What to Expect as an English Teacher in China

an english teacher in china

My name is Kim Ooi and I am from the UK.  I have now taught in China for over 2 years at every level from primary school through to university. I am currently teaching oral English at Jincheng Institute of Technology. This is a very good technical college located in the small city of Jincheng in Shanxi province. My job is quite interesting and possibly unique because as part of my contract, I have to teach at a primary school as well as at the college.

Adapting to life in China as a foreigner has been a very steep learning curve for me. I certainly feel that I am learning as much, if not more than I am teaching so I thought that it would be a good idea to write this article so that prospective teachers will know what it is REALLY like to live and be an English teacher in China.  I certainly wish I could have learnt more about what to expect in China prior to my arrival here in 2013. If you are planning to teach English in China, take a look at the various topics that I briefly discuss below.

For more info on finding a teaching position in China, click here

The Language Barrier for an English teacher in China

A quick search on Google will reveal that there are approximately 400 million people learning English in China and yet, outside the confines of your school or even your classroom in some cases, you will find that nobody in China is able to speak English with the exception of those who work in international airports and in some of the bigger hotels in the major tourist hubs. To be able to speak some Chinese is therefore absolutely essential. However, this is not as daunting as it seems. I was very surprised to discover just how far I could go with just a handful of phrases, these being: hello, goodbye, my name is, thanks, how much is that and so on.  There are also plenty of mobile phones with translation apps in China, so language is not a huge barrier.

What is accomodation like?

This varies from school to school but most middle and high schools and universities will provide a free apartment. These are very basic but should have a bedroom, lounge, kitchen, bathroom and toilet as well as a bed, mattress, pillows, sheets, a settee, table, chairs, washing machine, stove, TV, electricity, hot and cold running water and an internet connection. You will have to buy your own iron, ironing board, cooking pots, electric fan for the summer and a portable heater for the winter (there is no central heating in China!). The school should also send a repairman at their expense to fix anything that goes wrong in your apartment. If you work at a language centre, you may have to find and pay for your own accommodation.

Where can I work as an English teacher in China?

I have had the chance to teach at a wide spectrum of schools in China. Below is a short breakdown of what to expect for each type of school. Of course, there are those have been teaching in China for many years, so if you have more to add, please do so in the comments.

Public universities and colleges

In my opinion, these are by far the best places to work for an English teacher in China. You may be teaching for about 12 – 15 hours a week and may have about 6 classes of approximately 30 – 40 students. Students at a public university are generally well-behaved, enthusiastic and a pleasure to teach. Chinese schools seem to think that expat teachers can teach anything so do not be surprised if you are asked to teach a subject other than English. A public university will have about 6 foreign teachers so they will organise a number of social activities for foreign staff throughout the year. You also get time off during the semester breaks. The downside is that the pay at a public university (RMB 4,000 – 6,000) is among the worst in China but on the other hand, public university jobs are the most stable.

Foreign language schools

A good foreign language school is also a sound choice. They are very similar to public universities except that the emphasis here will be to help the students pass their public exams, such as SAT, TOEFL and etc. Most of the students are in their teens. The pay (approx. RMB 11,000 per month) is about double what you would get at a public university but be warned as their organisational skills can be terrible. When I worked at a foreign language school, I was given a new subject every week for a month and then transferred to another school because the administrators had inadvertently hired more teachers than they needed.

Private colleges

Avoid such establishments at all costs! The people who study here are those who have failed their final high school exams. They have a huge ego and a terrible work ethic. They never come to class, but think that they are entitled to a degree simply because their parents are rich enough to pay for it. Teaching at such an institution is nothing short of a nightmare. Although you might find some that pay a decent wage or offer incentives, it really is not worth it in my opinion.

Language centres

Again, not a terribly good choice. The students are paying adults who come to these places to learn/improve their English and because these centres are commercial businesses. They tend to be incredibly petty in their requests and can be extremely difficult to please. The teacher gets almost no academic freedom. The centre will control what you teach and how you teach. The hours are long and you will have to be present in the office for up to 40 hours a week even though you may not be teaching the entire time and you get just one week’s holiday a year. On the plus side, the students are generally very motivated.

Primary schools

This is a good choice if you love children! The poor kids seem to be treated quite harshly by their Chinese teachers so it does not take much to earn their affection. All you have to do is to smile at them! Some primary school classes are huge and the teaching of oral English there may be nothing more than repeatedly drilling the same reading text into the children until the school is satisfied that they have got it although there may sometimes be scope for varying the lesson by using songs, rhymes and movies.

