the program correctly” (Cequea, 2014). The relationship between these aspects of the EF performance review system (described below) is summarized in Figure 1.

Figure 1: The performance review cycle at EF

Figure 1: The performance review cycle at EF

There is some controversy as to whether performance reviews are an effective method of managing performance. Sholtes states that “There is nothing to indicate that a company which uses performance appraisal does any better than it would if it did not use performance appraisal” (Scholtes 1996:11). 

Introduction: Education First

Education First (EF) is the world’s largest EFL company (Swanson 2013). The main teaching functions in China are:

  • EF English Centers for Kids & Teens (Kids & Teens) which provide language lessons for children aged from 3 to 18 in groups of up to 16 learners per class
  • EF English Centers (EFEC) for adults with group sizes between four and 25.


Kids & Teens has 51 schools in six cities in China and EFEC has 50 schools, the majority of which are in larger cities. The number of EF schools has increased since 2005 (Figure 2). In EFEC, teachers report to Center Education Managers (CEMs). CEMs are managed by a Center General Manager (CGM), usually a former sales manager with a ‘dotted line’ to a Regional Education Manager (REM).

Figure 2: Number of centrally owned EF schools in China

Figure 2: Number of centrally owned EF schools in China

TEFL companies in China generally experience a high level of teacher turnover, with teachers often leaving after one year or less and rarely continuing in their posts for longer than two years. Although all new teachers who work for EF have teaching experience, many recruits have less than one year’s TEFL experience. These inexperienced teachers will clearly have more performance problems than teachers with greater TEFL experience, thus necessitating an effective performance management system.

Consistent with the general business trend in recent years, EF managers have large spans of control (Robbins 2011:442) often managing up to 20 teachers (at the same time as teaching up to 17 hours of classes a week themselves). This results in managers having relatively little time to observe teachers and give feedback and thus manage performance.              


Current System

The current EFEC performance review system, launched in June 2013, is based on behavioural competencies. It is linked to the interview process, job descriptions and training, as these all use the same competency set.

The system was developed by considering the competency set of teachers and writing tangible yet non-prescriptive descriptors for each behavioural competency both inside and outside the classroom which importantly allow for diversity in how staff achieve these objectives (Tahvanainen, 2000). Descriptors were weighted 50/50 inside the classroom to outside the classroom as EFEC teachers spend approximately 50% of their working hours teaching. The descriptors were trialled, feedback received, changes made and then the system was rolled out. 

Expectations for teachers’ performance are set during teacher onboarding (induction) training, during their first week in EF. Teachers are introduced to descriptors for performance and explore what these mean and consider specific examples. 

Teachers are assessed on criteria defined in the Teacher Development Program booklet by their CEM and REM 1-2 weeks prior to the end of probation, after four months and after ten months. A performance review form is completed prior to the review by both the teacher and the CEM while making reference to the Teacher Development Program performance descriptors. The individual development plan is completed by the teacher and the CEM during the review.

Teachers’ pay for their second year contract is based up on their performance review score, determined by how many ‘meets expectations’ and ‘exceeds expectations’ descriptors are judged to have met. The highest pay increase possible is 15% and the lowest 2%.



As previously stated, a performance management and review system should

  • be carried out consistently
  • set clear expectations for employees
  • give employees useful feedback
  • increase employee performance


To evaluate the EFEC performance review system, surveys were emailed to and completed by the following:

  • 26 (out of 39) EFEC CEMs- 67% completion rate
  • 44 teachers who had recently passed probation - 50% completion rate
  • 114 teachers who renewed their contracts with EF- 70% completion rate

The survey responses from EFEC teachers and Kids & Teens teachers were compared. No comparison between managers in EFEC and Kids & Teens was possible as Kids & Teens managers were not surveyed.



21% of teachers in EFEC, who had recently passed probation,  reported not having received a performance review and almost twice as many (39%) in Kids & Teens reported the same.



EFEC teachers report being clearer about what is expected of them compared with teachers in Kids & Teens (Figure 4). This may be a result of the EFEC performance review relating to the teacher interview, job description and onboarding training. The Kids & Teens performance review system does not relate to any of these.

