I’ve already received a handful of emails from blog readers asking for advice on finding work in China, and my wife received 2 from friends just in the last week. As teaching in China becomes more popular, so does tricking foreigners into working at awful schools. Today I’d like to give job hunters a few tips for finding a reputable school in China.
Why do you want to teach?
Before we get started in finding a school, it’s important that you have a clear reason for wanting to teach in China. In my experience, the people who most enjoy their work here are the ones who specifically set out to teach English in China, while the least satisfied say “It’s an easy job,” or “I wanted to do something different.”
This is in no way a surprising revelation that people who enjoy teaching, enjoy teaching in China, but I’ve met dozens of expats who don’t enjoy teaching, and let it affect their entire China experience.
I’ve also met a number of people looking to “save money” while they are here. It is possible, but you have to live very cheaply to come out better than a McDonald’s employee in your home country. I haven’t met many who have managed to come out much ahead as English teachers working in China’s more comfortable cities.
While it is still possible for almost anyone with a pulse to get a job in an English training school, that doesn’t mean China is the right place for you. It is a very different culture, and it isn’t necessarily easy to make friends or adapt. Also remember that as a teacher you are shaping children’s lives, if you take that lightly please stop reading here.
To teach in a Chinese university you need:
- a Bachelor’s degree in something
- A TEFL certificate
- 2 years of applicable work experience
- Clean bill of health
- Younger than 65
That being said, it is also worth remembering that there are exceptions to every rule, just don’t be surprised if ignoring these qualifications leads to later headaches. Standards for training schools and middle schools vary wildly. A good TEFL program will give you a lot more confidence in the classroom and make work more stimulating.
Working in a Chinese university you should get:
- A good salary compared to Chinese teachers (read more below)
- An apartment (often much nicer than what Chinese teachers get)
- A very basic form of health insurance
- A plane ticket home after completing a year of teaching (usually with a limit around 6,000rmb)
- 3-6 weeks off for Spring Festival, and 6-8 weeks off for summer holiday
The salary will depend mostly on where you live, and will be comparable to the cost of living. Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen tend to be the highest paying cities, and the pay will drop off steeply as you get to smaller cities. The lowest I have heard a University pay is 3,500rmb/month (feel free to correct me in the comments section). Training schools pay more, but require more hours and often don’t include housing.
Bear in mind though, cost of living goes up much faster than the pay. When I lived in rural Guangxi (working with a charity), I earned 2,500rmb/month, but managed to save 14,000rmb in 9 months by living simply. I also know people earning 10,000rmb+/month in Shanghai who haven’t managed to save a dime. Another thing, food prices rose nearly 10% this year, so it is difficult to compare a current salary to what someone made 2 or 3 years ago.
Training schools often do not have the same lengthy holidays as universities and middle schools, an important thing to consider if you plan on traveling.
What is expected of you:
Most universities will want you to…
- Teach up to 16 hours per week
- Give 1-2 lectures per semester, open to other students
- Participate in English corner, or some other English activity
- Occasionally judge a speech or song competition
- Show up to important banquets and smile politely
Some of these things don’t show up in your contract, but they are still expected. Yes, you can opt out of them, but life will be much more enjoyable if you don’t. We’ve talked about the importance of Guanxi before, well, this is how you earn it.
If you decide to work in a training school, expect your contract to be 20+ hours, and many of those will be evenings and weekends. The schedule will also be more likely to change.
Before you agree
- Use Google maps to actually see where in a city a school is located. Chinese cities function more like US counties (but bigger). You can technically be “in” a city, but it could still take you over an hour to reach the city center.
- If the school is asking you to come on a tourist visa, remember that it is illegal to work without a proper work visa. While the chances of being caught are small, remember that you are the one who will be held accountable, not the school. Don’t be an illegal immigrant. Except in cases of extremely good guanxi, it will not be possible to change your visa once you are in China.
- Ask about class size, age of students, what subjects you might be teaching, and whether or not you will be teaching at any other campuses (this is becoming very common). These are important factors to consider when comparing two schools.
- Keep in mind that most Chinese universities do not plan very far ahead. This will effect everything from when you get your class schedule (sometimes just a day or two before the semester begins), to hiring new teachers, to announcing holidays. Do not expect quick replies to your emails, or to be able to plan your life months in advance.
- Brace for the reality that some schools want a foreign teacher just to look good. They don’t necessarily care about your classes or your ideas on how to improve the school. Don’t let this get you down or effect how you approach your classes, students are still aware of the difference between a lousy foreign teacher and an amazing one.
- Online job boards, will have dozens of “opportunities,” but the vast majority of these are placed by agents who only receive payment upon your arrival at a school. They will promise you almost anything to get to China, knowing that it’s very hard to back out at that point. You can counter this by asking if they have any foreign teachers at the school who would talk with you about their work (watch for spelling errors and Chinglish).
With all of that being said, my wife and I have spent five years working as teachers in China, and have enjoyed almost all of it. Take the time to fully research a school before you commit.
And finally, take time to read Casey’s cautionary tale.
If you have your own tips please add them in the comment section below.