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9 Insider Tips for Teaching English in China

Insider tips for teaching English in China

A vibrant country full of bustling cities, serene river towns, a fascinatingly complex language and a booming economy, China is both a rewarding and popular place to teach abroad.

If you arrive in China already with a TEFL certificate already in hand, you'll find a much higher paying job.

With a high demand for English teachers, you’ll have no problem finding a job -- but there are some tips and tricks you simply won't learn from Google searches. Which is why after teaching English in China for several years now, I want to share with you nine insider tips to help you make the most of your time teaching abroad in China.

1. Get TEFL Certified

To work as a legal full-time teacher in China and attain a work visa and residence permit, you must have a university diploma and either a TEFL certificate or two years of professional teaching experience. While many teachers circumvent this law by teaching as a side job, you’ll need to go the legal route if you want a work visa and residence permit.

Many companies will pay for your TEFL, which can save you money at the outset. However, if you arrive in China with a TEFL certificate already in hand, you'll find a much higher paying job. In a way, the “free TEFL” isn't really free, because you’re paying for it through a lower salary. You may make more money in the long run getting your TEFL on your own before you go.

2. For the Best Jobs, Use a Recruiter

The two main types of teaching jobs in China are through ESL academies and public schools. It's much easier to get a job at an ESL academy, mainly because you can find these jobs online before you arrive in China.

Tips for teaching in China

If you're looking at working for a large company like Disney English or English First, you can easily find reviews online (right here at Go Overseas, in fact) and get a good impression of your salary, benefits, and working conditions before you go.

However, public schools are a bit more hit or miss, and the best way to find a job teaching at a public school in China is to use a recruiter. While you can apply for these jobs from home, oftentimes the schools offering positions online are the ones that can't get foreign teachers by working with recruiters.

While there are a few great schools that advertise online, you won’t know what kind of school you’re applying to until after you arrive -- which may be too late. You don’t want to arrive in China only to find your school is in the middle of nowhere, or doesn’t have the facilities it promised you.

Save yourself the hassle and gamble by using a recruiter or finding a job independently once you're already in China. Besides, the salary will be higher if you work with a recruiter.

3. Professional Teachers: Consider Teaching at a Private School

Do you have a bit of experience or a teaching certification from home? You may be qualified to teach at a private or international school. Many of these schools have listings online, and you'll be able to apply for them from your home country.

Generally speaking, these schools also have higher salaries and good conditions for teachers, but they demand higher qualifications as a result.

4. Know the Difference Between ESL Academy and Public School Jobs

At an ESL academy, you’ll be teaching many classes to small numbers of students. A typical schedule includes five classes a day, starting in the mid afternoon and ending well after dinnertime. ESL teachers also tend to work on the weekends, since this is when most students have time off.

At an ESL school, you may teach students anywhere from three years old to adults taking business English classes. You'll also be paid a bit more at these jobs than you would at a public school.

You can definitely survive in China those first few weeks without speaking Chinese.

At a public school, a typical schedule is 7:30am-4:00pm. You’ll teach classes of thirty to fifty students, and each class should last around forty minutes. You’ll typically be teaching an oral English class to a large portion of the school.

Many foreign public school English teachers teach upwards of 500 students. Some even teach as many as 1,000 students because they'll teach each class once every two weeks. You can expect to teach about twenty to twenty-five classes a week, while spending your spare time in the office lesson planning.

For the full low down on conditions and compensation, read our guide to salary expectations for teaching English in China.

5. You Can Survive Without Speaking Chinese

Even though learning a new language will help you immensely with integrating and getting around while living anywhere abroad, you may have never learned a word of Chinese -- and that's OK. You can definitely survive in China those first few weeks without speaking Chinese.

Teach abroad in China

Mandarin Chinese is a skill you’ll want to bring back home, and there are plenty of Chinese language schools in every major Chinese city. However, the Chinese language is very difficult to learn, and arriving in China without speaking any Chinese can be intimidating. Even if you choose to learn Chinese, you may still be intimidated about those first few weeks or months.

In order to survive your first few weeks, here are a few tips:
  • Use picture menus to order food.
  • Download the Pleco translation dictionary app.
  • Carry a business card with your home address in Chinese characters.
  • Someone’s dinner looks good? Point at the dish and ask if you can have it too.