Figure 3: Responses to “I understood what was expected of me before my performance review”

Figure 3: Responses to “I understood what was expected of me before my performance review”


47% of teachers in EFEC reported receiving “excellent” feedback from their manager (Figure 4), almost three times more than in Kids & Teens when renewing their contracts. However, different teachers will have different views of what “excellent” constitutes.

Figure 4: Ratings for “Feedback from your manager” based on 104 responses from teachers who renewed their contracts with EF

Figure 4: Ratings for “Feedback from your manager” based on 104 responses from teachers who renewed their contracts with EF

Improved Performance

Survey responses indicated that CEMs believe performance reviews were somewhat useful in improving performance but generally more useful as a tool for deciding whether or not teachers should pass probation or have their contracts renewed (Figure 5).

Figure 5: What CEMs consider performance reviews useful for

Figure 5: What CEMs consider performance reviews useful for

Overall, the EFEC performance management system can be said to:

  • be conducted around 80% of the time
  • set clear expectations for the majority (67%) of teachers
  • facilitate useful feedback for half of employees
  • be somewhat useful at increasing employee performance


Strengths of the current system

1. Relevance

The EFEC appraisal system is linked to other aspects of working at EF (job description, training, etc.) and is representative of how teachers’ spend their time at work. 50% of the descriptors are based on teachers’ work inside the classroom, and 50% outside the classroom (teachers in EFEC spend 21 hours a week teaching, and 19 hours a week outside the classroom). One CEM noted the system “has a strong focus on development for teachers” and another praised “tying in the review with competencies that are shared with other EF staff members”, ensuring that current performance can be linked to future promotion inside and outside EF.


2. Measurement

Performance is notoriously difficult to measure accurately. “When it comes to measuring human performance we use the most unrefined, inaccurate, unreliable, and capricious method we could possible devise: one human subjectively reviewing another human” (Scholtes 1996: 315). Using observable behaviours as part of a competency based review system appears to help to overcome this difficulty. One CEM commented that the EFEC performance review system made performance “easy to measure, related to concrete observable behaviour” and another commented it was “systematic and objective”. However, there is an issue of behaviour which is carried out but may not be observed.


3. Observation & Feedback

Almost 50% of EFEC teachers were observed three times or more by their manager and almost 90% reported being observed three times or more by peers (Figure 7) during probation. Less than 25% of Kids & Teens teachers were observed three times or more by their manager and the same percentage reported being observed three times or more by peers (Figure 7). This suggests that teachers in EFEC are receiving the feedback necessary to improve during their crucial first two months, especially from peers. This type of 360 degree feedback provides a “process for getting feedback face-to-face directly from who worked closely with an employee” (Ludeman 2000:1).

Figure 6: How often teachers were observed during probation

Figure 6: How often teachers were observed during probation


1. Compensation, not development

The appraisal system is linked with compensation. The problems associated with this are numerous. “Rewards, like punishment, may actually undermine the intrinsic motivation that results in optimal performance. The more a manager stresses what an employee can earn for good work, the less interested that employee will be in the work itself” (Kohn 1993:6). Linking financial rewards to performance “requires robust systems of measurement of achievement, which is acknowledged as being highly problematic” (Campbell, Campbell & Chia 1998), especially in jobs where performance goals are not objective, quantifiable or capable of being directly measured (e.g. in teaching). One CEM said the link between performance and salary “creates [a] kind of defensive attitude between staff and managers [during performance reviews]. Due to the fact that the final scores will affect the next year’s salary or bonus, when managers give the negative feedback to staff, they will become very defensive or unreceptive and try to argue.”


 2. Understanding of descriptors

CEMs generally reported feeling unclear on the performance review descriptors. Most constructive feedback from CEMs centred on the descriptors.

CEM comments included: 

“Most people would still find it very subjective despite the descriptors given.”
“Competencies are open to interpretation with descriptors lacking in clarity.”
“The switch to competencies was a good one, but the lack of specific performance items has left the review open for broad interpretation, which manager and employee sometimes do not agree upon.”
“Different people have different understanding of each descriptor.”
“All reviews are subjective can suffer from a lack of consistency across centres.”


