Teach English in China-The Essential Lowdown

fujian, china

China- the current land of opportunity for ESL teachers? You have probably seen hundreds of postings by ESL recruiters touting the latest hot destination, complete with glossy photos of smiling Europeans and Americans fooling around on the Great Wall, but what is the reality?

 Sitting on a plane headed for Shanghai in September 2011 the same thought ran through my head over and over… “Am I totally insane?”. This was quickly followed by another thought “Well if I don’t like it I will just turn around and come back.” Fortunately for me and my husband we DID like it, as we renewed contracts and ended up teaching in China for almost four years.

But where do you start? I mean China is so darn big, right? I have put together a few facts that might help that huge decision a little easier. If you would like to contribute to this information, please do so in the comments or share on social media.

Where in China do you want to Teach English?

For anyone considering this move there are a number of things to be considered carefully I will try to outline some of the things you might want to weigh up before you embark on an Asian adventure.

Firstly be aware that China is big, I mean REALLY  big. I know we all know this, but getting a grasp of the vastness is really hard even when you live there and it is almost impossible to understand this before you arrive. Therefore, it is advisable to get acquainted with the map and the location at least of the main big cities when looking for a job.There are of course many different options available, depending on where you fancy living and what kind of school you want to pick, and honestly once you start looking at job advertisements you will be running to Google maps to find where the places are. But more importantly, you might do well to ask yourself if you want to live in a rural place (ie few foreigners, more isolated, few “Western comforts” and more “authentic Chinese experience” ) or whether you prefer to be in a big city where you can get Pizza Hut and Haagen Dasz ice cream. Another important factor which cannot be overstressed is the climate. There were many locations I immediately discounted simply because I hate the cold. Be advised that there are cities which are considered to be in the South of China, where public buildings will not be heated in winter, but which have below zero temperatures and get snow. This is because the Chinese define “south” as “south of the Yangtze river” and this is something you should take into account. Of course if you are Canadian, you won’t care about that, right? Well actually I met Canadians who suffered more from the cold than others because they assumed everywhere would have winter heating when in fact this is not the case.

A further point is that if you teach in an isolated town or rural area, you may not find many other expats to hang out with. Some people manage with this just fine, whereas others may find themselves going stir crazy after a few weeks or months. Can you survive in an environment where you most likely can’t speak to people or even read a road sign? Do you need familiar foods or are you fine eating whatever the locals eat? Many expats choose to head for the big cities such as Shanghai, Beijing or Guangzhou so that there will be after -work entertainment, bars, clubs and places where they can be with other foreigners. There are also “middle-sized cities” (and I am talking 6 -8 million people like Hangzhou, Nanjing and Chengdu which also have plenty of shopping malls etc) But if you do  choose a more isolated rural environment you are going to have to work on your language skills pretty hard, because most locals will know little if any English at all.

No man is an Island

Which brings me to a very important point – learning Chinese. It is essential to realize that if you do take the plunge and head off for a Middle Kingdom adventure to teach English it is wise to do a bit of homework beforehand. Chinese language and culture is very very different. People behave differently, they dress differently and they of course talk Chinese.They even speak different varieties of Chinese in different regions, which can be exciting, fascinating but also a bit daunting. Even the finest of linguists who has already mastered French, German or Spanish can come up against a brick wall when trying to make progress in Chinese. Even though schools advertise “free Chinese lessons”  take this with a pinch of salt. Even studying full time it is hard to get past beginner stage. If you are working you will not be able to learn full time, and even after a couple of years you will still be talking like a toddler. So if this doesn’t faze you and you are up for the challenge of being basically illiterate and dependent on Chinese friends to go to the hair salon and the bank then go ahead!  It is easy to find Chinese friends who will help you with everything you need in everyday life- I found that in a short time I had a huge “fan club” of students and fellow teachers who were happy to accompany to the store,the bank, the post office etc and assist me with anything I needed. Just be advised that when the plumber comes to fix your toilet, you will have no clue what he is saying!

What kind of schools are there to teach English in China?

Another thing to think about is what kind of place you prefer to teach in, for example, there are countless jobs available, ranging from kindergarten up to University. You may want to teach more hours per week, (a typical training school job would be 25 plus teaching hours, and maybe some office hours too), whereas a Public  or Private University would be considerably less , more likely in the region of 14  with very few if any prep or meeting hours, but the salary would be less. (More on salaries later)  Most schools and universities provide free furnished accommodation, and help you to get  settled in. However, some private training schools only offer a stipend and  you have to find  your own rented place. Officially most schools don’t allow private teaching but many teachers do take extra assignments to fill out their salaries.

For more info about teaching in China, read Quick Tips for Teaching English in China.

How NOT to find a job teaching English in China

After asking yourself where you want to work and in what kind of school, it is tempting to reply to the many postings made by the myriad recruiters who pop up as soon as you google “EFL and China”. However this can be a very risky business. I am not saying that all recruiters are untrustworthy but given the many jobs out there, why do you need to use one? Assuming you have TEFL qualifications and some classroom experience, you can simply mail schools directly. There are lots of stories on the Internet of people trusting disreputable companies and ending up in schools they didn’t want to be at, unable to leave I would recommend thoroughly checking out any school or agent before signing anything. For most schools in China you just need to be a Native English speaker and to have a BA. Some schools demand teaching experience, especially in the more popular locations, but many do not. If you are energetic, open and enthusiastic, you will find a job quite easily. Some websites that I have found useful are Dave’s ESL cafe (http://www.eslcafe.com/),  and http://www.eslteachersboard.com/ where you can post questions on the forum, and the very  wonderful www.raoulschinasaloon.com  where you will also find support and you can even post a contract and get feedback. On www.echinacities.com you can find lots of information about the different regions of the country and most big cities have an expat forum, for example Shanghai has http://shanghaiist.com/ , Beijing has http://www.thebeijinger.com/ and Kunming has www.gokunming.com. Find the forum for your prospective city and get signed up there, and then you can ask people what it’s like to live there before you go. Another really important thing to do is to ask your prospective school to give you names and emails of past teachers so that you can ask them all your concerns and get reliable answers. If a school doesn’t provide this information that would be a definite red flag. You should  chat to people at your school online and get a good idea about what to expect.