In all honesty, it is possible to live and travel in China without speaking the language. However, you’ll definitely want to pick up as many phrases as you can in the first few weeks. Despite years of English classes, many Chinese people are unable to communicate effectively in English. Learning a few basic phrases will make your life easier, and it will bring a smile to the face of Chinese locals.

6. Smaller Cities Offer a More Immersive Experience

There are so many cities in China to choose from, it's hard to know which cities are the best for teaching English. Most people have heard of Beijing and Shanghai, maybe even Shenzhen, but have you considered working in one of China’s second-tier cities?

The cheapest way to get around China is by long-distance train. You can get just about anywhere in China with $70 USD and 24 hours.

Places like Hangzhou, Nanjing, Xi’an and Chengdu are great places to teach English abroad. Living in a second-tier city, you’ll be able to fully immerse yourself in Chinese culture, while also staying connected to a vibrant expatriate community. You'll also find less competition for jobs, and your students will be more excited to have you.

7. Know How to Travel China on a Budget

As a teacher you’ll want to travel around China during your breaks. You can hike the Great Wall, watch the sunset over the Bund, or hold a panda in Chengdu. But what is the best way to travel around China without spending all of your hard earned salary?

Bring warm clothes to China

The cheapest way to get around China is by long-distance train. You can get just about anywhere in China with $70 USD and 24 hours. Chinese long-distance trains have sleeper berths, making the long journey comfortable. Be sure to book a “hard-sleeper”, which is a three-bunk bed.

Pressed for time? Check out Chinese budget flights. Carriers Elong and Ctrip routinely offer affordable flights around China, and you can check both these budget sites by using Skyscanner. You may even find a flight that’s the same price as the train! In addition, Chinese flights always let you check a bag for free, and usually provide a meal.

8. Pack Sunscreen and Deodorant!

When moving to China for a year or more, it’s hard to know what to pack. Will you be able to find your favorite brand of moisturizer? Does it even matter if you have to go with another brand for awhile? While your packing list for teaching abroad will be unique to you, here are some broad do's and don'ts for packing for a year (or more!) in China.

Definitely DO Pack:

  • Enough causal clothing for a year
  • Shoes
  • Anti-perspirant deodorant
  • Sunscreen
  • Hand sanitizer
  • A warm coat (even the South gets chilly without heat in the winter!)
  • Your computer and flash drives (essential for printing worksheets!)
  • A good camera
  • An unlocked smartphone
  • Condoms
  • For the ladies: moisturizer, tampons, makeup, and beauty products (they're all more expensive in China)

Definitely DON'T Pack:

  • Basic toiletries, like shampoo and conditioner
  • Formal clothing
  • Home goods (like pots, pans, etc.)
  • Stationary, books, and pens
  • Toilet paper (you can buy cheap tissues in China)
  • Expensive clothing or jewelry

9. Prepare for a Different Work Culture

China has much different workplace culture than most Western countries. Employees don't question the leadership and always do as they’re told -- even if the instructions don't make much sense.

While moving across the world can be a bit of an adjustment, a year teaching in China will be an experience you'll never forget!

Expect to never know the exact dates of your vacation until a few days before. You may also experience frequent schedule changes with little warning. While this can be frustrating, it’s just a part of Chinese culture that every foreigner has to get used to.

Learn to relax, go with the flow, and never make plans too far in advance.

Teaching in China is Unforgettable

Overall, China is a great place to live abroad for a year. Connect with excited and passionate students, explore a vastly different culture and learn the world’s most in-demand language all while supporting yourself with a great job.

Hopefully these insider tips have made you a bit more comfortable with the idea of moving to China. While moving across the world can be a bit of an adjustment, a year teaching in China will be an experience you'll never forget!

Photo Credits: Richelle Gamlam.
Photo of Richelle Gamlam

Traveler, blogger and serial expat, Richelle has been living and working in China for the last four years. From high school English teacher to college admissions consultant, Richelle has tried her hand at many different jobs in China. She spends all of her vacation days traveling Asia off the beaten path, and in her spare time, she loves to scuba dive, salsa dance and try weird foods no one else will eat. For more of Richelle's crazy misadventures, check out her blog Adventures Around Asia.