3. CGM understanding

Many CEMs reported their managers (CGMs) had little understanding of the current performance review system. This was problematic for CEMs not only in delivering performance reviews to their own staff but in receiving performance reviews themselves. Only 13% of CEMs surveyed rated performance reviews they had received themselves in EF between 4 or 5 out of 5. 89% of teachers who had recently passed probation rated the performance reviews they had received as 4 or 5 out of 5 (Figure 8).


 CEM comments included:

“CGMs don't understand the system at all.”
“CGMs have very little understanding of the system.”
“My CGM doesn't entirely understand my work and his understanding of the competencies is significantly lower than mine.”
“CGMs and REMs should be more knowledgeable on what the descriptors require of the CEM/teachers.”
Figure 7: Responses from different surveys on “How useful are performance reviews?”

Figure 7: Responses from different surveys on “How useful are performance reviews?”


1.     Remove links to salary     

This would allow the focus to shift from salary to what one CEM called “more attention paid towards future career development.” Culbert (2008) similarly recommends “performance previews instead of reviews” which are “problem-solving, not problem-creating, discussions about how we, as teammates, are going to work together even more effectively and efficiently than we've done in the past”.


 2. CEM Training

CEMs should be periodically trained on both giving effective feedback to teachers. Training on giving feedback is necessary for managers as feedback is “an unnatural act” (McCaffery 1992:3). Furthermore, one third of teachers in EFEC reported not receiving useful feedback from their managers when renewing their contracts (Figure 5). More than 50% of CEMs reported that they would like training on giving feedback to teachers.

CEMs should also be regularly trained on interpreting performance descriptors to ensure standardisation of performance review scores.  One CEM said, “The current system is fine if managers are using it the same way across the board. There needs to be some kind of uniformity about how it is interpreted and transparency about how scores are given.”

Figure 8: Responses from CEMs on future training topics

Figure 8: Responses from CEMs on future training topics

3. Training for Teachers

Teachers should be trained on “how to receive feedback”, as suggested by McCaffery (1992) and Porter (1982). Employees generally tend to “behave in ways which cut us off from feedback (either because it causes people to stop giving it to us or because it keeps us from being able to hear it)” (Porter 1982: 1). This action would ensure that feedback is listened to and acted upon.


4. CGM training

Training CGMs on the EFEC performance review system, behavioural competencies and on performance management in general would increase the standard of performance reviews received by CEMs and make delivering performance appraisals easier for CEMs.


5. Continual review

The entire performance review scheme should be continued to be reviewed and data collected on the attitudes and opinions of different stakeholders (teachers, CEMs, CGMs, REMs, etc.) to ensure that the system continues to improve and that problems are resolved.



The EFEC performance management system: 

  • is conducted around 80% of the time
  • sets clear expectations for the majority (67%) of teachers
  • facilitates useful feedback for half of employees
  • is considered by managers to be somewhat useful at increasing employee performance
  • facilitates frequent lesson observation from both managers and peers during probation


The following improvements are recommended to improve the current system:

Remove links to compensation

  • Provide training to CEMs on how to interpret performance review descriptors and how to give feedback to teachers
  • Provide training to teachers on how to receive feedback
  • Provide training to CGMs and REMs on how to use the EFEC performance review system.


Although not without its flaws, the current EFEC performance review system appears to be significantly more effective than some other performance review systems. One CEM summed this up saying

“It's a very difficult thing to get right! I feel only moderately satisfied with the current system, but it's still a vast improvement on the other systems I've used.”



Atkinson, C & Shaw, S. (2006) Human Resource Management in an International Context in Lucas R., Lupton, B. & Mathieson, H. (eds.) HRM in an International Context. London: CIPD.

Armstrong, M. (1994) Performance Management. Kogan Page.

Campbell, D. Campbell, K. and Chia, H. (1998) Merit pay, performance appraisal and individual motivation: an analysis and alternative. Human Resource Management, Vol. 37, No. 2: 131–46.

Cequea, A. (2014) How to Evaluate Performance Appraisals. Available at:  http://www.ehow.com/how_6884627_evaluate-performance-appraisals.html.

Culbert, S. (2008) Get Rid of the Performance Review! MIT Sloan Management Review.

Kohn, A. (1993) Why Incentive Plans Cannot Work. Harvard Business Review. September.

Ludeman, K. (2000) How to conduct Self-Directed 360. Training & Development, July 2000: 44-47.