If you still decide to go with an agent, tread carefully and “carry a big stick”- make sure they give you ALL the information about your prospective school, including contact information up front. If they refuse, you should wonder why. You are making a contract with the school so you should be able to contact them directly and ask any question you want concerning the exact terms of your contract, how many hours TOTAL you will be working, what exactly is included in your apartment, where it is located in relation to the school and the city, how to get around etc. Don’t leave any stone unturned. You should find out if your apartment has heating and a/c, internet, what is included, who pays the utility bills and who takes care of maintenance. Many apartments belonging to public Universities, for example, come complete with microwave, washing machine, TV, fridge and bed linen. The good schools will take care of you, give you assistance in your daily life and all the things you will need help with for your smooth transition to life in China. Don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions. Again, the expat forums are a great source of information about what to bring and what is best purchased after arrival. Rule of thumb would be “Bring as little as possible”. No sense in bringing too many things with you. Also ask the school about classroom conditions – is there a computer? How many students are in a class? How much paperwork is required of you?  Some of the more useful sites to find jobs are http://seriousteachers.com/ , http://www.tefl.com/jobs/  , http://www.horizoneslchina.com/ and http://www.anesl.com. All of these will give you information about different areas of the country.

How do I get a VISA to Teach English in China?

Any reputable school which is licensed to hire foreign teachers should process all the paperwork to get a work visa as soon as you have signed a contract and sent in all your copies of your documents (CV,Diploma) . Don’t be alarmed when they demand a photocopy of your passport. That is standard in order to secure a work visa. If the school say they can’t do it then you should steer clear. The school will then  send you a “Letter of Invitation” by registered mail and with that you will go to your local Chinese Embassy and get a visa allowing you to enter China. This is NOT a work visa. Two weeks after arrival you will have a health check and exchange the entry visa for a Z work visa and you are good to go. Don’t on any account go to a company or school that assures  you that they will convert your TOURIST visa to a work visa because that is illegal. Believe me you do NOT want to be working in China illegally. Just look for another school – there are plenty of legit ones out there.

On arrival in China most schools will send someone from their “International Office” to collect you from the airport, introduce you to the school and show you around. From then on you are pretty much on your own. It may seem a bit intimidating but with a bit of luck there will be other newbies at the school or other experienced teachers who will show you the ropes. Pretty soon you will be hanging out with multicultural groups of teachers, students and having a great time. If you are an adventurous soul who is not looking forward to a 9-5 job in a cubicle,this may be the job for you.

Money Matters

I tend to find this “money” question a bit like “How long is a piece of string?”. Firstly it depends on the type of school and then number of hours you teach and where you are located. If you teach at a University as we did, you  will only be teaching around 16 hours a week. Your pay will depend on your degree and years of experience. You may start at around 5,000 RMB which is only about $800 but remember that you will have lots of free time for “unofficial” private work and other perks. Add to this your free apartment, free return airline ticket, travel money, and the fact that eating in China is very cheap, and you will certainly be able to save, if that is your goal, or party if that’s what you fancy. Assuming you are not eating steaks and drinking foreign beer every night, you can probably pay off your University loan. Again, lifestyle is a big factor in your banking power. Private schools pay a lot more, around $1,600 but you will have little free time. Also some expect you to find your own accommodation. The cost varies greatly according to the location. Big cities such as Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing are very expensive. Smaller cities allow for a lower salary.

For more about salaries, check out How Much Money Can I Really Make Teaching English Abroad.

How do I teach English in China?

Of course this will depend a lot on the type of school you have chosen. But mostly all the schools want is for someone to help students to speak and to give them a chance to hear an authentic Native Speaker, which in many cases they have never had before. Usually they have another Chinese English teacher to do grammar, reading etc and your job is just to get them talking. You can use songs, games, discussions, anything you like and they will love you just because you are a foreigner. Most classrooms will have computers and overhead projectors so you can show short video clips and Powerpoints to get them talking. Just remember that in China there is no access to Facebook, Youtube, WordPress, Slideshare or Twitter so you may have to get yourself a VPN before you depart, not just for your social life but to access teaching materials. Some private language schools, especially those catering for Young Learners, will provide you with the teaching materials and tell you how to teach. There are some chain schools across China, such as Aston, Meten, Shane and others that don’t expect you to have experience and will tell you what to do. If you are an experienced teacher you might want to avoid those, but as a novice they can be a good jumping off point.

This is of course only an introduction to a massive topic. For any questions feel free to check out my blog www.rsheffer.wordpress.com and fire me a question. I will do my best to help! Good hunting!

About Ruth Sheffer 5 Articles
Born in the UK,Ruth accidentally ended up in the Middle East at the age of 24. She began teaching English as a Foreign Language in a High school in Jerusalem,where she met her husband and got stuck for the next 30 odd years,during which her wanderlust was confined to two week bursts during school holidays. After raising her family, the wanderlust that had started brewing in her youth took hold again,and she and hubby took early retirement and set off to discover Asia, amongst other places. She has visited Korea, Taiwan, China, India, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, and many places in Europe.She blogs at www.rsheffer.wordpress.com

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