What should an English teacher in China know about  Learning styles and teaching methodology?

Chinese students, even at university level, are incapable of any sort of analysis or critical thinking. Their entire education system is based purely on learning by rote. This was the biggest surprise I had when I started teaching in China. Students come to class expecting to be lectured and yet fall asleep when taught in that manner. They will not ask questions even when they do not understand something because to do so would be a huge embarrassment (loss of face), will not take notes in class unless prompted and think that their job is just to turn up and listen to the teacher. They will not take responsibility for their own learning and cannot study independently. To engage your students, the trick is to incorporate many activities into your lessons e.g. games, student presentations, stories, jokes and videos. The school will expect you to set an exam twice a year and the students seem to do well in multiple choice or oral exams but cannot cope with subjective questions or essays.

Be warned that foreign teachers in China have no authority whatsoever. Students are generally very respectful towards teachers, but you should be in no doubt as to who has real power in the classroom. If you have a problem with the students, then that is tough. The reality is that if they do not like you, your contract will not be renewed and may even be prematurely terminated. Employment protection and workers’ rights are non-existent in China and you have little in the way of recourse if your school does decide to let you go. English is not an important subject in Chinese schools and most of your students will never have to utter a single word of English once they graduate (unless they plan to become teachers). Foreign teachers are therefore seen as little more than glorified entertainers whose task is merely to keep the students happy and the parents paying. If you are a dedicated teacher trying to impart serious knowledge i.e. do any “real” teaching, the chances are that you will be thoroughly miserable in China.

Culture shock in China

If you have never lived in China before, there will be many things that you will hate about the country when you first arrive. For me, these include the smokers (virtually every Chinese man is a smoker) and the drivers. What I found really irritating was the lack of any sort of laws on Chinese roads – cars will not stop at pedestrian crossings even when the green man is flashing. In China, when you are in a bar, some stranger may come up to your table, pick up one of your drinks and help himself to it without asking you first. Then there are the queue jumpers and the expectation that every student whose fees are paid and who does not commit a crime against the school must not only pass all their courses but at a high grade, even if their English ability is mediocre at best. If a foreign teacher were to fail any student either as a disciplinary measure or because the student really does not know anything about their subject, the school will override that decision and allow them to pass anyway or the student will be entitled to re-sit the exam again and again until they receive that coveted passing grade! Teachers who fail students may also not get their contracts renewed. In Chinese culture, it is OK to tell a lie in the name of “saving face” so you will constantly feel like you are being lied to or that you are not getting any reliable answers if your question is even slightly controversial. Life in China is generally quite boring and there will be many times when you will have nothing to do.

Prejudice and discrimination for an English teacher in China

There is no anti-discrimination legislation in China, so schools here are allowed to refuse to hire someone on the grounds of race, age and sex. If you have not been born in and are not a citizen of the UK, USA, Ireland, Canada, Australia or New Zealand, you will find it almost impossible to get a teaching job in China. If you are not a Caucasian, trying to find a teaching job in China will be hard work and many schools will also not accept teachers who are older than 60. The big question for the schools is not “How well can this person teach?” but “Does this person look like our ideal foreign English teacher?”. However, perseverance usually yields results eventually and once you are “in” it becomes easier to find your next contract if you are hardworking and develop a good reputation.

Finding love in China

If you are a woman, China will be paradise for you because the general expectation is for the man to foot the bill for everything when taking a lady out. Chinese girls are extremely materialistic and do not date for fun. The expectation is for the relationship to end in marriage, but in order to marry a Chinese girl, you will first need the means to purchase an apartment and to provide a dowry. Your Chinese girlfriend will be constantly testing you on this by asking you to buy her many expensive gifts. In fact, some Chinese women even expect their husbands to surrender their entire earnings and wealth to them! Many Chinese women target foreigners because they think that all foreigners are rich and will be able to provide them with a life of pampered luxury.

Is there anything good about China then?

The first major advantage of being in China is that the cost of living is extremely low. Where else can one live on RMB 500 (£50) a week? The ESL industry in China is also booming and there are not enough teachers around to meet the demand. The Chinese have been taught to respect their elders so as a teacher, you will enjoy a high level of respect from your students. At good schools, Chinese students are well-behaved, hard-working and a pleasure to teach. The school may throw a party or invite you to a dinner to welcome you when you first arrive. You will get to see some amazing sights and sample some exotic food (have you ever eaten frog or turtle?). They say what does not kill you makes you stronger so learning how to adapt to the culture shock that you will no doubt experience will make you grow as a person. Is China for you? Only you can decide the answer to that question.