Mayo A. (2001) The Human Value of the Enterprise: Valuing people as assets – monitoring, measuring, managing. London: Nicholas Brealey.

McCaffery, J. (1992) How to Use Feedback to Improve Performance and Enhance Motivation. Training Resources Group.

Porter, L. (1982) Giving and Receiving Feedback; It will never be easy, but it can be better. NTL Reading Book for Human Relations Training.

Robbins, S. (2011) Organizational Behaviour (Sixth edition). Pearson Prentice Hall.

Scholtes, P. (1998) The Leader’s Handbook. McGraw-Hill.

Swanson, T. (2013) Great Wall of Numbers: Business Opportunities & Challenges in China. Kindle Ebook.

Tahvanainen M. (2000)  Expatriate performance management: the case of Nokia Telecommunications. Human Resource Management, Vol. 37, No. 4: 267–75.

English Language Teacher Motivation and Turnover in a Private Language Institution in China



This article will review issues related to teacher turnover with a specific focus on China, review relevant literature on the subject, consider data from several hundred teachers at a private language institution in China, attempt to explain the results and consider the implications for other language teaching institutions in China.

Teacher turnover is a challenge across the world. In mainstream education, approximately half of all teachers leave the teaching profession within five years of joining (Ingersoll & Smith, 2003). This creates a problem. Even during a time when there is a perceived move towards a reliance on technology in education, teacher effectiveness remains the most important in-school factor affecting student learning (Rivkin, Hanushek & Kain, 2005). Teachers who remain in the profession improve in effectiveness in their first few years (Henry, Bastian & Fortner, 2011). In short, teacher turnover harms student learning.

In China the problem is arguably even greater. Teacher turnover in China is so high that approximately 100,000 foreign teachers and experts are recruited each year to work in mainland China (Swanson, 2013). If we accept that effective teachers are a key factor in student learning; that the longer teachers work as teachers the more effective they become; and that there are around 300 million English learners in China (Swanson, 2013) then the issue of teacher turnover in China is one of the more important contemporary issues in the language teaching industry and one which deserves our attention.


Motivation plays a key role in employee turnover. The more satisfied employees are in their jobs, the less likely they are to leave (Heskett, Jones, Loveman, Sasser & Schlesinger, 1994). The corollary to this is that employees who are demotivated, for example as a result of perceived inequities in the workplace, will take action to respond to their demotivation, including the possibility of resignation (Robbins, 2011).

In Herzberg’s (1987) influential work on motivation, he hypothesized that there were two forms of motivation. These were termed “motivators” and “hygiene factors”. Herzberg found the presence of motivators generally resulted in job satisfaction. Motivators included achievement, recognition, the work itself, responsibility, career advancement and growth. The absence of hygiene factors generally caused dissatisfaction at work. Hygiene factors included company policies, supervision, relationships with supervisors and peers, work conditions and salary.

More recently, Groysberg, Nohria and Lee (2008) have hypothesized that humans are motivated by four main drives:

  • The drive to acquire (salary, status)
  • The drive to bond (relationships with peers and the organization)
  • The drive to comprehend (contributing, doing meaningful, interesting and challenging work)
  • The drive to defend (security, “organizations…which have clear goals and intentions, and that allow people to express their ideas and opinions” (p. 3).

Much has been written about the importance of salary in job satisfaction and employee motivation. Judge, Piccolo, Podsakoff, Shaw and Rich (2010) argue that while pay is motivating for many individuals, high salaries do not result in a satisfied workforce. Deci and Ryan (1985) suggest that extrinsic rewards cause demotivation and dissatisfaction to individuals. Employees are more likely to enjoy their jobs if they focus on the work itself, and less likely to enjoy their jobs if they are focused on money (Chamorro-Premuzic, 2013). Furthermore, offering bonuses or pay increases is an inefficient method of decreasing employee turnover (Allen, 2008).

Motivations are also believed to vary from one generation to another. Generation Y employees (born between 1980 and 1994) are thought to be more motivated by advancement and free time and less motivated by responsibility and compensation compared with their Generation X counterparts (born between 1965 and 1979) (Barford & Hester, 2011).

