Teach English in China

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Updated 5/20/2014

If you are looking for a teach abroad job that will take you to a land both enchanting and challenging, China may be your ultimate destination. The largest country in the world in terms of population, China covers a huge expanse of Asia and is home to more than 1.3 billion people. Because China covers such a huge area of land, it is a melting pot of peoples, languages and religions - dozens of dialects and derivatives of Chinese are spoken throughout China's 22 provinces.

The statistics and the stereotypes are there - China has the fastest growing economy, some of the most highly-populated cities in the world, a rich ancient history, and much more. Regardless of what you may have heard or read, China is a remarkable and unique country where teachers thrive in whatever lifestyle they choose, and the opportunities are endless.

In most of China, especially in the larger cities, English is the primary second language of most Chinese Nationals. Public schools begin teaching English in the 3rd grade (sometimes as early as 1st), and Chinese students will endure countless exams testing English grammar throughout their middle and high school careers. It's no wonder that private companies see the benefit of opening ELL centers and schools in busy areas where young learners are encouraged toward anything educational. In addition to private ELL schools, China features competitive teaching positions at International Schools, as well as openings in their public schools around the country.

Guilin's rice terrace farms
Guilin's rice terrace farms
  • Peak Hiring Times: Public Schools: May-June, ESL Schools: year-round
  • Average Monthly Salary: $800-$1,600 USD with free housing, $1,800-$2,500 USD housing not included*
  • Average Cost of Living: $300-$400 USD with free housing, $900-$1,300 USD with housing not included
  • Save or Break Even? Save; With a reasonable budget you can save a few thousand dollars over the course of a year.
  • Work Visa: Visa sponsored by employer; once you receive documents, you can apply for visa within your own country.

*Many jobs offer free perks like flight reimbursement, housing, TEFL certification, visa fees and Chinese lessons. If you are getting paid on the lower end of the spectrum, be sure you have at least some of these benefits.

Private Language Academies/Schools:

Different from both international schools and public schools are the ever-growing private ELL companies that compete with each other for profits and are usually always hiring new English teachers. Among these companies are Wall Street English, EF (Education First), Longman Schools, and many more. Note that the age of your students will vary depending on where you choose to work - some organizations teach only adults, while others teach only young children.

The upside to taking a job with a private company is that you'll be provided with a network of support, a set curriculum, and guidelines for how to manage your classroom. If you have little or no experience teaching English abroad, working for a private company may ease your stress a bit, because you'll have help along the way. On the other hand, private schools are interested in expanding and earning money, so you will be considered not only a teacher, but a part of a business. If you don't mind adhering to corporate guidelines, working at a private ELL school can be beneficial, as there is usually room for growth within the company.

Private ESL schools tend to pay more than public schools; however, you will also work more hours. You will teach smaller classes from about 5-20 students, mainly in the evenings and on the weekend. These ESL companies are for-profit and will put a lot of pressure on teachers to make the paying parents happy. Working for an ESL school is the easiest way to get a job teaching English in China, and most companies have many options from China's largest cities, to smaller, less cosmopolitan areas. As a teacher you will have your pick of locations, and many companies will even let you move to a new city after a few months if you would like to be in a different location.

Public Schools:

Public schools may pay less than private language academies, but teachers also work fewer hours and have longer and more frequent holidays. Most teachers will live on campus or in an apartment near the school, eat lunch in the school cafeteria and involve themselves in school events like talent shows and sports day. Class sizes will be much larger, reaching up to fifty students per class. Most schools will hire foreign teachers as a supplemental oral English teacher, so you may teach a large percentage of the school very infrequently. You will also have to create your own lesson plans, and may be given a lot of leeway in topics and teaching methods.

Getting a job with a public school can be a bit harder and less reliable than working with an ESL company, because many schools are not versed in visa paperwork. Many teachers rely on an agent to help them find jobs and negotiate with schools. Working for a public school can be a very rewarding experience, but there is also much less of a safety net if the school tries to take advantage of you as a foreigner.

If you apply to a public school through a direct advertisement, know that if for some reason your experience is less than desired it may be hard to legally leave your placement. Many teachers that work directly for schools find recruiters while already in China, this gives you a chance to visit the school and meet the administration before singing a contract.

In short, public schools usually offer less support and assistance through the application process, but If you have a lot of experience teaching internationally, or if you speak Chinese, taking a job in a public school may be a good choice for you.

Private Lessons:

Many teachers also find side jobs working as private tutors for wealthy families or businesses. There is a high demand for one-on-one oral tutoring, especially for adults and high school students. Private tutoring requires little planning and can be a great way to make extra money while living in China. The easiest way to obtain a tutoring position is through connections after you have arrived in China.