Hockley (2006) conducted research with language teachers with the aim of identifying which motivation factors were most important to teachers of English as a second or foreign language. 105 teachers located in 12 different countries working in 91 different schools (many of which were based in the Middle East) were surveyed using factors derived from a survey by Montana and Charnov (2000, as cited in Hockley, 2006). Hockley found that the following factors were the most important in motivating language teachers:

  • Respect for me as a person
  • Good pay
  • Getting along well with others on the job
  • Opportunity to do interesting work
  • Feeling my job is important
  • Opportunity for self-development and improvement (p. 11).


This research set out to discover the main reasons which caused teachers to renew their annual contract or resign and compare these with motivational factors found by Herzberg (1987), Hockley (2006) and Groysberg et al. (2008). Reasons for similarities and differences between their results and those obtained in this research will be subsequently discussed as will the implications for language schools in China.


Sample and Procedures

Between October 2014 and April 2015, 278 completed responses were received from teachers and Directors of Studies in 16 cities in China working for one private language teaching institution with over one hundred schools throughout China. Teachers in this institution had an average age of 29, with 83% of teachers born post 1980 (Generation Y) and 17% born between 1965 and 1979 (Generation X). 50% of the respondents taught young learners, 50% taught adults, 93% were expatriate teachers (most commonly from the USA, UK, Canada and Australia) and 7% were Chinese teachers of English. All teachers were offered a bonus and/or a salary increase to encourage them to renew their contracts. Completed surveys were received from teachers who had:

  • renewed their contract (188 responses – 60% response rate)
  • resigned (90 responses – 30% response rate).

Surveys were emailed to teachers within one week of their announcing their decision to renew their contract or resign. Teachers selected the primary reason for making their decision to either renew their contract or resign from a multiple choice list of 13 options. Open-ended responses were invited using a space for additional comments. Teachers were asked if they would recommend their friends to work at this school on a scale of 1-5 and how long they initially intended to work at the school. Teachers who resigned were also asked about their future career plans.

Data Analysis

For ease of analysis and comparison, similar factors were used in this survey as were used by Herzberg (1987), as Herzberg’s theory is still considered to be valid more than 50 years after it was first proposed (Jones & Lloyd, 2005). Three options were added to the survey. These were “the schedule” (combined with “company policies” in the results section), “training & development,” (combined with “growth” in the results section) and “the desire to stay in/ leave China” (as Herzberg’s original research was carried out with domestic, not expatriate workers).

From the results of these surveys, it is possible to determine the most important factors for EFL teachers in China in relation to renewing a contract and resigning. It is also possible to make recommendations to language schools in China on factors which will help to reduce teacher turnover.



The most common reasons teachers chose as reasons for renewing their contracts were:

  • Career opportunities
  • Growth, training and development
  • The work itself
  • Wanting to stay in China.

Hygiene Factors

The most common reasons teachers chose as the primary reason they resigned were:

  • Company policies (including “schedule”)
  • Relationships with managers
  • Wanting to leave China.

These are illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Reasons teachers cited for renewing their contracts or leaving the organization


Perhaps unsurprisingly, China was the only factor significant in teachers’ decisions for both renewing their contracts and resigning. Indeed, “the desire to travel and live and work in different countries and cultures is often a strong motivating force [for teachers]” (Hockley, 2006, p. 5). However, the uncertainty and ambiguity of living and working abroad can also cause stress (Mezias & Scandura, 2005), which among other factors leads to between 20% and 40% of expatriate workers returning home before completing their expected tenure abroad (Black & Mendenhall, 1989; Kim & Slocum, 2008; Mendenhall, Dunbar & Oddou, 1987).

In this study, several teachers commented negatively about air pollution in China, saying “Beijing has been difficult to live in. I am constantly coughing and often feel sick.” “I suffer from asthma and Beijing's air quality has made me very sick over the past couple of months.” Other teachers appeared to have difficulty adapting to living abroad, commenting, “China is very difficult to navigate as a foreigner” and “I felt completely helpless in China. I wish there had been someone who was there to help us along the way to offer advice.” Some teachers who cited China as a reason for resigning were doing so as part of a plan to return home, for example “I'm leaving because China cannot offer me what I need in this stage of my life.”

Many of the comments related to China were positive. Teachers who renewed their contracts commented “Living in China is a fun experience” and “I enjoy the opportunity to enhance my knowledge of China and its people.”

These results suggest that adapting to living in a new country is an important factor in foreign teacher turnover. Helping employees engage in the host culture, providing training on overcoming culture shock, allowing extended time off to facilitate travel home, providing language lessons and assistance in apartment hunting or providing housing to teachers are all steps which schools may take to help teachers overcome the challenges of moving to a new country.


Growth, Training & Development

Over 40% of the respondents who renewed their contracts were found to have undertaken a training course within the past year compared with just 12% of teachers who resigned. In recent research conducted by Universum, a Swedish consultancy which specializes in talent acquisition and brand building, 45% of Generation Y respondents emphasized the importance of learning and developing new skills (Dill, 2014). The results here reflect the importance of teacher development in retaining teachers.

Teachers who chose “growth, training and development” gave high Employee Net Promoter Scores (eNPS), a popular method used by employers to evaluate employee satisfaction (Reichheld, 2003) compared with other teachers. This was true for both expatriate and Chinese teachers. Thus, teachers who are primarily motivated by their own professional growth are more likely to be loyal employees, stay longer and promote their place of work to their friends (Kaufman, Markey, Burton & Azzarello, 2013).

This option was chosen more frequently by Chinese teachers than by their expatriate counterparts as a reason for choosing to renew their contracts. This factor may have been more commonly selected by Chinese staff as they intended to stay in the teaching profession for longer than their expatriate counterparts. 67% of the Chinese teachers who renewed their contracts said they initially planned to work at this private language institution for more than one year when they started, compared with just 35% of expatriate teachers. It also could be argued that, as none of the Chinese teachers surveyed were motivated by working in China, other motivators took on greater relative importance.


Career Opportunities

Previous research by Hockley (2006) suggested “career opportunities” were not important to language teachers, going so far as to say “most teachers I have talked to have no great interest in becoming managers” (p. 3). The results here are quite different: career opportunities being the primary reason one in five teachers renewed their contracts. This may be a result of Generation Y employees placing more importance on personal growth than the Generation X employees surveyed by Hockley a decade ago. Recent research conducted by Universum showed that 40% of Generation Y respondents “list their biggest fear as becoming trapped in a job with no chance for development” (Dill, 2014, p. 2). “Forty-one percent of respondents said taking on a leadership or management role was ‘very important to them’” (Dill, 2014, p. 2).

Career opportunities are common in some privately owned language schools in China, where teachers can find themselves in management positions within a relatively short space of time, often as a result of teacher turnover. This contrasts with language schools in other countries, where “in most cases there exists neither the opportunity nor the desire for promotion in the traditional hierarchical sense of the word” (Hockley, 2006, p. 3).

Groysberg et al. (2008) included improving one’s social status as part of the drive to acquire and Herzberg (1987) found “advancement” to be the fifth most important motivation factor which is consistent with the findings in this study.


Company Policies

Herzberg found “company policy and administration” to be the main source of “extreme dissatisfaction” in his research. For English teachers in China, the company policies which caused dissatisfaction were generally related to scheduling. Teachers who selected this as their reason for leaving said “I didn't want to work weekends anymore,” “[I have] unsocial working hours” and “I hope we could take unpaid leave for attending training sessions instead of using our annual leave.” This issue may be particularly prevalent in private education companies in China where the majority of classes take place during evenings and weekends. These teachers’ attitudes reflect the importance of free-time for Generation Y employees (Barford & Hester, 2011).

The other company policies referred to were related to the for-profit nature of the business, with teachers commenting “policies are driven by the need for more profits rather than what is good for the employees or students” and “there is too much focus on money and not enough on academic integrity.” Realistic job previews can decrease turnover of employees by up to 50% (Suszko & Breagh, 1986). In this case, setting clearer expectations during the recruitment process regarding the profit-driven nature of privately owned language schools in China and emphasizing the unsociable working hours of teachers in private language institutions may have helped to avoid dissatisfaction with these policies.


The Work Itself

Hockley (2006), Herzberg (1987) and Groysberg et al. (2008) all previously identified “the work itself” (or “the opportunity to do interesting work” or jobs which are “meaningful, interesting and challenging”) as a motivator. Here, this was the most common reason teachers cited for renewing their contracts. Teachers of adults chose this option three times as often as teachers of young learners did. It is possible that working with young learners and coping with behavior problems is often overwhelming for new teachers and prevented them from choosing this reason.