When and Where to Look for Jobs:

Unless you've traveled in Asia before, taking a job in China is a big enough adventure for most people. The first thing you'll need to decide is how much of a challenge you're willing to accept. Living in metropolitan areas like Shanghai, Beijing, or Hong Kong will give you plenty of excitement and astonishing episodes of culture-shock, but you're likely to find your favorite foreign comforts wherever you go - imported toiletries, fast-food chains, international cuisine, and translation assistance in case you have trouble finding your way. If you're looking for a lifestyle with more of a challenge, try branching out to the other provinces where you'll find lush landscapes, less traffic, and welcoming locals who are ecstatic to invite travelers into their town.

Explore Yunnan Province while teaching abroad!
Explore Yunnan Province while teaching abroad!

When searching online for teaching jobs in China, it can be difficult to find an employer or school you can trust; it's even more complicated when half the websites you come across are written in Chinese. Recruiting agencies like Reach To Teach or CIEE can help by custom-searching for a job you're interested in and following up with more information or tips as you're narrowing down your job search.

Of course, the school in which you choose to teach is going to give you a different experience from the others. International schools in China usually offer higher salaries than most, but they are highly-competitive positions. Since most International schools have their own websites, you can begin your search online and easily find which schools have available positions.

Qualifications:

To legally work in China you will need a bachelor's degree and a TEFL certificate. Many programs offer free TEFL certification as part of the benefits package. Keep in mind that obtaining a Chinese visa can be stressful and slightly expensive, but with the proper documents and an experienced school, obtaining a visa should be straightforward.

Salary and Cost of Living:

Salaries can vary greatly in China depending on type of school and teacher experience. The typical salary for a first-year ESL school teacher is $1,200 a month with free housing. If your salary is above $1,600 as a first-time teacher, housing is unlikely to be included. A typical cheap apartment is anywhere from $350-$650 a month plus utilities depending on city, quality and whether or not you have roommates. Budget $6-15 a day for meals depending on city, plus more for nice diners and drinks.

Student Teacher Relations:

For the most part, students view foreign teachers as a fun departure from their normal classes. They expect you to be more casual, friendly and interesting than their other teachers. This may result in some students not taking classes seriously, or attempting to do homework during class. When it comes to children, teachers are allowed to be much more hands-on. Feel free to hug your younger students and play with them. There is a large expectation that foreign teachers will bring "new and creative Western learning methods" to the classroom. This means you are expected to constantly create new games, explore new teaching styles and add diversity to a test-driven learning environment.

Dress Code:

Teacher dress code in China is very casual, especially in the winter when classrooms are freezing. Many teachers wear dressed-up denim to class. For the ladies, when teaching older students, be sure not to show too much skin. While some of the female teachers may wear short skirts and dresses, their shoulders and chests are always covered.

Greetings:

In China, many people will greet with a nod, wave or handshake. As a foreigner, many Chinese people, men especially, will shake your hand because they know it is a traditional Western greeting. In a business setting, if you really want to stand out, be sure to give and receive all documents and business cards with two hands. While this is not expected, it will surely impress the locals!

Work Culture:

In China, everything is last minute. Don't expect to know your holiday schedule until a few days before, which can make travel planning extremely stressful and expensive. Also be aware that schedules change frequently with little notice. Don't be shocked if you receive a text at 8am telling you to be at school in twenty minutes.

Also, many schools, especially public schools, have poor communication. The school may forget to fill you in on times, dates and events, leading to missed classes, frustration and chaos. Thankfully, most schools are understanding and apologetic if they forget to inform you your schedule has changed. This can be extremely frustrating for most teachers who come from a society where schedules are made months in advance.

Tips for Teaching Abroad in China:

Once you arrive in China, you'll become part of the very welcoming expat community and gain valuable connections and first-hand tips about teaching. A lot of English teachers who travel to China begin with one job and then end up trying something different once they learn what works for them. Be careful with this though: while no job lasts forever, if a company or school provides your employment visa and you are under contract, they might be entitled to keep you on board, preventing you from finding a new job for a while. Therefore, when searching for a teaching job in China, try to choose a school where you think you'll be happiest.

Teaching in China has countless benefits. As the country with the largest population in the world, China has a big market for foreign teachers, and with mandatory government English testing, many schools and parents are grasping for more English teachers. Not only that, but working in China can give teachers a leg up in the job market once they return home. China is an important player in today's global economy, and Chinese language proficiency is highly desired by many employers. Living and working in China will also teach you about Chinese culture and business practices, which can be applied to future business endeavors.

China is an extremely diverse country, rich in ancient history, tradition and culture. From the Forbidden City in Beijing to the Terracotta Warriors in Xi'an, there is plenty to explore. Teach in one of the world's largest cities or in a rural village town, live in the frigid north and practice your Mandarin, or in the tropical south where the locals may speak a different dialect. You may work with small groups of kindergarteners or teach large college classes. In China, the possibilities are endless.


Contributed by Richelle Gamlam

Richelle started her life abroad by studying in Beijing and Xi'an her junior year of college. Now she's back in China teaching English at a public high school in rural Ningbo. Check out her opinions, stories, photography and misadventures in her blog Adventures Around Asia.

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