Chinese teachers were twice as likely to choose “the work itself” as a reason for renewing their contracts as expatriates were. Twice as many Chinese teachers who renewed their contracts initially planned to stay with the company for more than one year compared with the expatriate teachers surveyed. This suggests that these teachers were more confident in teaching as a longer-term career option compared with the expatriates surveyed. It is therefore not surprising that these teachers were also motivated to renew their contracts by their enjoyment of teaching. However, that Chinese teachers cited this factor more than expatriate teachers may also indicate that other options which were important to expatriate teachers, such as career opportunities, may be perceived to be less easily obtainable for Chinese staff.  While 22% of the expatriate teachers cited “career opportunities” as their primary reason for renewing their contracts, the same was true for merely 9% of Chinese teachers.


Relationships with Managers

Herzberg (1987) also found relationships with managers (or “supervisors”) and “supervision” to be two of the main hygiene factors identified in his research. Groysberg et al. (2008) acknowledged that direct managers were as important as organizational policies in employee motivation.

Teachers who selected their manager as the main reason they left the company were less likely to recommend the school to a friend compared with teachers who cited wanting to leave China as their primary reason for resignation. Negative relationships between managers and teachers can therefore potentially harm recruitment initiatives by speaking negatively about the company in future. The majority of the teachers who cited their managers as the reason they left indicated that they intended to remain as teachers in China.

In the multinational and multicultural work context, trained, competent managers are essential. Training for managers on employee motivation, intercultural communication as well as stressing the importance of open dialogue with employees can all help to decrease teacher turnover.



Salary did not appear to be a major contributing factor in teachers’ decision making and motivation in this study. This contrasts with other findings in the literature. Hockley (2006) found salary was the second most important factor in teacher motivation. Groysberg et al. (2008) also recommended satisfying the drive to acquire through a reward system, which includes salary.

However, the results do agree with Judge et al. (2011) who recently reviewed 120 years of research on the subject and found minimal correlation between pay and job satisfaction noting, “relatively well-paid samples of individuals are only trivially more satisfied than relatively poorly paid samples” (p. 162). Other research has shown that intrinsic job characteristics are a better predictor of job satisfaction than salary (Judge & Church, 2000).

It is possible that teachers who are primarily motivated by salary choose to work for companies or in countries with higher starting salaries, for example in the Middle East. Demographics may again partially explain these differences; the majority of participants in Hockley’s (2006) study were more experienced, more highly paid and older than the teachers surveyed here. Generation Y employees are believed to be less motivated by compensation than their Generation X counterparts.



For the teachers surveyed, career opportunities and growth, training & development were the main drivers for over one third of the teachers to renew their contracts. Investing in training and development to help teachers grow professionally is clearly vital for Generation Y English language teachers and a more effective retention tool than salary increases or renewal bonuses. Language schools in China should ensure organizational rewards based on performance are factors which motivate teachers, i.e. access to and sponsorship for training and career advancement and not simply performance related pay.

Little seems to have changed in terms of what demotivates since Herzberg’s (1987) research was conducted. Supervision and company policy both featured prominently in Herzberg’s research and these factors also feature prominently here. There are implications for schools in terms of job design (sociable working hours, unpaid leave to allow longer vacations and visits home) and the selection and training of interculturally competent managers, the absence of which not only results in teacher turnover, but also in ex-employees who will be likely to speak negatively about their former school and thus harm future teacher recruitment. Setting clear expectations as part of the recruitment process about unsociable working hours and other company policies could also help avoid unnecessary dissatisfaction and decrease turnover.

China was the single most important factor in teachers’ decision to either renew their contract or resign. Meeting teachers’ most basic needs when moving to a new country, providing assistance to them in finding an apartment, overcoming culture shock, learning the local language and assisting them in building a social network when they arrive could all contribute to decreasing teacher turnover.

The English language teaching industry in China is worth $2.1 billion a year (Swanson, 2013).  Investing more in teachers’ growth, development and general wellbeing will pay dividends not only for individual schools but for the 300 million English learners in China.                 


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